Jingle bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2018 Christmas recommendations! Each is one of my top reads or views 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…

Jess Kidd, The Hoarder, Canongate 2018 (Ireland/UK)

The star of this highly original crime novel is Maud Drennen, newly appointed carer for ancient, belligerent hoarder Cathal Flood, who lives in a massive house in London and is the despair of social services. Both are Irish exiles and both have secrets to hide. There are mysterious disappearances, perplexing clues and dicey situations, not to mention a supporting cast of half-feral cats, an eccentric landlady and levitating saints. The novel has serious things to say about violence, family dysfunction, social isolation and old age, but is also deliciously irreverent (‘Renata is especially glamorous today, clad in an appliquéd romper suit and feathered mules’), and depicts its characters with warmth and heart. Its language is strikingly rich and expressive.

Joe Ide, IQ, Mulholland Books, 2016 (USA)

Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. Taking inspiration from iconic detectives such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins, the novel fuses classic crime with urban noir in its depiction of IQ, an unlicensed black Long Beach detective, and Dodson, his streetwise sidekick (“It’s a hustler’s world, son,” Dodson said, “and if you ain’t doing the hustlin’? Somebody’s hustlin’ you”). It’s a remarkably polished debut that tells an absorbing coming-of-age story while treating us to a cracking investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Inventive, ingenious and authentic, the novel is a moving study of resilience and of life on the rougher side of town, but is also outrageously funny in places. You can read my full review here).

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Simon & Schuster, 2017 (Sweden).

The very worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award (of which I’m a judge): “The judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events.” A tough, but excellent read.

Mystery Road, dir. Rachel Perkins, Acorn Media 2008 (Australia)

Mystery Road is set in the arid town of Patterson in north-western Australia. When local worker Marley Thompson goes missing, Senior Sergeant Emma James (Judy Davis) calls in detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) to help her solve the case. As they form an uneasy alliance and the investigation unfolds, we’re shown not only how Marley’s disappearance impacts on his family and the local townsfolk, but how long-held secrets are shaping the events taking place. The drama provides viewers with a nuanced depiction of an Aboriginal community and packs genuine emotional punch. The cinematography is stunning, with aerial shots capturing the vast, harsh beauty of the outback. You can read my full review here.

Adam Sternbergh, The Blinds, faber & faber 2018 (USA)

An outstanding genre-defying fusion of thriller, whodunit and Western. The Blinds is a speck of a town in rural Texas, populated by criminals and witnesses who have their memories wiped as part of an experimental programme that allows them to ‘start over’. Sheriff Calvin Cooper has policed the town for eight years without major incident, but now suddenly has a suicide and murder on his hands. These bring outsiders to the town, all of whom have agendas that will play out in different ways in the days ahead. The novel tackles big themes – criminality, redemption, the role of memory in identity formation, what makes a proper community – but is also a thrilling rollercoaster ride. Beautifully written with fabulously inventive touches… such as the way the residents acquire their new names.

 Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018 (Poland)

Janina Duszejko, a reclusive sixty-something-year-old who’s obsessed with astrology and the poetry of William Blake (the source of the novel’s title), lives in a Polish village near the Czech border. When one of her neighbours is found dead, followed by a member of the local hunting club, she speculates that the animals they’re hunting are taking revenge, and decides to investigate. A quirky existential take on the Miss-Marple-amateur-sleuth model, Drive Your Plow has a distinctive narrative voice – as suggested by chapter titles such as ‘Now Pay Attention’ and ‘A Speech to a Poodle’, and caused a stir in Poland by daring to question its deeply rooted hunting culture. Plow has recently been adapted for film by acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland (titled Pokot; I’m keen to watch it soon).

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

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is a collection of freewheeling crime stories, whose narrators include a prehistoric caveman, protective mother-in-law, spoiled museum director, a vampire and a houseful of ghosts. Each story gives the author the chance to stretch her imagination to the full, with equal measures of crime, humour and the grotesque mixed into a tasty criminal cocktail. The second half of the book is particularly inspired – a set of eight Barcelona stories under the heading ‘Connections’. Readers are challenged to spot the links between the stories, which proves to be great fun. You can read my full review here.

Belinda Bauer, Snap, Black Swan/Penguin, 2018 (Wales/UK)

Belinda Bauer is a hugely original writer, who uses the crime genre to explore both intimate scenarios and big themes. Snap opens with the disappearance in 1998 of pregnant mother Eileen Bright, who leaves her broken-down car on the M5 to phone for help. In the car are her three young children, Jack, Joy and Merry, who gradually realise that their mum isn’t coming back. A grim scenario, but one that’s never gratuitously exploited by the author. Instead, she shows in human and sensitive detail what happens to the family – mainly from the children’s point of view. Jack’s fight to find out the truth of what happened that day and the brilliant depiction of a host of characters, including grumpy DCI Marvel, make for a compelling read. There’s some razor-sharp humour in the mix too. The novel was longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize.

Adam Roberts, The Real-Town Murders, Gollancz 2017 (UK)

A fabulous science fiction/crime mash-up. The novel opens with Alma, a private detective in a near-future England, investigating the discovery of a body in the boot of a car. It shouldn’t be possible for the body to be there, because the factory where the car has just been made is off-limits to humans. So how did the corpse wind up in the boot? This nifty locked-room mystery is set in a complex future world where an evolved version of the internet – the Shine – lures citizens into living almost completely virtual lives. The tension between the virtual and the real, and the political power struggles it creates, are explored in this stylish, high-octane murder mystery. One for anyone who’s ever been to Reading! You can read my full review here.

Posy Simmonds, Cassandra Darke, Jonathan Cape 2018 (UK)

This graphic novel, a modern-day reworking of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is an absolute delight. Our Scrooge is the eponymous Cassandra Darke, a disgraced London art dealer who is inadvertently drawn into a world of criminality…and possibly murder. This book would make an extremely handsome Christmas present, not only because of its author’s artistic and story-telling talents, but because it is so beautifully produced. Plus, it might be easier on the reading eye than a novel after a few glasses of Christmas plonk… You can read my full review here.

Wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

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Eurotour Stop 7. Olsztyn, Poland: “He took a gentle curve onto Kościuszko Street”

Dzień dobry from Olsztyn! Today’s extract is from…

Zygmunt Miłoszewski, Rage (trans. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones; AmazonCrossing, 2016), p. 11 and p. 13-14. Polish State Prosecutor  Szacki series #3

Historical note – Before becoming a Polish city in 1945, Olsztyn was called Allenstein and was part of East Prussia.

Just after moving to this city, he had read in the Olsztyn Gazette that the city’s traffic operations designer doesn’t believe in the “green wave” – because it makes people drive too fast and thus presents a danger for road traffic – and at first thought it quite a funny joke. But it wasn’t a joke. He soon discovered that in this not very large city, which you could walk across in half an hour, and where vehicles moved down wide streets, everyone was always getting stuck in traffic jams. […]

Finally he began moving again, drove past the hospital, the brothel and the old water tower, and then – after serving his time at the lights again – he took a gentle curve onto Kościuszko Street. Here there was finally something worth looking at, first and foremost the Administrative Court. A huge edifice that demanded respect, it had originally been built as the headquarters of the Allenstein regional administration in the days when the city was part of Germany. It was a wonderful building – a stately, majestic five-storey sea of redbrick rising from a ground floor made of stone blocks. If it had been up to Szacki, he’d have housed all three of Olsztyn’s prosecution services in this building. He thought it would mean something to witnesses to be escorted up the wide steps into a great big building like this one, rather than into the miserable little 1970s box where his own local office was situated. The public should know that the state meant dignity and strength built on a solid foundation, not penny-pinching, stopgaps, terrazzo tiles, and gloss paint on the walls.

The Germans had known what they were doing. Szacki was born in Warsaw, and at first he’d found the Olsztyn citizens’ deference toward the builders of their little homeland irritating. To him, the Germans had never done any building – on the contrary, they had reduced Warsaw to a heap of rubble, thanks to which his native town was a pitiful caricature of a capital city. He had never liked the Germans, but he had to give them credit: everything attractive in Olsztyn – everything that gave the city its character, or made it interesting with the not-so-obvious charm of a thick-skinned woman of the North – had been built by them. Everything else was bland at best, but usually hideous.

I chose this extract before heading off on our travels, and had to laugh when we found ourselves in a traffic jam five minutes after arriving in Olsztyn – the first of many over the next three days. But I found the author’s judgement of the more modern areas a little harsh. Olsztyn is a vibrant, energetic city on the up, and lies in an area of great geographical beauty.

So what’s with Olsztyn, you may ask. Why not a more major city like Gdansk? The answer is that this one has a bit of a personal connection – my mother’s family lived here and in the neighbouring town of Ostróda (Osterode), as well as a tiny village called Marwald (Marwalde). And aside from rediscovering the places where my great-grandparents, grandparents, mother and aunt hung out back in the day, it was nice to get off the beaten track and discover somewhere a little different and rather lovely.

Here’s Olsztyn’s High Gate, which leads the way into the old town.

Olsztyn’s main square. That building in the middle, the Old Town Hall, is now a LIBRARY. Cafes and restaurants abound…

…a very nice place to while away an hour or two on a warm September evening. Yes, it’s more fish soup, plus a delicious egg mayo and dill mixture to go on your bread – or in the soup?

Lovely little book-nook in the evangelical church off the square.

The imposing New Town Hall.

The big bookshop in the new town had a generously proportioned crime section.

Over in Ostróda, there’s a large and rather idyllic lake in the middle of town (one of many in the area – a kind of Polish Lake District).

And a number of beautiful churches.

And here’s the tower of the old church in Marwalde, where my mum remembers sneaking into weddings as a little girl with her sister.

And everywhere we went, the autumn leaves were turning – a beautiful sight.

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

Rucksacks at the ready! Time for a Eurotour of criminal goodness

It’s September and there’s European adventure in the air…

Swansea-Hamburg-Copenhagen-Malmö-Stockholm-Turku-Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga-Vilnius-Gdansk-Olsztyn-Poznan-Berlin-Swansea

Mr. P and I will shortly be donning our ancient rucksacks and heading over the Channel.

  • Destination: northern and eastern Europe.
  • Duration: one month.
  • Transport: train, ferry, bus, car, llama (well you never know).

Our Eurotour – aka the ‘Bollux to Brexit’ tour – will take us to a number of wonderful European cities (see image caption above).

When we reach certain cities, I’ll be posting a short extract from a crime novel or thriller focused on the place in question, giving an insight into the city’s geography, architecture, history, politics, food…

The featured cities are as follows:

  1. Hamburg, Germany
  2. Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. Stockholm, Sweden
  4. Helsinki, Finland
  5. Tallinn, Estonia
  6. Riga, Latvia
  7. Olsztyn, Poland
  8. Berlin, Germany

Each extract will be accompanied by a few photos I’ve taken while out and about (I suspect there will be a bit of an emphasis on food…and beer…).

I won’t give away which crime novels I’ve picked out, but here’s a little teaser for you…

Our first extract, for the Hanseatic city of Hamburg, contains the following sentence: 

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. 

Just for fun: Who is the author? And in which novel does this elegant sentence appear?

And if you’d like some reading ideas for European crime fiction, then head here:

35 European crime novels

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.

foreign-bodies

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)

foreign-bodies-barlach

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).

foreign-bodies-spain

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’.

Merry Christmas! Mrs Peabody’s festive round-up

I’m behind on my Christmas preparations this year, which means that this festive round-up is a little later than usual. On the plus side, it may help a few of you out of a last-minute present conundrum, or lead you to a nice, independent bookshop because it’s too late for online orders. You might also be moved to buy yourself a little gift. Go on, you deserve it.

The following are just some of my favourite crime novels of the year. All, in my view, would make a delightful escape from the mayhem of Christmas or family, especially when curled up on the sofa with a nice glass of wine.

Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Anderson, The Lion’s Mouth (NORWAY: trans. by Anne Bruce, Corvus, 2014). Anne Holt is often described as the queen of Norwegian crime, and has drawn expertly on her own career in the police, law and government in the creation of the ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ police series (she was even Norwegian Minister of Justice for a while). This fourth installment in the series, originally published in 1997, explores the suspicious death of the Norwegian Prime Minister, who is found dead in her office just six months following election. A fusion of locked-room mystery, Borgen and police procedural, it’s a quietly satisfying read that’s held up well.

Arnaldur Indridason, Reykjavik Nights (ICELAND: trans. by Victoria Cribb, Harvill Secker, 2014). This prequel to the ‘Murder in Reykjavik’ series is a wonderfully absorbing read, which traces the start of Erlendur’s journey from young policeman to detective as he investigates the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of a woman. Set in 1974, the year Iceland celebrated 1100 years of settlement, we are also shown how a traumatic childhood event begins to shape Erlendur’s personal life and investigative career. The novel is a great read for those who are new to the series and for long-established Erlendur fans alike.

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites (AUSTRALIA/ICELAND: Picador, 2013). This impressive debut novel by a young Australian author is not for those looking for ‘cosy’ Christmas crime. Kent spent some time in Iceland as an exchange student and describes the book as her ‘dark love letter’ to the country: set in northern Iceland in 1829, it explores the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last Icelandic woman to be executed for murder. The figure of ‘the murderess’ tells us a lot about the gender, class and power relations of the time, and the picture the author paints of every-day, rural Icelandic life is fascinating. The story, setting and their links to the Icelandic sagas stayed with me long after reading it.

Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Human Flies (NORWAY: trans. by Kari Dickson, Mantle, 2014, [2010]) sounds like a horror film that’s best avoided after a large meal. However, it turns out to be something quite different: a well-constructed and witty homage to the classic crime fiction of Agatha Christie, set in 1968 Oslo, which has some interesting historical depth. Featuring ambitious young police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen on his first big case – the murder of a former resistance fighter – readers are treated to an apartment building of intriguing suspects and a page-turning investigation, as well as the considerable intellect of Kristiansen’s wheelchair-bound partner Patricia.

Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone (USA: Faber and Faber, 2014). Ignore the rather daft cover. After I’m Gone is a literary crime novel that dissects a murder case by means of a rich narrative with some wonderful characterisation (the latter is one of Lippman’s great strengths). Told on a number of different time levels, it traces the stories of five women left behind when white-collar criminal Felix Brewer disappears in July 1976 – his wife Bambi Gottschalk, his three daughters, and his mistress Julie – as well as the investigation into Julie’s murder by detective Sandy Sanchez in the present. An engrossing, quality read.

Anya Lipska, Death Can’t take a Joke (UK/POLAND: The Friday Project, 2014). This is the second in the ‘Kiszka and Kershaw’ series, featuring Polish ‘fixer’ Janusz Kiszka and London police detective Natalie Kershaw. While I enjoyed Lipska’s first novel, Where the Devil Can’t Go, the second is where the series really gets into its stride: the duo’s investigation into two deaths, including one of Kiszka’s closest friends, is a tightly constructed page-turner with an engaging, blackly comic tone. The novel also features one of the best first chapters I’ve read this year… For a more in-depth exploration, head over to Margot Kinberg’s marvellous Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

Marco Malvaldi, Game for Five and Three Card Monte. 1 and 2 of the ‘Bar Lume Trilogy’ (ITALY: Europa Editions/World Noir 2013/14). These light-hearted crime novels feature amateur detective Massimo Viviani, the maverick owner of Bar Lume, investigating mysterious deaths in Pineta in Northern Italy. Massimo is ably assisted in his work by four cantankerous, octogenarian barflies, including his own extremely opinionated grandfather. Witty, entertaining and stylishly packaged.

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (ARGENTINA: trans. by John Cullen, Other Press, 2011 [2005]). I was given this novel last Christmas and it became one of my first and favourite reads of the year. Benjamin Miguel Chaparro, a newly retired Deputy Clerk in Buenos Aires, begins to write a novel about a case that has haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young wife, Liliana Colotto, in her own home one summer’s morning. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years of Argentine history, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin, and the murderer himself. The 2010 film adaptation was also a cracker. A full review is available here.

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow (FRANCE/LAPLAND: trans. by Louise Rogers LaLaurie, Trapdoor, 2014). This novel uses its criminal investigation as a means of exploring the history, culture and climate of Lapland. It also features the reindeer police! The novel opens with Sámi-Norwegian reindeer policeman Klemet Nango and partner Nina Nansen investigating the theft of a priceless Sámi drum from a museum. Shortly afterwards, Sámi herder Mattis is found dead, and ‘Patrol P9′ finds itself grappling with two crimes that could well be interlinked. A gripping novel that shines a spotlight on a fascinating part of the world. A full review is available here.

If the crime lover in your life is into TV drama, then my two top picks are as follows:

The Australian series The Code, which aired on BBC4 a few weeks ago and I reviewed enthusiastically here. This six-part political thriller opens with the mysterious death of Aboriginal teenager Sheyna Smith in Lindara, a remote New South Wales township. The circumstances of her death are hushed up, so when Ned Banks (a journalist for an internet newspaper) and his brother Jesse (an internet hacker on the autistic spectrum) start to investigate, you just know there’s going to be trouble. An utterly gripping, intelligent drama.

British police drama Happy Valley, a hard-hitting, six-part series that traces the fall-out from a kidnapping in the West Yorkshire valleys, while exploring its protagonists’ complex personal lives. Sarah Lancashire gives an absolutely outstanding performance as policewoman Catherine Cawood, together with an excellent supporting cast. Be warned that there is some very graphic (though in my view not gratuitous) violence. I think that 18 would be a more accurate rating than the 15 on the box. An addictive and top quality crime series.

And my own indulgence this Christmas? That would be the American drama True Detective, which I’m very much looking forward to watching. Have you indulged yourself as well? Do share if so!

Wishing all the readers of this blog a very happy and relaxing Christmas.

See you all in 2015!

German Zimtsternchen (little cinnamon star).    Quite addictive.