Interview with Simone Buchholz: Hamburg Noir and why everyone needs a ‘beer family’

It’s my pleasure to welcome German crime writer Simone Buchholz to the blog today. Simone is based in in the northern city of Hamburg and is the author of the highly acclaimed ‘Chastity Riley’ series, which draws on private-eye conventions to create stylish, urban noir with a German twist. Blue Night (Blaue Nacht) is her English-language debut, beautifully translated by Rachel Ward and published by Orenda Books.

German crime writer Simone Buchholz

At the beginning of Blue Night, we join Hamburg state prosecutor Chas Riley as she hits a career low. After an unfortunate incident involving a gun and a gangster’s crown jewels, she’s been shunted off to witness protection, a job she finds increasingly dull. But all that changes when she’s assigned the case of a badly beaten man with a missing finger, who is oddly reluctant to divulge his identity. Chas is up for the challenge, and so the investigation begins, with the help of her loyal group of St. Pauli friends.

First line: A kick in the right kidney brings you to your knees.

Mrs P: Simone, welcome to the blog and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed (in English to boot!). Your lead investigator, Chastity ‘Chas’ Riley, has an unusual family background. Why did you opt to give her a German mother and an American father who was a former GI?

Simone: I grew up in southern Germany near Frankfurt, and when I was a child there were still a lot of US Army soldiers in our little city. There was even a real American quarter in town, with bigger streets, bigger cars, basketball cages, the whole American lifestyle. And there were also the children of these GIs – but mostly without fathers because GIs normally returned to the US as soon as one of their German girls got pregnant, it was some kind of army policy. To me these children (who were at school with us) always seemed homeless and maybe this shaped a part of my soul.

So when I was looking for a main character for my crime novels I remembered these children and I always liked the American way of storytelling. Riley came to me really quickly and quite naturally.

Mrs P: What made you gravitate towards the noir form when writing the ‘Riley’ series and Blue Night?

Simone: I think at first it just was the noir sound I wanted to use. And then I thought: if I want to tell stories about our society I’ll have to look in the dark corners of life. Once you start doing this, you just can’t stop. It transforms the way you look at mankind. For me, it’s the most interesting way of telling the truth.

“Killer eyes. Killer legs. Killer instincts. A private detective with a name as tough as she is.”

Mrs P: Who are your literary inspirations? American authors of hard-boiled crime, like Chandler and Hammett? Sara Paretsky (author of the ‘V.I. Warshawski’ series) and Jakob Arjouni (author of the ‘Kayankaya’ series)? Or others?

Simone: The first real literature I read was Hemingway – I found his books on my father’s bookshelf, and I really loved the sound and the way Hemingway showed the inner world of his characters by just letting them compose their drinks. Then came Chandler. And then – yes! – a V.I. Warshawski movie with the fabulous Kathleen Turner. Finally Jakob Arjouni appeared. The way he transformed this classic American hard-boiled sound into a German city [Frankfurt] and red light district was hilarious. When I took my first steps in crime writing ten years ago I always had all of this stuff in mind. And I just tried to do something like that. I wish Arjouni was still alive. I would definitely try to talk to him about his work.

[For an overview of Arjouni’s work, see my earlier blog post here.]

Mrs P: Hamburg, and in particular the famous St. Pauli district, is vividly depicted in Blue Night – which I loved, having spent a happy year living there back in the 1980s. Can you tell us a little about these locations and the role they play in your series?

Simone: The district of St. Pauli, as it comes to life in my novels, is a romantic, very personal version of the real St. Pauli. Some kind of secure place where souls can recover from what’s going on outside the bars and clubs. It’s the place where my characters hide from the world and try to heal their wounds with alcohol, music and cigarettes.

And not forgetting the big harbour we have here, which is very special. It’s the open, wild side of the city. A perfect place for everything to take place in a crime novel.

Map of Hamburg, with the district of St Pauli on the left-hand side, near the city’s port and the River Elbe.

Mrs P: A theme that really shines through in the novel is that of friendship. Are friends the new family in a fragmented, globalized world?

Simone: Before I met my husband, before our son arrived, I often felt a great loneliness – though it didn’t cause me too much suffering. It was OK. But with my parents 500 kilometers away, I had to build some kind of family around me in the big city with the big harbour. I found this family in the bars and it still exists. I meet my beer family at least once a week; it helps me with everything and I’d recommend this to everyone, especially today in these speedy times. If you sit at a bar, having a long deep talk with somebody (with rain outside) – it makes you quiet and calm.

Mrs P: Do you have any favourite German-language crime writers that you’d recommend to UK readers?

Simone: Jakob Arjouni, for sure. And my good friend Friedrich Ani. Bittersweet sound, stories from hell.

Thanks, Simone! There are further reviews and features on Blue Night blog tour.

An extract from the novel is available over at Reading for Pleasure.

Rachel Ward has also written a very interesting post on her experience of translating Blue Night. She illustrates the crucial role that translators can play in championing international literature and bringing novels to UK publishers’ attention.


Have yourself a merry little Christmas… Mrs Peabody’s 2017 recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s Christmas recommendations for 2017. Drawing on my top reads of the year, this list should contain something to suit even the most well-read crime fiction lover in your life. And don’t forget to treat yourself while you’re at it!

All available from a wonderful independent bookshop near you…

Masako Togawa, The Master Key, trans Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017, JAPAN)

Masako Togawa was born in Tokyo and led a rich life as a writer, cabaret performer, nightclub owner and gay icon. The Master Key, her debut, was first published in 1962 and won the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Set in the K Apartments for Ladies (an apartment block similar to the one where the author herself was raised), this off-beat crime novel features an intriguing set of characters – mainly single women hiding secrets, some benign and some criminal. The theft of the master key to all the apartments sets off a sequence of events that disturbs everyone’s equilibrium and risks triggering further crimes. Rich character studies, a 1950s Japanese setting and an original, twist-laden plot deliver high levels of reader satisfaction. Hats off to Pushkin Vertigo for republishing this vintage gem, and to translator Simon Cove for his polished handling of the text. Another Togawa novel, The Lady Killer, is due out next year.

Gunnar Staalesen, Where Roses Never Die, trans. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books 2016, NORWAY)

Where Roses Never Die is the winner of the 2017 Petrona Award. It’s the sixth novel of the famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series to be out in English (set in Bergen on the west coast of Norway), but can easily be read as a standalone. We join private investigator Veum at rock bottom, wallowing in grief and drink, and about to take on a case that will push him to his limits – a cold case whose legal expiry date is drawing near, and which involves the unsolved disappearance of a small girl in 1977. The novel is an elegant fusion of American P.I. conventions and Scandinavian social analysis, but what I really liked was the way the narrative took the reader in an unexpected direction towards the end, delivering an original and convincing denouement.

Thomas Mullen, Darktown (Little, Brown 2016, USA)

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Darktown is a murder mystery that also explores a key moment in the city’s history – the first ever induction of eight African American police officers into the Atlanta Police Department. The murder of a young black woman sees two sets of policemen come into uneasy contact with one another: black policemen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and white policemen Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw. Each of their characters is superbly delineated, and adeptly used to unsettle racial stereotypes and easy assumptions. The novel is also a stunning portrait of post-war Atlanta, and opens the reader’s eyes to the dangerous and wearing realities of living in a society where racism is deeply ingrained in all areas of life. An excellent, satisfying read (full Mrs P review here). The second novel in the series Lightning Men, is just out.

Kati Hiekkapelto, The Exiled,  trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2016, FINLAND)

The Exiled, shortlisted for the 2017 Petrona Award, is the third in the ‘Fekete’ series to be published in English, but makes a good standalone due to its atypical setting – Serbia rather than Finland. We join Finnish police detective Anna Fekete as she visits the Serbian village of her birth to see family and take a holiday. But the discovery of a body pulls her into an investigation that raises a number of questions about her own father’s death decades earlier. As well as exploring the complexities of Fekete’s identity as a Hungarian Serb who has made her life in Finland, this accomplished novel looks with insight and compassion at the discrimination faced by Roma people, and the lot of refugees migrating through Europe.

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Penguin 2017, UK)

As a die-hard le Carré fan, I savoured every word of A Legacy of Spies. The novel opens in the present day, and shows Peter Guillam, George Smiley’s loyal right-hand man, being pulled out of retirement to justify his own and other British Secret Service agents’ actions during the Cold War. Of particular interest are the events surrounding the death of an agent and an innocent civilian – events that will immediately be familiar to readers of The Spy who Came in from the Cold. Not only does le Carré pull off the elegant closing of a literary circle – The Spy was his first major success in 1963 – but he also stays true to his core themes: the moral price and human cost of (maybe) safeguarding the nation. A must for any le Carré fan who hasn’t yet read it. And if your reader has not yet had the pleasure of entering le Carré’s world, then why not treat him or her to The Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy as well (to be read in that order before Legacy).

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus 2017, UK/AUSTRALIA)

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. Even so, the town’s residents are stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife and six-year-old son before turning the shotgun on himself. Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, and reluctantly begins to look into the case…and to confront his own troubled relationship with the town. This novel was one of my absolute top reads of the year. The characterization is excellent, the plot is outstanding, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. A gripping police procedural and the first in a series. See the full Mrs P. review here.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2017, FINLAND)

The Man Who Died is a joy from start to finish. It opens with a doctor telling a man he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is just a matter of time. That man is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. Placed in a truly grave situation, Jaakko has to figure out what to do very quickly. The easiest course of action would be for him to give up, but instead he decides to investigate his forthcoming murder with admirable pluck and determination. Comparisons have rightly been drawn between the novel and Fargo: this is a stylish crime caper with lashings of black humour and a lot of heart. A special word of praise too for David Hackston, who also translated The Exile (above). He captures the off-beat humour of the novel perfectly.

Denise Mina, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker 2017, SCOTLAND)

Mina’s The Long Drop, based on the true case of Scottish rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, is a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow. What makes the novel stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two narrative strands – a long night of drinking by Manuel and William Watt (the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s victims), and Manuel’s trial, which aroused lots of public interest. I found the book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterization are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner, trans Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017, GERMANY) 

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner is a polished, quirky German crime novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith is a prickly, awkward character who is extremely good at her job, which happens to be cleaning crime scenes for a specialist company in Berlin. As she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder, Judith unexpectedly comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood, and gets entangled in a potentially life-threatening situation. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read with a wonderfully memorable lead. You may learn some handy cleaning tips along the way as well.

Arnaldur Indriðason, The Shadow District, trans Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker 2017, ICELAND)

I’ve been a big fan of Indriðason’s ‘Erlendur’ series over the years, and so was delighted to hear that the first of his new ‘Reykjavik Wartime Mysteries’ is out in English. The Shadow District interweaves two stories, one from the wartime past and the other from the present. In the first, a young woman is found strangled in Reykjavik’s ‘shadow district’, a rough area of the city. Icelandic detective Flovent investigates the case together with Thorson, a member of the American military police. In the present, retired police detective Konrad gets sucked into the odd case of a 90-year-old man who has been found dead in his apartment. In the course of the narrative, the two timelines begin to overlap in various ways… An absorbing page-turner that doesn’t hesitate to break some genre conventions.

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

Variety is the spice of life… Nesser’s The Darkest Day (Sweden), Viskic’s Resurrection Bay (Australia), Tuomainen’s The Man Who Died (Finland), Alias Grace & The Sinner (Canada/Germany/US)

I’m going through a phase where I want lots of variety in my crime reading and viewing. This is when having scandalously large piles of unread crime fiction and a huge backlog of TV crime drama comes in rather handy…

Håkan Nesser, The Darkest Day, translated from Swedish by Sarah Death (Mantle, 2017).

First line: When Rosemary Wunderlich Hermansson awoke on Sunday 18 December, it was a few minutes to six and she had a very vivid image in her head.

Håkan Nesser is best known for his Inspector van Veeteren series, but his second series, featuring Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, has also enjoyed significant success, selling over 4 million copies worldwide. The Darkest Day is the first of the five Barbarotti novels to be translated into English, a happy development for all lovers of Swedish crime fiction.

The Darkest Day is a long, satisfying read, the kind of crime novel that’s a slow-burner and rewards the unhurried reader. The first 185 pages feel a bit like a Scandinavian version of The Corrections: we’re introduced to the Hermansson family, who have come together for a double birthday celebration at Karl-Erik and Rosemary’s house in Kymlinge on the darkest day of the year, and through the eyes of family members from three generations, form a wry picture of the complex dynamics between them. By the end of the weekend, two of the family have disappeared without trace, and Inspector Barbarotti and his team have very little to help them figure out what’s been going on. The resolutions to both cases are original and, thanks to the skills of the author, remain on just the right side of melodrama.

The existentialist Inspector Barbarotti also proves to be an interesting character. The product of a fleeting Swedish-Italian union, he attempts to navigate his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a dialogue with God (who is invited to prove his existence in various ways to the disillusioned policeman). All of this is handled with humour and a light touch, and adds wit and depth to the novel.

Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (Pushkin Vertigo, 2017 [2015]).

First line: Caleb was still holding him when the paramedics arrived.

Jane Harper’s The Dry recently woke me up to the quality of crime writing in Australia. Like The Dry, Viskic’s Resurrection Bay has won a host of awards and (remarkably) is the author’s debut novel. It’s extremely accomplished, and features a highly unusual investigative figure, Caleb Zelic, who for much of his life has been profoundly deaf. The novel opens with the aftermath of a murder – Caleb’s childhood friend, policeman Gary Marsden, has just been found dead – and we are immediately shown some of the difficulties Caleb faces when communicating with others, as well as his extra powers of perception in relation to details like facial and body language. Caleb, who is a private investigator, starts to look into Gary’s death. Suspecting that it may be linked to an insurance case he was working on, he follows a trail that eventually leads him back to his childhood town of Resurrection Bay.

For me, one of the major strengths of this novel was its characterization. Aside from Caleb, we’re introduced to a number of other complex and well-drawn characters such as Frankie (his work partner), Kat (his ex-wife) and Anton (his brother), as well as contacts within the worlds of policing and crime in Melbourne. The dialogue feels gritty and authentic, and if there’s the odd touch of melodrama, this is a minor drawback. Overall, Resurrection Bay is an absorbing and thrilling read.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, translated from Finnish by David Hackston (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line‘It’s a good job you provided a urine sample too’.

Antti Tuomainen is one of the most versatile crime writers around. I was first introduced to him via the novel The Healer – a dark, post-apocalyptic crime novel written in a beautifully poetic style. Since then he’s written a number of novels, each of which has a beguiling premise, but feels stylistically very different to the last. The Man Who Died is no exception: here we have a grimly brilliant starting point – a man whose doctor tells him he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is a question of when rather than if – which is developed into black, comedic crime of the highest order. The man in question is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. He sets about investigating his own murder, and quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects.

The narrative is related in the first-person, which is always tricky to pull off, but Tuomainen does a great job. Jaakko is a great character: placed in a truly grave situation, he very quickly has to decide how to react. The easiest course of action would be to give up, but instead he decides to get to the bottom of the matter with admirable pluck, determination and resourcefulness. Comparisons have been made between the novel and Fargo, which is spot on – the heroes and anti-heroes are all engagingly imperfect and human, and there are a couple of set pieces that perfectly capture Fargo‘s cartoonish black humour. It feels like it was great fun to write, and I can’t wait for it to be made into a film.

I remember George Peleconos – scriptwriter for the HBO series The Wire – explaining to a Harrogate audience one year why crime writers like him were increasingly drawn to writing for TV rather than film. Aside from greater job security, the main lure was the chance to develop characters and story-lines with much greater nuance and detail than a film would allow.

I do think we’re living in a golden age of TV crime drama (e.g. Happy Valley, Top of the Lake, The Code). ‘Netflex Originals’ are also helping to lead the way, with superb adaptations of literary crime and psychological crime fiction by outstanding women authors.

Alias Grace, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1996 historical novel of the same name, tells the story of a young serving woman, Grace Marks, imprisoned for her role in two notorious 1843 murders, and a doctor, Simon Jordan, who is commissioned to write a psychological report on her, but finds himself becoming inappropriately drawn to her as well. The series provides a superb but also extremely sobering insight into the class and gender politics of the period, and Sarah Gadon is outstanding in the lead role.

The Sinner is adapted from German writer Petra Hammesfahr’s 1999 novel of the same name. I’ve seen the first four episodes and have been hugely impressed by the quality of the adaptation and its leading actors. The first (pretty harrowing) episode shows young housewife Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) stab a man to death while on a family outing to a lake. While it’s absolutely clear that she committed the deed, neither she nor anyone else has any inkling why. Rather than locking her up and throwing away the key, as would probably happen in real life, Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) is determined to understand what motivated Cora’s actions, and starts to dig around in her shadowy early life. The characterization is outstanding, and the after-effects of the crime – particularly on Cora and her husband Mason (Christopher Abbott) – are explored in a way that’s reminiscent of the first series of The Killing.

The Sinner is a top-quality, stylish crime drama that brilliantly questions the extent to which Cora can be labelled a perpetrator. If you haven’t yet read the novel, then do grab a copy of The Sinner, translated by John Brownjohn, from Bitter Lemon Press – it’s still one of my all-time top German crime novels nearly 20 years on. Perhaps one of the best psychological thrillers ever written?

Let’s party like it’s 1929… German TV crime series Babylon Berlin airs Sunday 5 November

After a long, tantalising wait, the 16-part TV adaptation of Volker Kutscher’s crime novel Babylon Berlin is finally here. Directed by renowned director Tom Tykwer, this lavish £33 million German TV series – the most expensive ever made – airs in the UK this Sunday 5. November on Sky Atlantic.

Time to paaaartay!

I’ve been lucky enough to see a preview of the first episode, and thoroughly recommend taking a look. This is ambitious, thrilling, grown-up TV, which brilliantly recreates the politically turbulent Berlin of 1929, and brings the decadence of Weimar society vividly (and I do mean vividly) to life.

Volker Bruch (Generation War) is a good choice for troubled police inspector Gereon Rath, recently arrived in the capital from Cologne, but for me the stand-out character is Charlotte (Lotte) Ritter, played by actress Liv Lisa Fries – the working-class girl fighting her way out of poverty by temping as a police stenographer, whose respectable exterior belies a very complex life. The first meeting between the two is a classic ‘unromantic-yet-oddly-romantic’ encounter involving some dropped photographs, which also made me laugh.

Lotte Ritter

And then there’s Berlin. The creators have managed to bring an extinct dinosaur back to life – the impressive ‘Rote Burg’ or ‘Red Castle’ – aka the Berlin Police Headquarters near Alexanderplatz (there’s a shopping centre there now), and the depictions of the Vice and Homicide departments’ activities there are gritty and uncompromising. The aerial shots of the Berlin Mitte district and Alex are breathtaking, and I loved the stylish cinematographic touches, such the angled shot of a pair of ladies’ stockings floating from a window to Lotte in a courtyard below.

A shot of the Alexanderplatz from the series

If you’d like to read more about the series, then this Guardian article by Kate Connolly gives a good overview: ‘Babylon Berlin: lavish German crime drama tipped to be a global hit’.

If you’d like to get your hands on the original novels by Volker Kutscher, then head over to Sandstone Press, which has published the first two in English, translated by Niall Sellar: Babylon Berlin and The Silent Death.

And last but not least, here’s the trailer to whet your appetite.

Babylon Berlin, in German with English subtitles, airs on Sky Atlantic on Sunday 5 November. It should also be coming to Netflix at some point as well!

Eurotour Stop 8. Berlin, Germany: “Mauerpark. Judith wrote it on her list.”

Guten Tag from Berlin! Our final extract is from…

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner (trans. from German by Bradley Schmidt, Manilla, 2017 [2011], pp. 107-110).

Judith didn’t have any friends, much less any on Facebook. For the last two hours she had been occupied with nothing but searching the internet for articles by and about Kaiserley. […] Kaiserley’s office address: Hausvogteiplatz in Mitte. But she needed his private address. For that, she needed to find as many points of reference as possible to fix him in her crosshairs. […]

She scrolled down to the end of the interview because that was where the personal questions usually came in.

I like the area around Mauerpark, although I always have to park my car somewhere else the night before May Day, so it doesn’t end up a burned-out wreck after the inevitable riots…

Mauerpark. Judith wrote it on her list. She had collected more than twenty pieces of information that made reference to his routes or his neighbourhood. Kaiserley went to the market on Kollwitzplatz on Saturdays, liked the bars around the water tower, liked to take the tram and loved to watch the sunset. Not bad. She might have made it as an old-school spy.

She went to her laptop and entered the positions into Google maps. The result was Kaiserley’s personal corner of Berlin. If she added the fact that his apartment was west-facing and included his mention of ‘climbing stairs’ as a sport, then he lived in the fourth of fifth storey of an old house without an elevator. It was likely near to a tram stop, and a wine shop that supplied him with his beloved Fendant du Valais.

Bingo. Marienburgerstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg.

She went into the hall and grabbed the van keys. It was four thirty in the morning. The time when people slept most deeply.

We’ve finished up our Eurotour with three very lovely days in Berlin, a city I’ve been visiting since 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s laden with history from numerous eras and is constantly transforming itself in some way. No matter how many times I come here, there’s something new to see or do.

Our base wasn’t too far from Kaiserley’s haunts. Here’s a corner of Marienburgerstrasse…

And this is the park at Kollwitzplatz, named after the famous Berlin artist Käthe Kollwitz. Her statue sits rather mournfully in its middle. The water tower mentioned in the passage is visible in the third photo.

Other delights included a Bratwurst in the Alexanderplatz (where the Oktoberfest was already in full swing), with a grand view of the Fernsehturm…

…and a fabulous first with Berlin friend Katy D: watching an episode of the iconic German crime series Tatort in a bar on Sunday evening, which has been a long-held ambition of mine. This is a ritual all over Germany (it would be like us having a weekly screening of a series like Inspector Morse down at the Three Pigeons pub), and was a really convivial experience, with beer, lit candles and good company.

I’ll finish off with a photo of the Fernsehturm at dusk, taken on a lovely, warm evening that felt like the last day of summer.

Well, we’re back off home tomorrow. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this European adventure. It’s been the greatest of fun 😀

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

Eurotour Stop 1. Hamburg, Germany: “Nowhere does the summer fade more splendidly”

Guten Tag from Hamburg! Our first extract comes from…

John le Carré, Smiley’s People (Sceptre, 2011 [1979], pp. 29-30). 

The extract is set at the height of the Cold War.

The second of the two events that brought George Smiley from his retirement occurred a few weeks after the first, in the early autumn of the same year: not in Paris at all, but in the once ancient, free, and Hanseatic city of Hamburg, now almost pounded to death by the thunder of its own prosperity; yet it remains true that nowhere does the summer fade more splendidly than along the gold and orange banks of the Alster, which nobody has yet drained or filled with concrete. George Smiley, needless to say, had seen nothing of its languorous autumn splendour. Smiley, on the day in question, was toiling obliviously, with whatever conviction he could muster, at his habitual desk in the London Library in St. James’s Square, with two spindly trees to look at through the sash-window of the reading room. The only link to Hamburg he might have pleaded – if he had afterwards attempted the connection, which he did not – was in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry, for at the time he was composing a monograph on the bard Opitz, and trying loyally to distinguish true passion from the tiresome literary convention of the period.

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. A candescent haze hung over the flat water of the Aussenalster, and through it the spires of the Eastern bank were like green stains dabbed on the wet horizon. Along the shore, red squirrels scurried, foraging for the winter. But the slight and somewhat anarchistic-looking man standing on the jetty wearing a tracksuit and running shoes had neither eyes nor mind for them. His red-rimmed gaze was locked tensely upon the approaching steamer, his hollow face darkened by a two-day stubble. He carried a Hamburg newspaper under his left arm, and an eye as perceptive as George Smiley’s would have noticed at once that it was yesterday’s edition, not today’s.

Klaxon! le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies is out on 7 September. After 25 years, George Smiley is back! 

Hamburg Gallery

We’ve had a wonderful couple of days in Hamburg, seeing family, friends and lots of sights. It really is a most beautiful place. A few highlights below…

View across the Aussenalster (Outer Alster), which is mentioned in the passage above and lies right in the middle of the city:

Here’s the kind of boat our young man was waiting for – these chug around the Alster like genteel water-taxis:

Here’s the front of the Rathaus or City Hall. We noticed that it was flying the Hamburg flag and the European flag, but not a German one. The city’s Hanseatic Free City status is one it is very proud of and likes to stress:

Here’s the back of the Rathaus. Rather splendid:

Pavement graffiti – ‘be free’:

A local delicacy from this seafaring city – matjes (herring) with Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes). Delicious!

The German election is coming up later in September, so election posters are everywhere. Behind to the left, the offices of Die Zeit, the influential weekly broadsheet.

The Elbphilharmonie, a swish new concert hall and architectural wonder, has just opened. This is the way in (*hums stairway to heaven*). Hamburg locals have already nicknamed the building ‘Elphie’:

Lastly, the best souvenirs ever: an iconic Tatort key-ring and a book-bag (Lesestoff = reading matter).

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour


Rucksacks at the ready! Time for a Eurotour of criminal goodness

It’s September and there’s European adventure in the air…


Mr. P and I will shortly be donning our ancient rucksacks and heading over the Channel.

  • Destination: northern and eastern Europe.
  • Duration: one month.
  • Transport: train, ferry, bus, car, llama (well you never know).

Our Eurotour – aka the ‘Bollux to Brexit’ tour – will take us to a number of wonderful European cities (see image caption above).

When we reach certain cities, I’ll be posting a short extract from a crime novel or thriller focused on the place in question, giving an insight into the city’s geography, architecture, history, politics, food…

The featured cities are as follows:

  1. Hamburg, Germany
  2. Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. Stockholm, Sweden
  4. Helsinki, Finland
  5. Tallinn, Estonia
  6. Riga, Latvia
  7. Olsztyn, Poland
  8. Berlin, Germany

Each extract will be accompanied by a few photos I’ve taken while out and about (I suspect there will be a bit of an emphasis on food…and beer…).

I won’t give away which crime novels I’ve picked out, but here’s a little teaser for you…

Our first extract, for the Hanseatic city of Hamburg, contains the following sentence: 

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. 

Just for fun: Who is the author? And in which novel does this elegant sentence appear?

And if you’d like some reading ideas for European crime fiction, then head here:

35 European crime novels

Mina’s The Long Drop (Scotland), Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead (UK/USA), le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel (UK/world)

This ‘read exactly what you want to read’ thing is working out really well. Three crackers for you this week:

Denise Mina, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker, 2017)

First linesHe knows too much to be an honest man but says he wants to help. He says he can get the gun for them.

I’ve loved everything I’ve read by the supremely talented Scottish writer Denise Mina, and The Long Drop is no exception. Based on the true case of rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, it’s a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial and judicial reckoning, set in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow.

Often these kinds of literary/true crime hybrids will focus on ‘why and how’ a criminal came to carry out his or her crimes (see for example my recent review of Carrère’s The Adversary). Such approaches are often fascinating, but what makes The Long Drop stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two contrasting narrative strands. The first shows a long night of drinking by Manuel and businessman William Watt in various Glasgow bars and establishments. Watt is the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s murder victims, and meets Manuel in the hope of gaining a crucial piece of evidence. It’s a cat-and-mouse game with some genuine surprises, which also takes us on a tour of the ‘old’ Glasgow before the slum clearances and remaking of the city centre (you can trace their wanderings on the map on the inside cover). The second narrative strand explores Manuel’s trial and the public/media interest in the case. It’s equally fascinating, not least due to Manuel’s misguided decision to dispense with his legal representation and do the job himself.

I found the entire book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterisation are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way. Highly recommended.

You can read an extract from the beginning of The Long Drop over at DeadGoodBooks.

Steph Broadribb, Deep Down Dead (Orenda Books, 2017)

First line: I open my eyes and the first things I see are the cuffs.

I’ve never been much good at dealing with Mild Peril. Even watching kids’ films like Finding Nemo, in which a small fish lurches from one mildly threatening situation to another, required the steadying hand of my small son. For that reason, I don’t tend to read thrillers packed with Major Peril. Every now and then, however, I’ll be tempted to throw caution to the wind, as was the case with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead. I’d heard Steph read an extract from the novel at Newcastle Noir, and liked the sound of her sassy heroine, Florida bounty hunter Lori Anderson, very much.

Deep Down Dead is a genuinely accomplished debut novel. Steph is a UK author, but convincingly pulls off a Stateside setting and dialogue, and famously shadowed a real bounty hunter as part of her research, in order to learn the trade first-hand. I love the character of Lori, a thirty-something single mother, whose need to pay off her nine-year-old daughter’s medical bills leads her to take the job of collecting a wanted man in West Virginia. Except the man turns out to be J.T., her old flame and mentor, and the lack of a babysitter means she has to take daughter Dakota along – into a less than child-friendly environment. Trouble quickly ensues. The dialogue is snappy, the action high-octane, and Lori’s dual identity as bounty hunter and parent makes her the ultimate multi-tasking mom – and a very likeable one at that. A wonderfully entertaining summer read.

John  le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel. Stories from my Life (Viking, 2016)

First lineThere is scarcely a book of mine that didn’t have The Pigeon Tunnel at some time or another as its working title.

I count myself as one of John le Carré’s biggest fans (see my appreciation here), so reading his memoir The Pigeon Tunnel was a treat of the highest order. The author has a reputation for being a brilliant raconteur, and the reading the book’s 38 chapters felt a bit like being at a dinner where the great man is holding court.

There are fascinating takes on key moments of Cold War history (West German Chancellor Adenauer’s failure to remove former high-ranking Nazis from post-war political structures; Russia before and after the collapse of Communism), wonderful anecdotes about actors and directors (Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sydney Pollack, Stanley Kubrick), stories about the people who inspired his characters (such as Yvette Pierpaoli, who became Tess in The Constant Gardener), and the extensive research trips for novels such as The Little Drummer Girl (resulting in a dance with Yasser Arafat). And of course, there are insights into the complex, murky world of spying, and in particular the Kim Philby case – the British intelligence officer who was unmasked as a Russian spy in 1963. The stories are by turns illuminating, moving and hilarious – I found myself laughing out loud a great deal, which wasn’t something I’d expected at all. If you’re a fan of le Carré, the memoirs really are a must-read.

I’m now keen to re-read some of le Carré’s novels, and to tuck into Adam Sisman’s biography of the author, which is waiting patiently for me on a shelf.

You can read an extract from The Pigeon Tunnel here, involving Alec Guinness, former Chief of the Secret Service Maurice Oldfield, and some authorial guilt. Other extracts are available from The Guardian here, both from The Pigeon Tunnel and the author’s novels (beautifully read by a cast of famous actors).

CrimeFest 2017: Krimi panel, Petrona Award, American Noir, and Icelandic Queens of Crime

As ever, CrimeFest in Bristol was a four day extravaganza of goodness. Here are a few highlights.

First ever Krimi panel at CrimeFest

The four German authors on the Krimi panel – Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe – had never met before, but you’d never have known given the lovely dynamic between them. Each brought a very different kind of crime novel to the event, which made for fascinating and varied discussion.

Clockwise from top left: Mrs P, Melanie, Volker; Jens Boyer (Goethe-Institut London), Mrs P, Mario, Merle, Melanie, Volker; Jess (Mantle), Volker, Melanie, Mario, Merle, Mrs P; Merle and Mario.

Mario is the author of a comic crime novel with a serious edge – Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions – which shows a recently widowed Aunt Poldi arriving in Sicily with the intention of drinking herself to death. Instead, she promptly becomes involved in a murder case and meets a handsome Sicilian police detective… Merle’s novel Collision is perhaps best described as a maritime thriller, and shows four vessels – a cruise liner, a refugee dingy, an Irish freighter and a Spanish rescue ship – crossing paths in the middle of the Mediterranean. Inspired by a short film shot by a cruise ship passenger, it has serious points to make about the refugee crisis and the negative effects of capitalism.

Volker writes historical crime novels – six in the ‘Gereon Rath’ or ‘Babylon Berlin’ series to date – which are set in Weimar Berlin and investigate (in part) the ways the Nazis came to power. The first novel is currently being adapted as a sixteen-part TV series by ARD/Sky, directed by Tom Tykwer, and will air this autumn. And Melanie presented her clever psychological thriller The Trap, which has done incredibly well for a debut, and is in the process of being made into a film by TriStar pictures. It features an intriguing protagonist – traumatised writer Linda Conrads – and explores the themes of grief, loss, isolation, madness and justice.

Erich the Bavarian duck was in attendance

Audience questions led to discussion of how the German authors work with their translators – Imogen Taylor, Niall Sellar, John Brownjohn, and Rachel Hildebrandt/Alexandra Roesch – and there was lavish praise for the very skilled work that they do. The authors also recommended some of their favourite Krimi writers, including Doris Gercke (‘Bella Block’ series, set in Hamburg), Jan Costin Wagner (‘Kimmo Joentaa’ series, set in Finland), Bernhard Aichner (Woman of the Dead, set in Austria) and Simone Buchholz (Blue Night, currently being translated by Rachel Ward for Orenda Books, set in Hamburg).

Thanks once again to our sponsors for making this very special event happen!

2017 Petrona Award

Saturday night at CrimeFest is always a special occasion for the Petrona team, as it’s when we announce the winner of the Petrona Award. This year the award went to Norwegian author Gunnar Staalesen for his crime novel Where Roses Never Die, translated by Don Bartlett and published by Orenda Books.

Here’s what we said about Where Roses Never Die when we announced the shortlist: ‘Grieving private detective Varg Veum is pushed to his limits when he takes on a cold case involving the disappearance of a small girl in 1977. As the legal expiry date for the crime draws near, Veum’s investigation uncovers intriguing suburban secrets. In what may well be the most accomplished novel in a remarkable series, the author continues to work in a traditional US-style genre, but with abrasive Scandi-crime social commentary very much in evidence.’

Both Gunnar and Don Bartlett were at CrimeFest to accept and enjoy the award, and Gunnar paid touching tribute to his ‘perfect translator’ in his acceptance speech. Congratulations must also go to the other shortlisted authors for their wonderful crime novels – gems one and all. Sincere thanks as well to our Petrona Award sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support.

From left: Gunnar accepting the Petrona Award, flanked by Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw, Jorn Lier Horst (last year’s winner) and Adrian Muller; Barry, Gunnar, Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books, Don Bartlett, Sarah Ward, Mrs P; Gunnar with Ewa Sherman

Other highlights for me included the American Noir panel, with C.J. Box (‘Joe Pickett’ series) and Bill Beverly (whose exceptional debut Dodgers has raked in prize after prize), and the Icelandic Queens of Crime panel, featuring Jónína Leósdóttir, Solveig Pálsdóttir, Lilja Sigurðardóttir and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. All four talked very eloquently about their work and Iceland, and also made me want to invite them to a riotous and extremely fun dinner party.

A big thank you to the CrimeFest organisers for another cracker of a year.

Clockwise from top left: Mario Giordano; Barry Forshaw with the American Noir panellists; tea with Ewa and Jacky; Barry moderating the Icelandic Queens of Crime; last but not least – Ragnar Jonasson, Melanie Raabe and Hugh Fraser after their ‘Misfits and Miscreants’ panel.

*First ever* CrimeFest panel on German crime fiction, Friday 19 May 2017

CrimeFest is nearly upon us, which means that lots of excited crime readers, bloggers, authors and publishers are getting ready for their annual pilgrimage to sunny Bristol. 

This year’s CrimeFest will be very special, because there’s a panel on German crime fiction for the very first time, with four top German crime writers being flown in by the Goethe-Institut London to discuss their works and the delights of the Krimi. I’m delighted to be moderating the panel, not least because I’ve had the pleasure of reading a host of excellent crime novels and thrillers as part of my prep. And yes, Erich the Bavarian Duck will definitely be there!

Friday 19 May, 2.50pm-3.40pm 

‘Wunderbar! The Hidden Wonders of the German Krimi’

The panel features German crime authors Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe in conversation with Mrs P. Topics under discussion will include the diverse crime models the authors use to tell their stories  – from historical crime fiction and political thrillers to psychological thrillers and comic crime – and the way in which their settings, ranging from 1930s Berlin and contemporary Sicily to the more claustrophobic confines of a cruise ship, boat or house, have shaped their work. The panel offers an excellent opportunity to see four of the brightest talents of German crime fiction in person. If you’re at CrimeFest, please do come along!

Mario Giordano

Mario Giordano has written numerous novels and YA books, as well as screenplays for the iconic German TV crime series Tatort. In 2001, he adapted his novel Black Box for film, resulting in the award-winning The Experiment (dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel). Mario’s debut crime novel, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (John Murray), is his first novel to be translated into English and the first of a comic crime series set in Sicily.

Merle Kröger

Merle Kröger produces films and documentaries for international arthouse cinema, and is a scriptwriter for independent cinema in India. Since 2003, Kröger has published four novels, which combine documentary research, personal history and political analysis with elements of crime fiction. She received the prestigious German Crime Fiction Prize for Grenzfall (2013) and Havarie (2016). The latter will be published in the US in 2017, entitled Collision.

Volker Kutscher

Volker Kutscher worked as a journalist before turning to crime. His award-winning ‘Gereon Rath‘ series currently consists of six novels, which are set in a politically turbulent 1920s and 1930s Berlin. The series has been translated into ten languages, and the first two novels – Babylon Berlin and The Silent Death – are available in English with Sandstone Press. The series is also currently being adapted for TV by ARD/Sky, with Tom Tykwer directing.

Melanie Raabe

Melanie Raabe grew up in eastern Germany, and attended the Ruhr University Bochum, specialising in media studies and literature. After graduating, she moved to Cologne to work as a journalist by day and secretly write books by night. Her psychological thriller The Trap (Mantle) won the Stuttgart Crime Fiction Prize for best crime debut of the year, has been sold to more than 20 countries, and has been optioned for a film by TriStar Pictures.
Huge thanks to the Goethe-Institut London for making this event happen, and to RIAH at Swansea University for its support!