El Guardián Invisible (film), Mindhunter (TV) and three Must Reads for 2018

Happy 2018, everyone! After a little hiatus, I’ve started getting back into some crime TV and film. I watched two gems over the festive break, each of which (oddly) featured serial killers and FBI inspectors, but were very different to one another in mood and tone.

The first was El Guardián Invisible, the 2017 Spanish film adaptation of Dolores Redondo’s novel of the same name, published as The Invisible Guardian here in 2015 (translated by Isabelle Kaufeler, HarperCollins). I loved the book and thought this was an excellent adaptation – faithful to the original while adding a stunning extra dimension through the visuals of Navarre’s atmospheric landscapes and weather. The rain seems to be torrential in pretty much every scene, which must have been fun for the actors… I particularly liked Marta Etura’s portrayal of lead investigator Amaia Salazar, an outstanding FBI-trained investigator, who returns to her home town to track a serial killer, and has to face up to her toxic relationship with her mother. It’s a hard-hitting, but satisfying watch.

The second was the Netflix Original series Mindhunter, which I resisted for a while due to its tough subject matter. But I kept hearing good things, and a recommendation from Brian, a regular reader of this blog, eventually led me to give it a go. And I’m glad I did, because it turns out to be a fascinating portrait of how the FBI developed a methodical approach to understanding and identifying serial killers in the 1970s. Based on the book by FBI agent John E. Douglas, the series shows two FBI agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench (Jonathan Groff/Holt McCallney), becoming increasingly aware of the rise of the serial killer in modern American society, and attempting to gain insights into the phenomenon by interviewing serial killers and helping police forces with their investigations. They are joined by Boston psychology professor Dr. Wendy Carr (Anna Torv), who helps them work more systematically in building up their database and deepens their knowledge of how serial killers are formed and how they think. It’s all fascinating stuff, and I’m definitely going to stick with it, although it’s a very difficult watch in places (no gratuitous violence, but the details of the crimes are given verbally and sometimes shown in the photos used in the investigations). I tend to watch one episode at a time and then switch to something lighter!

I always get a bit of fresh reading energy around the New Year. Having read and enjoyed some Japanese crime fiction just before Christmas, I’m keen to read a little more widely – either by choosing novels set in unusual places or in different historical eras or both. Here are three Must Reads currently on my list:

  • Attica Locke’s Bluebird, Bluebird (Serpent’s Tail 2017), exploring race relations in East Texas
  • Joe Thomas’ Paradise City (Arcadia 2017), set in Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • Nicolas Verdan’s The Greek Wall (trans. by W. Donald Wilson, Bitter Lemon Press 2018), set on the border of Turkey and Greece

Which crime novels are on your Must Read list for 2018?


The Library Suicides (Wales) & 2016 CWA Dagger Awards

One great plus of this decade’s Scandi crime-drama boom has been getting Brits into subtitled international crime drama from Europe and beyond. In recent years, this trend has also fuelled the success of Welsh-language crime drama Y Gwyll (Hinterland), which has been deftly exported back to a number of European countries.

Welsh-language thriller The Library Suicides (Soda Pictures, 2016) is enjoying similar success. Adapted from Fflur Dafydd’s bestselling novel Y Llyfrgell (The Library) and directed by Euros Lyn (Doctor Who, Sherlock, Broadchurch, Happy Valley), it received the prize for ‘Best Performance’ at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and was nominated in the ‘Best Film’ category at the Oldenburg International Film Festival in Germany. I watched it on the big screen at Swansea’s The Taliesin this week and loved it. 


The Library Suicides stars Catrin Stewart (Jenny in Doctor Who) as twin sister librarians Nan and Ana. Following the apparent suicide of their mother, famous author Elena Wdig, they become convinced that she was murdered by her biographer Eben. The film plays out over a long and bloody night in the National Library of Wales as they seek their revenge.

This stylish, clever thriller had me gripped from the outset. The twins are superbly played by Catrin Stewart, with a fantastic supporting cast – especially spliff-smoking night porter Dan (Dyfan Dwyfor). The film’s tone moves seamlessly from high tension, as the twins track Eben through dark corridors, to laugh-out-loud black comedy, and makes ingenious use of the library’s secret spaces as a setting. As well as exploring the effects of grief and loss, the film examines the ways in which we remember, create and tell stories about ourselves, and the effects these stories can have on others.

Click here to see a clip.

After the film, there was an illuminating Q&A with writer Fflur Dafydd, who is also a lecturer in creative writing at Swansea University. She talked about the six-year process of getting the adaptation made with various partners including BBC Films, and the kinds of compromises that are required of the writer along the way. For example, while the film is clearly based on the book, some core elements were changed (the film is set in the present rather than the future), and the experience of the director and production team sometimes guided decisions – such as cutting certain scenes in order to maintain the pace of the film.


Writer Fflur Dafydd and director Euros Lyn

Fflur also spoke about the reception of the film in different places. In Edinburgh, audiences had viewed it primarily as a thriller rather than as a Welsh-language film, while in Germany, there was a positive response to hearing Welsh for what was probably the first time. The English title was extended in translation from The Library to The Library Suicides for commercial reasons – and as a nod to the novel The Virgin Suicides.

The Library Suicides is available to pre-order on DVD (in Welsh with English subtitles)


The CWA (Crime Writers’ Association) Dagger Awards were held last night at a swanky gala dinner in London. Here are the winners – many congratulations to them all!


Goldsboro Gold Dagger for the best crime novel of the year – Bill Beverly, Dodgers (USA, No Exit Press). The story of a young LA gang member named East, who is sent by his uncle, along with some other teenage boys, to kill a key witness hiding out in Wisconsin.


Ian Fleming Steel Dagger for the best crime thriller of the year – Don Winslow, The Cartel (USA, William Heinemann). A powerful account of the drug wars in early 2000s Mexico. 


John Creasey New Blood Dagger for the best debut crime novel – Bill Beverly, Dodgers (USA, No Exit Press). A double winner! See above.


International Dagger for crime fiction translated and published in the UK – Pierre Lemaître, The Great Swindle, trans by Frank Wynne (France, MacLehose Press). This novel opens with murder in the last days of the Great War and continues in peace-time with profiteering, criminal negligence, cooked books and a spectacular fraud.


Non-Fiction Dagger – Andrew Hankinson, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) (Scribe)


Dagger in the Library to the author of the most enjoyed collection of work in libraries – Elly Griffiths, author of the ‘Dr Ruth Galloway’ series of forensic archaeology mysteries and the ‘Stephens & Mephisto’ series. (Quercus)


Author Elly Griffiths

Short Story Dagger for a short crime story published in the UK – John Connolly, On the Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier from Nocturnes 2: Night Music (Hodder and Stoughton)


Debut Dagger for unpublished writers – Mark Brandi, Wimmera (Australia). Fab is haunted by a terrible secret. A chance discovery threatens to uncover his past, and expose the dark underbelly of Australian rural life.


Endeavour Historical Dagger for the best historical crime novel – David Young, Stasi Child (Twenty7Books), which is set in East Germany in the 1970s. Oberleutnant Karin Müller is summoned to the Berlin Wall to investigate the death of a girl who has apparently been shot trying to cross the wall… from the West.


Diamond Dagger for outstanding achievement – Peter James, the author of the much loved ‘Roy Grace’ series.

Further information about the shortlisted books and winners is available at the CWA website.

The Pistorius trial, Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (2014) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

The international media is full of the news that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp.

Without for an instant forgetting that real people rather than fictional characters are involved in this case, it’s been fascinating watching the trial unfold, and seeing how judge Thokozile Masipa has evaluated the arguments presented by the prosecution and defence, and key points of South African law – such as the distinctions between murder (planned/intending to kill), common-law murder (intending to kill, or knowing that your actions might kill, but without malice aforethought) and culpable homicide (not intending to kill, but guilty of negligent action; akin to the British concept of manslaughter). There’s now of course lots of debate about whether those distinctions have been applied correctly.

Interesting too, is that South African crime writers have been asked for their views on the case in press coverage from South Africa to the UK, Germany and the US, thereby taking up the role of social commentators. Two interesting pieces are Margie Orford’s on ‘the imaginary black stranger at the heart of the defence’ and Deon Meyer’s on how our fascination with the case is linked to our fear of death and a need to see justice done. Both are well worth a read. (I’ve just seen another excellent piece by Orford here: a reaction to the verdict in the larger contexts of male violence and South Africa’s macho culture.)

As is often the way, the extensive discussion of the Pistorius trial has intersected with two other crime narratives currently on my radar, both of which draw on real cases and feature trials. I’ve just finished reading Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (No Exit Press, 2014), an excellent courtroom drama that explores a murder trial in the era of capital punishment (which was abolished in Britain in 1965, a year after the narrative takes place).

Based loosely on the James Hanratty case, the novel is illuminating in three key respects: it shows the tremendous pressure defence barristers were under when their client faced the death penalty; it shows how evidence has to be marshalled into a convincing narrative for the jury, who deliver the final verdict in court (a contrast here to the Pistorius case, which in accordance with South African practice had no jury); and it shows the sometimes contradictory and inadequate nature of the law (for example, murder ‘in furtherance of theft’ is deemed a capital offence, whereas murder and rape is not). Like all the best crime novels, A Matter for the Jury raises difficult legal and moral questions that are not easily resolved: it’s a rich and absorbing read.

A classic crime film, freshly re-released, has also been in the papers: Fritz Lang’s 1931 Expressionist masterpiece Meine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Searches for a Murderer), whose child killer, played by Peter Lorre, is modelled on the real figure of Peter Kürten.

I’m delighted to see this film back in the spotlight. Brilliantly made, it contains a fascinating depiction of a trial set up by Berlin’s network of criminals, who capture ‘M’ ahead of the police. This kangaroo court features criminal boss Schränker in the role of ‘judge’, who promptly prejudices proceedings by declaring that child murderers should forfeit any legal rights due to the nature of their crimes. The argument of the lone ‘defence lawyer’ – that M cannot control his actions due to a psychiatric disorder and needs treatment by doctors – is rejected by the criminals, who are only prevented from lynching the accused by the arrival of the police.

Critic Horst Lange* convincingly argues that this scene functions as a warning allegory about the rise of National Socialism: Schränker is shown wearing a Gestapo-like leather coat, using Nazi terminology, and sweeping aside legal conventions in order to secure the result that he wants. At the same time, the film leaves the question of appropriate justice open at the end of the film, closing with a shot of the grieving mothers whose loss can never be made good. If you’ve not yet had the chance, I highly recommend a viewing: it’s an extraordinary film that’s visually stunning and remains extremely thought-provoking. It’s rightly been given a 5 star rating by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

* Horst Lange, ‘Nazis vs. the Rule of Law: Allegory and Narrative Structure in Fritz Lang’s M’, Monatshefte 101/2 (2009), 170–85.

Norwegian, Scottish and English crime … with a hint of Hitchcock

My crime reading has been quite varied recently. I’m picking books more or less at random, depending on my mood and what crosses my path courtesy of publishers or charity shop finds. My last three have been about as different from one another it’s possible to be, but all have been excellent (if sometimes unsettling) reads. I’ll start with the most recent one and then move back in time.

Hans Olav Lahlum’s The Human Flies (trans. from Norwegian by Kari Dickson; Mantle, 2014 [2010]) sounds like a horror film that’s best avoided after a large meal. However, it turns out to be something quite different: a well-constructed and witty homage to the classic crime fiction of Agatha Christie, set in 1968 Oslo, which has some interesting historical depth. Featuring ambitious young police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen on his first big case – the murder of a former resistance fighter – readers are treated to an apartment building of intriguing suspects and a page-turning investigation, as well as the considerable intellect of Kristiansen’s wheelchair-bound partner Patricia. I hugely enjoyed this ‘contemporary classic’ and look forward to reading the other novels in the K2 series soon. (Something a little different for us to consider for the 2015 Petrona Award as well…)

Thanks to the good people at Canongate, I’ve now been properly introduced to the work of Scottish crime writer William McIlvanney, who’s highly regarded by luminaries such as Ian Rankin and Denise Mina. The first in the ‘Laidlaw Trilogy’, named for its engaging lead investigator, maverick policeman Jack Laidlaw, was originally published in 1977, and paints a detailed picture of Glaswegian society through its exploration of a young woman’s murder. The novel’s characterisation is complex and sensitive, and shows tremendous sympathy for those marginalised by their social status or sexuality in a less enlightened era. I imagine it would have broken new ground in the 1970s, and it’s stood the test of time extremely well. McIlvanney, who’s a versatile writer and poet, is appearing at this year’s Bloody Scotland crime writing festival.

Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox), was a Golden Age crime writer whose novel Before the Fact appeared in 1932 (republished by Arcturus in 2011). There’s no genial private investigator in sight, however. Instead, we’re plunged into an unsettling psychological thriller, narrated by Lina McLaidlaw, a plain but wealthy woman married to the charming but worryingly amoral Johnny Aysgarth. As time goes by, Lina’s suspicions that Johnny is capable of murder grow, and she fears she’ll be next on his list. But is she just being paranoid? While dated in some respects, the novel holds good as an astute dissection of power relations and abusive relationships, and has one of the most unsettling endings I have ever read. Alfred Hitchcock used it as the basis for his 1941 film Suspicion, starring Cary Grant and Joan Fontaine, but softened the ending, presumably for commercial reasons. If you’re interested in classics of the genre, this is a must read.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

We’ve just seen American director Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was a sumptuous viewing experience and will definitely be on my 2014 list of top films.

Mr. Peabody thought the film was ‘a love letter to Europe’, which is an excellent summation. Handily for this blog, it’s also a wonderful crime caper, triggered by the murder of a fantastically wealthy 84-year-old aristocrat (‘she was dynamite in the sack, by the way’), who’s played with panache by Tilda Swinton.

There are so many things to love about this film: it’s expertly constructed on four different time levels – the present day, 1985, 1968 and 1932 – which fit snugly inside one another like Russian dolls; it celebrates friendship, loyalty, love, kindness, courtesy, tolerance, multiculturalism and cosmopolitan ‘old’ Europe before the darkness of fascism and then communism falls; the characterisation is marvellous, especially of concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes) and bellboy Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori/F. Murray Abraham); it shows the importance of writers as chroniclers of memories and history, and the power of literature down the generations; it’s quirky, funny, and profoundly moving; it features a wonderful ensemble cast and is a visual feast from start to finish.

Two extra tidbits. It was filmed largely in Berlin, in and around the famous Babelsberg Studios, and premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize. It’s loosely inspired by the life and works of Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (see a marvellous interview with Anderson discussing this aspect of the film).

Wes Anderson is at the top of his game and has delivered an assured, masterfully crafted work of genius. There. Now go see it if you haven’t already! The official trailer is here.



Spring crime reading: World Noir series

Spring has sprung here in Wales, and we’ve already had a few sunny days to reacquaint ourselves with the pleasures of reading outside in the garden, park, or by the sea. Bliss.

Left: one of my favourite reading benches in Tenby, Wales.

I’ve been getting on well with my research (more on that later), and in my spare time have been catching up with new releases in the ‘World Noir’ series from Europa Editions in New York. There are around 20 titles available from all around the globe (see below), of which I’ve now sampled three from France: Jean-Claude Izzo’s Total Chaos (translated by Howard Curtis, originally published 1995); Philippe Georget’s Summertime, All the Cats are Bored (translated by Steven Randell, first published 2009), and Jean-Denis Bruet-Ferreol’s (aka Mallock) The Cemetery of Swallows (Steven Randell again, first published 2012).

Image courtesy of World Noir / Europa Editions

Izzo’s Total Chaos – ‘This first installment in the legendary ‘Marseilles Trilogy’ sees Fabio Montale turning his back on a police force marred by corruption and racism and taking the fight against the mafia into his own hands’. Beautifully written, it’s also the story of three boyhood friends – Ugo, Manu and Fabio – and the pursuit of justice in a tough, imperfect world. The novel has a very masculine feel, with women relegated to the role of victim, mother figure or prostitute-with-heart-of-gold, but I can forgive this, because it’s so very good, especially in its exploration of the migrant experience. I’m keen to get my hands on the other two now.

Georget’s Summertime – ‘It’s the middle of a long, hot summer on the French shore and the town is full of tourists. Out of the blue a young Dutch woman is brutally murdered and another disappears without a trace. Gilles Sebag finds himself thrust into the middle of a diabolical game. If he intends to salvage anything he will have to forget his suspicions of his wife’s unfaithfulness, ignore his heart murmur, and get over his existential angst’. Like Total Chaos, this novel quickly immerses the reader in its Mediterranean setting, while drawing the reader into a complex and compelling police investigation. See Bernadette’s excellent review over at Reactions to Reading

Mallock’s The Cemetery of Swallows: ‘One day, Manuel Gemoni travels to the other end of the world to kill an old man. Manuel can only explain his bizarre actions by saying “I killed him because he had killed me.” Unable to comprehend why an ordinary family man would go to such lengths to murder a man he didn’t know, Police Commissioner Amédée Mallock decides to investigate. In order to save Manuel, Mallock must traverse the harsh tropical jungles of the Dominican Republic and the snow-covered streets of Paris’. I’ve just started this one, and am enjoying the intriguing nature of the case, the characterization of the investigator and the Dominican setting. There is a hint – just a tiny, subtle hint – of Vargas, but with the quirkiness dialed down. 

In sum: this is a quality series, showcasing the best of classic and contemporary noir, and we are promised another three to four titles each season. It could be time to hide the credit card, especially as the novels are so beautifully presented.

Thanks to Europa Editions for sending me these review copies from the World Noir series

German crime research update: I’ve had a fascinating time looking at crime fiction under National Socialism. To my surprise, there was lots produced between 1933 and 1945, and it wasn’t greatly censored until 1939, when authors were instructed to produce crime novels featuring policeman as heroes of the state. However, only a few overtly referenced Nazi ideology, which suggests that crime fiction was viewed more as a benign form of popular entertainment than as a tool for indoctrination. The research carried out by Carsten Würmann has been invaluable for getting an insight into this period.

I’ve also been delving into the Soziokrimi (social crime novel) or ‘new German crime novel’, which emerged in the late 1960s, and was influenced by both the student movement and Swedish writers Sjöwall and Wahlöö. There are some very interesting texts that explore the social causes of crime and the negative impact of capitalism on society. While some are quite earnest, others use humour to get their message across: Horst Bosetzky’s 1972 Einer von uns beiden (One of the Two of Us), depicts a blackly comic battle of wits between a smug, middle-class professor and the working-class student trying to blackmail him. The 1974 film adaptation was quite successful, and can be seen in German on YouTube here. Jürgen Prochnow, the actor playing Ziegenhals, went on to star in 1981’s Das Boot. 


#45 / Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes (La pregunta de sus ojos), translated from the Spanish by John Cullen (New York, Other Press, 2011 [2005])  5 stars

Opening line: Benjamin Miguel Chaparro stops short and decides he’s not going.

I’d been looking forward to reading The Secret in Their Eyes ever since seeing Juan José Campanella’s film adaptation, which won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Film. Happily, the novel was as pleasurable to read as the movie was to view – a complex, multilayered narrative of genuine humanity and warmth.

Benjamin Miguel Chaparro is newly retired from his position as Deputy Clerk of an investigative court in Buenos Aires. Now a man of leisure, he decides to write a novel about a case that has haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young wife, Liliana Colotto, in her own home one summer’s morning. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years of Argentine history, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: grieving husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin, and the murderer himself.

While undoubtedly crime fiction, The Secret in Their Eyes is also partly a historical novel, exploring the time before, during and after Argentina’s Guerra Sucia or Dirty War. This period (1976-1983) saw a state-sponsored campaign of violence against citizens deemed to be leftist and/or politically subversive, resulting in the ‘disappearance’ of between 13,000 and 30,000 ArgentiniansBoth narrative strands – the criminal and the historical – provide an in-depth consideration of the nature of justice, and the impact of a justice that is delayed or denied. But at the same time, the novel can also be viewed as a pair of love stories – that of a husband and wife (Ricardo Morales and Liliana), and of long-time co-workers (Benjamin and his boss, Irene Hornos) – as well as the moving chronicle of a friendship (Benjamin and his colleague Sandoval). Beautifully written, with complex and often endearing characters, the novel is a rich, satisfying read.  

As soon as I finished the novel, I watched the film again. What a fabulous adaptation this is, especially in its use of the visual to bring out key themes (close-ups of eyes and gazes, for example, and the symbolism of the colour red – look out in particular for Irene’s roses). The acting is superb, and the wittiness of the script really captures the dynamics of Benjamin, Irene and Sandoval’s relationships.

But it was also interesting to note some modifications to the plot: Irene is much more of a participant in the film than in the novel (which I liked), and there were a couple of other changes towards the end designed to provide some extra drama (which I wasn’t so keen on). However, the latter certainly aren’t deal-breakers. It’s rare that a novel and film adaptation complement each other so well, and I’d recommend both wholeheartedly.   

If you’re interested in further Argentinian crime set during this period, see Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack.

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French thriller Point Blank on BBC4 – Saturday 31 August

French crime thriller Point Blank airs tomorrow, Saturday 31 August, in the 9.00pm international crime slot on BBC4. This one has had a number of favourable reviews (Empire gave it 4 stars), and looks to be 80 minutes packed full of heart-stopping action and suspense.

You can see a trailer for the film on the Radio Times website (although I’m not usually a fan of hostage/countdown scenarios, I have to admit it does look very good).

The Radio Times synopsis reads as follows: ‘Violent strangers threaten to kill the pregnant wife of Paris hospital employee Samuel Pierret unless he smuggles out an injured patient in this blisteringly exciting crime thriller from director Fred Cavayé (Anything For Her). Rugged Gilles Lellouche is perfect as the Hitchcockian “Wrong Place, Wrong Time, Wrong Man” whose life spirals out of control as he is drawn into a web of police corruption and murder in high places.’

And … here’s a lovely bit of news: Sergio over at the fabulous Tipping My Fedora blog has nominated Mrs. Peabody Investigates for a WordPress Family Award.

I’m touched and honoured – thank you, Sergio! – as the award celebrates what I most value about blogging: the global ‘family networks’ that our interactions in the virtual world create. I have to say, in spite of our rather bloody-thirsty interests as crime fans, that the crime blogging community is a particularly warm, welcoming and friendly one!

The idea with this award is that recipients nominate another 10 other WordPress blogs. But given that I’d nominate lots of the same blogs as Sergio and my fellow nominees (could get very confusing), I’ll just point you to the blogroll on the right of this page, which will lead you to all kinds of criminal delights. Enjoy!

In praise of John le Carré

Today, 25th April, sees the publication of John le Carré’s new espionage novel, A Delicate Truth, which has already garnered excellent reviews (see for example Mark Lawson in The Guardian). Set in 2008 and 2011, it explores shady Whitehall operations against the background of the Bush-Blair era and the ‘war on terror’, and is being viewed as a stunning return to form.


In the run-up to publication, le Carré has also been marking the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). In a piece for The Guardian on 13. April, he explores the personal and historical contexts in which this ground-breaking novel was written, and the frustration he experienced at being ‘branded as the spy turned writer’; the author of ‘anti-Bond’ novels that critics erroneously insisted on regarding as spying handbooks.

Given all the above, it seems like an apt moment to try to sum up what makes le Carré such a wonderful and important writer. Here is my personal appreciation, in random top 10 form:

One of the many covers for The Spy – showing the barbed wire that divided East and West in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin

I love John le Carré’s works because…

1. …the author and his creation George Smiley are 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, Penguin 2010, p. 2). 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 that ‘Germany was his second nature, even his second soul […] He could put on her language like a uniform and speak with its boldness’ (Sceptre 2011, pp. 252-3). This author’s world, then, is overwhelmingly multilingual, multicultural and international. Monoglot Brits need not apply…

2. …they so effectively 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’ (Penguin 2010, p. 255). 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. …as someone who teaches in this area, I appreciate le Carré’s sophisticated understanding of 20th-century German and European history. This is evident in his recent Guardian piece, where he references the complexities of Allied intelligence operations in Cold War 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 (and forms part of the corpus for my own research on crime that engages with the Nazi period).

4. …as someone who reads and researches lots of historical fiction, I admire le Carré’s ability to communicate complex histories to a mass readership in intelligent and entertaining espionage novels. This isn’t something that many authors can do well; le Carré is one of the best.

5. …their narratives 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 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 novel 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. …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. …they have given us wonderful TV and film adaptations, featuring great actors such as Alec Guinness and Richard Burton (whose diaries happen to rest at my own institution, Swansea University). See here for my film review of the 2011 adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with Gary Oldman.

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

9. …they are so often top-quality. One of my own later favourites is 2001’s The Constant Gardener – a brilliant exploration of pharmaceutical corruption for commercial gain in the developing world. And now, at the age of 81, it looks like he’s done it again with A Delicate Truth. Mark Lawson, in his review, writes that ‘le Carré has a strong claim to be the most influential living British writer’ and that he ‘is back at full power with a book that draws on a career’s worth of literary skill and international analysis’. ‘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’.

10. Last but not least, le Carré is a true friend of languages, and has been extremely generous in using his influence to promote language learning in the UK – for which I as a German studies lecturer am deeply grateful. He was deservedly awarded the Goethe Medal in 2011 for ‘outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue’.

All of which leads me to say how much I’m looking forward to reading A Delicate Truth. Further information about the novel is available at le Carré’s website (including an audio excerpt and the first chapter). The novel begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde: ‘If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’. Something every spook needs to remember…

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).

Film of Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence on BBC4 tonight (Saturday 23 March)

The film adaptation of Jan Costin Wagner’s Silence (see here for Mrs P. book review) will be shown tonight on BBC4 at 9pm. It’s a German production, Das letzte Schweigen (the final silence), directed by Baran bo Odar, and transposes the Finnish action of the novel to small-town Germany (Costin Wagner is himself German, which may have prompted the switch).

The trailer on the TV/Radio Times website looks promising, although it should be noted the film’s subject matter is quite harrowing.

Here’s a portion of the TV/Radio Times review by Trevor Johnston (contains mild spoilers) :

>> Twenty three years after the unsolved murder of a schoolgirl in a wheat field, another young victim goes missing, in this German thriller that surveys the course of justice from various angles. The perpetrator of the first killing is identified in the very first scene, with the key dilemma revolving around his unwitting accomplice, who is so troubled by events that he disappears and keeps his silence over the decades. There’s certainly an involving moral complexity to Baran bo Odar’s film, though at times it does get bogged down trying to keep tabs on the killers, the investigators and the victims’ families across both time frames. Occasional lapses in credibility notwithstanding, it’s still tense and unsettling fare that treads delicately through difficult territory that involves the abuse of children.<< 

Baran bo Odar was listed by Variety Magazine as one of ’10 Directors to Watch’ in 2011. You can read Variety’s profile of him here – with some comment on the film as well.

Update: I’ve just finished watching the film and thought it was a truly excellent adaptation, faithful in almost every respect to the novel, and conveying its central themes of guilt and grief in an extremely effective way. Some terrific acting (especially from Katrin Sass, who also played a mother in Goodbye Lenin) and the cinematography was wonderful too. Top quality, intelligent (and highly unsettling) crime drama.