Anthea Bell (1936-2018): doyenne of German crime translation

The German and French literary worlds lost one of their most talented, versatile and beloved translators last month. Anthea Bell died on 18 October at the age of 82, and the number of obituaries and articles honouring her achievements – from The Guardian to The New York Times – testify to the stature and range of her output.

If you read Asterix in English as a child, as I did, then you had the luck of being introduced to Anthea’s skills early on. Who could ever forget her delightfully inventive translations of assorted villagers’ names – Getafix the potion-cooking druid, Cacofonix the tone-deaf bard, Vitalstatistix the generously proportioned chief, and of course Dogmatix, Asterix’s little sidekick?

And there was pretty much nothing that Anthea couldn’t or didn’t translate, from the luminaries of German literature and thought – Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Stephan Zweig, W. G. Sebald, Julia Franck, Saša Stanišic – to children’s literature – Cornelia Funke and Erich Kästner – to a surprising amount of crime fiction.

German crime novels from my bookshelf, translated by Anthea Bell

Here’s a list of all the crime novels Anthea Bell translated (I think…!)

  • Woman of the Dead by Bernhard Aichner (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2015)
  • Kismet (Kayankaya #4) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • Brother Kemal (Kayankaya #5) by Jakob Arjouni (No Exit Press 2013)
  • A Crime in the Family (non-fiction) by Sacha Batthyany (Quercus 2017)
  • Silence (Kimmo Joentaa #2) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2011)
  • The Winter of the Lions (Joentaa #3) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2012)
  • Light in a Dark House (Joentaa #4) by Jan Costin Wagner (Vintage 2013)
  • The Snowman by Jörg Fauser (Bitter Lemon Press, 2004)
  • Berlin by Pierre Frei (Harper Collins 2005)
  • Black Ice by Hans Werner Kettenbach (Bitter Lemon Press, 2005)
  • Ice Cold by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2013)
  • The Dark Side of Love by Rafik Schami (Arabia Books, 2010)
  • The Murder Farm by Andrea Maria Schenkel (Quercus 2014)
  • The Dark Meadow by Andrea Maria Schenkel (riverrun 2015)
  • The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin XXX)
  • The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach (Penguin 2015)
  • The Late Monsieur Gallet (Maigret #2) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2013)
  • Cécile is Dead (Maigret #20) by Georges Simenon (Penguin 2015)
  • Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story by Leonie Swann (Doubleday 2006)

There’s every conceivable type of crime on that list: classic crime, police procedurals, private-eye novels, courtroom dramas, psychological thrillers, comic crime, historical crime and true crime. The novel below is one of my favourites (a German-Finnish hybrid police procedural and psychological crime novel).

The fact that Anthea was such a prolific translator of crime fiction isn’t really mentioned in her obituaries, and that’s a shame. Translating crime fiction requires a very special set of skills – you need an eagle-eye for plot shifts, for nuances of characterization, tone and pace, and for red herrings and clues that depend on precisely calibrated wording. And of course, as one of the bestselling genres, crime fiction reaches a mass audience, making it the perfect vehicle for getting German, Austrian and Swiss literature into the hands of eager crime fiction fans in the English-speaking world … and surreptitiously introducing them to multiple facets of German history, politics and society. Anthea played a huge role in making that kind of cultural exchange happen through the hundreds of the works she translated in her long career.

The loveliest thing is that Anthea was a genuine crime fiction aficionado. I had the good fortune of appearing with her on a Waterstones Piccadilly panel on German crime back in 2015, along with Barry Forshaw (our chair), Charlotte Ryland from New Books in German, and authors Sascha Arango and Bernhard Aichner. Aichner’s novel Woman of the Dead had just been translated by Anthea, and she gleefully recounted how much she had enjoyed translating the main character – the charming yet murderous anti-heroine Brünhilde Blum. Anthea turned out to be very knowledgeable about the early history of German-language crime, and put me onto a new source which I then included in Crime Fiction in German. She also took the time to tell me that she’d read and enjoyed this blog, which I thought was exceedingly generous and kind.

Later, without her knowing it, she became my crime translation mentor, when I was asked to translate a short story from Ferdinand von Schirach’s Strafe / Punishment for a publisher. His works always make copious reference to the German legal system, legal procedure and German law, and Anthea’s prior translation of courtroom drama The Collini Case was a hugely helpful and reassuring guide as I worked to get those details right.

A bit blurry, but here we all are after the 2015 Waterstones Piccadilly event. Anthea is seated in the centre.

Glancing through the list of titles above, I see there are a few I haven’t yet read. I’m intrigued by The Dark Side of Love (set in Syria) and by the sheep detectives of Three Bags Full – and look forward to enjoying Anthea’s talents and skills once more.

There’s a lovely interview with Anthea Bell here, conducted by fellow translator Ruth Martin for New Books in German, to mark Anthea’s 80th birthday.

Tribute posted on Twitter by Anthea Bell’s son Oliver Kamm

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Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer (Spain) #WITMonth

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Bitter Lemon Press 2018 – published 15 August)

First line: A number of us woke up this morning when the storm broke, only to find another corpse in the cave.

Teresa Solana has carved out a distinctive space for herself as a crime writer with her ‘Barcelona’ crime series, featuring private detective twins Borja and Eduard. Irreverent and satirical, her novels deconstruct Catalan society, puncturing the pretensions of rarefied literary circles or the New Age meditation scene. One of the murder weapons in The Sound of One Hand Killing is a Buddha statue, which gives you some idea of the wicked humour that infuses Solana’s writing.

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is something a little different – a collection of crime stories that shows the author at her most freewheeling and inventive. Take for example the eponymous opening story, which is set in prehistoric times, but whose detective caveman, Mycroft, seems to have an in-depth knowledge of psychological profiling and investigative terms – all very tongue-in-cheek. Narrators range from a concerned mother-in-law and spoiled museum director to a vampire and a houseful of ghosts, with each story giving Solana a chance to stretch her imagination to the full – crime, humour and the grotesque are mixed in equal measure into a vivid narrative cocktail.

For me, however, it was the second half of the book that stood out – a set of eight stories under the heading ‘Connections’ – almost all set in Barcelona, and all linked in some way. In a note to readers, Solana describes the stories as a ‘noirish mosaic that shows off different fragments of the city, its inhabitants and history’ and then throws down a gauntlet… ‘Reader, I am issuing you with a challenge: spot the connections, the detail or character that makes each story a piece of this mosaic’.

Well, it took me a while, but I had the greatest of fun figuring out the links between the stories (some really are just a passing detail, and I can only imagine the devious pleasure the author had in planting them). My favourites were ‘The Second Mrs Appleton’, for its deliciously twisted denouement, and ‘Mansion with Sea Views’, whose conclusion was unexpectedly dark and disturbing.

As some of you may already know, August is ‘Women in Translation’ month  (#WITMonth), an initiative that seeks to promote the works of international women authors, and to highlight the relative lack of women’s fiction in translation. Big thanks are due to Bitter Lemon Press for championing the work of Solana in the English-speaking world, and to her translator, Peter Bush, who does such a wonderful job of communicating Solana’s very special authorial voice.

And here, in no particular order, are another five crime novels by women in translation that I’ve particularly enjoyed and covered on the blog.

Masako Togawa, The Master Keytranslated from Japanese by Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017) – 1960s character-driven Tokyo crime with a twisty-turny plot. 

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from Greek by Yannis Panas (Black and White Publishing 2013) – a mind-bendingly imaginative apocalyptic hybrid crime novel.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleanertranslated from German by Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017) – a quirky Berlin thriller with an unforgettable protagonist. 

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian, translated from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler (HarperCollins, 2015) – the first in a distinctive police series, set in the Basque country.

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster 2017) – our 2018 Petrona Award winner; a superb exploration of the fallout from a school shooting.

Cover reveal! Simone Buchholz’s Beton Rouge (Orenda Books)

It’s a pleasure to reveal the cover for Simone Buchholz’s Beton Rouge, the Hamburg crime writer’s second novel with Orenda Books – which will be out in February 2019, translated by Rachel Ward.

Love that neon lettering! And the significance of that very arresting image becomes a little clearer when you read this teaser from Orenda:

Simone is a wonderfully engaging crime writer. If you haven’t yet read the first in the ‘Chastity Riley’ series, Blue Night – beautifully translated by Rachel Ward – then head over to Orenda Books for a peek. And you can read a great interview with Simone here. Key takeaway – ‘everyone needs a beer family’.

🙂

Simone pictured in her beloved Hamburg

German Krimi writers shine at CrimeFest 2018

The sun shone at CrimeFest, and so did the four German crime writers who had travelled from Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt to join us in Bristol for our panel ‘Krimi Time! The Best of German Crime Fiction’.

Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger have produced an impressive array of crime novels between them, ranging from police procedurals to thrillers and noir. Our panel focused on the novels they’ve published in English – Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (MacLehose), Buchholz’s Blue Night (Orenda), Kurbjuweit’s Fear (Orion) and Pflüger’s In the Dark (Head of Zeus) – and the authors each gave a short, tantalising reading from their works to a rapt audience.

In the course of the panel discussion, we heard from Simone about the influence of German writer Jakob Arjouni and his Turkish-German PI Kemal Kayankaya on on her ‘Chastity Riley’ series, and about why the St. Pauli area in Hamburg, where Blue Night is set, is so much more than the city’s red-light district. Oliver talked about his rural Black Forest setting and its proximity to France, which is designed to reflect the German-French heritage of his policewoman Louise Boni, and why he decided to incorporate Buddhist philosophy into Zen and the Art of Murder. Andreas explained some of the reasons he choose to create Jenny Aaron, his blind lead protagonist – including the challenge this presented to him as a writer – and about why the Japanese Bushido code is so important to Jenny. Dirk related the real-life events behind his psychological thriller Fear – and explained how the law was able to offer only limited help in dealing with their family’s stalker, placing him in a difficult position as a husband and father keen to protect his family.

The Krimi panel in action (l to r): Mrs P, Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger. Photo taken by Sarah Ward.

We were also very fortunate to have two of the authors’ translators with us in the audience – Jamie Bulloch, who translates Oliver’s ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series, and Astrid Freuler, who is currently translating the second of Andreas’ ‘Jenny Aaron’ series. Each of the authors spoke about the process of working with their translators (Rachel Ward and Imogen Taylor in the case of Simone and Dirk respectively) – and were keen to praise their skills and expertise. A recurring theme was the importance of communication between the author and the translator, who typically asks lots of detailed questions. Simone felt that these made her look afresh at the text, and she particularly enjoyed seeing her work in English, the ‘first language’ of noir.

Astrid with Andreas, and Oliver with Jamie. In both cases it was the first time the authors had met their translators! Jamie is holding the proof of A Summer of Murder, the second in the ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series.

To close the panel, I asked each of the authors to nominate one German crime writer/novel they would recommend to English-language readers. Their picks were as follows:

  • Simone: Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk (trans. Anselm Hollo, No Exit Press)
  • Oliver: Jan Costin Wagner’s ‘Kimmo Joentaa’ novels; Ice Moon is the first novel in the series (trans. John Brownjohn, Vintage)
  • Andreas: Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor, Simon & Schuster)
  • Dirk: Ferdinand von Schirach’s Crime and Guilt (trans. Carol Brown Janeway, Vintage)
  • Mrs P: Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner (trans. John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press)

Each of the authors also appeared on a second panel, discussing topics such as disability, obsession, the figure of the villain, and ‘putting your characters through the mill’. Here are a few slightly grainy photos of them in action:

One lovely surprise over the weekend was the news that Oliver’s Zen and the Art of Murder had been longlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award – congratulations to Oliver, Jamie and MacLehose Press! Here’s the full list, which includes several crackers:

Finally, I had lots of fun wandering around CrimeFest giving away 14 German-language crime novels. Here are photos of a few happy recipients:

Richard, Abir, Alison and Janet with their free Krimis!

Huge thanks to the Goethe-Institut London for its generous support in bringing our German writers to CrimeFest. Many thanks also to the CrimeFest organisers, and Adrian Muller in particular for his help.

CrimeFest 2018 – Krimi panel with Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger on Friday 18 May

It’s less than a month to CrimeFest 2018, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary!

You may remember that CrimeFest hosted its very first Krimi panel last year, featuring German crime authors Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe.

Happily, we’re repeating the experience this year with another four top German authors – Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger – thanks to the generous continued support of the Goethe-Institut LondonI once again have the pleasure of moderating, and can’t wait to get into discussion with the authors.

Our Krimi panel takes place on Friday 18 May at 13.40. If you’re at CrimeFest this year, please do come along!

We’ll be exploring a range of topics: the authors’ choice of genre (police procedural, urban noir, action thriller, psychological thriller); their settings (from the confines of a single house and the snowy landscapes of the Black Forest to the urban hustle and bustle of Hamburg and Berlin); key themes such as criminality, crises of identity, toxic masculinity, friendship, disability, and Bushido and Zen Buddhism; and the joys of working with the translators who bring their works to English-language audiences.

Photograph of Oliver Bottini © Hans Scherhaufe

Oliver Bottini is a prize-winning German author based in Berlin. Four of his novels, including Zen and the Art of Murder (Mord im Zeichen des Zens, part of the ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series) have been awarded the Deutscher Krimipreis, Germany’s most prestigious award for crime writing. His novels have also been awarded the Stuttgart Crime Prize and the Berlin Crime Prize.

Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder, translated by Jamie Bulloch (who will also be at CrimeFest), is published by MacLehose Press. An off-beat police procedural, it features talented chief investigator Louise Boni, who is struggling to deal with a number of personal and professional demons. Plenty of snow, a gripping investigation and a Zen monk are also in evidence. See Mrs. Peabody’s review of Zen here.

Photo of Simone Buchholz © Droemer Knaur Verlag

Simone Buchholz studied philosophy and literature, worked as a waitress and a columnist, and trained to be a journalist at the prestigious Henri-Nannen-School in Hamburg. In 2016, Simone Buchholz was awarded the Crime Cologne Award as well as a German Crime Fiction Prize for Blue Night (Blaue Nacht). The novel was number 1 on the KrimiZEIT Best of Crime List for a number of months. She lives in Sankt Pauli in the heart of Hamburg.

Blue Night is translated by Rachel Ward and published by Orenda Books. It’s part of the highly acclaimed ‘Chastity Riley’ series, which draws on private-eye conventions to create stylish, urban noir with a German twist. As well as celebrating the less glamorous bits of Hamburg, the novel is a moving meditation on the importance of friendship. You can read Mrs. Peabody’s interview with Simone here.

Photo of Dirk_Kurbjuweit by Julian Nitzsche

Dirk Kurbjuweit is deputy editor-in-chief of the German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel, and divides his time between Berlin and Hamburg. He’s received numerous awards for his writing, including the Egon Erwin Kisch Prize for journalism, and is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, many of which have been adapted for film, TV and radio.

Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear, translated by Imogen Taylor and published by Orion, explores the psychological effects of stalking on a middle-class family after they move into a flat in a shared house. Based on Kurbjuweit’s own experiences, the novel is an unsettling exploration of how stalking turns people’s lives upside down and leads them into situations they never thought possible. The capacity of fear to erode civilised values is a key theme.

Photo of Andreas Pflüger by Andreas Buron

Andreas Pflüger has lived in Berlin for many years. He is the author of a number of novels and one of the most renowned scriptwriters working in Germany today. His award-winning works include The Ninth Day and Strajk, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, and over twenty episodes of the cult German crime series Tatort.

Pflüger’s In the Dark, translated by Shaun Whiteside and published by Head of Zeus, is the first in the ‘Jenny Aaron’ series. Aaron is an extraordinary lead protagonist – blinded after a police operation goes horribly wrong, she has to learn to ‘see’ in new ways and to confront her traumatic past when her old police unit asks her to help with a case. An action-packed thriller that’s underpinned by an extraordinary amount of research.

In case you’re wondering, Erich the Bavarian duck will also be in attendance at CrimeFest…

Warmest thanks to the Goethe-Institut London, whose support is enabling this event to take place place. Further details about this panel and other CrimeFest panels involving the four authors can be found on its website here.

Going south: Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird (USA), Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (GER), Brynard’s Weeping Waters (South Africa)

Today I explore three interesting crime novels from different countries, which have a southern geographical setting in common — Texas in the American south, the Black Forest in south-west Germany, and a remote corner of South Africa.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird, Serpent’s Tail, 2017 

Opening line: Darren Mathews set his Stetson on the edge of the witness stand, brim down, like his uncles taught him.

I’d heard a number of good things about this novel set in East Texas, and found it a rich and absorbing read. Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger whose work takes him all across the state, often to isolated communities marked by racial tensions. After becoming too closely involved in a friend’s case, he’s sent to the small town of Lark, where the murders of a local white woman and a black man from Chicago are making waves. While his prestigious status as a Texas Ranger will offer him some protection from the racist forces in the town, he knows he’ll need to keep all his wits about him to stay in one piece.

Bluebird is a finely observed novel that shows us rural America from a range of black American perspectives. Mathews, our lead investigator, is particularly well drawn. Brought up in a highly educated middle-class family, he feels pulled between a safe career in law and his desire for a more hands-on law enforcement role. Deeply conflicted about Texas and the profound racism he encounters, he also has a deep love of the place and its people. His views are complemented by a range of other black voices, such as Geneva Sweet, the sixty-nine-year-old owner of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a cafe offering ‘the best fried pies in Shelby County’. Her family story is one that has probably played out hundreds of times in American history, and is deeply moving.

You can read an extract from the novel at the Serpent’s Tale website.

A brief extra observation: a recent discussion on Facebook explored the lack of black crime bloggers and readers at UK crime conventions and publishing events, and led to a wider discussion about black crime authors. There really aren’t that many big names (Walter Mosley most obviously springs to mind), and it is notable that recent crime novels exploring black American experience (such as Thomas Mullen’s excellent Darktown) are often written by white authors. All the more reason to be delighted that Attica Locke is such a crime writing success story.

Oliver Bottini, Zen and the Art of Murder, trans. from the German by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press, 2018 [2004]) 

Opening lines: Louise Boni hated snow. Her brother had died in the snow, her husband had left her in the snow and she had killed a man in the snow.

Zen and the Art of Murder is the first in Oliver Bottini’s ‘Louise Boni’ series, and is set in the Black Forest region of south-west Germany. It opens with a rather unusual sight: a Japanese monk, dressed only in a robe and sandals, is wandering through the snow. He is injured, but doesn’t seem to want official help, accepting only a cheese roll before trudging on through the snowy landscape. When Boni and her local police contacts follow him to find out what’s going on, the mystery suddenly takes a frightening and serious turn.

On one level, Zen is a police procedural that shows us the inner workings of a police investigation and the sometimes fraught dynamics of a police team investigating a stressful case. But the figures of the Zen monk and chief inspector Louise Boni – who is dealing with personal demons, traumatic memories from a previous case and borderline alcoholism – give the narrative a fascinating off-kilter feel. Much of the novel is seen from Boni’s embattled perspective, as she struggles to piece things together with unshakeable determination and undoubted investigative talent. The result is a highly unusual and beguiling police procedural, whose complex lead protagonist will stay with you for a long time to come.

Oliver Bottini is appearing on a special Krimi panel at this year’s CrimeFest – of which more soon!

Karin Brynard, Weeping Waters, trans. from Afrikaans by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon

Opening lines: The call came through just after two. He was at his desk at the police station, having his lunch of vetkoek and mince. 

Like Zen’s Louise Boni, Inspector Albertus Beeslaar is a traumatised cop. Haunted by the consequences of a case gone wrong, he has fled the big city of Johannesburg for a small town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Already dealing with a spate of stock thefts in farms around the area, he now receives a call telling him that a local artist, Frederika Swarts, has been found murdered on her family farm, along with the four-year-old child she was planning to adopt. He embarks on the investigation with rookie policemen Ghaap and Pyl, while fighting off ever more frequent panic attacks.

While I found some parts of Weeping Waters a little uneven, there also was much to like. The characterisation of Beeslaar and of Freddie’s estranged sister Sara are excellent, and the latter’s struggle with guilt and grief is particularly well drawn. The novel also has a fantastic sense of place: the incredible heat and vastness of the desert landscape are brought vividly to life, as is the claustrophobic nature of small-town life. There’s also a good attempt to explore on-going racial tensions in post-Apartheid South Africa – for example how the murders of white farmers are exploited for political gain by right-wing factions. I also very much appreciated the translators’ approach to rendering the Afrikaans dialogue – the syntax and vocabulary are kept close to the original in such a way that you can really hear the characters’ voices and appreciate their local culture.

The novel is the winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, and is the first in a series.

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!