Well, it’s been quite a year. My ‘crime time’ has been severely dented by all the upheaval, but here are some of my reading and viewing gems.
Treat others! Treat yourself!
And if you’re in the UK, please consider using https://uk.bookshop.org/, which is a brilliant way to support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.
Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations!
Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019 (USA)
Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey celebrates his 85th birthday at his mansion surrounded by his loving family. The next morning he is found dead; his throat has been cut. Enter the police and investigator Benoit Blanc, who begin to discover clues…and some unsavoury secrets within the family.
My son recommended this film to me with the words ‘you’ll love this’ and he was absolutely right. Knives Out is huge fun from start to finish, as well as a razor sharp commentary on race and class in the USA. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beleaguered carer, who finds herself placed in a very tricky situation. And the all-star cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer — have a high old time hamming their way through this clever take on the Golden Age country house mystery. Perfect Christmas viewing for those who like their crime martinis both shaken and stirred.
Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. Samantha Smee, Pushkin Press 2019 (France)
Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.
This prize-winning novel was recommended to me by crime writer Angela Savage a while ago, and it’s a cracker. As a translator myself, I was hugely tickled by the idea of a police interpreter inadvertently falling into a life of crime. And Madame Patience Portefeux, a 53-year-old widow with some tough times behind her, relates her story with wit, verve and plenty of caustic insight into French society. There’s an excellent review of the novel by RoughJustice over at Crime Fiction Lover (minor spoilers) – a very entertaining festive read! Winner of the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger.
Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009  (USA)
Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.
This cult Gothic (crime) novel was one of those ‘how-have-I-never-read-this-before’ books. Mary Katherine — or Merricat — lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future.
I was instantly hooked by Merricat’s highly original voice and the novel’s creepy Gothic atmosphere. It also has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a number of times.
Antti Tuomainen, Little Siberia, tr. David Hackston, Orenda Books (Finland)
Opening line: ‘And how do you know what happens then?’
Our 2020 Petrona Award winner, by one of crime fiction’s most inventive and versatile writers – what’s not to like?!
Little Siberia, set in an icy northern Finland, opens with a bang when a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car. Transferred to the local museum for safe keeping, the valuable object is guarded from thieves by local priest Joel, who is grappling with both a marital crisis and a crisis of faith. Absurdist black humour is expertly combined with a warm, perceptive exploration of what it means to be human. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, this is a novel for our times.
Giri/Haji, BBC 2020 (Japan/UK; now on Netflix)
Giri/Haji [Duty/Shame] is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities — a dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.
I was addicted from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some beautifully inventive use of film techniques and genres, including a number of sequences that draw on manga. I can’t find this on DVD, and it’s gone from iPlayer, but it *is* on UK Netflix. Sneak off from Christmas duties, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and get stuck in.
And finally… Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Hulda’ or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy (Penguin), which is told in reverse, with each novel set prior to the last (when Hulda is aged 64, 50 and 40).
The first novel, The Darkness (tr. Victoria Cribb) introduces us to taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She’s about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at the end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. The second in the series is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading the third. I have a theory about how things will go. Let’s see if I’m right!
Happy reading, stay safe, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!