John le Carré (1931-2020) — an appreciation

I’m so very saddened by the death of John le Carré – a brilliant, insightful and humane writer, whose ability to capture the personal and political complexities of our time was second to none.

John le Carré

Below is a slightly edited post I first wrote eight years ago – my homage to this great writer and his works. I never met le Carré, but we did briefly have contact once, when he rode to the rescue of my beleaguered languages department after it was threatened with redundancies in 2010. He gave his help immediately and with a generosity that none of us have forgotten. During that period, he signed off a note to me with the words “All fine. Please feel free”. It sits framed on my mantlepiece, where I can look at it fondly: I reckon it’s a pretty good principle to live your life by.

Later, I was tickled to find out from Adam Sisman’s biography that we had both lived, at different times, in the same small town in our youth. I have happy memories of watching the TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with my dad back then – we adored Alec Guinness as Smiley, and that incredibly haunting Russian doll title sequence.

Here’s my personal appreciation of John le Carré and his works, which is shaped by our mutual love of Germany and its culture. Do you have a favourite le Carré work? Please let me know if so in the comments below.

1. I love that the author and his creation George Smiley are outward-looking linguists. Le Carré studied German literature for a year at the University of Bern, and graduated with first-class honours in modern languages from Oxford. Most of his spies are linguists, and the most famous of them all, George Smiley, studied Baroque German literature and was destined for academia until the British Secret Service came knocking — in the shape of the brilliantly named ‘Overseas Committee for Academic Research’. The profession of intelligence officer offers Smiley ‘what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions’ (Call for the Dead). And languages still really matter. Smiley’s ability to speak fluent German plays a vital role in Smiley’s People when he gathers intelligence in Hamburg, the city where he spent part of his boyhood, as well as a number of years ‘in the lonely terror of the spy’ during the Second World War. Le Carré says of him in an afterword that ‘Germany was his second nature, even his second soul […] He could put on her language like a uniform and speak with its boldness’. This author’s world, then, is overwhelmingly multilingual, multicultural and international. Monoglot Brits need not apply…

2. Many of le Carré’s novels brilliantly evoke Germany during the Cold War. The frequent use of a German setting was practically inevitable given le Carré’s education, his membership of the British Foreign Service in West Germany (as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and Political Consul in Hamburg, which provided cover for his MI6 activities), and the timing of his stay between 1959 and 1964 at the height of the Cold War. Berlin was the frontline of the ideological battle between the Eastern and Western blocs, and le Carré says in an afterword to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that ‘it was the Berlin Wall that got me going, of course’. Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, the year the Wall went up, and, along with a number of his other novels, is partially set in East/West Germany (see list below). The most memorable for me are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley’s People (1979), both of which feature dénouements involving Berlin border crossings and evoke the Cold War tensions of that time and place perfectly.

3. I admire le Carré’s sophisticated understanding of 20th-century German and European history. This is evident in his Guardian piece marking the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where he references the complexities of Allied intelligence operations in West Berlin, including the pragmatic but unethical protection of former Nazis, because they were viewed as valuable in the fight against communism. The difficult legacy of National Socialism in post-war Germany is most closely examined in his 1968 novel A Small Town in Germany.

4. I love le Carré’s ability to communicate complex histories to a mass readership in the form of intelligent and entertaining espionage novels. This isn’t something that many authors can do well; le Carré is one of the best.

5. All of le Carré’s novels reveal a deep engagement with moral questions — A fascination with the themes of loyalty and betrayal – in relation to both individuals and ideologies/states – is particularly visible in the Cold War ‘Karla Trilogy’ (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 1974; The Honourable Schoolboy 1977; Smiley’s People 1979), which in turn forms part of the eight-novel Smiley collection. What’s always had the greatest impact on me as a reader, though, is the critique of how the intelligence services (on either side of the ideological divide) are willing to sacrifice the individual for the ‘greater good’, and the recognition of the immorality of this act. Le Carré’s third and fourth novels – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) – are extremely powerful in this respect, as they recount the tragic tales of those who become pawns in larger political chess games. Incidentally, I’ll bet my maximum bet of 10p that the figure of Avery in the latter most accurately embodies the professional and moral disillusionment that led Carré to leave the Service. The central question for this author was and continues to be: ‘how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them on the way?’ (see Guardian piece).

6. — and their characters are fantastically drawn. Aside from the masterpiece of Smiley — the dumpy, middle-aged, unassuming, sharp-as-a-tack intelligence genius — who could forget Control, Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase, Peter Guillam, Ricky Tarr, Jerry Westerby, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux? All are so beautifully depicted that you feel they are living, breathing people.

Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

7. You won’t find more perceptive writing anywhere. In German one would say that le Carré is ‘wach’: he is awake. He really SEES the world around him and has a deep understanding of how its political and power structures work, and how individuals get tangled up in them.

8. Le Carré’s works have given us wonderful TV and film adaptations, starring great actors such as Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Rachel Weisz and Gary Oldman. My favourites are probably still the two Guinness ‘Smiley’ TV series, but I do have a soft spot for the Tinker Tailor film, which was very stylishly done and featured a stellar cast including Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.

Alec Guinness as Smiley, retrieving a clue in Smiley’s People (1982) The man sees everything….

9. The quality of le Carré’s work is consistently outstanding — the plotting, the characterisation and the settings are all sublime. One of my own later favourites is 2001’s The Constant Gardener – a brilliant exploration of pharmaceutical corruption in the developing world. In his review of 2013’s A Delicate Truth, Mark Lawson wrote that ‘no other writer has charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the war on terror’. The sheer range of his writing is breathtaking — and it was all impeccably researched.

10. Last but not least, le Carré was a true friend of languages, and was extremely generous in using his influence to promote language learning in the UK. He was deservedly awarded the Goethe Medal in 2011 for ‘outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue’.

I’ll be raising a posh glass of red to his memory tonight.

Here’s a list of Le Carré novels that reference the German-speaking world/history:

  • Call for the Dead (Smiley’s German links; Nazi past; East Germany)
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Nazi past; divided Berlin; East Germany)
  • The Looking Glass War (East and West Germany)
  • A Small Town in Germany (Nazi past; Bonn, West Germany)
  • Smiley’s People (Hamburg, West Germany; Bern, Switzerland; divided Berlin)
  • The Perfect Spy (German at Oxford; Vienna and Berlin)
  • The Secret Pilgrim (diverse, including East Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Zurich)
  • Absolute Friends (West Germany, East Germany)
  • A Most Wanted Man (Hamburg, Germany)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (Switzerland).

Jingle Bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations

Well, it’s been quite a year. My ‘crime time’ has been severely dented by all the upheaval, but here are some of my reading and viewing gems.

Treat others! Treat yourself!

And if you’re in the UK, please consider using https://uk.bookshop.org/, which is a brilliant way to support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations!

Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019 (USA)

Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey celebrates his 85th birthday at his mansion surrounded by his loving family. The next morning he is found dead; his throat has been cut. Enter the police and investigator Benoit Blanc, who begin to discover clues…and some unsavoury secrets within the family.

My son recommended this film to me with the words ‘you’ll love this’ and he was absolutely right. Knives Out is huge fun from start to finish, as well as a razor sharp commentary on race and class in the USA. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beleaguered carer, who finds herself placed in a very tricky situation. And the all-star cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer — have a high old time hamming their way through this clever take on the Golden Age country house mystery. Perfect Christmas viewing for those who like their crime martinis both shaken and stirred.

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. Samantha Smee, Pushkin Press 2019 (France)

Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.

This prize-winning novel was recommended to me by crime writer Angela Savage a while ago, and it’s a cracker. As a translator myself, I was hugely tickled by the idea of a police interpreter inadvertently falling into a life of crime. And Madame Patience Portefeux, a 53-year-old widow with some tough times behind her, relates her story with wit, verve and plenty of caustic insight into French society. There’s an excellent review of the novel by RoughJustice over at Crime Fiction Lover (minor spoilers) – a very entertaining festive read! Winner of the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962] (USA)

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

This cult Gothic (crime) novel was one of those ‘how-have-I-never-read-this-before’ books. Mary Katherine — or Merricat — lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future.

I was instantly hooked by Merricat’s highly original voice and the novel’s creepy Gothic atmosphere. It also has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Antti Tuomainen, Little Siberia, tr. David Hackston, Orenda Books (Finland)

Opening line: ‘And how do you know what happens then?’

Our 2020 Petrona Award winner, by one of crime fiction’s most inventive and versatile writers – what’s not to like?!

Little Siberia, set in an icy northern Finland, opens with a bang when a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car. Transferred to the local museum for safe keeping, the valuable object is guarded from thieves by local priest Joel, who is grappling with both a marital crisis and a crisis of faith. Absurdist black humour is expertly combined with a warm, perceptive exploration of what it means to be human. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, this is a novel for our times.

Giri/Haji, BBC 2020 (Japan/UK; now on Netflix)

Giri/Haji [Duty/Shame] is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities — a dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was addicted from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some beautifully inventive use of film techniques and genres, including a number of sequences that draw on manga. I can’t find this on DVD, and it’s gone from iPlayer, but it *is* on UK Netflix. Sneak off from Christmas duties, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and get stuck in.

And finally… Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Hulda’ or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy (Penguin), which is told in reverse, with each novel set prior to the last (when Hulda is aged 64, 50 and 40).

The first novel, The Darkness (tr. Victoria Cribb) introduces us to taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She’s about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at the end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. The second in the series is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading the third. I have a theory about how things will go. Let’s see if I’m right!

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

46 European crime novels #LeaveALightOn

Back in June 2016 I posted a list of 35 European crime novels I loved. Here’s a slightly updated version with 46 European crime novels.

I’ve included some British crime novels, because at the time of posting – and until 11.00pm on 31 January 2020 – the UK is still officially part of the EU.

It may take a while, but I firmly believe we will rejoin one day.

#LeaveALightOn

Euro 4

Jakob Arjouni, Happy Birthday, Turk! (trans. from German by Anselm Hollo, Melville House 2011 [1987])

Belinda Bauer, Rubbernecker (Wales, UK; Black Swan 2014)

Pieke Biermann, Violetta (trans. from German by Ines Rieder and Jill Hannum, Serpent’s Tail 1996 [1991])

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (trans. from Greek by Yiannis Panas, Black & White Publishing 2013 [2007])

Jan Costin Wagner, Silence (Germany/Finland; trans. from German by Anthea Bell, Harvill Secker 2010 [2007])

Didier Daeninckx, Murder in Memoriam (trans. from French by Liz Heron, Serpent’s Tail 1991 [1984]; republished by Melville House in 2012)

Euro 2

Friedrich Dürrenmatt, The Pledge (Swiss; trans. from German by Joel Agee, University of Chicago Press 2006 [1958])

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (trans. from Italian by William Weaver, Vintage 2004 [1980])

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin (trans. from German by Michael Hofmann, Penguin 2009 [1947])

Eugenio Fuentes, At Close Quarters (trans. from Spanish by Martin Schifino, Arcadia 2009 [2007])

Friedrich Glauser, In Matto’s Realm (Swiss; trans. from German by Mike Mitchell, Bitter Lemon Press 2006 [1936])

Euro 6

Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner (trans. from German by John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press 2007 [1999])

Kati Hiekkapelto, The Defenceless (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books 2015 [2014])

Paulus Hochgatterer, The Sweetness of Life (Austria; trans. from German by Jamie Bulloch, MacLehose 2012 [2006])

Peter Høeg, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow (trans. from Danish by Felicity David, Vintage 2014 [1992])

Francis Iles, Before the Fact (UK; Arcturus 2011 [1932])

Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos (trans. from French by Howard Curtis, Europa Editions 2005 [1995])

Euro 1

Jess Kidd, Himself (Ireland; Canongate 2017)

Hans Hellmut Kirst, The Night of the Generals (trans. from German by J. Maxwell Brownjohn, Cassell 2002 [1962])

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner (trans. from German by Bradley Schmidt, Manilla 2017)

Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (trans. from Swedish by Reg Keeland, MacLehose Press 2008 [2005])

John le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (UK; Sceptre 2011 [1974])

Carlo Lucarelli, Carte Blanche (trans. from Italian by Michael Reynolds, Europa Editions 2006 [1990])

Henning Mankell, The Dogs of Riga (trans. from Swedish by Laurie Taylor, Vintage 2012 [1992])

Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State (trans. from French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson, Arcadia Books 2009 [2001])

Euro 5

Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Buenos Aires Quintet (trans. from Spanish by Nick Calstor, Serpent’s Tail 2005)

Denise Mina, Garnethill (Scotland, UK; Orion 2014)

Harry Mulisch, The Assault (trans. from Dutch by Clare Nicolas White, Random House 1985 [1982])

Håkan Nesser, Bjorkman’s Point (trans. from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Pan 2007 [1994])

Ingrid Noll, The Pharmacist (trans. from German by Ian Mitchell, HarperCollins 1999 [1994])

David Peace, 1974 (UK; Serpent’s Tail 1999 – the first in the ‘Red Riding’ quartet)

Lief G.W. Persson, Linda, as in the Linda Murder (trans. from Swedish by Neil Smith, Vintage 2013)

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand (trans. from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles, Simon & Schuster 2017)

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian (trans. from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins 2015 [2013])

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

Georges Simenon, Pietr the Latvian (Belgium, trans from French by David Bellos, Penguin 2013 [1930])

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, The Laughing Policeman (trans. from Swedish by Alan Blair, Harper Perennial 2007 [1968])

Euro 3

Josef Skvorecky, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka (trans. from Czech by Rosemary Kavan, Kaca Polackova, and George Theiner, Norton 1991 [1966])

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

Lesley Thomson, The Detective’s Daughter (UK; Head of Zeus 2013)

Olga Tokarczuk, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2018)

Olivier Truc, Forty Days without Shadow (set in Lapland; trans. from French by Louise Rogers LaLaurie, Trapdoor 2014)

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died (trans. from Finnish by David Hackston, Orenda Books 2017)

Simon Urban, Plan D (trans. from German by Katy Derbyshire, Harvill Secker 2013 [2011])

Fred Vargas, Have Mercy on us All (trans. from French by David Bellos, Vintage 2004 [2001])

Louise Welsh, A Lovely Way to Burn (UK; John Murray 2014)

#LeaveALightOn 

Exclusive extract from Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (Italy)

To celebrate the publication of Gianrico Carofiglio’s The Cold Summer (trans. by Howard Curtis, Bitter Lemon Press), we have an exclusive extract from the novel on ‘Mrs Peabody Investigates’ today.

And if that weren’t enough of a treat, UK readers also have the opportunity to see Gianrico Carofiglio live in conversation next week. He’ll be appearing on Wednesday 19th September at Waterstones in Bath, and on Thursday 20th September at the Italian Cultural Institute in London. Do come along if you get the chance!

For those of you who’ve not yet discovered Carofiglio’s work: he is one of Italy’s best known crime writers, whose novels draw on his experiences as a prosecutor specializing in organized crime. As well as examining the role of the Mafia in Italy, and response of the Italian police and judiciary to its diverse threats, Carofiglio’s works explore contemporary issues such as immigration, racism and justice – as seen in his acclaimed novel Involuntary Witness, featuring defence counsel Guido Guerrieri.

The Cold Summer is the first of Carofiglio’s works to feature Pietro Fenoglio, a Carabinieri officer working in Bari, Puglia (in southern Italy, just at the top of its heel). The novel is set in the cold summer of 1992, which was ‘cold’ not just because of its unseasonable temperatures, but because it was the summer in which two prominent Sicilian anti-Mafia prosecutors were killed – a major setback in the fight against organized crime.

The cover of the original Italian novel (2016)

The novel focuses on the local Mafia wars in Puglia in the early 1990s, and is based on true events. Fenoglio, at a melancholy ebb after being left by his wife, is asked to investigate the killing of a Mafia boss’s son. The most likely suspect is a rival member of the Mafia, but something about the case doesn’t feel right to Fenoglio, who probes further, with the help of his colleague Pellecchia.

A hard-hitting and multilayered novelThe Cold Summer gives readers a fascinating, detailed insight into the workings of the Mafia and the judicial system, as well as showing the enormous pressures faced by the police and public prosecutors when battling organized crime. It’s absorbing and gripping in equal measure, and the central investigative character of Fenoglio, as the extract below shows, is a complex and intriguing one.

 

Extract from The Cold Summer

Translated by Howard Curtis, Bitter Lemon Press 2018. Reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.

Act One – Days of Fire

Chapter 1

Fenoglio walked into the Caffè Bohème with the newspaper he’d just bought in his jacket pocket and sat down at the table by the window. He liked the place because the owner was a music lover and every day chose a soundtrack of famous romantic arias and orchestral pieces. That morning, the background was the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, and given what was happening in the city, Fenoglio wondered if it was just coincidence.

The barman made him his usual extra-strong cappuccino and brought it to him together with a pastry filled with custard and black cherry jam.

Everything was the same as ever. The music was discreet but quite audible to those who wanted to listen to it. The regular customers came in and out. Fenoglio ate his pastry, sipped at his cappuccino and skimmed through the newspaper. The main focus of the local pages was the Mafia war that had suddenly broken out in the northern districts of the city and the unfortunate fact that nobody – not the police, not the Carabinieri, not the judges – had any idea what was going on.

He started reading an article in which the editor himself, with a profusion of helpful advice, informed the law enforcement agencies how to tackle and solve the phenomenon. Finding the article engrossing and irritating in equal measure, he did not notice the young man with the syringe until the latter was already standing in front of the cashier and yelling, in almost incomprehensible dialect, “Give me all the money, bitch!”

The woman didn’t move, as if paralysed. The young man held out the hand with the syringe until it was close to her face. In an impressively hoarse voice, he told her he had AIDS and yelled at her again to give him everything there was in the till. She moved slowly, her eyes wide with terror. She opened the till and started taking out the money, while the young man kept telling her to be quick about it.

Fenoglio’s hand closed over the robber’s wrist just as the woman was passing over the money. The young man tried to jerk round, but Fenoglio made an almost delicate movement – a half turn – twisting his arm and pinning it behind his back. With the other hand, he grabbed him by the hair and pulled his head back.

“Throw away the syringe.”

The young man gave a muffled growl and tried to wriggle free. Fenoglio increased the pressure on his arm and pulled his head back even further. “I’m a carabiniere.” The syringe fell to the floor with a small, sharp sound.

The cashier began crying. The other customers started to move, slowly at first, then at a normal speed, as if waking from a spell.

“Nicola, call 112,” Fenoglio said to the barman, having ruled out the idea that the cashier might be in a fit state to use the telephone.

“Down on your knees,” he said to the robber. From the polite tone he used, he might have been expected to add: “Please.”

As the young man knelt, Fenoglio let go of his hair but kept hold of his arm, although not roughly, almost as if it were a procedural formality.

“Now lie face down and put your hands together behind your head.”

“Don’t beat me up,” the young man said.

“Don’t talk nonsense. Lie down, I don’t want to stay like this until the car arrives.”

The young man heaved a big sigh, a kind of lament for his misfortune, and obeyed. He stretched out, placing one cheek on the floor, and put his hands on the back of his neck with almost comical resignation.

In the meantime, a small crowd had gathered outside. Some of the customers had gone out and told them what had happened. People seemed excited, as if the moment had come to fight back against the current crime wave. Some were yelling. Two young men walked into the café and made to approach the robber.

“Where are you going?” Fenoglio asked.

“Give him to us,” said the more agitated of the two, a skinny, spotty-faced fellow with glasses.

“I’d be glad to,” Fenoglio said. “What do you plan to do with him?”

“We’ll make sure he doesn’t do it again,” the skinny fellow said, taking a step forward.

“Have we ever had you down at the station?” Fenoglio asked them, with a smile that seemed friendly.

Taken aback, the man did not reply immediately. “No, why?”

“Because I’ll make sure you spend all day there, and maybe all night, too, if you don’t get out of here right now.” The two men looked at each other. The spotty-faced young man stammered something, trying not to lose face; the other shrugged and gave a grimace of superiority, also trying not to lose face. Then they left the café together. The little crowd dispersed spontaneously.

A few minutes later, the Carabinieri cars pulled up outside and two uniformed corporals and a sergeant came into the café and saluted Fenoglio with a mixture of deference and unconscious wariness. They handcuffed the robber and pulled him bodily to his feet.

“I’m coming with you,” Fenoglio said, after paying the cashier for the cappuccino and the pastry, heedless of the barman’s attempts to stop him.

Chapter 2

“I’ve seen you somewhere before,” Fenoglio said, turning to the back seat and addressing the young man he had just arrested.

“I used to stand near the Petruzzelli in the evening when there was a show on. I parked people’s cars. You must have seen me there.”

Of course – that was it. Up until a few months earlier he had been an unlicensed car park attendant near the Teatro Petruzzelli. Then the theatre had been destroyed in a fire and he had lost his job. That was how the young man put it: “I lost my job,” as if he had been working for a company and they’d dismissed him or closed down. So he’d started selling cigarettes and stealing car radios.

“But you make hardly anything at that. I’m not up to doing burglaries, so I thought I could rob places with the syringe.”

“Congratulations, a brilliant idea. And how many robberies have you committed?”

“I haven’t committed any, corporal, would you fucking believe it? This was my first one and I had to run into you, for fuck’s sake.”

“He isn’t a corporal, he’s a marshal,” the carabiniere at the wheel corrected him. “Sorry, marshal. You aren’t in uniform, so I had no idea.

I swear it was my first time.”

“I don’t believe you,” Fenoglio said. But it wasn’t true. He did believe him, he even liked him. He was funny: his timing when he spoke was almost comical. Maybe in another life he might have been an actor or a stand-up, instead of a petty criminal.

“I swear it. And besides, I’m not a junkie and I don’t have AIDS. That was all bullshit. I can’t stand needles. If talking bullshit is a crime, then they should give me a life sentence, because I talk a lot of it. But I’m just an idiot. Put in a good word for me in your report, write that I came quietly.”

“Yes, you did.”

“The syringe was new, you know, I just put a bit of iodine in it to look like blood and to scare people.”

“You do talk a lot, don’t you?”

“Sorry, marshal. I’m shitting my pants here. I’ve never been to prison.”

Fenoglio had a strong desire to let him go. He would have liked to tell the carabiniere at the wheel: stop and give me the keys to the handcuffs. Free the boy – he still didn’t know his name – and throw him out of the car. He had never liked arresting people, and he found the very idea of prison quite disturbing. But that’s not something you broadcast when you’re a marshal in the Carabinieri. Of course, there were exceptions, for certain crimes, certain people. Like the fellow they’d arrested a few months earlier, who’d been raping his nine-year-old granddaughter – his daughter’s daughter – for months.

In that case, it had been hard for him to stop his men from dispensing a bit of advance justice, by way of slaps, punches and kicks. It’s tough sometimes to stick to your principles.

It was obvious he couldn’t free this young man. That would be an offence – several offences in fact. But similarly absurd ideas went through his head increasingly often. He made a decisive gesture with his hand, as if to dismiss these troublesome thoughts, almost as if they were entities hovering in front of him.

“What’s your name?” “Francesco Albanese.”

“And you say you’ve never been inside?” “Never, I swear.”

“You were obviously good at not getting caught.”

The young man smiled. “Not that I ever did anything special. Like I said, a few cigarettes, a few cars, spare parts.”

“And I guess you sell a bit of dope, too, am I right?” “Okay, just a bit, where’s the harm in that? You’re not arresting me for these things as well now, are you?”

Fenoglio turned away to look at the road, without replying. They got to the offices of the patrol car unit and Fenoglio quickly wrote out an arrest report. He told the sergeant who had come on the scene to complete the papers for the Prosecutors’ Department and the prison authorities, and to inform the assistant prosecutor. Then he turned to the robber. “I’m going now. You’ll appear before the judge later this morning. When you talk to your lawyer, tell him you want to plea-bargain. You’ll get a suspended sentence and you won’t have to go to prison.”

The young man looked at him with eyes like those of a dog grateful to its master for removing a thorn from its paw. “Thank you, marshal. If you ever need anything, I hang out between Madonnella and the Petruzzelli – you can find me at the Bar del Marinaio. Anything you want, I’m at your disposal.”

This second reference to the Teatro Petruzzelli put Fenoglio in a bad mood. A few months earlier someone had burned it down, and he still couldn’t get over it. How could anyone even think of such an act? To burn down a theatre. And then there was the absurd, almost unbearable fact – God alone knew if it was a coincidence or if the arsonists had wanted to add a touch of macabre irony – of burning it down after a performance of Norma, an opera that actually ends with a funeral pyre.

The Petruzzelli was one of the reasons he liked – had liked? – living in Bari.

That huge theatre which could hold two thousand people, just ten minutes on foot from the station where he worked. Often, if there was a concert or an opera, Fenoglio would stay in the office until evening and then go straight there and up to the third tier, among the friezes and the stucco. When he was there, he could almost believe in reincarnation. He felt the music so intensely – that of some composers, above all baroque ones, especially Handel – that he imagined that in another life he must have been a kapellmeister in some provincial German town.

And now that the theatre was gone? God alone knew if they would ever rebuild it, and God alone knew if those responsible would ever be tracked down, tried and sentenced. The Prosecutor’s Department had opened a case file to investigate “arson by persons unknown”. A good way of saying that they hadn’t the slightest idea what had happened. Fenoglio would have liked to handle the investigation, but it had been entrusted to others, and he couldn’t do anything about it.

“All right, Albanese. Don’t do anything stupid. Not too stupid, anyway.” He gave him a slap on the shoulder and walked off in the direction of his own office.

At the door he found a young carabiniere waiting for him. “The captain wants to speak to you. He’d like you to go to his office.”

**********

Captain Valente was the new commanding officer of the Criminal Investigation Unit. Fenoglio hadn’t yet decided if he liked the man or was made uncomfortable by him. Perhaps both. He was certainly different from the other officers he’d had to deal with during his twenty years in the Carabinieri.

He had arrived only a few days earlier, bang in the middle of this criminal war that didn’t yet make sense to anyone. He came from Headquarters in Rome, and nobody knew why he had been sent to Bari.

“Come in, Marshal Fenoglio,” the captain said as soon as he saw him at the door.

That was one of the things that puzzled him: Captain Valente addressed everyone formally, always using rank and surname. The unnamed rule of behaviour for officers is that you use rank and surname towards your superiors and call your subordinates by their surnames, or even their first names. And of course, among those of the same rank, first-name terms are the rule. Among non-commissioned officers, things are less clear, but in general it’s rare to find the commanding officer of a unit being so formal with all his men.

Why did he behave in that way? Did he prefer to keep a distance between himself and his subordinates? Was he a particularly formal man? Or particularly shy?

“Good morning, sir,” Fenoglio said.

“Please sit down,” Valente said, motioning him to a chair. That combination of formality and cordiality was hard to make sense of. Then there was the decor of the room: no pennants, no crests, no military calendars; nothing to suggest that this was the office of a captain in the Carabinieri. There was a TV set, a good-quality stereo, a sofa and some armchairs; a small refrigerator and some pictures in an expressionistic style, somewhat in the manner of Egon Schiele. There was a slight perfume in the air, coming, in all probability, from an incense burner. Not exactly a martial kind of accessory.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you for the past two days.

I’m afraid I’ve come to Bari at a bad time.”

“That’s true, sir. And with the lieutenant’s accident, you don’t even have a second-in-command.”

The lieutenant had broken a leg playing football and would be out of action for three months. So the unit had found itself with a new captain who had no knowledge of the city and its criminal geography and was without a second-in-command, all in the middle of a Mafia war.

“Can you explain what’s going on in this city?” Valente said.

 

Further information about The Cold Summer can be found at Bitter Lemon Press here.

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer (Spain) #WITMonth

Teresa Solana, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush (Bitter Lemon Press 2018 – published 15 August)

First line: A number of us woke up this morning when the storm broke, only to find another corpse in the cave.

Teresa Solana has carved out a distinctive space for herself as a crime writer with her ‘Barcelona’ crime series, featuring private detective twins Borja and Eduard. Irreverent and satirical, her novels deconstruct Catalan society, puncturing the pretensions of rarefied literary circles or the New Age meditation scene. One of the murder weapons in The Sound of One Hand Killing is a Buddha statue, which gives you some idea of the wicked humour that infuses Solana’s writing.

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer is something a little different – a collection of crime stories that shows the author at her most freewheeling and inventive. Take for example the eponymous opening story, which is set in prehistoric times, but whose detective caveman, Mycroft, seems to have an in-depth knowledge of psychological profiling and investigative terms – all very tongue-in-cheek. Narrators range from a concerned mother-in-law and spoiled museum director to a vampire and a houseful of ghosts, with each story giving Solana a chance to stretch her imagination to the full – crime, humour and the grotesque are mixed in equal measure into a vivid narrative cocktail.

For me, however, it was the second half of the book that stood out – a set of eight stories under the heading ‘Connections’ – almost all set in Barcelona, and all linked in some way. In a note to readers, Solana describes the stories as a ‘noirish mosaic that shows off different fragments of the city, its inhabitants and history’ and then throws down a gauntlet… ‘Reader, I am issuing you with a challenge: spot the connections, the detail or character that makes each story a piece of this mosaic’.

Well, it took me a while, but I had the greatest of fun figuring out the links between the stories (some really are just a passing detail, and I can only imagine the devious pleasure the author had in planting them). My favourites were ‘The Second Mrs Appleton’, for its deliciously twisted denouement, and ‘Mansion with Sea Views’, whose conclusion was unexpectedly dark and disturbing.

As some of you may already know, August is ‘Women in Translation’ month  (#WITMonth), an initiative that seeks to promote the works of international women authors, and to highlight the relative lack of women’s fiction in translation. Big thanks are due to Bitter Lemon Press for championing the work of Solana in the English-speaking world, and to her translator, Peter Bush, who does such a wonderful job of communicating Solana’s very special authorial voice.

And here, in no particular order, are another five crime novels by women in translation that I’ve particularly enjoyed and covered on the blog.

Masako Togawa, The Master Keytranslated from Japanese by Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017) – 1960s character-driven Tokyo crime with a twisty-turny plot. 

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from Greek by Yannis Panas (Black and White Publishing 2013) – a mind-bendingly imaginative apocalyptic hybrid crime novel.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleanertranslated from German by Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017) – a quirky Berlin thriller with an unforgettable protagonist. 

Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian, translated from Spanish by Isabelle Kaufeler (HarperCollins, 2015) – the first in a distinctive police series, set in the Basque country.

Malin Persson Giolito, Quicksand, translated from Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster 2017) – our 2018 Petrona Award winner; a superb exploration of the fallout from a school shooting.

Interview with Simone Buchholz: Hamburg Noir and why everyone needs a ‘beer family’

It’s my pleasure to welcome German crime writer Simone Buchholz to the blog today. Simone is based in in the northern city of Hamburg and is the author of the highly acclaimed ‘Chastity Riley’ series, which draws on private-eye conventions to create stylish, urban noir with a German twist. Blue Night (Blaue Nacht) is her English-language debut, beautifully translated by Rachel Ward and published by Orenda Books.

German crime writer Simone Buchholz

At the beginning of Blue Night, we join Hamburg state prosecutor Chas Riley as she hits a career low. After an unfortunate incident involving a gun and a gangster’s crown jewels, she’s been shunted off to witness protection, a job she finds increasingly dull. But all that changes when she’s assigned the case of a badly beaten man with a missing finger, who is oddly reluctant to divulge his identity. Chas is up for the challenge, and so the investigation begins, with the help of her loyal group of St. Pauli friends.

First line: A kick in the right kidney brings you to your knees.

Mrs P: Simone, welcome to the blog and thanks for agreeing to be interviewed (in English to boot!). Your lead investigator, Chastity ‘Chas’ Riley, has an unusual family background. Why did you opt to give her a German mother and an American father who was a former GI?

Simone: I grew up in southern Germany near Frankfurt, and when I was a child there were still a lot of US Army soldiers in our little city. There was even a real American quarter in town, with bigger streets, bigger cars, basketball cages, the whole American lifestyle. And there were also the children of these GIs – but mostly without fathers because GIs normally returned to the US as soon as one of their German girls got pregnant, it was some kind of army policy. To me these children (who were at school with us) always seemed homeless and maybe this shaped a part of my soul.

So when I was looking for a main character for my crime novels I remembered these children and I always liked the American way of storytelling. Riley came to me really quickly and quite naturally.

Mrs P: What made you gravitate towards the noir form when writing the ‘Riley’ series and Blue Night?

Simone: I think at first it just was the noir sound I wanted to use. And then I thought: if I want to tell stories about our society I’ll have to look in the dark corners of life. Once you start doing this, you just can’t stop. It transforms the way you look at mankind. For me, it’s the most interesting way of telling the truth.

“Killer eyes. Killer legs. Killer instincts. A private detective with a name as tough as she is.”

Mrs P: Who are your literary inspirations? American authors of hard-boiled crime, like Chandler and Hammett? Sara Paretsky (author of the ‘V.I. Warshawski’ series) and Jakob Arjouni (author of the ‘Kayankaya’ series)? Or others?

Simone: The first real literature I read was Hemingway – I found his books on my father’s bookshelf, and I really loved the sound and the way Hemingway showed the inner world of his characters by just letting them compose their drinks. Then came Chandler. And then – yes! – a V.I. Warshawski movie with the fabulous Kathleen Turner. Finally Jakob Arjouni appeared. The way he transformed this classic American hard-boiled sound into a German city [Frankfurt] and red light district was hilarious. When I took my first steps in crime writing ten years ago I always had all of this stuff in mind. And I just tried to do something like that. I wish Arjouni was still alive. I would definitely try to talk to him about his work.

[For an overview of Arjouni’s work, see my earlier blog post here.]

Mrs P: Hamburg, and in particular the famous St. Pauli district, is vividly depicted in Blue Night – which I loved, having spent a happy year living there back in the 1980s. Can you tell us a little about these locations and the role they play in your series?

Simone: The district of St. Pauli, as it comes to life in my novels, is a romantic, very personal version of the real St. Pauli. Some kind of secure place where souls can recover from what’s going on outside the bars and clubs. It’s the place where my characters hide from the world and try to heal their wounds with alcohol, music and cigarettes.

And not forgetting the big harbour we have here, which is very special. It’s the open, wild side of the city. A perfect place for everything to take place in a crime novel.

Map of Hamburg, with the district of St Pauli on the left-hand side, near the city’s port and the River Elbe.

Mrs P: A theme that really shines through in the novel is that of friendship. Are friends the new family in a fragmented, globalized world?

Simone: Before I met my husband, before our son arrived, I often felt a great loneliness – though it didn’t cause me too much suffering. It was OK. But with my parents 500 kilometers away, I had to build some kind of family around me in the big city with the big harbour. I found this family in the bars and it still exists. I meet my beer family at least once a week; it helps me with everything and I’d recommend this to everyone, especially today in these speedy times. If you sit at a bar, having a long deep talk with somebody (with rain outside) – it makes you quiet and calm.

Mrs P: Do you have any favourite German-language crime writers that you’d recommend to UK readers?

Simone: Jakob Arjouni, for sure. And my good friend Friedrich Ani. Bittersweet sound, stories from hell.

Thanks, Simone! There are further reviews and features on Blue Night blog tour.

An extract from the novel is available over at Reading for Pleasure.

Rachel Ward has also written a very interesting post on her experience of translating Blue Night. She illustrates the crucial role that translators can play in championing international literature and bringing novels to UK publishers’ attention.

Eurotour Stop 8. Berlin, Germany: “Mauerpark. Judith wrote it on her list.”

Guten Tag from Berlin! Our final extract is from…

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner (trans. from German by Bradley Schmidt, Manilla, 2017 [2011], pp. 107-110).

Judith didn’t have any friends, much less any on Facebook. For the last two hours she had been occupied with nothing but searching the internet for articles by and about Kaiserley. […] Kaiserley’s office address: Hausvogteiplatz in Mitte. But she needed his private address. For that, she needed to find as many points of reference as possible to fix him in her crosshairs. […]

She scrolled down to the end of the interview because that was where the personal questions usually came in.

I like the area around Mauerpark, although I always have to park my car somewhere else the night before May Day, so it doesn’t end up a burned-out wreck after the inevitable riots…

Mauerpark. Judith wrote it on her list. She had collected more than twenty pieces of information that made reference to his routes or his neighbourhood. Kaiserley went to the market on Kollwitzplatz on Saturdays, liked the bars around the water tower, liked to take the tram and loved to watch the sunset. Not bad. She might have made it as an old-school spy.

She went to her laptop and entered the positions into Google maps. The result was Kaiserley’s personal corner of Berlin. If she added the fact that his apartment was west-facing and included his mention of ‘climbing stairs’ as a sport, then he lived in the fourth of fifth storey of an old house without an elevator. It was likely near to a tram stop, and a wine shop that supplied him with his beloved Fendant du Valais.

Bingo. Marienburgerstrasse, Prenzlauer Berg.

She went into the hall and grabbed the van keys. It was four thirty in the morning. The time when people slept most deeply.

We’ve finished up our Eurotour with three very lovely days in Berlin, a city I’ve been visiting since 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s laden with history from numerous eras and is constantly transforming itself in some way. No matter how many times I come here, there’s something new to see or do.

Our base wasn’t too far from Kaiserley’s haunts. Here’s a corner of Marienburgerstrasse…

And this is the park at Kollwitzplatz, named after the famous Berlin artist Käthe Kollwitz. Her statue sits rather mournfully in its middle. The water tower mentioned in the passage is visible in the third photo.

Other delights included a Bratwurst in the Alexanderplatz (where the Oktoberfest was already in full swing), with a grand view of the Fernsehturm…

…and a fabulous first with Berlin friend Katy D: watching an episode of the iconic German crime series Tatort in a bar on Sunday evening, which has been a long-held ambition of mine. This is a ritual all over Germany (it would be like us having a weekly screening of a series like Inspector Morse down at the Three Pigeons pub), and was a really convivial experience, with beer, lit candles and good company.

I’ll finish off with a photo of the Fernsehturm at dusk, taken on a lovely, warm evening that felt like the last day of summer.

Well, we’re back off home tomorrow. Thanks so much for accompanying me on this European adventure. It’s been the greatest of fun 😀

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

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

Eurotour Stop 6. Riga, Latvia: “He left the hotel and went in search of the bookshop”

Sveiki from Riga! Today’s extract is from…

Henning Mankell, The Dogs of Riga (trans. from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, Vintage, 2004 [1992]). 

The extract is set in 1991, shortly after the collapse of Communism in eastern Europe. Wallander has travelled to Riga to investigate a case.

“I’d like to go back to the hotel now,” Wallander said when Zids appeared in the doorway. “I have quite a lot of notes to write up in my room this evening. You can come and collect me at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”

When the sergeant had left him at his hotel, Wallander bought some postcards and stamps in reception. He also asked for a map of the city, but as the map the hotel had was not detailed enough, he was directed to a bookshop not far away.

Wallander looked around in the foyer, but couldn’t see anyone drinking tea or reading a newspaper. That means they’re still here, he thought. One day they’ll be obvious, the next they’ll be invisible. I’m supposed to doubt whether the shadows exist.

He left the hotel and went in search of the bookshop. It was already dark and the pavement was wet from sleet. There were a lot of people about, and Wallander stopped now and then to look in shop windows. The goods on display were limited, and much of a muchness. When he got to the bookshop, he glanced back over his shoulder: there was no sign of anybody hesitating mid-stride.

An elderly gentleman who didn’t speak a word of English sold him a map of Riga. He went on and on in Latvian, as if he took it for granted that Wallander could understand every word. He returned to his hotel. Somewhere in front of him was a shadow he couldn’t see. He made up his mind to ask one of the colonels the next day why he was being watched. He thought he’d broach the subject in a friendly fashion, without sarcasm or aggression.

He asked at reception if anybody had tried to contact him. “No calls, Mr Wallander, no calls at all,” was the answer.

He went to his room and sat down to write his postcards, moving the desk away from the window, to avoid the draught. He chose a card with a picture of Riga Cathedral to send to Björk.

It’s over twenty-five years since Wallander visited Riga. Latvia is now an EU member state with a fully functioning democracy and, while signs of the communist era are still visible (neglected old buildings waiting to be rescued), there is a sense of a society and an economy on the up. We’ve really enjoyed our time here.

Riga is full to the brim of beautiful Art Nouveau buildings built in the 1910s. Everywhere you look, there’s another gem.

But there are some stunning modern buildings as well, such as the Latvian National Library (or Glass Mountain, named after an important Latvian fairy tale).

There’s an enormous market down by the river too (four giant hangers), selling everything from mushrooms and pork to eel and pickles.

Riga’s old town feels much less twee than Tallinn’s. Here’s a bit of Riga Cathedral, as featured on Wallander’s postcard.

This is the imposing Freedom Monument (erected in 1935 to commemorate those who died in the War of Latvian Independence, 1918-20).

And the lovely park by it, where you can have a coffee and a pastry.

The orthodox Russian cathedral has some beautiful detail.

Lastly, here’s a view over the river Daugava, with a little remnant of Communism on one of the panels of the railing… which takes us back to Wallander in 1991.

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

Eurotour Stop 5. Tallinn, Estonia: “She kept walking, looking for new evidence of peace”

Tere from Tallinn! Today’s extract is from a novel that is also a crime story…

When the Doves Disappeared by Finnish-Estonian author Sofi Oksanen (trans from Finnish by Lola M. Rogers; Atlantic Books, 2015), p. 33. 

The extract is set in 1941. The Red Army has just been driven out of Tallinn by the German National Socialists. As David Smith notes in Estonia: Independence and European Integration, ‘the experiences of the previous year led many Estonians to greet the Germans as liberators, an illusion that was swiftly dispelled during the early months of the Nazi Occupation’ (Routledge, 2001, p. 35).

Tallinn was blooming with Estonian and German flags tangling in the wind. The Palace Theatre was being quickly rebuilt, a crowd of kids already gathered to marvel at the movie posters, even the adults stopping to look at them as they passed, and Juudit got a glimpse of the little red smile of a German actress and Mari Möldre’s long eyelashes. The merriness of the crowd played around Juudit’s ankles and she felt like she’d stepped into a movie herself. It wasn’t real. Still, she would have liked to join in, keep walking with no destination and never go home. Why not? Why couldn’t she? Why couldn’t she participate in the joy? You couldn’t smell the smoke from the fires anymore – at least not here; it was still coming in the windows of her apartment – and she sniffed the air, which carried a smell like freshly baked buns, until she was dizzy. The town wasn’t destroyed after all. The Russians must have been so busy burning the warehouses and factories and blowing up the Kopli armoured train that they didn’t get around to the homes. She kept walking, looking for new evidence of peace, and passed the Soldatenheim, where young soldiers stood casually chatting, and their eyes fastened on her lips, and she sped up, averting her eyes from a woman putting up a big poster of “Hitler, the Liberator” in the window of the button shop. Juudit looked around for something more, greedy to see more people who seemed to have forgotten the last several years. Tallinn was suddenly flooded with young men. It annoyed her. There were too many men. She wished she were home, had a sudden, pressing desire to get back there. She quickly bought a newspaper and also snapped up a copy of Otepää Teataja that someone had used as a lunch wrapper, and she stared for a moment into a café where she had once known the buffet girl by name. Had they already gone back to work or did the café have a new owner and new employees? She had sometimes gone there in the past to enjoy a pastry, meet her friends, but now her wedding ring was tight around the finger under her glove. Near the hospital, Wehrmacht soldiers were snaring pigeons.

We approached Tallinn from the water (on the ferry from Helsinki), so this was our first view of the city.

Our last visit was 2001, sixteen years ago. The old town was still more or less as we knew it (beautiful but quite touristy), and celebrates the city’s medieval, Hanseatic heyday. Below is the famous Old Market Square, which is truly lovely.

The Aleksander Nevski orthodox Russian cathedral is impressively bling (especially inside, where no cameras are allowed).

We enjoyed a coffee in Tallinn’s oldest cafe, Maiasmokk…

…and a very tasty, spicy goulash garnished with thyme.

But we also noticed that there are now lots of sparkling modern buildings and hotels, evidence of Tallinn’s new prosperity following the fall of Communism and joining the EU. New buildings jostle with older ones from earlier eras. While the ghost of Tallinn’s eastern bloc past is definitely present, there was no obvious reference to the 1941-44 Nazi occupation (that I could see), and I suspect that Oksanen’s novel dares to go places that many Estonians would rather not – especially on the question of collaboration. There is a Museum of Occupations that I plan to visit next time…

Here’s a view of the countryside outside Tallinn. Flat and beautiful with big skies.

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