Smörgåsbord: New BBC crime (River, Arne Dahl) & German Histo-Krimis

There are some tasty morsels on offer this week…

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 04/08/2015 - Programme Name: River - TX: n/a - Episode: River - First Look (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: EMBARGOED UNTIL 00:01HRS, TUESDAY 4th AUGUST, 2015 John River (STELLAN SKARSGARD) - (C) Kudos - Photographer: Nick Briggs

John River (STELLAN SKARSGARD) – (C) Kudos – Photographer: Nick Briggs

Tonight (Tuesday 13 October, 9.00-10.00) sees the start of an intriguing new six-part crime drama on BBC One.

River is set in London, but stars well-known Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård as police officer John River – just the latest evidence of the mark Scandinavia is making on our crime culture. The series is a police procedural with a twist, because it seems that River is able to commune with the dead, including his former colleague ‘Stevie’ Stevenson (played by Nicola Walker, who’s also the police lead in Unforgotten over on ITV at the moment). I’m very interested to see how the excellent Cardiff-born screenwriter Abi Morgan pulls this idea off, which we see surfacing in crime series every now and then – the 1969/70 TV series Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) springs to mind, as do the historical crime novels of Maurizio de Giovanni, featuring Commissario Riccardi. The image of detectives haunted by the victims of cases they haven’t yet managed to solve is a very powerful one, and in the hands of these actors, could be very effective indeed.

There’s a nice interview with Stellan Skarsgård by Jake Kerridge in today’s The Telegraph.

UPDATE: I’ve just watched Episode 1 and am VERY excited. This is one of the best British crime dramas I’ve seen in a long time (probably since Happy Valley). It has a hugely original premise, which is flawlessly executed, and the writing and acting are both top-notch. The opening, which involves an ABBA reference, Tina Charles’ ‘I Love to Love’ and a gritty chase scene, had me completely gripped, and if anything, things just got better from there. Skarsgård is particularly good, projecting an almost tangible sense of grief following the loss of his colleague Stevie, but there are a number of other great characters too, from Stevie herself to River’s no-nonsense boss and new partner Ira (look out for a breathtakingly audacious quip after they are introduced). The cinematography and styling are also wonderful: London takes on a Bladerunner feel in places and there is a striking use of colour (reds, greens and blues in particular). Original – stylish – brilliantly written and acted: make sure you watch this SOON.

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The A-Unit team, series 2

Over on BBC Four, Beck is making way for Arne Dahl, which starts on Saturday, 17. October at 9.00. This is the second series about the Swedish A-Unit – an ensemble police drama with a number of quirky characters, including a new team-member I’m pleased to see is a languages expert. I have to confess that I never completely got into series 1, but know that plenty of viewers did. The first episode involves the murders of a number of Polish women and is in Swedish and Polish with subtitles. In it, we also see Kerstin Holm take up her new role as A-Unit leader.

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Lastly, historical crime fans may be interested in a piece that Marina Sofia and I have written about German Histo-Krimis over at ‘Crime Fiction Lover. Our flimsy cover was a celebration of the Oktoberfest (cue naff picture of Bier maidens), but what we really wanted to do was tell everyone about the MASSES of great historical crime fiction that’s been produced in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, especially since reunification. Some of the novels are already in translation, others are not (needless to say, we’re working hard on getting the latter published in English…).

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Henning Mankell, 1948-2015

Some extremely sad news today. Swedish crime author Henning Mankell has died at the age of 67. 

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Mankell is of course best known for his ‘Kurt Wallander’ police procedural series, set in the small town of Ystad in southern Sweden. Aside from its high quality and the wonderfully complex characterisation of Inspector Wallander, the series is marked by its social conscience, a deep empathy for others, and an outward-looking view, which connected Ystad with Europe and the rest of the world, most notably Africa, a continent Mankell loved and where he spent a great deal of time. The series was and remains ground-breaking, tackling subjects such as xenophobia, violence, terrorism, the globalisation of crime and the historical legacies of the twentieth century. It is rightly viewed as one of the great series in international crime fiction – elegantly bridging Sjowall and Wahloo’s 1970s ‘Beck’ series and more recent Nordic Noir such as Indridason’s ‘Reykjavik’ novels.

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There are ten Wallander novels. Here they are with their original date of publication and their atmospheric opening lines.

Faceless Killers (1990). ‘He has forgotten something, he knows that for sure when he wakes up. Something he dreamt during the night. Something he ought to remember.’

The Dogs of Riga (1992). ‘It started snowing shortly after 10am. The man in the wheel-house of the fishing boat cursed. He’d heard the forecast, but hoped they might make the Swedish coast before the storm hit.’

The White Lioness (1993). ‘Louise Akerblom, an estate agent, left the Savings Bank in Skurup shortly after 3.00 in the afternoon on Friday, April 24.’

The Man who Smiled (1994). ‘Fog. A silent, stealthy beast of prey. Even though I have lived all my life in Skane, where fog is forever closing in and shuttering out the world, I’ll never get used to it.’

Sidetracked (1995). ‘Just before dawn. Pedro Santana woke. The kerosene lamp had started to smoke. When he opened his eyes, he didn’t know where he was’.

The Fifth Woman (1996). ‘The letter arrived in Ystad on 19 August 1993. Since it had an African stamp and must be from her mother, she hadn’t opened it immediately. She wanted to have peace and quiet to read it.’

One Step Behind (1997). ‘On Wednesday, 7 August 1996, Kurt Wallander came close to being killed in a traffic accident just east of Ystad.’

Firewall (1998). ‘The wind died down towards evening, then stopped completely. He was standing on the balcony. Some days he could see a sliver of ocean between the buildings across the way.’

The Pyramid (1999). ‘In the beginning, everything was just a fog. Or perhaps it was like a thick-flowing sea where all was white and silent. The landscape of death.’

The Troubled Man (2009). ‘The story begins with a sudden fit of rage. The cause of it was a report that had been submitted the previous evening, which the prime minister was now reading at his poorly lit desk.’

Huge thanks are due to the translators who brought us the Wallander novels and expertly translated the lines above: Steven T. Murray, Ebba Segerberg and Laurie Thompson.

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Further links (I will keep adding to these – if you find good ones, do leave them in the comments section below).

I’m off to liberate some Aquavit from the back of the drinks cupboard and to watch an episode of Wallander with Krister Henriksson…

Review of ‘Beck’ episode ‘Buried Alive’ (Levande begravd) on BBC4

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Peter Haber as the iconic Swedish detective Martin Beck

Viewers in the UK were treated to the Swedish crime drama Beck for the first time this evening on BBC4. This highly regarded series, starring Peter Haber and Mikael Persbrandt as Inspector Martin Beck and Detective Gunvald Larsson, has been running since 1997 and draws on characters from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s seminal ‘Martin Beck’ novels. The latter were published between 1965 and 1975 and are recognised as the forerunners to Henning Mankell’s ‘Wallander’ novels and countless other Scandi police procedurals foregrounding social issues.

A total of twenty-six Beck films were made between 1997 and 2010, with a new set of dramas airing in Scandinavia at the beginning of 2015. The episode we saw tonight – ‘Buried Alive’ (Levande begravd– is number 26 from 2010. My review is below. It avoids major spoilers, but if you’d rather watch first then look away now.

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The first thing to note about Beck is that it’s very different in tone to BBC4’s previous crime drama, the Italian Young Montalbano (sunshine, pasta and the odd murder).

Yes, fasten your seatbelts – this is Scandi Noir with a capital N.

While ‘Buried Alive’ does contain some moments of humour (look out for the guest appearance of a cucumber), the dominant atmosphere is dark, violent and extremely scary. The opening scene sets the tone for the whole episode: public prosecutor Annika Runfelt is shown being abducted late at night; her body is found the following morning in a coffin that has been buried in the sandpit of a children’s playground. The main suspect is the leader of a notorious motorcycle gang, but it soon becomes clear that the solution is going to be far more complicated…

While the plot contained elements I’m not usually keen on (high levels of violence, a borderline sadistic focus on the suffering of the victims and a fair old dollop of melodrama), it was kept grounded by the portrayal of the police team’s methodical investigation and by the level-headed, intelligent presence of Inspector Beck. The dynamic between him and his police colleagues Gunvald Larsson (tough guy), Lena Klingström (experienced and practical) and Oskar Bergman (nervous rookie) was very well-drawn, and it’s this that will bring me back next week rather than the plot, which wore its original ‘season finale thriller’ status rather too obviously for my liking. I’m hoping that the next episode will be a little calmer and closer to the police procedural roots of the Beck novels.

Nonetheless, a promising start, not least because one of the key bits of investigation was carried out in a bookshop. I also found myself rooting strongly for Beck after less than an hour and a half of his company, which is a very good sign, given that we are joining the series such a long way in.

Next week’s episode is called ‘Room 302’ (Rum 302). In it, Beck’s team is called to investigate the murder of a teenage girl in Room 302 of Hotel Stureplan in Stockholm. This episode is the first of the Beck dramas that aired at the beginning of 2015 (number 27 overall).

UPDATE: I’ve just watched the ‘Room 302’ and it was excellent. Made five years after ‘Buried Alive’, it feels like a reboot that properly honours the police procedural roots of the novels. The storyline is plausible and nuanced, and both Beck and Larsson get a real chance to shine – great acting all round. Good to see and I look forward to the other episodes very much.

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For those interested in the original ‘Martin Beck’ novels, there are further details over at Crime Fiction Lover. Radio 4 also dramatised the series a little while back (hopefully these will be repeated soon). You can hear short clips over on the BBC Radio 4 website.

Please be aware that there are a few (minor) spoilers in the comments below 🙂

Stop Press! BBC Four announces autumn Scandi dramas: Beck, The Bridge and Arne Dahl

UPDATES: The first episode of Beck aired on Saturday 12 September at 9pm on BBC4. My review of ‘Buried Alive’ (no major spoilers) is available here.

Beck has now finished. Arne Dahl begins on Saturday, 17. October at 9.00.

The start date for The Bridge 3 is Saturday 21. November (9pm; double episode). Mrs P blog post and trailer available here.

Series 2 of The Young Montalbano starts on Saturday 2. January 2016. More info available here.

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BBC Four’s Channel Editor Cassian Harrison made some exciting crime drama announcements at the Edinburgh TV festival today. Below is an extract from the BBC4 press release:

>> BBC Four brings viewers an autumn of gripping Scandinavian drama with the return of the hugely popular The Bridge (the final episode of the last series was enjoyed by over 1.5m viewers) and Arne Dahl, as well as the launch of new crime thriller Beck.

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Beck: Based on the characters of the hugely popular Martin Beck detective series of novels by Swedish husband-and-wife writers Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, Beck sees the much-loved detective brought to life on the small screen. Following the fortunes of enigmatic and extremely methodical detective Martin Beck and his partner, the irascible, impulsive Gunvald Larsson, Beck is arguably the originator of what has become known as Scandinavian crime: the good-cop, bad-cop partnership which went on to form the modern crime-fighting blueprint.

The brand-new feature-length films see detective Martin Beck investigating the shocking death of a young woman found strangled in a hotel room, a gangster kingpin executed by a sniper in front of his family, a terrorist attack and a suspicious hospital death which sourly turns out to be premeditated murder. It’s an intricate web of characters and lies. Think again. The killer is never who you expect it to be.

Starring Peter Haber (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as Beck and Mikael Persbrandt (The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug) as Larsson, the drama’s combination of complex woven details of police detection and beautifully realised characters combined with twisting, masterful storylines has ensured that the award-winning series won fans and acclaim from around the world.

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The Bridge 3: When Helle Anker, the founder of the first gender-neutral kindergarten in Copenhagen and a high-profile debater on gender issues, is found murdered in Sweden, the Danish and Swedish police are compelled to join forces once more for a third series of The Bridge. The brutal killing turns out to be only the first in a series of gruesome crimes, strung together in a case which involves Saga Norén of the Malmo Police personally and which will change her forever. A powerful, intriguing and unpredictable tale of crime, played out by fascinating and complex characters, the new season will revolve around the concept and structures of family – new, old, deviant, classical, constructive and destructive. At its heart, The Bridge carries a central theme of personal responsibility and its consequences.

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Arne DahlThe Swedish crime drama returns with five new stories. The A Unit has been disbanded for the past two years. When a wave of brutal murders hits Polish nurses in Sweden, the National Police see their chance to reinstate the The A Unit, and Kerstin Holm, previously a member of the team, is assigned to lead them.

We meet a chastened team of individuals who have allowed the all-consuming nature of their police work to eat away at their private lives. Demands and expectations have never been higher and a cold wind blows through the corridors at the National Police head-quarters. Can Kerstin get the unit to deliver, or is this new effort a misguided attempt by a paranoid police force in a time of increasingly unusual and refined criminal activity?

It is produced by Filmlance International AB in co-production with Sveriges Television and ZDF Germany, written by Erik Ahrnbom, Linn Gottfridsson, Peter Emanuel Falck and Fredrik Agetoft, adapted from the novels by Arne Dahl.<<

This is all very fitting on the day that sees the UK publication of the fourth in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, authored by David Lagerkranz (it’s out in the US on 1st September). Reviews appear to be pretty favourable thus far, as this example by The Telegraph‘s Jake Kerridge shows. So glad to see Salander living to fight another day.

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Roberto Costantini’s Italian/Libyan Balistreri Trilogy

I picked up the first novel in Roberto Costantini’s Balistreri TrilogyThe Deliverance of Evil (trans. N. S. Thompson, Quercus, 2014 [2011]), at this year’s CrimeFest after seeing the author on a couple of panels. Costantini was extremely articulate about how his personal links to Tripoli and Rome shaped the trilogy and how his writing style is influenced by his work as an engineer. My interest was also piqued by the description of his main protagonist, Commissario Michele Balistreri, as a morally flawed individual with a complex political past.

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Coming in at just over 600 pages, The Deliverance of Evil is a novel for readers who enjoy complex, multi-layered crime narratives. Framed by Italy’s two Football World Cup victories in 1982 and 2006, it spans twenty-five years of Italian history, but also explores the legacy of Mussolini’s right-wing dictatorship and of the so-called ‘strategy of tension’ – a series of right-wing terrorist attacks in the 1960s and 1970s (possibly encouraged by the military and intelligence services), which were blamed on communists to provoke a political shift to the right. Balistreri, the narrative’s main investigator, acts as a kind of repository for this complex history: as a young man, he was drawn to the ultra right-wing Ordine Nuovo, but when it became involved in terrorist acts, worked undercover for the state in an attempt to stop them. When the narrative opens in 1982, he has supposedly left that past behind him, after being transferred to a quiet police post in Rome.

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The original Italian cover

The crime at the heart of the narrative is the murder of Elisa Sordi, a young woman who works for a religious housing organisation. The detective, keen to enjoy the 1982 World Cup final, is distracted during the initial investigation. This and a number of other factors result in the case remaining unsolved until 2006, when another woman is murdered in apparently similar circumstances. Wracked with remorse and guilt for his earlier failures, Balistreri vows to solve both cases and uncover the truth.

The Deliverance of Evil is a hugely absorbing, accomplished piece of work. While the denouement, which resembles an intricate origami creation, had me raising an eyebrow a little at times, the figure of Balistreri, together with the clever construction of the narrative and its dissection of Italian privilege, politics and racism made for a highly gripping read. I’ll definitely be seeking out the second in the trilogy, which moves back in time to the 1960s to explore Balistreri’s troubled past in Libya.

I have a bit of a thing about crime trilogies or quartets. They’re often quite special, which I think is due to two factors. Firstly, they give authors the chance to explore multiple facets of an overarching story in a group of novels, allowing them to create extended and complex literary worlds. Conversely, the limit of having a set number of novels (as opposed to an on-going series), encourages authors to take more risks, especially in terms of the characterisation of their protagonists and the overall denouement. Standalones and trilogies/quartets are thus usually more hard-hitting than a series, not least because they don’t need to safeguard the investigator or main protagonist indefinitely. They also often undertake a wide-ranging social and/or political critique, which I like.

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Here are few of my favourite crime trilogies and quartets:

David Peace’s Yorkshire Noir/Red Riding Quartet (1974197719801984), which is set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper case and provides a brilliant depiction of corrupt policing cultures.

Andrew Taylor’s Roth/Requiem for an Angel Trilogy (The Four Last ThingsThe Judgement of Strangers, The Office of the Dead) which skillfully excavates the history of a female serial killer, beginning in the present day and moving back to the 1970s and the 1950s.

Ben Winter’s Last Policeman Trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, World of Trouble), set in a superbly realised world on the brink of destruction (I still need to read the final novel, and am looking forward to it very much).

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Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest), featuring the remarkable, indefatigable Lisbeth Salander.

Leif G.W. Persson’s Story of a Crime Trilogy (Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, Another Time, Another Life and Free Falling, As in a Dream), which probes the unsolved assassination of Olof Palme in an absorbing and darkly sardonic manner.

Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir Trilogy (March Violets, The Pale Criminal, A German Requiem), which explores Nazi Germany in 1936 and 1938 and Allied Occupation in 1947 through the eyes of former Berlin policeman Bernie Gunther. The author later extended the trilogy into a series, but the original three novels remain the best in my view.

Perhaps you have others we could add to this list? 

Update: Well, what a brilliant response. Thanks to MarinaSofia, Margot, Rebecca, Bernadette, David, Tracey and Angela for their suggestions (see also their comments and those of others below), and to Barbara, Jose Ignacio and Craig Sisterson via Twitter for trilogies/quartets by women authors. All listed below…

Further great crime fiction trilogies and quartets: 

Lisa Brackman’s China Trilogy (Rock, Paper, Tiger; Dragon Day; Hour of the Rat)

James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz)

Lyndsay Faye’s New York Trilogy (The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret, The Fatal Flame)

Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow Quartet (The Hanging Shed, Bitter Water, Pilgrim Soul, Gallowglass)

Alan Glynn’s Land Trilogy (Winterland, Bloodland, Graveland – set in Ireland)

Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille Trilogy (Total Chaos, Chourmo, Solea)

Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy (The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen)

William McIllvaney’s Laidlaw Trilogy (Laidlaw, The Papers of Tony Veitch, Walking Wounded – set in Glasgow)

Adrian McKinty’s Troubles Quartet (The Cold Cold Ground, I Hear the Sirens in the Street, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone and Gun Street Girl – set in Ireland)

Denise Mina’s Garnethill Trilogy (Garnethill, Exile, Resolution – set in Glasgow, Scotland)

Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan Trilogy (The Field of Blood, The Dead Hour, The Final Breath – set in Glasgow, Scotland)

Leonardo Padura’s Havana Quartet (Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red, Havana Black)

George Pelecanos’ D.C. Quartet (The Big Blowdown, King Suckerman, The Sweet Forever, Shame the Devil)

Dolores Redondo’s Baztan Trilogy. The first, The Invisible Guardian is available in translation and is set in Spain’s Basque country. The other two are entitled Legado en los huesos (Legacy in the Bones) and Ofrenda a la tormenta (Offering to the Storm).

John Williams Cardiff Trilogy (Five Pubs, Two Bars And A Nightclub; Cardiff Dead; The Prince of Wales)

Robert Wilson’s Falcon Quartet (The Blind Man of Seville; The Silent and the Damned; The Hidden Assassins; The Ignorance of Blood – set in Spain)

American, Icelandic and Swedish gems: Paretsky, Indriđason and Nesser

The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival is in full swing up in Harrogate. Top news so far: Sarah Hilary has won the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year Award for her debut, Someone Else’s Skin, a tremendous achievement for a debut writer, and Sara Paretsky (below), creator of the ground-breaking ‘VI Warshawski’ series, was presented with the Theakstons Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction Award.

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In her acceptance speech, Sara said: ‘When I created VI Warshawski, she created a few seismic shock-waves for being a female detective with gumption. I’m proud of that, and today it’s amazing to be recognised for that legacy and to see so many female characters in the genre who are more than a vamp or victim’. Hear hear! There are sixteen Warshawski novels to date, starting with 1982’s Indemnity Only. If you haven’t met VI yet, now’s a great time to start. She’s one of the many great female investigators on this blog’s ‘strong women in crime’ list.

The Theakstons programme also features Swedish author Håkan Nesser (on the ‘Strange Lands’ panel) and Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriđason in conversation with Barry Forshaw on Sunday. Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that I’m a fan of both these writers – in fact my first ever review was of Indriđason’s The Draining Lake, which won the CWA Gold Dagger and is partially set in East Germany. I also reviewed Nesser’s The Weeping Girl, part of the ‘Van Veeteren’ series, but featuring Ewa Moreno as investigator, back in 2013. It’s interesting to see the comparisons I made between Nesser and Indriđason’s work in that post – there do appear to be very real affinities between these authors’ approaches to writing crime fiction.

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If like me you can’t make Harrogate, but are within reach of London, then there’s a rare chance to see Nesser and Indriđason together this coming Monday, 20th July, at Foyles Bookshop with Barry Forshaw. Here’s the Foyles description of the event:

>> Bestselling authors Arnaldur Indriđason and Hakan Nesser have enthralled millions of readers with their award-winning detective series. On Monday we welcome these two titans of Nordic Noir for an evening discussing their latest work, and a life in crime.

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Messrs Nesser and Indriđason

Recipient of the Nordic Glass Key, the CWA Gold Dagger and the RBA International Prize for Crime Writing, Icelandic heavyweight Indriđason has delighted fans with his long-running ‘Detective Erlendur’ series. Having recently concluded the narrative in Strange Shores, the author has since taken us right back to the beginning with Rekjavik Nights and the brand-new Oblivion, unpacking the early cases of then newly-promoted detective Erlendur.

Splitting his time between his native Sweden and London, Håkan Nesser has been leading readers in ever-decreasing circles for over twenty-five years. Famed for his Inspectors Van Veeteren and Barbarotti series, Nesser has been awarded both Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel and Best Crime Novel Awards, as well as being the only person to have won the Danish Rosenkrantzprisen twice. Now, in his latest novel The Living and the Dead in Winsford, Nesser takes us to the desolate Exmoor landscape as a couple, beleaguered by past secrets, find their rural getaway is not quite the sanctuary they had anticipated. <<

I’ll be making the pilgrimage from Swansea to London on Monday. Perhaps see you there? Full details of the event are available here.

Update: well it was a great evening all round. Here are a couple of pictures:

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For an excellent write-up of the discussion, see Euro Crime’s blog post ‘Nordic Night at Foyles‘.

There’s also a marvellous interview with Arnaldur over at Crime Fiction Lover.

CrimeFest 2015: The Petrona, CWA International Dagger and EuroNoir

I can’t believe it’s already a week since the end of CrimeFest 2015. Time for my second post on this marvellous event, and some key highlights:

The Petrona Award: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, translated by Victoria Cribb, won the 2015 Petrona Award for the best Scandinavian crime novel of the year in translation. The award was presented by CrimeFest’s guest of honour Maj Sjöwall, which was very special for all concerned.

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The Petrona judging team with Yrsa and Maj (centre). Photo: Andy Lawrence

The Petrona shortlist this year was wonderfully strong, with novels by Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland), Jørn Lier Horst (Norway), Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland), Hans Olav Lahlum (Norway) and Leif G W Persson (Sweden). Fuller information about the shortlisted novels is available here and further details can also be found at the Petrona Award website.

The CWA’s 2015 International Dagger shortlist was announced at CrimeFest on the Friday night. The six shortlisted novels are:

  • Lief G.W. Persson, Falling Freely, as in a Dream (trans. Paul Norlen/Transworld/ SWEDEN)
  • Pierre LeMaitre, Camille (trans. Frank Wynne/Maclehose Press/FRANCE)
  • Deon Meyer, Cobra (trans. K.L.Seegers/Hodder and Stoughton/SOUTH AFRICA)
  • Karim Miské, Arab Jazz (trans. Sam Gordon/MacLehose Press/FRANCE)
  • Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Garden (trans. Isabelle Kaufeler/HarperCollins/ SPAIN)
  • Andreas Norman, Into a Raging Blaze (trans. Ian Giles/Quercus/SWEDEN)

Further details can be found on the CWA website, with the award being presented at the end of June. I’ve read a grand total of two, so need to do some catching up.

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Euro Noir panel with Barry Forshaw, Roberto Costantini, Gunnar Staalesen, Michael Ridpath and Jørn Lier Horst

Two CrimeFest panels I particularly enjoyed were the Nordic Noir and Euro Noir panels, moderated by Quentin Bates and Barry Forshaw respectively, and featuring Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland), Gunnar Staalesen (Norway), Clare Carson (UK/Orkney), Craig Robertson (UK/Faroes), Roberto Costantini (Italy), Michael Ridpath (UK/Iceland) and Jørn Lier Horst (Norway). Interesting observations abounded:

HummingbirdHiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird is set in fictional, northern Finnish town. It shows a darker side of Finland: alcoholism, loneliness and some poverty. She tries to write about Finland with the eyes of an outsider, like her investigator Anna Fekete, and sees Finland as being not very welcoming of immigrants. She’s rare in choosing to write about migration issues.

Staalesen describes the Norwegian town of Bergen as very film noir – it rains 250 days a year and so is an excellent setting for crime (the latest in his famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series, We Shall Inherit the Wind, is about to be published by Orenda Press). For him, crime fiction is a way of telling stories about society and how we live our lives today. In contrast to many other countries, the status of crime fiction in Norway is high: it’s viewed as respectable literature due to its quality and its use as a form of social critique (e.g. Karin Fossum).

In her novel Orkney Twilight, Carson writes about Orkney from memories of childhood, which is apt because novel is about memory. Carson’s father was an undercover cop, and she’s drawn on the experience of being a young woman figuring out her father’s secret life. Orkney is a mysterious place with continuous light in summer; Carsen weaves Norse mythology throughout the narrative, which fits with the idea of undercover police/spies as master storytellers. She feels folklore is a way of talking about things that can’t be solved in life and that crime fiction is a modern version of that form, in that it gets to grips with unresolvable issues like death.

Ironically, given amount of murders committed in Nordic novels, Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands are probably safest places in world. There were no murders in Faroes for 26 years … until Robertson started writing his novel The Last Refuge. He feels a bit guilty about that.

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Lier Horst used to get up at 5am every day to write while still working as a policeman. You have to set goal and put in the work – ‘it’s a hard job’. His first novel was based on a real murder. He saw the crime scene on the first day of his job and it stayed with him (the murderer was never caught). Writing about murders has ‘taught me a little about death, but a lot about life’, especially people’s emotions.

Barry Forshaw has coined the term ‘Scandi Brit’ for Brits like Michael Ridpath and Quentin Bates who set their novels in northern climes. Ridpath says it’s a challenge to write about other countries, but invigorating one. He regularly consults Icelanders on points of accuracy, which is a big help.

Cost

Costantini uses his engineering background to construct his plots. His acclaimed ‘Commissario Balistreri’ trilogy explores thirty years of Italian history from the 1960s to the 1990s, as well as developments in the Middle East. (I have bought the first and am looking forward to reading it.) He created a policeman with a compromised right-wing past as a deliberate challenge to readers.

There was praise for translators and their huge contribution to international crime fiction. Staalesen and Lier Horst are grateful to have the services of top translators Don Bartlett and Anne Bruce. Both are excellent, managing the most difficult of tasks like translating humour effectively.

Other highlights during CrimeFest included seeing Ragnar Jónasson hit the top of the Kindle bestseller list with his debut novel Snowblind late on Saturday night, chatting to authors like William Ryan and remembering how much good crime fiction I still need to read (e.g. the rest of his Captain Korolev series), and meeting friends old and new, like the lovely Elena Avanzas (@ms_adler, who blogs at Murder, she read), Maura and Karen from the Swansea Sleuths bookgroup, and Anya Lipska, who’s part of the newly formed and utterly marvellous Killer Women organisation. So much murderous creativity in one place and time! Roll on next year.

CrimeFest 2015: legendary crime writer Maj Sjöwall in interview with Lee Child

I’m just back from this year’s CrimeFest, which was particularly special for a number of reasons. This is the first of two posts on the event, and focuses on Lee Child’s interview with the legendary Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall.

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Maj Sjöwall and Lee Child at CrimeFest, Saturday 16 May (with thanks to the unknown photographer!)

Sjöwall, co-author of the highly influential ‘Martin Beck’ series with her husband Per Wahlöö, was the festival’s guest of honour. The almost mythical position she holds as the ‘godmother of Scandinavian crime’ was illustrated by the standing ovation she received on entering the room with Lee Child. What we heard from her in the course of the conversation was wide-ranging and fascinating:

  • The ‘Martin Beck’ series (1965-75) grew out of national and international events: 1960s Sweden was turning from a social democratic country to a more right-wing country, and it was the era of the Vietnam War and student demos. The series was designed to show what was happening to Swedish society and how the police was becoming more militarised, but in bumbling way, like a small-town police force.
  • They choose the crime genre as a vehicle because it was entertaining and would reach a wide audience. She and Per sat face to face over a table and worked together, talking extensively about the stories and the language they would use. The aim was to make the novels as accessible as possible.
  • In the case of Roseanne, the first novel, they’d been on a boat trip and seen a beautiful American woman travelling on her own. As Per was looking at her just a bit too closely, Maj decided, ‘we’ll kill her!’ (just one example of her splendidly wry humour).
  • Crime fiction wasn’t a big thing in Sweden at that time (just a few ‘bourgeois amateur sleuths’). There were no police procedurals. They wanted the novels to be realistic, so they kept the pace of the narrative slow and a created a police team rather than focusing on just one hero.

The first novel in the series (1965)

  • Their influences were Chandler, Hammett and Simenon. The American 87th Precinct novels by Ed McBain were NOT a direct influence as is often thought. They only read these after they started writing the series. (Given the similarities between the two, one can only say that this was a remarkable case of synchronicity!)
  • The series took off around book three or four. But it tended to be read by young left-wingers who were already converted to the [Marxist] ideals and values it promoted. So as authors, they were not necessarily reaching the audience they wanted to influence.
  • Of police investigator Martin Beck: he is a ‘quite boring’, classic civil servant, ‘but has a very important quality – empathy’. He reflects the masculine police world of the time and is depicted realistically: he’s married to the job and has a complex relation-ship with his wife and children. The authors were criticised for this: it was felt that police in crime novels should not have a private life. Now it’s a big part of modern crime (Child added that it’s ‘almost a requirement’).
  • They decided on ten novels from the start, and thought of the series as one long novel that was split into ten (influenced by Balzac).

The ten novels in the series also match the number of letters in Martin Beck’s name.

  • Was the series successful in critiquing/changing Sweden? Maj responds by saying that she doesn’t think books can change the world, but that they can influence and help to change the ways that people think.
  • The novels were first translated into French and German, then later into English. Maj thinks they paved the way for other crime writers in those countries. [She’s certainly right in relation to West Germany, where the Beck series had a significant influence on the Soziokrimi (social crime novel) movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Intriguingly, the series was also published in East Germany, which approved of the series’ political viewpoint].
  • Child sees the influence of Sjöwall and Wahlöö in Ian Rankin’s Rebus and other crime writing far beyond Scandi borders. In a brief Twitter conversation, Rankin told me: ‘Actually, I’m pretty sure I’d written a few Rebus novels before reading the Becks. On the other hand… it is feasible I’d been reading *about* the Becks and the notion of a real-time series may have chimed’.
  • Maj does not have explanation for why series is so popular. She likes the recent work of Leif G. W. Persson because he stays close to reality. But in her view too many contemporary crime novels are set in small towns and focus on personal narratives.
  • One of Maj’s favourite Beck novels is The Locked Room, due to its structure and logic, and the memories she has of writing it.

The Sjöwall interview was sponsored by British Institute for Literary Translation, which is very fitting: we would never have been able to read the Beck series without the services of marvellous translators like Lois Roth, Joan Tate, Alan Blair, Thomas Teal and Paul Britten Austin. Huge thanks to them! Here’s a list of the ‘Martin Beck’ novels and a few interesting links:

  • 1965 – Roseanna (Roseanna)
  • 1966 – Mannen som gick upp i rök (The Man who Went Up in Smoke)
  • 1967 – Mannen på balkongen (The Man on the Balcony)
  • 1968 – Den skrattande polisen (The Laughing Policeman)
  • 1969 – Brandbilen som försvann (The Fire Engine That Disappeared)
  • 1970 – Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy)
  • 1971 – Den vedervärdige mannen från Säffle (The Abominable Man)
  • 1972 – Det slutna rummet (The Locked Room)
  • 1974 – Polismördaren (Cop Killer)
  • 1975 – Terroristerna (The Terrorists)
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A wonderful memento from a wonderful event

Coming up in the next CrimeFest post: The 2015 Petrona Award, Euro Noir and other international delights.

New Bitter Lemon signings, The Edgars and CrimeFest

Here’s a round up of some interesting crime fiction news and events.

Joshua Farrington of The Bookseller reports that >>Bitter Lemon Press has signed a series of deals for female crime writers from around the world, with the books set to lead the publisher’s schedule in the second half of the year.

Publisher and co-founder Laurence Colchester has acquired titles from Brazil’s Patrica Melo, Turkey’s Esmahan Aykol and Argentina’s Claudia Piñeiro.

Melo’s The Body Snatcher is the story of a drug deal gone wrong, with police corruption and blackmail. Melo’s previous novels Lost World, The Killer, In Praise of Lies and Inferno were published in English by Bloomsbury. The Body Snatchers, which will be published in July, is translated by Clifford E. Landers.

Divorce Turkish Style by Esmahan Aykol will be published in September. It is the third in a murder mystery series featuring crime bookshop owner and accidental investigator Kati Hirschel. The previous two books, Hotel Bosphorous and Baksheesh were also published by Bitter Lemon Press, translated by Ruth Whitehouse.

Piñeiro’s Betty Boo is set in Buenos Aires, and sees a sensitive woman trying to save her career and personal life while caught up in a criminal conspiracy. Piñeiro’s previous titles, translated by Miranda France, were also published by Bitter Lemon Press. Betty Boo will be published in January 2016.

Colchester said: “We are very proud to bring these three women crime writers from Brazil, Turkey and Argentina to English speaking readers. It is part of our mission as an independent press to introduce new voices from abroad and here, in the autumn season of 2015, are three of the most successful women writing in the crime genre today.”<<

Over in the States, the annual Edgar Awards have taken place. A full list of the nominees and winners is available here. The focus is on English-language crime, and a number of titles have already migrated to my groaning TBR pile, such as Ben Winter’s World of Trouble, which is the final installment in The Last Policeman series (see my discussion of his earlier work here).

The winner in the best novel category was Stephen King’s Mr. Mercedes, which I’m currently half way through and enjoying very much (although I will never look at a hamburger in the same way again).

Last but not least, the international crime fiction convention CrimeFest takes place in Bristol next week, with a sterling programme you can see in full here. I’m very much looking forward to attending, not least because this year’s special guest is Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall, co-author of the seminal Martin Beck series, and she will be helping us to present the 2015 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

I have been enjoying all the online speculation about the Petrona shortlist. The judges have now made their choice…! But will you agree?!

Stieg Larsson sequel, crime versus thrillers, Easter bunnies

Big news this week: the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed ‘Millennium Trilogy’ is well on its way. The cover and English title – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – were revealed by MacLehose Press on Monday, although its contents will remain firmly under wraps until publication on 27 August. Here’s what we know: the sequel is ‘based on Larsson’s universe and characters’, is written by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz; will be published in Sweden by Norstedts; is titled Det som inte dödar oss  (That Which Doesn’t Kill Us) and is currently being translated into 38 languages.

 

Like many, I have rather mixed feelings about the publication of the new novel. On the one hand, I thought the trilogy had a pretty perfect resolution and am not sure it could be bettered. On the other, I loved Lisbeth Salander and am keen to see how her story develops. I don’t envy Lagercranz the task of taking on such a weighty literary legacy – it must be hugely difficult to find a voice and narrative that are faithful to the original, but more than pure mimicry. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s found a way through. For more information, see this Guardian article by Alison Flood.

There was another interesting article in The Guardian yesterday by Val McDermid, entitled ‘Why crime fiction is left-wing and thrillers are right-wing’ (thanks to Vicky Newham for flagging this up on Facebook).

In it McDermid argues (with help from Ian Rankin) that ‘the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the Krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote. The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”’

That got me thinking hard about whether these political distinctions hold up more widely. While I can think of plenty of examples to support McDermid’s argument – especially in the context of European crime – I can also think of a number of exceptions. Golden Age crime fiction is often thought of as being ‘conservative in style, setting, characterisation, subject matter and socio-political views’, with a dubious social order in relation to class, gender and race being restored at the end of the narrative (quote from Lee Horsley’s excellent chapter on ‘Classic Detective Fiction’ in Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, OUP, pp. 12-65, p. 39). Hard-boiled crime fiction features private investigators not known for their tolerance or diplomatic skills. They may well be critical of the status quo, but are often shown delivering violent, eye-for-an-eye justice rather than handing criminals over to the law so they can be properly put on trial. There’s an interesting discussion on these points in an article by Arlene Teraoka, which explores the lack of a private eye tradition in German crime fiction – arguably due to the P.I.’s fascistic tendencies – and the post-war preference for paternalistic police inspectors who guarantee a democratic social order (who also have their conservative sides…).

Equally, two exceptions in relation to thrillers spring to mind. John le Carré’s works are highly critical of the power wielded by governments and shady secret services, and repeatedly highlight the price vulnerable individuals pay in these larger political games (e.g. The Spy who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Most Wanted Man). I also read a very good Swedish thriller in the course of my Petrona judging duties that raises big moral questions about the conduct of national intelligence agencies in wartime – Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer.

In sum, different crime genres/subgenres are flexible enough to be employed for liberal or conservative political ends, and elements of both can even co-exist alongside one another in individual texts. But I’ll be bearing McDermid’s assertions in mind as I read on, to see if her distinctions hold up as current trends.

Update: Over on findingtimetowrite, Marina Sofia also muses on Val McDermid’s article and gives a wonderful overview of the Quais du Polar, at which Val’s comments were originally made. The post gives a summary of various crime writers’ views about writing on politics from the event; these provide a very nice counterpoint to this post – showing how crime fiction is used by many writers as a progressive means of critiquing and exploring the power structures of their societies.

Wishing you all a very happy Easter break filled with fluffy bunnies, chocolate and lots of crime fiction!