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.
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Huge thanks to the Goethe-Institut London for making this event happen, and to RIAH at Swansea University for its support!
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International delights at Newcastle Noir (plus my top three picks)

Crime fiction with plenty of laughter and cake: my first visit to Newcastle Noir at the beautiful Lit & Phil was a hugely enjoyable experience. This Geordie crime festival has been running just three years, but featured an impressive programme of 14 panels over two days (and that’s not counting the fringe events). All credit to organisers Dr. Jacky Collins (Northumbria University) and Kay Easson (The Lit & Phil) for creating such a vibrant and wonderfully friendly event.

Given the relatively modest size of the festival, I was struck by the high proportion of international writers who were there – thanks in no small part to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books, who had ten authors with her, one of whom had flown in all the way from Australia. In order of appearance:

  • Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland)
  • David Swatling (US/Netherlands)
  • Kjell Ola Dahl (Norway)
  • Thomas Enger (Norway)
  • Nina von Staffeldt (Denmark)
  • Antti Tuomainen (Finland)
  • Cay Rademacher (Germany/France)
  • Wulf Dorn (Germany)
  • Erik Axl Sund (aka Jerker Eriksson/Hakan Axlander Sundquist, Sweden)
  • Johana Gustawsson (France)
  • Camilla Grebe (Sweden)
  • Paul Hardisty (Canada/Australia)

And then there were a number of British crime authors who set their works in foreign climes: Steph Broadribb (‘Lori Anderson’ series, Florida), David Young (‘Karin Müller’ series, East Germany), William Ryan (‘Korolev’ series, 1930s Russia; The Constant Soldier, 1944 Germany), Luke McCallin (‘Reinhardt’ series, WWII Sarajevo and post-war Berlin), and Quentin Bates (‘Gunna’ series, Iceland).

The Newcastle Noir bookshop had a distinctly international flavour

A major highlight for me was chairing two ‘German’ panels: ‘German Historical Crime’ with Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, and ‘German Noir’ with Wulf Dorn and Cay Rademacher. All the authors gave fascinating, thoughtful and eloquent answers to questions about writing historical crime fiction/psychological thrillers, their settings (1930s Russia; World War II Sarajevo and Germany; post-war Hamburg and Berlin; 1970s East Germany; present-day Germany), and the research they undertook while writing their works. Lizzy Siddal has posted a marvellous write up of the two panels over at Lizzy’s Literary Life – do take a look! And for further details of the authors and their works, see my post from last week.

From top left by row: the ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel; Cay Rademacher answers a question; GHF panel group photo; Cay, Mrs P and Wulf Dorn thank the Goethe-Institut London for its support; William Ryan reads from The Constant Soldier while Luke McCallin listens; the ‘German Noir’ panel; David Young and Wulf fostering Anglo-German relations; David reads from Stasi Wolf.

Here are my top three international crime fiction picks from Newcastle Noir – all by authors who are new to me:

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner (translated by Bradley Schmidt; Manilla 2017). Elisabeth was the one who got away: she was due to appear on the ‘German Noir’ panel (replacing Sascha Arango), but was unable to make it due to problems with her flight. My consolation was reading The Cleaner, an extremely accomplished novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith works for a company that specialises in cleaning crime scenes, and comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood when she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read.

Luke McCallin’s The Man from Berlin (No Exit Press, 2014). I hadn’t read any of Luke’s work before being asked to chair the ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel, and was extremely impressed by The Man in Berlin, the first in the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ series. Aside from the vast amount of historical research that’s gone into the novel, I particularly liked the unusual setting for a WWII series – Sarajevo of 1943. The city is beautifully evoked, and the complex politics of the time are deftly incorporated into the narrative (which is no mean feat). The novel sees conflicted military intelligence officer Reinhardt investigating the politically charged murder of a Yugoslav film star and a German military colleague.

Paul E. Hardisty, Reconciliation for the Dead (Orenda Books, 2017). Paul was on the ‘Action Thriller’ panel and is the author of the ‘Claymore Straker’ novels. While this is the third in the series, it can be read first, because it tells Straker’s origin story, focusing on his formative years as a soldier in the South African Army in the early 1980s. That narrative is framed by Straker’s return to Africa in 1996 to testify at the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I hadn’t intended to buy this book, but after hearing Paul speak it became a must-read. I was particularly struck by the author’s willingness to present the novel as a serious attempt to get to the terrible truths of South African apartheid, and to depict them in as realistic and hard-hitting a way as possible. I’m two thirds of the way through the novel now, and can tell that it’s going to stay with me for a long time.

To finish off, here are some photos of beautiful Newcastle, the Lit & Phil, and some criminally minded friends. Looking forward to Newcastle Noir 2018 already…

With thanks to Susan at The Book Trail, Vic Watson at ElementaryVWatson, Ewa Sherman and other attendees for the use of some of these photos. 

‘German Historical Fiction’ and ‘German Noir’ panels at Newcastle Noir, Sat 29 April

A week today, I’ll be chairing two wonderful German-themed panels at Newcastle Noir. If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please do come along. The events are truly excellent value (£5!) and offer a brilliant opportunity to see six outstanding British, Irish and German crime writers in action.

 

Panel 4 on ‘German Historical Fiction’, Sat 29 April, 3 – 4pm at the Lit and Phil.

*Book your tickets here*

The ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel features Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, three English-language authors who write historical crime novels and thrillers featuring German protagonists and/or German settings. We’ll be exploring each of these authors’ works and the challenges of writing on morally complex historical subjects.

Luke McCallin’s work with the UN inspired him to write the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ historical crime series, which follows a German intelligence officer in Sarajevo during the Second World War (No Exit Press). His latest novel, The Ashes of Berlin, sees Reinhardt return to Berlin, now under Allied occupation, in 1947.

William Ryan’s ‘Captain Korolev’ series, set in 1930s Stalinist Russia, has established him as a top historical crime writer. His latest novel, The Constant Soldier (Mantle), is a historical thriller set in German-occupied Silesia in 1944, and was inspired by genuine photos showing SS personnel on leave at a ‘rest-hut’ near Auschwitz.

David Young was a journalist before becoming a full-time author. His debut novel Stasi Child, set in 1970s East Germany, won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. The second in the ‘Karin Müller’ series, Stasi Wolf, was published earlier this year (Bonnier Zaffre).

 

Panel 6 on ‘German Noir’, Sat 29 April, 6.30-7.30pm at the Lit and Phil.

The ‘German Noir’ panel features three of German crime fiction’s brightest talents – Sascha Arango, Cay Rademacher and Wulf Dorn. They’ll be talking about their works, ranging from historical crime to psychological thrillers, and the vibrant German Krimi scene.

*Book your tickets here!*

Sascha Arango is one of Germany’s most prominent screenplay writers and a two-time winner of the Grimme Prize for his work on the iconic TV-crime series Tatort. His 2015 novel The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor; Simon & Schuster), features an outrageous Ripley-esque protagonist and was a Radio 2 Bookclub choice.

Cay Rademacher is the author of the ‘Stave’ trilogy (trans. Peter Millar; Arcadia), which shows Chief Inspector Frank Stave fighting crime in the ruins of 1947 British-occupied Hamburg. Cay is also the author of a series set in the Provence – the first, Murderous Mistral, will be available in English in September 2017 (St Martin’s Press).

Wulf Dorn’s first novel Trigger was an international bestseller. Since then he has published six more psychological thrillers, which have been translated into ten languages. He has won numerous awards, including the French Prix Polar for Best International Author.

The Night Belongs to Wolves

‘German Noir’ is supported by Goethe-Institut London and Swansea University.

And for a free chapter from Crime Fiction in German, just click here > https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191

AND if you’re around on Thursday 27th AprilDavid Young, author of Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf, offers an illustrated talk about the real-life stories behind his novels at the Newcastle Noir fringe. This includes world exclusive photos of a mid-1970s escape with a twist which inspired a key plot point in Stasi Child. Dare you take part in a Communist v Capitalist tasting test of hazelnut chocolate spread? I’ll be helping out… Yum!

*Book your tickets here*

 

 

Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children (Germany) – author interview and exclusive extract

Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins, the first in the ‘Inspector Frank Stave’ series, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. Its sequel, The Wolf Children, is now out with Arcadia Books, and looks to be another exceptional historical crime novel, set in the bleak post-war Germany of 1947.

Cay has kindly answered some questions about the novels below, and there’s also an exclusive extract from The Wolf Children for Mrs. Peabody readers, courtesy of Arcadia Books.

Cay will be on the ‘German Noir’ panel I’m moderating at Newcastle Noir on Saturday 29 April, thanks to the support of the Goethe-Institut London. If you’re in the area, do come along! You can see the full Newcastle Noir programme here.

Author interview with Cay Rademacher

MP: Welcome, Cay. The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are both set in Hamburg in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Why did you choose this particular location and year?

CR: I stumbled over it by chance – I did some research, as a journalist, for an article on daily life in post-war Germany. So this was the time: after 1945 and before 1949 (the Occupation years between the fall of National Socialism and the foundation of West and East Germany). And Hamburg was my home-town then, which I knew quite well.

Partly cleared bomb damage in 1947 Hamburg, photographed by Arabella Kurdi

MP: You very effectively depict life in a ruined post-war German city. How do you go about researching the detail of what it was like to experience that place and time?

CR: It’s a multi-layer approach –

  • Talk to historical witnesses and survivors.
  • Study documents from the period: police records, newspapers, letters, official documents, anything written.
  • Visit the Hamburg Museum, the city’s history museum, which has lots of things on display.
  • Historical research: interviews with historians and historical literature on the subject.
  • Films and photographs (the visual aspect is very important).
  • And, last but not least: visit all places personally. Though a lot of them have changed considerably, there are still many places to see. And even when a certain house or street has changed, there is still some kind of atmosphere there.

A Spiegel magazine cover from 1947, the year in which it was established with the support of the Allies. It’s still going strong 50 years later…

MP: Tell us a little about your investigator, Chief Inspector Frank Stave.

CR: There was a real ‘Oberinspektor Frank Stave’ in the Hamburg police, who signed a lot of documents in this period. But he is long gone and his biography is completely fictional. ‘My Stave’ was in the police even before Hitler came to power. He was never in the Nazi-party, but also never wanted to quit the service. So he feels guilty, in a way. His wife died during a night of bombing. His only son was an ardent follower of the regime and joined the Wehrmacht [the army] as a teenager in the last days of the war. He went missing fighting against the Red Army. So, working as a CID-man amidst the ruins of post-war Germany, Stave has to fight crime – and his inner demons too.

MP: Who are the ‘wolf children’, and why did you decide to make them central to the second Stave novel?

CR: Wolfskinder were, mostly, children who lost their entire families during their flight from Eastern territories around the end of the Second World War (roughly from the end of 1944 to the summer of 1946). These refugees were stranded in the cities, mostly in what would become West Germany. They formed gangs to survive. In Hamburg, which had about one million citizens at that time, there were about 10,000 to 12,000 wolf children in 1947. This, in itself, was for me reason enough to make them the tragic heroes of the novel.

The original German cover of The Wolf Children

MP: The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are part of a trilogy – the final part, Der Fälscher [The Forger], was published in Germany in 2013. Why did you decide to write a trilogy rather than a longer series?

CR: It’s a kind of circle. The Murderer in Ruins is set in the winter of 1947, which was, in a lot of ways, really Germany’s darkest hour (even more than 8 May 1945) – concerning poverty, desperation, shame, chaos. The third novel is set in the summer of 1948 – exactly during the weeks when the famous Deutsche Mark (German Mark) was introduced as new currency. This marked the beginning of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and the birth of West Germany. All of a sudden, optimism was everywhere (and the will to ‘forget’ the Nazi past). So these three novels were set in the transition period between two very different regimes, in a kind of historical no man’s land.

Extract from the opening of Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children, trans. by Peter Millar and reproduced with the kind permission of Arcadia Books, 2017 (pp.1-12).

Chapter 1. The Boy and the Bomb

Friday, 30th May 1947

The dead boy’s blood coated the five-hundred-pound British bomb like a red veil. Light coming through the shattered roof of the warehouse fell on the corpse and on the unexploded bomb, a thing the size of a man, like some monstrous fish that had buried itself in the concrete flooring. The rest of the warehouse was in darkness. It was as if the sunlight shining in on the boy and the bomb was some giant theatrical floodlight, Chief Inspector Frank Stave of Hamburg CID thought to himself.

Stave was in charge of a small team investigating the murder and had to prepare a report on the condition of the body and the presumed crime scene, take statements from witnesses, look for clues or traces of the killer. There was no question that the boy, aged about twelve, or fourteen at most, had suffered a violent death. But Stave was crouched down with a few other policemen behind the partially concealed steel frame of a broken crane, looking through a hole in the wall into the warehouse. There was just one man in the building, taking careful steps as he walked around the scrawny body of the boy and the fat bomb. He gave the corpse a brief glance before finally kneeling next to the bomb and gingerly setting down the big heavy leather bag he had been carrying in his right hand.

He was a bomb disposal expert, sent to defuse the thing. As long as the detonator was still active, it was far too dangerous for the investigation team to approach the body. I just hope he doesn’t remove any traces the killer might have left, Stave thought to himself.

The chief inspector had been alerted to the incident by a phone call just as he was starting his shift. He had gathered together a few uniformed police and set off from the CID headquarters on Karl Muck Platz. Most of them were young, wet behind the ears, appointed by the British occupation forces. Stave spotted among them Heinrich Ruge, a captain who had helped on previous enquiries.

‘The victim isn’t going to run off on us’, Ruge had called out to him rather too snappily.

Stave had said nothing, just gave a sympathetic look at the lad who had beads of perspiration leaking out from under his helmet and running down his temples. Even at the best of times the uniformed police called their tall, uncomfortable headgear ‘sweat boxes’. Today the temperature was nearly thirty degrees.

Stave thought back with a shiver to the previous winter, a merciless six months when the thermometer regularly showed between minus ten and minus twenty – sometimes even lower. And now this spring was as warm as anyone could remember. It was as if the weather was going as mad as humanity had done all too recently.

The war’s over, the chief inspector reassured himself. Ruge and another five uniforms were bent down next to him, shielded by the damaged crane, the sun right above their heads, no shade anywhere around them. He could smell their sweat evaporating. Was it just the heat? Or maybe it was fear that had them dripping with sweat?

A small, scraggy red-haired man whose freckled face was already glowing red from the sun crouched alongside them. Ansgar Kienle was a police photographer and at the moment, for lack of alternatives, Hamburg CID’s sole crime scene specialist.

Only one person seemed to be suffering worse from the sun than Kienle – Dr Alfred Czrisini, the pathologist, whose bald head was going bright red. Czrisini just happened to have a British colleague visiting when Stave called him, and was able to borrow his Jeep to drive to meet them at the crime scene. Despite his sunburn, Czrisini looked pale as his shaking hands held a Woodbine to his lips.

‘Do you think that’s a good idea when there’s a five-hundred-pound bomb being defused nearby?’ Stave hissed between his teeth, even though he knew that nobody and nothing, not even a bomb, would stand between Czrisini and his cigarettes. The doctor gave him a brief smile and shook his head, a little pale blue wisp of smoke rising from his mouth over the sea of ruins. Stave had brought his men across the Elbe in a launch to Steinwerder. Blohm & Voss shipyard lay at the hammer-shaped end of a peninsular on the southern side of the Elbe. There were two huge docks parallel to the river, and a third jutting diagonally into the shore like a giant sword. Behind the two big docks there was a third basin. All along the riverbank stood long brick warehouses, cranes lined up in rows like soldiers standing to attention, and the tangle of rails for the puffing narrow-gauge railways that brought boilers, gun barrels and steel bulkheads down to the docks. Or rather used to.

It was only a few years ago that the battleship Bismarck had been built here by Blohm & Voss. It was from here that nearly fifty per cent of the German U-boat fleet had first slid down the gangways into the sea. Stave could still see some fifteen almost finished hulls, tubes of grey steel, some sixty or seventy metres long, with the closed torpedo door flaps in their hulls, rudders, gleaming propellor screws, a few of them so new they could almost set off immediately to patrol the seas, others already half-submerged beneath the waters of the basin, like stranded whales. Two or three of the wrecks looked as if they had been beaten to death by some giant right here in the shipyard. The British and Americans had bombed Blohm & Voss again and again.

Stave looked at the mountains of rubble, stretching hundreds of metres in every direction: toppled chimneys lying on the two- to three-hundred metre docks, the walls of which had been blown in, heaps of molten metal produced in a matter of seconds in the ferocious heat. Bracken and sorrel bushes sprouted from the broken cobblestones. The old bulkheads with their shattered concrete now covered in verdigris. Beyond the last of the docks the Elbe flowed on, fast and grey. And beyond that again ruins upon ruins with only the tower of St Michael’s rising in the heat haze like some giant tombstone.

Only a few years ago, even in the CID headquarters, they could hear the sound of the jackhammers echoing across the Elbe like a low humming, as continuous and unremarkable as the gurgling sound of a waterfall: after a while you simply didn’t notice it any more.

Now it was almost totally silent. There were no ships in the docks, no sparks flying from welding machines or ice saws. The only noise came from a crane on rails at the far end of the dock, jerking and creaking as it pulled steel girders out of the ruins of a building and piled them on to a barge floating on the Elbe: material that could be melted down and recycled somewhere.

A fireman colleague of the specialist in the warehouse crawled over to the crouching police.

‘How much longer is he going to take?’ Stave asked him. He noticed that he was speaking softly, as if a word pronounced too loudly might set off the unexploded bomb.

The fireman spoke softly too, though: ‘Hard to say. Depends on what type of detonator it is, and what state it’s in. We’ve seen hundreds of bombs like that. Most of them have an ordinary detonator, one that should set the explosives off the minute it hits. Sometimes they get stuck, either because they hit a roof that was already damaged or because they were screwed in wrongly in the first place. Those we can deal with quickly enough. But some of these beasts have timed fuses set to go off hours or even days later.’

Stave nodded. He remembered how sometimes days after the horrific nights of the bombing raids, suddenly there would be an enormous boom and another building would collapse in ruins. The Americans and British had done it deliberately to make the job of clearing up the rubble more difficult – that was one of the reasons why the local Gauleiter Karl Kaufman had ordered prisoners from the Neugamme concentration camp into the ruins to do the clearing up. On two or three occasions he had been told to watch over them.

‘Those types of detonators,’ the fireman went on, ‘sometimes don’t work. When you look at them they can seem undamaged, but if you make the slightest mistake, even the tiniest vibration, the whole thing can explode in your face.’

‘Would human footsteps be vibration enough?’ the chief inspector asked him.

The fireman smiled. ‘Sometimes, yes. But not in this case. My colleague has clearly already tested that.’

‘Risk of the job, I suppose,’ Stave muttered.

‘We get extra rations cards for doing difficult work.’

‘Sounds fair enough.’ The CID man looked round and saw, about fifty metres away, a group of workers watching them morosely. Then he turned back to the figure crouching next to him.

‘How long is he going to stay there leaning over the bomb?’

The fireman nodded at the part of the roof that had caved in. ‘That’s where the bomb hit,’ he said. ‘We call that a “wall hit”, where the bomb hits the wall first, goes into a spin and eventually hits the ground at such an oblique angle that the detonator doesn’t go off properly. It’s complex. My colleague is going to be in there for an hour at least.’

‘Wait here,’ Stave ordered the uniformed policemen. They nodded, not exactly thrilled with the instruction. ‘Dr Czrisini, come with me. You too, Kienle. Won’t do any harm if we use the time to ask a few questions of the workers over there. They look like they’re bursting to help us.’

‘They look as if they think you’re more likely to explode on them than the bomb,’ replied the pathologist. He pulled himself to his feet – no easy task given his weight – grunting with the effort, and followed the two CID men.

Five men in dark reefer jackets over collarless blue-and-white striped shirts, corduroy trousers, peaked caps and with hands like shovels shot hostile looks at Stave and his companions as they approached. The chief inspector introduced himself, whipped out his police badge and handed round English cigarettes: John Player, a sailor wearing a life belt round his neck on the packet.

The men looked surprised, then hesitated, before finally grabbing them, with sounds that might even be interpreted as thanks. Stave, who was a non-smoker, had been carrying a few spare cigarettes on him for a while now. At one time he had traded them with returning prisoners-of-war down at the station for any possible information on his missing son. But ever since he had found out that Karl was in a Soviet camp in Vorkuta, he no longer needed to do that. Now he used the cigarettes to make interrogations go a bit more smoothly.

Czrisini put a Woodbine between his lips. The men stood there silently for a few minutes, blue wisps of smoke twisting in the air between the cracked brick walls, the smell of sweet oriental tobacco oddly comforting against the background aroma of bricks and lubricating oil. There was a heat haze in the air, and a stench of rubbish and dead fish rose from the Elbe. Stave could have done with a glass of water.

The oldest worker present – Stave put him at sixty or more – cleared his throat and took a step forwards.

‘Your name?’

‘Wilhelm Speck.’

He was as skinny and hard packed as a smoked sausage. Stave didn’t like to think how many times he must have heard jokes about his surname – ‘bacon’.

‘Was it you who called us?’

‘No, that was the site manager.’ He nodded towards a square redbrick building a few hundred metres away, which Stave guessed was the administration building.

‘We found the bomb,’ the man hesitated a moment before continuing, ‘and the dead boy, just after we came on shift. We ran over to the office.’

‘How long have you been working for Blohm & Voss?’

Speck gave him a surprised look. ‘Forever.’ He thought a moment and then added, “Forty-four years. If you can call the past few years “work”.’

His colleagues muttered in agreement. Even that sounded threatening.

‘You don’t exactly look as though it’s been a holiday.’

‘I’m part of the shit squad,’ the old man announced proudly.

Stave stared at him in surprise.

Kettelklopper,’ Speck said, as if in explanation. Then he realised that the chief inspector still didn’t get the message and repeated, in standard German rather than the thick Hamburg dialect: ‘Kettle knocker: we climb inside the kettles – the hulls of ships laid up in the docks for refit – and knock on the walls to dislodge any dirt.’

‘That sounds like hard work, harder than what you’re doing now.’

‘Work?’ Speck said. ‘Work is building ships or refitting them. Hammering, riveting. You start out with an empty dock and at the end a ship slides down the slipway into the Elbe. That’s what work is.’

‘And nowadays?’ The chief inspector knew what Speck was getting at, but he wanted to hear it from the man’s lips. It would make it easier for a man who wasn’t used to speaking much to answer his other questions.

‘Nowadays?’ The man was getting worked up. ‘Nowadays we’re dismantling the yard. The English want us to destroy our own workplace. Or what’s left of it after they bombed most of it to hell.’

It was true enough that the giant shipyard had been bombed to hell. Officially. Any machinery and tools had been sent off to other countries in reparation for the damage the Germans had done to them in the war. In Hamburg it was an open secret that the British wanted to close down once and for all what had been one of the best shipyards in the world. They wanted to eliminate a rival that had not just turned out warships and U-boats, but in peacetime had also built hundreds of ocean liners and freighters, orders that had more often than not been snatched from shipyards in Liverpool or Belfast.

Speck nodded towards a pile of machinery roasting in the sunshine some thirty metres away near one of the workshops: ‘Lathes, welding machines, riveting machines, milling machines,’ he said. ‘Nine months ago they made us dismantle all that stuff and leave it over there. It’s supposed to be delivered to the Soviet Union. They sent in English military police specially to keep an eye on us. And now it’s all lying there rusting away. Comrade Stalin isn’t interested in our machinery. The English just made us move it out there so it would fall apart.’

He had to be a communist, Stave reckoned. Since 1945, when the Brits allowed elections to take place again in Hamburg, one in every five shipyard workers had voted for the Communist Party of Germany. It wasn’t hard to understand, he told himself, but out loud he said, ‘You’ve been working here for two years, dismantling the shipyard, but nobody spotted an unexploded bomb lying around?”

Speck shook his head. ‘Up until 1945, U-boat spare parts were stored in here. Ever since it’s been lying empty. It was only by chance that we looked in this morning.’ He hesitated for a moment, glanced round as if he was worried somebody was eavesdropping, and added in a quieter voice: ‘All that machinery over there, we couldn’t just leave it lying there. We wanted to move it in here to…’ he was looking for the right word, ‘to keep it safe.’ And then added hastily, ‘Until the English come to take it away.’

‘Absolutely,’ Stave said in a sarcastic tone of voice. What the old man meant was they wanted to keep their tools safe until the day when they could get Blohm & Voss back up and running again. But what business was that of his? ‘And that’s when you came across the bomb with the dead body lying on it?’

‘We could hardly miss it,’ Speck said, his chapped hands shaking slightly. ‘We were shocked.’

‘How close did you get? Did you touch anything?’

They all shook their heads. ‘Touch an unexploded bomb? I’m not that tired of living yet,’ Speck said. ‘We’re forever coming across them. The bomb disposal people could set up shop here, the number of times we’ve had to call them in.’

‘So you didn’t go past the entrance?’ the chief inspector asked, glancing at the door lying open at the narrow end of the hangar, further away from the dead body than the hole in the wall they had been taking cover behind.

Speck nodded. ‘Maybe a couple of paces, then we turned tail.’

‘Did you recognise the boy?’

They all shook their heads again.

‘Could he have been an apprentice? An errand boy?’

‘No. We’re not allowed to train any more apprentices. What would we be training them for anyway? And we’ve no need for errand boys.’

Speck dithered for a moment, until Stave gave him an encouraging nod and handed over another cigarette. Then he said, ‘There are always lads running around here. Orphan kids. Refugees. Displaced persons, as they call them. Urchins with no homes and no parents to take them by the scruff of the neck. They steal anything they can get their hands on. You should know that, in the police.’

The chief inspector sighed. There were between ten and twelve thousand children living in the ruins of Hamburg. Kids of ten, twelve or fourteen years of age who had been the only ones in their families to survive the hail of bombs or the long trek west from homes they’d been expelled from. They stole coal from the freighters, pinched ration cards, worked as lookouts for black market traders or hung around the station selling themselves for sex in exchange for a couple of cigarettes and a bed for the night. Some of them had even gone so far as to kill.

‘When the bomb disposal man has done his job, this man here,’ Stave indicated Kienle, ‘will take photos of the dead body. Afterwards he will pass them around the shipyard, and you need to ask all your workmates to take a look. It might be that somebody will recognise him, might have caught him up to something, chased him off. I need to know who he is, where he lived – or at least where he hung out if he was homeless. What he was doing here, in an empty shipyard hangar with a five-hundred-pond English bomb lying in it.’

After dismissing the workers with a nod, Stave and his colleagues tiptoed back to their cover next to the crane, where the uniformed police were still sitting motionlessly, dripping with sweat and scarcely daring to breathe.

‘Why would the dead boy be lying on top of the bomb?’ he asked Czrisini.

The pathologist coughed, causing the policemen to start with fright, and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ll need to take a closer look at the lad – that is, providing the bomb disposal man does his job well enough.’

‘It looks as if the murderer deliberately deposited the body on a live bomb to make our investigation all the harder,’ Stave muttered.

‘Or wanted to send us a message,’ Kienle replied.

The chief inspector turned to him in surprise, and the photographer gave an embarrassed smile. ‘A dead boy lying on an English bomb – maybe the killer wanted to make a point? Tell us something? Or maybe it’s a signature of some sort?’

‘If that’s his signature, then I’d appreciate it if he used a typewriter next time,’ the chief inspector replied.

The bomb disposal man made a gesture towards his colleague who was taking cover alongside the police, then took from his pocket a longish object that looked like a steam hammer of some kind, reduced to the size of a man’s forearm, and set it on the far end of the bomb, between the stabiliser fins.

‘What’s he doing now?’ Stave asked, whispering unintentionally.

‘It’s got a timer fuse, housed at the end of the bomb,’ the disposal team man replied. ‘Shit things. The English dropped more than 100,000 bombs fitted with them, and one in seven didn’t go off. My grandchildren will still live in fear of the things; that’s if I live long enough to have grandchildren.’

He nodded in the direction of the odd piece of equipment his colleague had produced. ‘That’s what we call a “rocket clamp”, the only thing that enables you to deal with a timer fuse. In a normal fuse there’s a needle that strikes the charge and sets the whole thing off. But with a timer fuse the needle is held back by steel springs, like a bowstring. Between the needle and the charge there’s a little celluloid plate. When the bomb hits, the impact releases acetone from a little glass ampule. The chemical gradually eats away the celluloid and as soon as it does, the needle is released – and BOOM!’

‘The tricky bit about these things is that you can’t see in. It may be that the acetone was never released and the celluloid plate is still intact, or on the other hand it may equally well be that the plate is long gone and the needle could strike at any moment, but has just got stuck somehow. Then one cough might well be enough to set it off. On top of all that the way the detonators are fitted means you can’t just unscrew them. Try that and the answer’s the same: BOOM!”

‘Who on earth would think up something like that?’ Stave mumbled.

‘The same boffins who dreamed up the rocket clamp. It’s a sort of specialist spanner that means you can get at the detonator and unscrew it. A lot faster at any rate than a human being could. But most importantly, faster than the detonator can react. Any minute now my colleague is going to set off a tiny explosive charge within the clamp and that will yank the detonator out in one go. The centrifugal force within the rotating detonator will squeeze all the mechanical components together for a fraction of a second, meaning that the released needle will be delayed that tiny bit so that it can no longer detonate the bomb, because by then the detonator will already be out. Most of the time, anyway.’

The chief inspector was staring at him disbelievingly: ‘Sounds a bit like Russian Roulette to me.’

The bomb disposal man shrugged. ‘There’s always the possibility that the detonator got screwed in at an angle, in which case even a rocket clamp won’t get it out quickly enough. Then there’s always a chance that the explosive charge in the clamp doesn’t go off properly and it’s not fast enough. Nobody can be sure about that. When something like that happens, you can’t exactly ask the disposal man what happened afterwards. This is the one occupation where there’s no opportunity to learn from your colleagues’ mistakes or bad luck.’

The man in the hangar had by now carefully put the rocket clamp over the pointed tail of the bomb. He could be seen taking a deep breath. Then he made a brief movement, so fast the CID man barely noticed it. There was a short, sharp bang, like a gunshot. Involuntarily Stave caught his breath, dropped to the ground and put his hands over his ears.

Nothing happened.

Ever so slowly, he breathed out, noticing that he was shaking and that there was sweat running into his eyes.

‘Good,’ said the bomb disposal man next to him. He was already on his feet, stretching his legs. He waved through the hole in the wall to his colleague inside. ‘The detonator is out. The bomb is now just a big steel tube with a few chemicals inside. No longer a direct threat.’ He glanced at Czrisini. ‘But we’ll have to ask you not to smoke when you’re in there. It would be a pity if a spark were to drop through the detonator hole into the bomb.’

The pathologist looked bleakly into the hangar and seemed paler than ever under his suntan. Nonetheless he took long drags on his Woodbine until it was down to the tiniest of butts, and then carefully extinguished it.

Stave dusted himself down and said, ‘Let’s go and take a look at our corpse.’

The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut.

Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier

Here comes Santa Claus! Mrs Peabody’s 2016 Christmas recommendations

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Barter Books’ 2016 Christmas tree (photo @Argot101)

It’s snowing again on WordPress, which means it’s time for some eclectic Christmas recommendations. These might be useful when gift shopping for the crime lover in your life…or for yourself if you need a little treat. Many are new to the blog (I’ve linked back to existing reviews), and have been picked on the basis that 1. they would make lovely presents and 2. be a good read during the festive season. Enjoy!

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Lesley Thomson, The Detective’s Daughter (Head of Zeus, 2013)

Stella Darnell runs a London cleaning agency called Clean Slate. When her estranged father Detective Chief Superintendent Terry Darnell dies, she discovers files relating to an unsolved case – the murder of young mother Kate Rokesmith – in the attic of his house. Gradually, against her better judgement, Stella finds herself being drawn into the investigation.

This is an ambitious, gripping and atmospheric novel. Stella’s a great creation – a prickly and emotionally guarded figure, whose professional thoroughness and tenacity make her more like her policeman father than she would care to admit. The stories of Kate’s murder in 1981 and her son Jonathan’s subsequent life – told in flashback – are also very well delineated. I particularly enjoyed the author’s observational gifts and the way she captures the small, sometimes absurd details of everyday life (‘Terry had died fifteen minutes after the parking ticket expired’).

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Hans Olav Lahlum, Chameleon People (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson, Mantle, 2016 [2013])

It’s 1972. Norway is preparing for a referendum on its membership of the EEC, when Centre Party politician, landlord and businessman Per Johan Fredriksen is murdered in Oslo. A youth is apprehended with a bloody knife, but did he really do it? Inspector Kolbjørn ‘K2’ Kristiansen and Patricia Borchmann are once more on the case in this witty, beautifully written homage to Agatha Christie. There’s a cast of intriguing suspects, including a number of tricky ‘chameleons’, and an earlier, unsolved murder that may or may not be linked… You can read an extract from this hugely entertaining page-turner here.

Chameleon People is the fourth in the series, but works well as a standalone and would make a great-looking present (the hardback is lovely, with a bright orange flyleaf). Earlier installments, which I’d also recommend, include The Human Flies, Satellite People and The Catalyst Killing.

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Claudia Piñeiro, Betty Boo (trans. from Spanish by Miranda France, Bitter Lemon Press, 2016 [2011]

A Buenos Aires industrialist is found murdered at his expensive home in the gated community of Maravillosa. Author Nurit Iscar (nickname ‘Betty Boo’) is asked to cover the story by a national newspaper, and moves into the community to write a series of pieces from the scene. Before too long, she’s begun investigating the case, aided by a former colleague, the now rather jaded crime reporter Jaime Brena, and her friends.

Piñeiro is South America’s bestselling crime writer, and this novel is an excellent standalone with wonderfully realised characters. A scathing dissection of the fortress lives the rich build for themselves, Betty Boo is also a warm, humorous tribute to the importance of friendships in middle age.

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Leif G.W. Persson, The Dying Detective (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Doubleday, 2016 [2010])

The opening of The Dying Detective shows Lars Martin Johansson, a retired Swedish Police Chief, suffer a stroke after a lifetime of unhealthy excess. Frustrated by his physical limitations and slow recovery, he’s drawn into investigating a cold case, the murder of nine-year-old Yasmine Ermegan in 1985. Before long, he’s assembled a team of old police contacts and lay-experts to help him crack the crime.

On the face of it, this novel doesn’t sound very festive, given the state of our poor lead investigator’s health. But the narrative is strangely uplifting, and the plotting and writing are sublime. It’s one of my favourite novels of the year, and you can read the full review here.

Like Chameleon People, The Dying Detective is part of a larger series, but can definitely be read as a standalone. Earlier novels featuring Johansson include Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End and Another Time, Another Life. These are also marvellous, but have the feel of intricate political thrillers.

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P.D. James, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Faber & Faber, 2016)

P.D. James, queen of crime fiction, sadly died in 2014, but four of her Christmas stories – written between 1969 and 1996 – have now been gathered in this beautiful little hardback volume.

Not all writers are able to pull off the short story form, but P.D James does so with some style. Her deliciously dark morality tales involve a country-house Christmas gone wrong, an illicit affair, and two mysterious murders to test a young Adam Dalgliesh. The volume is a treat for all lovers of crime fiction, and has a forward by Val McDermid.

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Joe Flanagan, Lesser Evils (Europa Editions/World Noir, 2016)

Lesser Evils is one of those exceptional debuts that punches well above its weight. Set in the summer of 1957, in the quiet Cape Cod town of Hyannis, the novel uses its investigation into the murder of a young boy to provide an authentic portrait of a small coastal community. World War Two veteran and police chief Bill Warren is a likable, nuanced character, who does his best to deal with an extraordinary case while parenting a son with learning difficulties. This is noir with a heart; a beautifully written and highly absorbing tale.

Lesser Evils would make another good-looking present. Like all Europa Editions paperbacks, the novel has an attractive, sturdy cover and flyleaf.

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David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Sceptre, 2010)

This historical novel opens in 1799 as young Dutchman Jacob de Zoet arrives at the Dejima trading post near Nagasaki to make his fortune with the Dutch East India Trading Company. While not explicitly a crime novel, a terrible crime does shape the narrative, and it also features an incredibly ingenious murder.

Mitchell spent four years writing the novel, and does a remarkable job of evoking life in Japan at a time when foreign contact was highly restricted and often deemed criminal. The depiction of the growing, sometimes illicit relationship between Europeans and the Japanese – mainly via translators and interpreters – is fascinating, and shows a gradual transfer of knowledge taking place (for example about midwifery techniques). The figure of Orito, a Japanese midwife constrained by the gender expectations of the time, is particularly well-drawn. A long, satisfying read with plenty of memorable characters, this novel will transport you to another time and place.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Penguin, 2016)

This is the one I wish I’d read, but that got away, so I hope I’ll find under the Christmas tree *hint hint*. Here’s the tantalising blurb:

From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia, to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion, and to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, John le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive – reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels. Whether he’s writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire, or visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide, or celebrating New Year’s Eve with Yasser Arafat, or interviewing a German terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev, or watching Alec Guinness preparing for his role as George Smiley, or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humour, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood. Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.

You’ll find an extract and lots of related content here.

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Deutschland 83 (Universal Pictures UK, 2016; German with English subtitles)

This Cold War spy drama was one of my stand-out viewing experiences of 2016, and went down extremely well with UK audiences (better than in Germany, in fact).

Jonas Nay stars as young East German border-guard Martin Rausch, who is blackmailed by the Stasi into spying for West German military secrets. How will he fare, and will he manage to resist the seductions of a capitalist lifestyle? Written by Anna and Jörg Winger, a talented German/American husband-and-wife team, D83 is a genuinely thrilling ride that provides a brilliant portrait of Cold War tensions in 1983. It’s also very funny, with a killer 80s soundtrack.

See my review of the entire series here (warning – spoilers!)

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The Library Suicides [Y Llyfrgell] (Soda Pictures, 2016; Welsh with English subtitles; based on the novel by Fflur Dafydd)

The Library Suicides stars Catrin Stewart (Jenny in Doctor Who) as twin sister librarians Nan and Ana. Following the apparent suicide of their mother, famous author Elena Wdig, they become convinced that she was murdered by her biographer Eben. The film plays out over a long and bloody night in the National Library of Wales as they seek their revenge.

This clever, stylish thriller would make perfect Christmas viewing. The film moves seamlessly from high tension, as the twins track Eben through dark corridors, to laugh-out-loud black comedy, and makes ingenious use of the library’s secret spaces as a setting. As well as exploring the effects of grief and loss, the film examines the ways in which we remember, create and tell stories about ourselves, and the effects these stories have on others.

You can read a fuller review of the film and a Q&A with Fflur here.

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If you’re looking for further ideas or inspiration, then I can heartily recommend the following publisher websites. All have lots of excellent international crime fiction on offer.

Bitter Lemon Press

No Exit Press 

Orenda Books

Europa Editions

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

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Source: littlescandinavian.com

The Missing (series 2), Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and the virtues of voting wisely

I’ve been catching up with lots of TV lately – Australian political thriller The Code (very good) and the new series of The Missing (BBC1), which also has me completely gripped.

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Series 1 of The Missing involved the disappearance of a young boy, Oliver Hughes, on a family holiday in France. The new series cleverly flips that ‘missing child’ scenario by opening with the unexpected reappearance of Alice Webster, a young woman abducted as a schoolgirl over a decade before. The main connection to series 1 is Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the retired French police detective who investigated Oliver’s case, and who is now drawn to Alice by her possible link to a second abducted girl, Sophie Giroux. Aside from him, there’s a new set of characters featuring wonderful British actors such as Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey and Roger Allam. Hawes stands out for me in particular as Alice’s mother Gemma.

There were mutterings from some viewers after episode 1 about the difficulties of keeping track of three timelines (2003 when Alice was abducted, 2014 when she returns home, and the present day), but it’s very much worth persevering as those temporal layers create a wonderfully rich story. And while the drama feels very British in tone, its international settings and characters give it added depth: the Webster family live on a fictional military base in Eckhausen in Germany; we see British military police working together with German police and (with some reluctance) the French detective; the latter’s investigations even take him to Iraq for a while. And every single episode has had a twist that will make you drop your knitting – especially episode 4! I’m looking forward to the rest immensely.

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I’m a little late to this party – Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel epic 22.11.63, which sees English teacher Jake Epping step back into a 1958 America, five years before President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The big question at the heart of the narrative – ‘would you change history if you had the chance?’ – is explored in an inventive and nuanced fashion.

Like some of King’s other novels, such as Dolores Claiborne (a favourite of mine), 22.11.63 draws on elements of the crime and thriller genres. Alongside the infamous murder of Kennedy, there’s a second murder case that takes up a significant part of the narrative. Both of these place Jake in the role of a detective tracking suspects, and in the role of a potential murderer, as he *could* stop the perpetrators from committing their crimes by killing them. But taking such action would obviously raise serious ethical questions, leaving Jake with some tough choices to make…

King does a brilliant job of depicting Jake’s incredible journey back to ‘the Land of Ago’, and recreates the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s in meticulous, loving detail. The mechanics of time travel are given interesting new twists, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Two minor reservations include the sheer length of the novel (I listened to the 30-HOUR audiobook version) and the odd bit of excessive sentimentality (but that could just be me). Hats off to audiobook narrator Craig Wasson, who does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, and I must admit that I’m now curious to see the 2016 TV adaptation with James Franco.

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).

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Time to liberate this little chap!

All this talk of American presidents reminds me that there’s a certain US election next week. We’ll be watching the results with baited breath on this side of the pond, and hope that our American friends can learn from the Brexit Omnishambles here in the UK.

The EU Referendum taught us that:

  • not voting is not an option. VOTE!
  • protest votes are a luxury you can’t afford. VOTE WISELY!
  • talking to swing voters can make a difference. EVERY VOTE COUNTS!
  • and that there’s NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY (polls are fickle, so pretend your candidate’s 12 points down).

Good luck! And for anyone still undecided, I’ll just leave this here: The New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton. You might also want to check out this utterly inspiring and hopeful website: I’ve waited 96 years. It’s simply wonderful.

Extensive re-run of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on now!

Thanks to Andy Lawrence for spotting that BBC Radio 4 is re-running episodes from Mark Lawson’s excellent ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on BBC Radio Four extra and BBC iPlayer Radio. Most episodes will be available online for a month following broadcast, and offer 15-minute opportunities to delve into the work of key crime writers and traditions from around the world.

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The ‘Foreign Bodies’ series are close to my heart for their celebration of international crime fiction, their focus on some of our most interesting detective figures, and their analysis of how crime fiction is used to explore important political and social issues. I was also lucky enough to contribute to two episodes in Series 1 – on the works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Jakob Arjouni respectively.

Here’s a list of the ‘Foreign Bodies’ programmes you can listen to via BBC Radio iPlayer, either now or in the coming days. If you’re looking for some gems to add to your reading list, then these programmes are definitely for you.

Series 1, Episode 1  Belgium: Hercule Poirot and Jules Maigret (Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon)

Series 1, Episode 2  Switzerland/Germany: Inspector Bärlach (Friedrich Dürrenmatt… with a contribution from Mrs Peabody)

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Series 1, Episode 3  Czechoslovakia: Lieutenant Boruvka (Josef Skvorecky)

Series 1, Episode 4  The Netherlands: Commissaris Van Der Valk (Nicolas Freeling)

Series 1, Episode 5  Sweden: Inspector Martin Beck (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö)

Series 1, Episode 6  UK: Commander Dalgliesh/Chief Inspector Wexford (P.D. James and Ruth Rendell)

Series 1, Episode 7  Sicily: Inspector Rogas (Leonardo Sciascia)

Series 1, Episode 8  Spain: PI Pepe Carvalho (Manuel Vázquez Montalbán)

Series 1, Episode 9  UK: DCI Jane Tennison (Linda La Plante)

Episodes 10 to 15 are not yet listed as available, but they may well be soon – I’ll update if so (these include Montalbano/Italy, Kayankaya/Germany, Rebus/Scotland, Wallander and Salander/Sweden, Harry Hole/Norway and Fandorin/Russia).

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Series 3, Episode 1  Cuba: an exploration of fictional investigations of Cuba after the Castro revolution with Leonardo Padura, author of The Havana Quartet, and Caroline Garcia-Aquilera, a Cuban-American writing from exile in Miami.

Series 3, Episode 2  USA: Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, the creators of private eyes Tess Monaghan and Easy Rawlins, discuss how they introduced the experience of women and black Americans into crime fiction dominated by men and a McCarthyite fear of outsiders.

Series 3, Episode 3  Poland: Zygmunt Miloszewski and Joanna Jodelka reflect on how Polish crime fiction depicts the country’s occupation by Nazis and Communists, the transition to democracy through the Solidarity movement and lingering accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.

Series 3 Episode 4  Australia: Australia’s leading crime novelist, South African-born Peter Temple, discusses depicting a society shaped by both British colonialism and American power, and why Australian crime fiction should contain as few words as possible.

Series 3 Episode 5  Nigeria: Writers Helon Habila and C.M. Okonkwo discuss how a flourishing new tradition of Nigerian crime fiction explores British legacy, tribal tradition and the new “corporate colonialism” as global companies exploit the country’s mineral reserves.

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Mark Lawson’s article on the first ‘Foreign Bodies’ series is also available via The Guardian: ‘Crime’s Grand Tour: European Detective Fiction’.