Jingle bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2015 Christmas recommendations

Xmas tree

Bookish Christmas cheer! Source: en.webfail.com

Wondering what to get the crime lover in your life for Christmas? Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2015 recommendations to help you out. As ever, they’re based on my own top reading and viewing experiences throughout the year and are designed to appeal to readers with all manner of criminal tastes. Available from a wonderful independent bookshop near you!

The Truth and other lies

Sascha Arango, The Truth and Other Lies (GERMANY: trans. Imogen Taylor, Simon and Schuster 2015). For lovers of Patricia Highsmith with a contemporary twist. The central protagonist of this standalone crime novel is the novelist Henry Hayden, whose highly successful life begins to unravel when he makes a fatal error one night. Hayden is a darkly comic creation whose story – involving a talented wife, a demanding mistress and a floundering police team – is witty and entertaining. The author is a well-known screenwriter for the German crime series Tatort (Crime Scene) and you can read a bit more about his debut novel here.

Cost

Roberto Costantini, The Deliverance of Evil (ITALY: trans. N. S. Thompson, Quercus, 2014). For lovers of complex crime fiction with strong historical, political and social themes. The first in the Balistreri Trilogy will keep its lucky recipient quiet for hours: a six-hundred page epic that spans twenty-five years of Italian history and tackles weighty issues such as religion, class and the legacy of Italian fascism, this novel is also a gripping murder mystery with an intriguing, morally flawed investigator – Commissario Michele Balistreri. Mrs. Peabody’s full review is available here.

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Eva Dolan, A Long Way Home (UK: Vintage, 2014). For lovers of fabulously well-written social crime novels. This police procedural explores migrant experiences in the UK in a timely and sobering way. Its main investigative protagonists, Detectives Zigic and Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit – with Serbian and Portuguese heritage respectively – are both extremely well drawn, and the story, which starts with the discovery of a body in a burned-out garden shed, is gripping and believable. The second in the series, Tell No Tales, has also just been published…

Horst

Jørn Lier Horst, The Caveman (NORWAY: trans. Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press 2015). For lovers of top quality Scandinavian police procedurals. The fourth in the Norwegian ‘William Wisting’ series begins with the discovery of a four-month-old corpse in an armchair just down the road from the policeman’s own home. While Wisting investigates, his journalist daughter Line uses the case to ask some serious questions about society. Neither, however, are remotely prepared for where the case will eventually lead them. Elegantly written and completely gripping, this is Scandi crime at its best (and in my view it doesn’t matter where readers dive into the series). Mrs. Peabody’s interview with the author, a former police chief, is available here.

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Val McDermid, Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime (UK: Profile Books, 2015). For those interested in the grittier, scientific side of criminal investigations. Not to be read directly before or after Christmas dinner. This fascinating book, written by crime author Val McDermid, accompanied the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition of the same name earlier this year. Taking us from the crime scene to the courtroom, chapters explore entomology (maggots), toxicology (arsenic most foul), fingerprinting, blood splatter/DNA, facial reconstruction and digital forensics. Grim, but genuinely illuminating, the book also pays homage to the investigators who use science to track down criminals and bring them to justice. Every contact leaves a trace!

Where the Shadows Lie

Michael Ridpath, Where the Shadows Lie (UK/ICELAND: Corvus, 2011). For lovers of Icelandic crime and The Lord of the Rings. I’m late to the party as far as the ‘Fire and Ice’ series is concerned. In this opening novel, readers are introduced to Icelandic-born, Boston-raised homicide detective Magnus Jonson, who is seconded to the Reykjavik Police after getting on the wrong side of a drugs cartel in the States. Soon, he’s busy investigating the rather nasty murder of an Icelandic academic, while getting reacquainted with Icelandic culture and society. A highly enjoyable read that doubles as a great introduction to the land of ‘fire and ice’.

Death on demand

Paul Thomas, Death on Demand (NEW ZEALAND: Bitter Lemon Press 2013 [2012]) For lovers of maverick detectives and astute social commentary. Thomas wrote three novels in the ‘Ihaka’ series back in the 1990s. This later installment was published in 2012 and is often described as one of his best (it works well as a standalone, so having read the previous novels is not a requirement in my view). Highlights include the depiction of Maori policeman Tito Ihaka (‘unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane’), an absorbing narrative and an insightful dissection of Auckland society. An extract from the opening is available here.

in bitter chill cover

Sarah Ward, In Bitter Chill (UK: Faber, 2015). For lovers of absorbing, quality British crime fiction. This tremendously polished debut is set in Derbyshire and focuses on an unsolved case from January 1978 – the disappearance of two young girls on their way to school. Only one, Rachel, is found and she has no memory of what happened to her friend. Thirty years on, a suicide triggers a review of the case by the local police team and Rachel finds herself being drawn unwillingly back into the past. With a narrative that moves deftly between past and present, this novel is a compelling read with a great sense of place. A full Mrs. Peabody review is available here.

Lovely Way to Burn

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (UK: John Murray, 2014)For lovers of dystopian or apocalyptic crime fiction. The first in the ‘Plague Times’ trilogy depicts a London engulfed by ‘the Sweats’, a pandemic that’s claiming millions of lives. But when Stephanie (Stevie) Flint discovers the body of her boyfriend, Dr. Simon Sharkey, it looks like a case of foul play. Stevie sets out to find out the truth behind Simon’s death and to survive – not necessarily in that order. An enthralling novel with a great heroine (and travelling by Tube will never be the same again). The second novel in the trilogy, Death is a Welcome Guest, is already out and is another fab read.

River DVD

River (UK: BBC/Arrow Films, 2015). For lovers of quirky TV crime series like Life on Mars. This crime drama, which was written by Abi Morgan and recently aired on BBC One, was an absolute standout for me. It seems to have divided audiences a little – not everyone liked or ‘got’ the concept – but those who did were glued to the screen as police detective John River tried to solve the murder of his partner, Jackie ‘Stevie’ Stevenson, while being helped (or hindered) by a number of ‘manifests’ or visions of the dead. This crime series did something truly original: it explored the effects of a serious mental health crisis with compassion, intelligence and wit. The acting by Stellan Skarsgärd, Nicola Walker and the supporting cast was also top class. For a fuller appreciation, see here. And there’s a great interview with Abi Morgan about the experience of writing River here.

And lastly, on my own personal wishlist from Santa:

La isla minima

The film La Isla Minima or Marshland (SPAIN: Altitude, 2015), which has been called a Spanish True Detective and was the winner of ten Goya awards, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film. Here’s the blurb:

‘Spain’s deep-south, 1980. In a small village a serial killer has caused the disappearance of several adolescents. But when two young sisters vanish during an annual festival, their mother forces an investigation that brings two homicide detectives from Madrid to try to solve the mystery. The detectives are ensnared in a web of intrigue fed by the apathy and introverted nature of the locals. Nothing is what it seems in this isolated region and both men realize they must put aside their professional differences if they are to stop the person responsible.’

There’s a Guardian review of the film here.

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

Scandi Xmas

Source: littlescandinavian.com

Globetrotting crime: Auckland, Bangalore, Barcelona, Havana

Family Peabody is off on holiday in a cunning attempt to extend summer a little longer. As ever, my first priority has been choosing which books to take along. And by books, I mean actual books to read while lying by the pool/sipping a drink on the balcony/ enjoying a coffee in a cafe. Time to savour a break from the electronic world and wind down in seventies style.

reading

Here are four novels that have made the cut. All happen to be published by Bitter Lemon Press, which champions top quality crime fiction from all over the world. I made my choices on the basis of the cover blurb (see below), the setting, and that tingly feeling that makes you think you’ll enjoy a book. As a result, some are from the middle or even the end of a series, but that’s fine…

AUCKLAND/NEW ZEALAND: Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press 2013 [2012])

Death on demand

Maori cop Tito Ihaka – ‘unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane’ – is a cop unable to play the police politics necessary for promotion, but a man who has a way with women, and he’s a stubborn investigator with an uncanny instinct for the truth. Ihaka is in the wilderness, having fallen foul of the new regime at Auckland Central. Called back to follow up a strange twist in the unsolved case that got him into trouble in the first place, Ihaka finds himself hunting a shadowy hitman who could have several notches on his belt. His enemies want him off the case, but the bodies are piling up. Ihaka embarks on a quest to establish whether police corruption was behind the shooting of an undercover cop and – to complicate matters – he becomes involved with an enigmatic female suspect who could hold the key to everything.

An extract from Death on Demand is available on the Bitter Lemon website.

BANGALORE/INDIA: A Cut-like Wound by Anita Nair (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]

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It’s the first day of Ramadan in heat-soaked Bangalore. A young man begins to dress: makeup, a sari and expensive pearl earrings. Before the mirror he is transformed into Bhuvana. She is a hijra, a transgender seeking love in the bazaars of the city. What Bhuvana wants, she nearly gets: a passing man is attracted to this elusive young woman. But someone points out that Bhuvana is no woman. For that, the interloper’s throat is cut. A case for Inspector Borei Gowda, going to seed and at odds with those around him including his wife, his colleagues, even the informers he must deal with. More corpses and Urmila, Gowda’s ex-flame, are added to this spicy concoction of a mystery novel.

Read an extract from A Cut-like Wound here.

BARCELONA/SPAIN: A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2011 [2007)

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The shady, accident-prone private detective twins Eduard Martinez and Borja ‘Pep’ Masdeu are back. Another murder beckons, and this time the victim is one of Barcelona’s literary glitterati.

Marina Dolç, media figure and writer of best-sellers, is murdered in the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona on the night she wins an important literary prize. The killer has battered her to death with the trophy she has just won, an end identical to that of the heroine in her prize-winning novel. The same night the Catalan police arrest their chief suspect, Amadeu Cabestany, runner-up for the prize. Borja and Eduard are hired to prove his innocence. The unlikely duo is plunged into the murky waters of the Barcelona publishing scene and need all their wit and skills of improvisation to solve this case of truncated literary lives.

Read an extract from A Shortcut to Paradise here.

HAVANA/CUBA: Leonardo Padura, Havana Fever (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2009 [2005]

havana

Havana, 2003, fourteen years since Mario Conde retired from the police force and much has changed in Cuba. He now makes a living trading in antique books bought from families selling off their libraries in order to survive. In the house of Alcides de Montes de Oca, a rich Cuban who fled after the fall of Batista, Conde discovers an extraordinary book collection and, buried therein, a newspaper article about Violeta del Rio, a beautiful bolero singer of the 1950s, who disappeared mysteriously. Conde’s intuition sets him off on an investigation that leads him into a darker Cuba, now flooded with dollars, populated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and other hunters of the night. But this novel also allows Padura to evoke the Havana of Batista, the city of a hundred night clubs where Marlon Brando and Josephine Baker listened to boleros, mambos and jazz. Probably Padura’s best book, Havana Fever is many things: a suspenseful crime novel, a cruel family saga and an ode to literature and his beloved, ravaged island.

An extract from Havana Fever is available here.

Happy reading! Mrs. Peabody will be back in a couple of weeks. 

True Detective 1, Top of the Lake 2, Y Gwyll/Hinterland 2

The title of this post may look a bit like a line of football scores, but as you’ve probably guessed, the numbers denote the seasons of the crime series being discussed…

So…I know I’m late to the party, but I’ve *finally* managed to watch the box set of True Detective 1 (HBO 2014) that’s been sitting on my shelf for over a year. And what a treat it turned out to be – grown-up, complex crime drama at its absolute best.

The-DVD-cover-for-True-Detective

There was so much to like: the complex characterisation of Louisiana state police detectives Marty Hart and Rust Cohle, the absorbing interview/flashback structure, the stunning cinematography, the Deep South gothic-noir mood, and of course, that iconic title sequence featuring The Handsome Family’s ‘Far From Any Road’.

I watched the series with my son, and we were both impressed with the consistently high standard of the eight episodes. We ended up rationing them to one an evening, because each was such a rich viewing experience that we wanted to dissect them afterwards. While the investigation – into the ritualistic murder of a woman and the earlier disappearance of a child – was extremely compelling, what lingered in my mind was the story of Marty and Rust’s own development and the evolution of their relationship over a period of twenty years. Their characters were very different, with individual complexities and flaws, and were brilliantly brought to life by actors Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

I particularly loved Rust’s tenacity (bordering on worrying obsessiveness) in refusing to let the case die. Here he is scouting a site for clues with his ‘taxman’ notebook.

true-detective-2

I hear that True Detective 2 hasn’t (ahem) quite lived up to expectations, so if you haven’t yet seen True Detective 1, now could be the moment to check it out. It will stand the test of time as a standalone series, I’m sure.

Some very good news: a second series of Top of the Lake has been commissioned by BBC2, with Elizabeth Moss reprising her role as Detective Robin Griffin.

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There’s a major change of location, though: season 2 will be shot and set in Sydney, Australia and Hong Kong rather than New Zealand. I admit to having slightly mixed feelings about this, as the New Zealand setting was one of the big strengths of the first series for me. On the other hand, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee are once again co-writing, with Jane also set to co-direct, so I’ll be watching come what may. Production begins in December.

There’s further information about season 2 at indiewire and if.com.au. My earlier post on the first series of Top of the Lake (2013) and its wonderful female protagonists is available here.

And finally… The second series of Welsh crime drama Y Gwyll/Hinterland will air on British screens in mid-September:

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WalesOnline reports: >>The ground-breaking crime drama, starring Richard Harrington as DCI Tom Mathias, will premiere in Welsh, with optional English subtitles, on S4C in the prime drama slot of 9pm on Sunday nights. The first episode of the eight-part series starts on September 13 and Mathias’ wife Meg turns up, hopefully revealing some of the moody detective’s shady past <<.

And here’s a nice little article by Kathryn Williams on ‘5 Things to Expect from Y Gwyll / Hinterland Series 2′. It looks like we’ll be finding out a lot more about both Mathias and Mared Rhys, which is a welcome development. While series 1 was great, a few people (myself included) thought a bit more backstory on the key investigators would have been good (see my earlier post here).

The English-language version will be shown on BBC Cymru Wales and BBC4 at a later date. Riches galore.

Happy Valley (UK 2014) and Top of the Lake (New Zealand 2013)

Given the international focus of this blog, it’s not often that I watch home-grown British crime drama. But having caught the first episode of BBC One’s Happy Valley, I’ve been completely gripped, and tonight’s hotly anticipated finale did not disappoint. This hard-hitting six-part series, which traces the fall-out from a kidnapping in the West Yorkshire valleys, is superbly written (by Sally Wainwright) and directed (by Wainwright, Euros Lyn and Tim Fywell). Lead actress Sarah Lancashire gives an *absolutely outstanding* performance as policewoman Catherine Cawood, with an excellent supporting cast.

Happy Valley series 1

I’m prepared to say that this is the best crime drama I’ve seen all year, with perhaps one exception … the New Zealand crime drama Top of the Lake, which I watched on DVD in March (aired on BBC Two in 2013). It’s equally well written (by Jane Campion of The Piano and Gerald Lee) and directed (by Campion and Garth Davies), with Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men in the lead role of Detective Robin Griffin. This time, the investigative focus is on the disappearance of a twelve-year-old schoolgirl, Tui Mitcham.

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Aside from their quality, the dramas have a striking number of things in common:

  • Both feature wonderfully strong female investigators, who have each experienced the impact of crime in their own lives. These past traumas – and their identities as women and mothers – shape their responses to the crimes that they witness in the present.
  • There is a focus on gender and power, with both dramas showing women having to negotiate and survive extreme male violence. (There’s been media debate about whether Happy Valley is too violent, but in my view, it effectively illustrates the reality of certain types of crimes and isn’t gratuitous). In each case, older women step in to protect younger women when they can.
  • Both dramas are set in socially deprived areas, where criminality has become a way of life for many. But they also point a finger at the supposedly respectable middle classes, who are not as morally upstanding as they pretend to be (there’s a nice touch of Fargo in Happy Valley).
  • Each makes excellent use of landscape – the importance of which is indicated by the series’ titles. Top of the Lake uses haunting images of New Zealand’s South Island to suggest the isolation of its central characters. Happy Valley’s ironic title and the rolling Yorkshire countryside are used to highlight the disparity between the physical beauty of the setting and the violence within it. (Thanks are due to Elena, whose cracking post on True Detective and its use of landscapes got me thinking about this aspect of the dramas).
  • And I know I’m repeating myself, but …. fantastic actresses in complex, nuanced, gritty, challenging, leading, female investigator roles. More, more, more of these women please!

Elisabeth Moss as Det. Robin Griffin.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to see these dramas, then you have a treat of the highest order before you. Enjoy!

Good news: it looks like there could be a second series of Happy Valley according to this Radio Times interview with Sally Wainwright. Warning: Lots of spoilers!

And here’s a review of the finale by Mark Lawson for The Guardian.

CRIME NOVEL wins Man Booker Prize!

I was working late last night and found myself having a midnight snack in the company of The Guardian newspaper. In the course of browsing, I realised that I’d missed the announcement for the Man Booker Prize, and was interested to see the winner was The Luminaries (Granta) by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander who is now the youngest winner in the prize’s history (just 28), with its longest ever book (a corking 832 pages).

My eye then fell upon this bit of text: ‘The Luminaries is, at the plot level, a page-turning, suspenseful story about a series of unsolved crimes, written in the manner of a Victorian sensation novel. In January 1866, in the New Zealand town of Hokitika, a Scot called Moody walks into a hotel smoking room to find twelve men ruminating on a series of mysterious events: the disappearance of a rich prospector, the death of a wealthy recluse, the beating to a pulp of a prostitute. All the men are connected to these events and bound to each other’.

On digging around a bit further I discovered the following little details:

  1. Moody has arrived on a ship captained by a suspected murderer.
  2. Moody has legal training: he agrees to listen to the mens’ stories and to become ‘the unraveler’ … or might we say investigator?
  3. The narrative features a tense courtroom drama.

My first thought was: this would be a great book to review on the crime blog. My second thought was: that means A CRIME NOVEL HAS WON THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE!

I then rushed over to the Man Booker Prize webpage, only to find near invisible acknowledgement of Catton’s engagement with crime. While there is passing mention of Wilkie Collins, of mystery and a lawsuit, the idea that the novel incorporates and plays with significant aspects of the crime genre has been written out. The word CRIME does not feature once. Might this be evidence of an in-built Man Booker ‘prestigious literary prize’ prejudice? Its slogan is ‘fiction at its finest’, and it looks suspiciously like they couldn’t bear to elevate crime into that elite category.

The author with slogan…

Contrast the refreshing take of blogger Danylmc over at The Dim-Post, who asserts:

The Luminaries is primarily a very entertaining crime novel … It’s written in the style of a Victorian novel, but I suspect that two of the biggest influences were the golden-age HBO shows Deadwood and The Wire. Deadwood because of the frontier goldrush town setting, and The Wire because Catton is interested in using crime stories to examine how the society she’s writing about really works in terms of power-relationships and influence’.

Hurray! That’s more like it!

I can’t help but think of Ian Rankin here, who for many years has bemoaned the sidelining of crime fiction when it comes to major literary prizes. Well Ian, I think we’re well over half way there now. While The Luminaries can be classified as a historical novel, a Victorian sensation novel, a literary novel, or even a postmodern novel, we can also definitely view it as a crime novel. So I’ll say it again: A CRIME NOVEL HAS WON THE MAN BOOKER, and that’s really something to be celebrated. Now all we have to do is persuade ‘literary’ prize-givers that ‘crime’ is the door to rich and wonderfully innovative narratives, rather than a dirty word to be avoided. We’ve known it all along, and after reading The Luminaries, they really should too.

Update: PM Newton has kindly drawn my attention to a 2010 article in The Guardian entitled ‘Could Miles Franklin turn the Booker Prize to Crime?‘. It appeared just after Peter Temple’s success in winning Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, with his crime novel Truth. The article provides a nice overview of the crime fiction/literary prize debates, and is worth reading for John Sutherland’s ‘donkey-in-the-Grand-National’ comment alone.