Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations! Each is one of my top reads of the year, and will fit snugly into the Xmas stockings of all who’ve been good. Don’t forget to treat yourself, too!

Available from a wonderful local bookshop near you…

Jane Harper, The Lost Man, Abacus (Australia)

This novel was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. An in-depth character study of a family and their community, it’s also a page-turner that will keep you completely riveted for hours.

Cameron Bright is found dead in a remote part of his cattle station by the so-called ‘Stockman’s Grave’. The mystery of how and why he got there, and why his car is so far away become the subject of a police investigation. Cameron’s older brother Nathan, who owns the adjacent property, and his younger brother Bub both had complicated relationships with him, and further complexities and secrets soon start to be revealed. This is the third of Harper’s novels, and has a neat link back to her first, The Dry but no prior reading or knowledge is required. If you’re feeling generous, leave both for your lucky reader under the tree.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders, tr. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2019 (Japan)

I’ve just read The Honjin Murders, and immediately knew I had to add it to this list, because it’s the perfect gift for any fan of classic crime fiction or locked room mysteries. As an added bonus, it’s set in Japan! Plus: it’s the first in master crime writer Seishi Yokomizo’s acclaimed ‘Konsuke Kindaichi’ series, and the first to be translated (beautifully) into English.

It’s 1937, and the grand Ichiyanagi family is celebrating a family wedding. But that night, the family is woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. It’s an impossible puzzle, but eccentric amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to figure it out.

George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown, Orion (USA)

This quietly powerful crime novel interweaves the stories of three individuals. Anna Byrne is a prison librarian, who tries to better the lives of inmates through reading, and to broaden their horizons through regular book-group discussions. One of her readers is Michael Hudson, a bright young man who has gone off the rails, but is keen to go straight. When he’s suddenly released ahead of his trial, he’s relieved but can’t quite understand why. The answer lies with Phil Ornazian, a private investigator who regularly flirts with danger when making money illicitly on the side. Pelecanos was a scriptwriter for The Wire, and his characterisation of each of these figures is superb. The novel is also a wonderful homage to the life-changing power of reading.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer, Doubleday 2018 (Nigeria)

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a plain, respectable nurse, who leads a neat and ordered life. Or rather, she would do if it weren’t for her volatile, beautiful younger sister, whose boyfriends seem to have a habit of winding up dead, and who expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give anything else away, but suffice to say that this is an arresting read, which deploys the darkest of humour to tell its story. The question at the heart of the novel is: how far would you go to protect a family member whose actions you know are criminal? It’s all very nicely done and a lot of fun.

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field, Viking 2019 (UK)

It’s such a pleasure to step back into le Carré’s world and to meet a fresh cast of beautifully observed, but very human spies. Shown weaving their way through the complexities of modern politics as best they can, they soon learn that they need to keep a sharp eye on their own superiors as much as their adversaries elsewhere. Our guide to all this is Nat, an agent runner at the end of his career who’s asked to take over The Haven, a lowly substation of London General. He and a colleague begin to plan an operation targeting a Ukrainian oligarch, but then something strange happens… Light relief takes the form of regular badminton games with young Ed, an affable but somewhat mysterious figure who may be more than he seems. A completely convincing and gripping depiction of murky espionage shenanigans.

M.T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles, Macmillan 2019 (Sweden)

This accomplished novel tracks the fallout from a murder via the perspectives of three members of one family: a mother, a father, and a daughter who’s been accused of killing a well-connected, rich young man. An ostensibly ‘normal’ and respectable middle-class family – dad is a pastor, mum is a lawyer, and daughter Stella is unruly but bright – they are pushed to the limits by the stress of Stella’s arrest, detention and trial. The three points of view and family dynamics are beautifully handled, and there are plenty of surprises in store for the reader, even after the end of the trial. The novel is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room, Vintage 2018 (USA)

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes next. Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we’re shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to provide for her son Jackson. The novel explores the circumstances that shape Romy as an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as the justice system) shape her destiny. Beautifully written – and shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, tr. by Anne Bruce, Penguin 2018 (Norway)

The 2019 Petrona Award winner! The Katharina Code is one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Chief Inspector William Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her home twenty-four years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. This particular year, however, a development in another investigation finally moves the case on… An outstanding police procedural that takes established tropes – the cold case, the longstanding suspect, the dogged nature of police work – and combines them in ways that are innovative and fresh.

Jess Kidd, Himself, Canongate 2017 (Ireland)

Himself takes us back to the good old, bad old days. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny rural village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her wild behaviour as a young woman, and who disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Happy reading, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Noirwich 2019 & Ten Autumn Crime Reads

Well, Noirwich 2019 was a blast. It was my first time at this crime festival – now in its 6th year – and it has certainly hit its stride. I was there on the Saturday, as part of a range of panels at the incredible medieval Dragon Hall. It was quite a venue for our ‘Euro Noir’ panel.

Simone Buchholz and Antti Tuomainen were both on top form, and there was *plenty* of interesting discussion and laughter. Although their work shares a very strong noirish feel and humour, there are also some striking differences, which made for rich conversation. For example, Simone writes the ‘Chastity Riley’ series, while Antti focuses on standalones; Simone’s work is rooted in the ‘mean streets’ of Hamburg, while Antti’s novels wander around Finland, from the capital Helsinki to seaside towns and villages in the frozen east.

Both writers acknowledged the influence of Noir writers and filmmakers from Raymond Chandler to Jakob Arjouni and the Coen Brothers, but also felt that after a few books, these were subsumed into their own authorial voices – they had made them their own. And both felt that characters were at the heart of the story rather than the plot, and that placing characters in a quandary or difficult scenario gives narratives their oomph.

You can see how much fun we all had below… It was a very lively panel! And the bilingual readings in German-English and Finnish-English went down a storm.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Simone and Antti are doing a karaoke version of ‘Islands in the Stream’…

Mrs Peabody’s 10 Autumn Crime Reads

These are my most anticipated reads as the nights draw in. Some are recent, some not; some are pure crime, some are cross-genre… All look great!

  1. Laila Lalami, The Other Americans (US)
  2. Stina Jackson, The Silver Road, trans. Susan Beard (Sweden)
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Testaments (Canada)
  4. John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (UK)
  5. George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown (US)
  6. Kevin Barry, Night Boat to Tangier (Ireland)
  7. Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (UK/Turkey)
  8. Janet Malcolm, The Journalist and the Murderer (US; non-fiction)
  9. Denise Mina, Conviction (Scotland; Denise was at Noirwich and her session made me want to grab this book.)
  10. Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders, trans. Alison Watts (cheating; not out until Jan 2020, but hey).

The Silver Road is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

Easter treats! Menasse’s The Capital (Austria), French’s The Wych Elm (Ireland), Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice (New Zealand)

A short one from me today, as I’m still firmly wedged under a pile of work and have managed very little reading in the past couple of weeks. BUT that hasn’t stopped me from adding new books to my TBR list. And now that the Easter weekend is coming up, I’m hoping to get stuck into at least one of the following…

I was kindly sent a copy of Robert Menasse’s The Capital by MacLehose Press after a serendipitous meeting with translator Jamie Bulloch and editor Katharina Bielenberg at London Book Fair. Then the pressure of two Brexit deadlines kicked in, and the last thing I felt like doing was reading an Austrian satire on the EU! However, now that we’re in (temporarily) calmer waters, I’ve finally sampled the first couple of chapters and enjoyed them very much. So far, we’ve had a pig on the loose in central Brussels, a murder in the Hotel Atlas, and a thoughtful meditation on mustard – all delivered with beguilingly dry humour. We’ve also been introduced to a cast of European characters who are in some way connected to the European Commission and its possibly doomed jubilee celebration plans.

The Capital is a genre-busting political-satirical-literary crime novel, so may not be one for purists, but it’s garnered a series of excellent reviews, such as Mark Lawson’s for The Guardian, and is nothing if not timely for us Brits.

For years, fellow readers have been telling me how brilliant Tana French’s novels are – particularly her ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series. And for years, I’ve somehow not managed to read a single one of her books. So when I was going through a pile of old Review magazines today and spotted an interview (below) about her novel The Wych Elm – a psychological thriller that’s been compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – I knew that the time had come. It sounds like the perfect high quality escape for an Easter weekend.

‘Nobody with a lot of imagination should ever commit a crime’ (Feb 2019)

Last but not least, Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice is out *today* from Orion (thanks to Craig Sisterson for the heads up). I was lucky enough to have a sneak peak at this novel in August last year, when I interviewed the author, a former policeman, about this debut novel for the blog. The story centres on Auckland Detective Matt Buchanan and a traumatic crime encountered early in his career – and was nominated for both the 2018 Ngaio Marsh Best First Novel Award *and* Best Novel Award. Impressive!

You can read the full interview here – which gives fascinating insights into the author’s own policing experiences and how he’s deployed them as a writer.

Have a lovely Easter break, everyone!

Crime smörgåsbord: Jónasson’s The Darkness (Iceland), Kidd’s Himself (Ireland), Miller’s American By Day (US/Norway), Herron’s Slow Horses (UK)

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! Work’s been a bit manic for the last few weeks, and looks set to continue that way for a while, so please excuse the slightly *ahem* stretchy gaps between my posts. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Happily, I’ve still been reading behind the scenes, even if I’ve not managed to post as much as I’d like. Here are some highlights…

Ragnar Jónasson, The Darkness, trans. Victoria Cribb (Penguin 2018, Iceland).

First line: ‘How did you find me?’ the woman asked.

Jónasson is best known in the UK for his ‘Ari Thór’ series, published by Orenda Books. The Darkness is the first in a trilogy called ‘Hidden Iceland’, featuring the rather taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Hulda is about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at its end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing where this trilogy will go next. The Darkness is one of this year’s Petrona Award contenders.

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

First line: ‘Mahony shoulders his rucksack, steps off the bus and stands in the dead centre of the village of Mulderrig’

Kidd’s The Hoarder was one of my top Christmas picks this year, and made me seek out her debut, Himself, as quickly as I could. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her behaviour and supposedly disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Derek B. Miller, American By Day (Penguin 2018, US/Norway).

First line: Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office.

Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night, is one of my favourite crime novels ever (see my rave review here), and this follow up novel features Sigrid Ødegård, the policewoman Sheldon met at the end of that first story. American By Day is a clever counterpart to its predecessor: while Norwegian By Night showed us an American recently transplanted to Norway, American By Day transplants a Norwegian to America, thereby opening the door to a wide-ranging comparison of the two countries’ values and policing cultures, especially in relation to race. Sigrid is a richly drawn, thoughtful character, unsettled by something she did in the course of her policing duties in Norway, and whose brother may have been involved in the death of his girlfriend, an American academic. With the help of US sheriff Irving Wylie and some Sheldon-esque chutzpah, she sets about getting to the bottom of the matter. Intelligent, accomplished and entertaining.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (Hodder & Stoughton 2010, UK)

First line: This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.

I’m extremely late to the party as far as the ‘Jackson Lamb’ series goes, but who cares – I’m here now and I’m having fun. Far from the glamour of the Intelligence Services in Regent’s Park sits Slough House, home of the Slow Horses: agents who in some way or other have screwed up, but can’t quite be pushed out of the service completely as yet. Assigned to mundane tasks and managed by the uncouth Jackson Lamb, each hides painful secrets, while yearning to get back into the action somehow. That moment may have arrived when some kidnappers threaten to broadcast the execution of their hostage Hassan live on the internet. A fabulously entertaining introduction to the Slow Horses, which also has plenty to say about the callousness of ambition and power. Hints of le Carré, but presented in a breezy and darkly humorous way.