Koutsakis’ Athenian Blues (Greece), Stanley’s A Death in the Family (Botswana), Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (USA)

This week’s crime reading took in Greece, Botswana and America.

Pol Koutsakis, Athenian Blues, translated from Greek by Pol Koutsakis (Bitter Lemon Press, 2017)

Opening line: A few of them were kicking and screaming, but most of the immigrants followed orders, as the police shoved them out of the building.

Athenian Blues is Koutsakis’s debut crime novel and the first in his ‘Stratos Gazis’ series. Its main protagonist is a contract killer with a conscience, who is aided in his investigations by childhood friends Drag, a homicide cop, and Teri, a transgender sex worker. When Stratos is asked to carry out a hit by a beautiful Greek actress who promptly disappears, he and his friends are pulled into an increasingly baffling case.

This novel left me with mixed feelings. I enjoyed the first-person, private-eye narrative, which makes effective use of hard-boiled PI conventions, and the quirky depictions of Stratos and his friends. The novel also makes the most of its contemporary Athens setting, providing interesting insights into recent Greek political and economic crises. However, I found being asked to identify positively with a hitman a bit of a stretch. Stratos is given a moral legitimacy reminiscent of popular TV killer Dexter (he only bumps off those who truly deserve it), and his friends seem to have no problem accepting his profession, due to their past experiences and the social upheavals of the present. And everyone seems to end up in bed with everyone else *yawn* (I am clearly getting old). An entertaining summer read, as long as you don’t take it too seriously…

Michael Stanley, A Death in the Family (Orenda Books, 2016).

Opening line: Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream.

A Death in the Family is the fifth in the ‘Detective Kubu’ series, co-written by Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Originally from South Africa, they decided to start writing after a trip to neighbouring Botswana, where Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series is of course also set. While the ‘Kubu’ series portrays Botswana in a warm light, it also paints a more nuanced (and decidedly less twee) picture of modern Botswana life than McCall Smith. In this novel, Kubu has to deal with his most distressing case yet – the murder of his own father Wilmon – and two other cases that highlight the potentially mixed effects of foreign mining investments. The plot is highly satisfying, the characters engagingly drawn, and readers come away with a rich understanding of Botswana’s history and culture – from traditional funeral rites to the role of the tribal kgotla. There’s a handy glossary of Setswana phrases included at the back of the novel as well.

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (originally published 1953; Audible book narrated by Tim Robbins)

Opening line: It was a pleasure to burn.

I’m always looking out for audiobooks to accompany my knitting, and jumped at the chance to listen to Fahrenheit 451, an American classic I’d never read. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel: it depicts an American future in which books are viewed as subversive, and reading or owning them has become a criminal offence (everyone is plugged into mind-numbing, round-the-clock entertainment provided by state radio and TV instead). The task of firemen in this society is not to put out fires, but to burn books – which catch alight at 451 degrees Fahrenheit.

The novel traces the evolution of Guy Montag, a fireman who is an unquestioning part of the system, following a chance encounter with Clarice McClellan, an intelligent, free-spirited teenager. Written in 1953, the novel is remarkably prescient, exploring the negative effects of advanced technology on social interaction, and asserts the fundamental right to question, challenge and advance ideas in literature and debate. There’s a highly charged murder in the novel as well, which has emboldened me to include it on the blog.

I can fully see why Fahrenheit 451 is regarded as a classic. The story is simply and sparely told, but communicates incredibly powerful ideas. If I’m not mistaken, Bradbury draws on one particular biblical story at the end (I won’t say which, as it would give too much away), and provides a chillingly realistic depiction of what it might be like to resist a repressive regime. There was only one moment where I felt the novel truly showed its age (again, slight spoiler; ask me to say more in the comments if you’re curious).

So how’s my TBR cull going? The scores on the doors are as follows:

Subtracted – 5

Added – 3

Progress of sorts…?

The ultimate Christmas gift: an international crime novel!

For what could be finer than giving or receiving a crime novel set in foreign climes? Especially handy for those whose families are driving them bonkers by Boxing Day: just channel those murderous desires into crime fiction!

Here are some present ideas, which happen to be ten of my favourites from this year, ranging from police procedurals and detective fiction to historical and hybrid crime. Some I’ve reviewed (just click on the link), others I haven’t (so many books, so little time). All are undoubtedly available from your local, friendly, independent bookseller!

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from Greek by Yannis Panas (Black and White Publishing, 2013 [2007]). Winner of the 2008 Athens Prize for Literature, this is a dazzling, hybrid crime novel that takes readers on an extraordinary journey of the imagination. Set in the future after a devastating tsunami, its reluctant investigator is Phileas Book, who works for The Times compiling Epistlewords, a three-dimensional crosswordA brilliant, freewheeling narrative for those who like puzzles and substantial reads. Full review here.

Gillian Flynn, Dark Places (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009). For my money, Flynn is one of the most original and daring crime writers out there, but her novels have polarized readers, so handle with care! Dark Places tells the story of a family massacre and its aftermath from the perspective of survivor Libby Day and other family members. It’s by turns harrowing, moving, blackly humorous and redemptive. My favourite of Flynn’s novels so far. Full review here.

Eugenio Fuentes, At Close Quarters, translated from Spanish by Martin Schifino (Euro Crime/Arcadia, 2009 [2007]). Captain Olmedo, a high-ranking army colonel, is found dead at his home. The authorities say it’s suicide, but daughter Marina has her doubts and hires P.I. Ricardo Cupido to investigate. This is the first novel I’ve read by Fuentes (the 5th in the series), and I was impressed both by its depth of characterisation and by its illumination of different political attitudes/mindsets in Spain.

The original Spanish cover for At Close Quarters

Arnaldur Indriðason’s Strange Shores, translated from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker, 2013). The ninth in the Reykjavik series and by all accounts the last (*sob*). Detective Erlendur returns to his childhood home to face the trauma that shaped his life – the disappearance of his little brother in a snowstorm. While there, he investigates another disappearance, of a young woman in 1942. A thoroughly engrossing novel with a powerful ending. But make sure the other eight have been read first! Full review here.

M.J. McGrath, White Heat and The Boy in the Snow (Mantle 2011/2012). These are the first two novels in the Edie Kiglatuk series, set in the chilly realm of the Arctic. Edie is a wonderful protagonist, and through her investigations we gain a tremendous insight into life in the frozen north – not least its cuisine. There are maps at the front of each novel, which provide a new perspective on a world in which Alaska is ‘down south’. Absorbing and entertaining reads.

Derek B. Miller, Norwegian by Night (Faber and Faber, 2013). I adored this book and haven’t met anybody who didn’t love it. It stars (and that really is the correct term) Sheldon Horowitz, a recently-widowed Jewish-American octogenarian living in Oslo with granddaughter Rhea, who makes a crucial decision after witnessing an appalling crime. An absolute joy from start to finish. Full review here.

Angela Savage, Behind the Night Bazaar (Text Publishing, 2006). The first in the Jayne Keeney series by Australian author Savage, this novel was shortlisted for the Ned Kelly Best First Book Award in 2007. Jayne is a highly engaging private investigator based in Bangkok, whose investigations offer readers an escape to sunnier climes, and provide a vivid and insightful portrait of Thailand. Full review here.

Simon Urban, Plan D, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire (Harvill Secker, 2013). It’s 2011 and the Berlin Wall is still standing. Welcome to the alternative world of Plan D, in which the reunification of Germany never happened, and fifty-six year-old East German Volkspolizei captain Martin Wegener is about to embark on the strangest investigation of his career. An admirably bonkers alternative history that will appeal to those with an interest in 20th-century Europe and the Cold War. Full review here. A handy GDR glossary is available too.

Ben H. Winters, The Last Policeman and Countdown City (Quirk Books 2012/13). The first and second of a trilogy set in an America of the near future. Asteroid Maia is on a collision course with earth, and with just six months to impact, society is beginning to disintegrate. Why, given that they’ll all be dead soon anyway, does Detective Henry Palace of the Concord Police Department bother to investigate a suspicious suicide? Because that’s the kind of dogged guy he is… Sharp, funny and brilliantly observed.

Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone (Sceptre, 2007). When sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly’s father disappears, she needs to find him again quickly to prevent the loss of her family home. Set in the Orzark Mountains of Missouri during an unforgiving winter, in a closed community that has its own laws, this is a tough but beautifully-written novel. Ree is a memorable protagonist, who reminded me a little of Mattie Ross in Charles Portis’ True Grit.

Winter’s Bone was turned into an acclaimed film starring Jennifer Lawrence

#40 / Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (first review of Greek crime!)

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas (Edinburgh: Black and White Publishing, 2013 [2007])  4.5 stars

Opening line: Perhaps reality is but a mass delusion, thought Phileas Book, watching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea breaking against the concrete quays of Paris.

Well! I was hoping for something a bit different when I opened this book, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Winner of the 2008 Athens Prize for Literature, What Lot’s Wife Saw is a dazzling, hybrid crime novel that takes readers on an extraordinary journey of the imagination.

The novel is set in the future, twenty-five years after The Overflow, a tsunami that destroyed large portions of southern Europe, and whose cause was the eruption of a highly addictive violet salt through the Dead Sea Rift. The harvesting of this valuable commodity at a remote ‘Colony’ is now controlled by the mysterious Consortium of Seventy-Five, but when the operation is placed in jeopardy following the suspicious death of the Colony’s Governor, an expert is asked to help investigate.

And this is where things get really interesting. The expert is Phileas Book, who works for The Times newspaper compiling Epistlewords, a new kind of three-dimensional crossword shaped like a Greek meandros or key pattern, which uses fragments of letters (and the ways in which their ‘soundhues’ interact with one another) as clues. For this reason, Book is asked to inspect six letters from inhabitants of the Colony who were close to the Governor, in the hope that he will be able to ‘detect’ the truth of what happened. Along with Book, we are given access to the letters, and invited to take up the role of investigators, by comparing and contrasting the accounts of these rather dubious individuals, and trying to sift the truth from what may well be a tissue of lies. The six letter-writers are Bernard Bateau, Presiding Judge; Andrew Drake, Captain of the Guards; Montague Montenegro, Orthodox Priest; Charles Siccouane, the Governor’s Private Secretary; Niccolo Fabrizio, Surgeon General; and Regina Bera, the Governor’s wife. All have secrets that they would rather not share…

Greek meandros unravelling… (image courtesy of http://www.ekathimerini.com)

What I’ve said so far doesn’t even come close to conveying the richness of the narrative, which manages – don’t ask me how – to combine a re-imagining of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah with a critique of multinationals and totalitarianism. From a literary perspective, the novel feels like a slightly bonkers mash up of Thomas Pynchon (think the tour de force that is Gravity’s Rainbow), Agatha Christie (won’t say which one) and The Usual Suspects (super-stylish narrative construction). Really.

If you’re looking for an easy read, then put this book to one side for now. But if you’re in the mood for a challenging, vividly imagined and highly original crime novel with plenty of chutzpah and heart, then this one could be for you. A compelling read that’s perhaps a little too long in the middle, but is redeemed by a bravura ending, What Lot’s Wife Saw will stay in my mind for a while to come.

Mrs. Peabody awards What Lot’s Wife Saw a staggeringly inventive 4.5 stars

You’ll find an extract from the novel available here.

With thanks to Black and White Publishing for sending me an advance copy of this book.

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CrimeFest 2013 and the inaugural Petrona Award

This time next week CrimeFest 2013 will be in full swing. There’s a mouth-watering programme with lots of international writers as well as British writers whose works are set on international shores.

They include: Quentin Bates (Iceland), Xavier-Marie Bonnot (France), Roberto Costantini (Italy), K.O. Dahl (Norway), Jeffrey Deaver (USA), Thomas Enger (Norway), Ragnar Jonasson (Iceland), Pierre Lemaître (France), Adrian Magson (UK/France), M J McGrath (UK/Arctic), Derek B. Miller (Norway), Barbara Nadel (UK/Turkey), William Ryan (UK/ Russia), Jeffrey Siger (US/ Greece), Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (Iceland), Dana Stabenow (USA/ Alaska), Valerio Varesi (Italy), Robert Wilson (Spain/Portugal/Africa), Anne Zouroudi (UK/Greece). A full list of writers with further details is available here.

The winner of the first Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year will also be announced at the CrimeFest Gala dinner on Saturday night. I have my posh frock at the ready and am looking forward to the occasion very much.

The award was set up in memory of Maxine Clarke, who blogged as Petrona and was an expert in Scandinavian crime fiction. The 2013 shortlist, compiled on the basis of Maxine’s reviews, is as follows:

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PIERCED by Thomas Enger, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Faber and Faber)

BLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason, tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)

LAST WILL by Liza Marklund, tr. Neil Smith (Corgi)

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif GW Persson tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday)

Synopses of the novels with extracts from Maxine’s reviews can be found at the wonderful ‘Petrona Remembered’ blog. Karen Meek has also set up two polls over at ‘Eurocrime’: ‘which novel do you want to win the Petrona Award 2013′ and ‘which novel do you think will win the Petrona Award 2013′. The polls are open until 29 May.

I’ll be tweeting from CrimeFest using the following hashtags: #CrimeFest and #CrimeFest2013. The only difficulty now is deciding which of the panels to attend – they all look so good…

Petros Markaris: Greek crime writer and social commentator

The Guardian on Monday carried extensive coverage of the post-election turmoil in Greece: the break-up of the latest coalition talks between the three main parties, the risk of continued financial collapse, and a possible exit from the Euro.

In the middle of a double-page spread on the crisis, next to an article entitled ‘Greek party leaders round on left-wing radical as talks fail’ and beneath a picture of Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, was a prominent piece by Julian Borger on the crime writer Petros Markaris, who is currently working on the final novel of (what I’m dubbing) his ‘Greek Tragedy’ trilogy.

Petros Markaris

The first two novels in the trilogy, Expiring Loans (2010) and The Settlement (2011 or 2012), explore Greece’s recent financial and social collapse. They are proving hugely resonant with readers, not least because there is a strong element of judicial catharsis woven into the narrative: the murder victims in Expiring Loans are players in the financial sector, while The Settlement features the self-styled ‘National Tax Collector’, who poisons wealthy, tax-evading Greeks with hemlock. Mindful that temperatures are running high, the backcover of the latter carries the sober instruction: ‘this novel is not to be imitated’.

Expiring Loans

There are a couple of particularly interesting assertions made in the Borger article, ‘Crime writer Petros Markaris channels Greek rage into fiction’:

  • Markaris ‘has combined the roles of thriller writer and social commentator in Greece to such an extent that he has become one of the most widely-quoted voices of the crisis’.

I wonder what Markaris’ starting point was? Was he a social commentator who consciously selected crime fiction as a vehicle to communicate his views to a mass readership, or did he begin as a crime writer and then develop his role as a social commentator via his work? Either way, the fact that a crime writer has become such an influential and authoritative voice on the Greek crisis is fascinating.

  • Markaris says: ‘crime writing provides the best form of social commentary, because so much of what is going on in Greece now is criminal’. And: ‘I wanted to tell the real story of how the crisis has developed and how it affects ordinary people’.

These statements underscore the important role that crime fiction can play in highlighting and dissecting larger ‘social crimes’ such as state corruption, and its impact on ordinary people (The Settlement opens with the suicides of four elderly women unable to cope on a reduced state pension). One might add that crime novels are particularly well placed to provide these kinds of timely social analyses, because they tend to be written and published more quickly than their ‘literary’ cousins. They also reach a significantly wider readership than ‘literary’ novels, which gives them a greater chance of feeding into current public debate.

Markaris’ status as a social commentator is undoubtedly exceptional, due to the extraordinary political and social contexts in which he is writing, but his presence in a British broadsheet, amidst the news and political analysis of the day, is an intriguing illustration of the influence that crime writers and their crime fiction can have in wider national and international contexts.

Expiring Loans and The Settlement both feature Athenian police inspector Costas Haritos. Unfortunately, neither novel has been translated into English as yet (please hurry, dear publishers!), but previous Haritos novels, such as Che Committed Suicide, are already out. A review of Basic Shareholder, apparently due soon, is available on The Game’s Afoot.

For examples of Markaris in action as a social commentator, see his interview (in English) with the German magazine Der Spiegel and the translation of his piece ‘The Lights are going out in Athens’ on the ‘Breach of Close’ blog (which originally appeared in German newspaper Die Zeit).