Babylon Berlin, Miss Marple, and The Bridge of Spies

We spent a week in Berlin at the end of January. It was freezy and snowy and altogether delightful, not least because of the copious amounts of food we consumed, from Bratwurst to Vietnamese dumplings to stacks of lovely cake (pics below). And as ever, the city was also a Krimi paradise, with its specialist crime bookshops and plentiful crime fiction events.

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Kino Babylon in Mitte

Author Volker Kutscher was in town to give a reading from Lunapark, the sixth novel in his ‘Gereon Rath’ historical crime fiction series, which is set in Weimar and National Socialist Berlin. It took place in a wonderful old cinema called Kino Babylon, which opened in 1929 – the same year the series starts. In another nice twist, Babylon Berlin is the title of the first ‘Rath’ novel translated into English – by Niall Sellar for Sandstone Press – and the name of the high-budget Sky/ARD TV adaptation currently in production, directed by the wonderful Tom Tykwer (due to air later this year).

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The format of these kinds of literary events is a bit different in Germany. Volker read out three substantial extracts, each of which highlighted a specific aspect of the novel (the rising persecution of Jewish-German citizens in Nazi Germany; working life in the Berlin police; growing political tensions in Rath’s own family). Together, these showcased Kutscher’s writing talents and gave the 300-strong audience a tantalising glimpse of where Rath’s story is heading. There was also some interesting discussion:

  • Kutscher revealed that he plans to write nine novels in the ‘Rath’ series, ending in 1938, the year of the Reichskristallnacht pogrom (Night of Broken Glass), when it’s clear that Nazi persecution of the Jews is escalating and war is on the horizon. In addition, there’ll probably be a collection of stories to round the series off, giving ten books in total. His editor at Kiepenheuer&Witsch has different ideas; he’s going to try to persuade Kutscher to write more.
  • The character of Gereon Rath is purposefully flawed. The author doesn’t want him to be viewed as a hero – the emphasis is on how he navigates his way through the very difficult political times in which the series is set.
  • Kutscher’s Berlin is inspired by Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive [Emil and the Detectives, 1929], and by American gangster stories and films. He uses old films and photos of everyday life in Berlin to get the detail right, especially when buildings no longer exist, such as the Alexanderplatz Police Headquarters (now the hideous Alexa shopping centre).

I had a bit of a chat with Volker after the event… Watch this space for some very exciting news….!

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The big Dussmann bookshop in the centre of town has a section dedicated to Berlin Krimis

Another lovely stop was coffee with Katy Derbyshire to talk all things translation. Katy’s the translator of one of my favourite German crime novels – Simon Urban’s Plan Dand posts fascinating notes about the process of translating on her blog, love german books. You can read her post on Plan D here, which also gives an insight into the crucial role translators can play in getting European novels published in the UK.

Then it was off to the Miss Marple crime bookshop in Charlottenburg, where I picked up the first in the ‘Markus Cheng’ private investigator series by Austrian author Heinrich Steinfest (Piper, 2007 [2000]). I’ve been keen to get hold of this one since it was covered by Marieke Krajenbrink in our Crime Fiction in German volume. It’s not yet available in translation, but looks like a lot of fun – the setting is Vienna and the narrative has a nicely sardonic tone.

Miss Marple is one of at least three independent crime bookshops in Berlin – two others are Hammett and totsicher (dead certain). They seem to keep afloat quite nicely, probably because a German version of the net pricing agreement is still in place, which prevents them being undercut by bigger bookshops and supermarkets. That Germany is a nation of crime lovers was evident from the steady stream of customers during my visit, although there’s clearly a threat from big online retailers, as shown by the paper bag in which my book was wrapped.

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Rough translation of the slogan on the bag: You don’t need to trek to the Amazon when there are books right on your doorstep

This time we also made it out to the Glienicke Brücke, which marked the Cold War border between Potsdam (in East Germany) and West Berlin from 1949 to 1989. The bridge hosted three major spy swaps, which earned it the nickname The Bridge of Spies. The latter is of course also the title of the 2015 Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks, which depicted the Abel/Powers exchange of 1962. I’d been very keen to visit for a while, and being there certainly lived up to expectations. You can very much feel the weight of history, and standing at the centre of the bridge, on the line between east and west, felt very strange indeed. It also happens to be an exceptionally beautiful spot, with views out over two large and very lovely lakes.

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Clockwise from left: detail from bridge railing; bridge from eastern lower side; view over the lake standing by the bridge on western side; centre of the bridge, marked by a metal line saying ‘German division until 1989’.

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Giant GDR symbol used as a film prop in Spielberg’s The Bridge of Spies. Now in the Villa Schöningen exhibition about the bridge (on the eastern side)

You can read more about the Glienicke Bridge and its spy swaps over at history.com.

To finish off, here’s a selection of the food we hoovered up while in Berlin. Return trip to be scheduled soon.

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From top left: German herring salad; Franzbroetchen; (divine) roll with cheese; giant portion of cheesecake; Vietnamese won ton; Apfelstrudel with whipped cream; Turkish selection of starters with Efes beer, Vietnamese beef dish with aniseed broth; Berliner Bier

Westö’s The Wednesday Club (Finland) and the #EU27Project

Kjell Westö, The Wednesday Club, tr. from Swedish by Neil Smith (MacLehose, 2016 [2013]). A 2017 Petrona Award entry.

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First line: When Mrs. Wiik failed to turn up for work that morning, at first he felt irritated.

This excellent, multilayered crime novel won the Nordic Council Award in 2014. Set in 1938 Helsinki, it focuses on the members of ‘The Wednesday Club’ – a group of six Swedish-Finnish friends who meet regularly for drinks and conversation – as well as other individuals who are linked to them in various ways.

The novel is the story of how and why a crime is committed rather than a traditional murder mystery. The crime in question – triggered by a chance meeting – can be viewed as a tragic individual story, but also takes on larger symbolic dimensions, as historical crimes of the past, present and future are a major theme. These include the crimes committed at the end of the Finnish Civil War (when socialist ‘Red’ Finns were interned in prison camps), the rise of German and Finnish fascism in the present, as well as National Socialist crimes to come (euthanasia and the persecution of the Jews). Another closely linked theme is that of trauma, which is handled with great sensitivity via the figures of Matilda Wiik and Jary.

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This photo and race, which ended in a scandal, is incorporated into Westo’s narrative. Thanks to Neil Smith for passing it on.

Reading The Wednesday Club has taught me a lot about Finland, especially its early history. We’re shown a young nation divided by its dual Swedish/Finnish heritage, and by politics and class. Its depiction of 1938 as a moment of great social and political uncertainty also feels resonant now, given that right-wing populism is once again on the rise. The whole novel is beautifully written, and Neil Smith’s translation communicates the measured and occasionally humorous tone of the original extremely well.

The day after finishing this novel, Marina Sofia’s ‘#EU27Project: Reading the European Union’ caught my eye. I’ll definitely be having a go myself, and will use The Wednesday Club as my Finnish entry. To find out more, see Marina Sofia’s post over at Findingtimetowrite. There’s a provisional list of her 27 novels here and you might also find inspiration in this earlier Mrs P post of ’35 European crime novels’.

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New Year crime fiction treats from Denmark, England, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden

Happy New Year to you all!

I hope that 2017 has started well and that you have lots of lovely crime fiction lined up as we move into a new reading year.

One of the truly splendid things about a crime blogger’s life is being sent lots of fantastic books. The picture below shows my postbag for the last month, which contains some mouth-watering delights.

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As these crime novels come from a variety of publishers, it’s interesting to see how the contents of individual parcels combine. Quite a number in this consignment are entries for the 2017 Petrona Award, which I help to judge along with Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and Karen Meek. This explains the high ratio of Scandi crime, including novels by Norwegian crime writing stars Anne Holt (special guest at last year’s CrimeFest) and Karin Fossum. The latter’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ novel The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker, tr. Kari Dickson) was shortlisted for the 2016 Petrona Award.

Another Petrona entry that’s particularly caught my eye is Finnish author Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Club (MacLehose, tr. Neil Smith). This novel originally appeared in Swedish (one of Finland’s official languages), is set in Helsinki in 1938, and explores the legacy of the Finnish Civil War. Two of the other novels are set around that time as well (both from Harvill Secker): Danish author Simon Pasternak’s Death Zones (tr. Martin Aitkin / Belorussia in 1943) and Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District (tr. Victoria Cribb / wartime Reykjavík). The latter is a proof copy and a very exciting bit of post, as it marks the beginning of a new series from this outstanding author (pub. April 2017).

Ragnar Jónasson’s Rupture (Orenda, tr. Quentin Bates), the latest in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series, is also one I’m very much looking forward to reading: it features a cold case from 1955, which sounds right up my street. Other delights include the latest Eva Dolan and Fred Vargas novels (Harvill Secker), Watch Her Disappear and A Climate of Fear (tr. Siân Reynolds). Both Dolan and Vargas are excellent writers, albeit with extremely different styles and authorial concerns.

Lastly, there’s been quite a lot of talk about Erik Axl Sund’s The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker, tr. Neil Smith). It features a highly unusual female protagonist and is definitely not going to be a boring read…

So, that lot’s going to keep me busy for a while.

Which crime novels are you particularly looking forward to reading in January? 

Crime news: Gustawsson, Nesbo, Bier, Macrae Burnet and Eurocrime

A round-up of some recent news from the world of crime:

Orenda Books has signed Block 46, a debut thriller by French, London-based author Johana Gustawsson, which will be translated by Maxim Jakubowski.

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Karen Sullivan, publisher of Orenda Books, says: “Block 46 is an exceptional debut – a gritty yet nuanced thriller that swings between London and Sweden, before picking up a second narrative strand that takes place in a concentration camp in 1944 Germany. An unforgettable triumvirate of protagonists include Emily, a British profiler, Alexis, a French true crime writer, and maverick Inspector Bergstrom in Sweden. Beautifully written, with a sweeping narrative, evocative settings and a heart-thumping pace, this marks the beginning of a fabulous series and writing career for Johana, and ticks every box on the growing Orenda list.”

More info from The Bookseller here.

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Harry’s back! Jo Nesbo’s hard-boiled Oslo detective Harry Hole will return in his latest novel, THE THIRST, to be published by Harvill Secker in May 2017.

THE THIRST continues the story of POLICE, Harry Hole’s last outing in 2013, which saw the maverick cop protecting those closest to him from a killer wreaking revenge on the police. THE THIRST sees Harry drawn back to the Oslo police force when a serial killer begins targeting Tinder daters… It’s the 11th instalment in Jo Nesbo’s bestselling crime fiction series, which have sold over 30 million copies worldwide and are published in 50 languages.

Jo Nesbo says: I was always coming back to Harry; he’s my soul mate. But it’s a dark soul, so it is – as always – both a thrill and a chilling, emotionally exhausting experience. But Harry and the story make it worth the sleepless nights.’

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Director Susanne Bier

Danish director Susanne Bier has won an Emmy – Outstanding Directing for a Limited Series’ – for her work on the TV adaptation of John le Carré’s The Night Manager. She commented on BBC Breakfast: “This is such a traditional men’s world, and I hope the fact a woman director has won this prestigious prize is going to mean that more non-conventional series and movies are going to be directed by women.”

There’s a good interview with Susanne about her work on The Night Manager here.

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His Bloody Project, by Scottish writer Graeme Macrae Burnet, has been shortlisted for the Man Booker PrizeIt’s wonderful news for the author, the independent publisher Saraband, and fans of crime fiction in general – the more crime fiction we see on those ‘big’ literary prize shortlists the better!

The novel focuses on a triple murder in a crofting community in 1860s Scotland. Here’s the blurb from Saraband

“The year is 1869. A brutal triple murder in a remote community in the Scottish Highlands leads to the arrest of a young man by the name of Roderick Macrae.

A memoir written by the accused makes it clear that he is guilty, but it falls to the country’s finest legal and psychiatric minds to uncover what drove him to commit such merciless acts of violence. Was he mad? Only the persuasive powers of his advocate stand between Macrae and the gallows.

Graeme Macrae Burnet tells an irresistible and original story about the provisional nature of truth, even when the facts seem clear. His Bloody Project is a mesmerising literary thriller set in an unforgiving landscape where the exercise of power is arbitrary.”

And lastly…I’ve updated my list of 35 European crime novels with publisher and translator information. Quite a few of you have been tucking into this list, which is great to see. Needless to say, I’ll keep flying the flag for Eurocrime and Europe in future.

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Sums up Brexit perfectly

CrimeFest 2016 highlights: Holt, Piñeiro, le Carré, Krimis and The Petrona Award

CrimeFest 2016 took place last week in Bristol, UK. It featured a succession of fabulous panels and, as ever, provided a wonderful opportunity to catch up with other criminally minded readers, as well as the great and the good of the publishing world. Here are my highlights.CFhighreslogo-2016

Anne Holt is one of Norway’s best-known crime writers and the creator of the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. She very rarely appears at crime conventions, so it was something of a coup to have lured her to Bristol as a featured guest author.

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Norwegian author Anne Holt

Barry Forshaw’s interview with Holt on Sunday was fascinating and wide-ranging.

  • Holt worked in journalism, as a news anchor, as a lawyer, and briefly as Minister of Justice for Norway. Then, at the age of 40, she moved away from a workaholic lifestyle and started to write. Her first novel was Blind Goddess (1993) and she’s never looked back.
  • Hanne Wilhelmsen was the first lesbian investigative lead in Norwegian crime fiction. Hanne is a complex figure. Due to her upbringing and family background, she’s very private and prefers not to reveal herself to others. In this respect, she’s very different to Holt – a conscious decision in order to make the character more challenging to write.
  • Holt has deep love of British crime, especially Agatha Christie. Her novels are still recruiting readers, for which we should be thankful. The eighth Wilhelmsen novel, 1222, is a homage to the golden age of crime (critics in Norway panned it – she’s not sure why- but it did well in other countries).
  • Holt is friends with Jo Nesbo and has discussed the subject of violence with him. She feels that violence should not be directly described in crime novels unless necessary. She rarely does so (one exception), preferring to focus on the effects of violence instead.
  • Holt says how crime novels do in Germany is a barometer for publishers in relation to British & European markets.
  • Holt on the EU referendum: the EU is an instrument for peace and trade, and it would be a tragedy if Britain were to leave. It could be the beginning of end for the EU.
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Argentinian author Claudia Piñeiro

I was also very excited to see Claudia Piñeiro at CrimeFest (and indeed in the UK) for the first time. Piñeiro is an Argentine crime-writing superstar whose work has been translated into numerous languages, but she’s not known here nearly as well as she should be. Bitter Lemon Press has published four of her novels in translation so far, including Betty Boo, which is set in a gated community in Buenos Aires and explores the nature of modern journalism (review pending). Piñeiro is an incredibly versatile writer, whose depictions of Argentine society are astute, insightful and sardonic – I really hope to see more of her work in English in the future.

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Adam Sisman, John le Carré’s official biographer, was also at CrimeFest, in a packed session with broadcaster and writer James Naughtie. Sisman spoke very eloquently about the benefits and challenges of writing on a ‘living subject’. For example, one of le Carré’s conditions was that he should be the first to see the manuscript, and he promptly emailed Sisman 22 pages of notes. At one point he told Sisman ‘it’s very strange to have you here poking around my mind’.

  • Sisman rightly emphasised le Carré’s position at the top of the writing game from the early 60s to the present day.
  • He also noted that le Carré’s political arc was unusual – from establishment to left-wing anger. While studying at Oxford University in the 1950s he spied on other students for MI5, something that troubles him now.
  • The spying terms le Carré uses in his novels are often made up, but have been adopted by spying agencies. One CIA agent told Sisman that le Carré is ‘part of our DNA’.
  • The author has a wonderful ear for dialogue/mimicry, and often rehearses characters’ conversations out loud when on walks.
  • He’s always enthusiastic about the future, about new projects such as The Night Manager, and does not live in the past.

Mrs Pea was also in action, presenting the Crime Fiction in German volume to a delightful audience in one of the ‘In the Spotlight’ sessions. David Young, author of Stasi Child, kindly acted as Draw Meister. Rather impressively, we managed to give away twelve Krimis and two copies of the volume in twenty minutes. Thanks again to the Goethe Institut, Swansea University, the University of Wales Press, Bitter Lemon Press, Penguin, Michael Joseph and Vintage for their support.

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Clockwise from top left: David Young (Draw Meister) with Mrs Peabody; a beautifully attentive audience; the Krimi Giveaway winners; the last copy of the volume in the bookshop…

And on Saturday night, the winner of the 2016 Petrona Award was announced: Norwegian writer Jørn Lier Horst for his novel The Caveman (see my interview with the author here). Bob Davidson of Sandstone Press accepted the award on Jørn’s behalf from Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, the 2015 Petrona winner. You can see the transcript of Jørn’s acceptance speech (which was rather lovely) on the Petrona website, along with details of the shortlisted titles. As ever, I’m very proud to be a judge for this excellent award, set up in memory of Maxine Clarke.

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From left: the winning novel and the Petrona trophy (photo Sandstone Press); Sarah Ward and Barry Forshaw announcing the award with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir (photo by Ali Karim); Bob Davidson accepting the award on Jørn’s behalf.

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The Petrona Award judges with Anne Holt (photo by Andy Lawrence)

I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of CrimeFest16 in this post. For example, Ian Rankin, another one of the featured guest authors, gave a wonderful interview and treated the audience to an extract of his next Rebus book. Hopefully other bloggers will cover some different events/panels.

And…the CWA International Dagger longlist was also announced. I’ll leave you with the list of nominees below. Please note that two German novels have made the cut (Arango and Rademacher). I’ve also got my eye on Six Four, a Japanese crime novel highly praised by David Peace. Disappointed by the lack of women authors, though.

Title Author Translated by Publisher
The Truth and Other Lies Sascha Arango Imogen Taylor Simon & Schuster
The Great Swindle Pierre Lemaître Frank Wynne MacLehose Press
Icarus Deon Meyer K L Seegers Hodder & Stoughton
The Sword of Justice Leif G.W. Persson Neil Smith Doubleday
The Murderer in Ruins Cay Rademacher Peter Millar Arcadia
The Father Anton Svensson Elizabeth Clark Wessel Sphere
The Voices Beyond Johan Theorin Marlaine Delargy Transworld
Six Four Hideo Yokoyama Jonathan Lloyd-Davis Quercus

Many thanks to the CrimeFest16 organisers for a wonderful four days!

European Literature Festival – Kutscher & Raabe – CrimeFest is on its way!

There’s lots of highly criminal activity in the UK over the next couple of weeks.

Here are a few highlights.

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The European Literature Festival is currently under way, with a packed programme including a very special evening at the British Library on Friday 13 May – tomorrow! ‘Criminal Worlds: Detective Fiction in Europe‘ features three wonderful crime writers – Peter James (UK), Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland; shortlisted for the Petrona Award) and Volker Kutscher (Germany), and is chaired by the marvellous Barry Forshaw. They will be ‘casting their forensic eye on the celebrated and lesser-known investigators of European fiction’. 

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Volker Kutscher pops up again at the Goethe Institut London on Monday 16 May to talk about Babylon Berlin, the first in his ‘Gereon Rath’ series, which is published in English by Sandstone Press on 19 May. This bestselling series has sold over a million copies worldwide to date. Its five novels follow the fortunes of Berlin Detective Inspector Rath as he navigates the turbulent political waters of Weimar Berlin, and are both gripping and rich in historical detail. Together with translator Niall Sellar and Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press, Volker will discuss his books, the translation process, and the reception of German crime fiction in Great Britain (further info available here).

AND you can hear Volker talking about Babylon Berlin tonight at 10.00pm on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Free Thinking’ programme, together with the celebrated director Tom Tykwer (of Lola Rennt fame), who is adapting the crime series for television. As this Variety article explains, two eight-episode seasons are in the pipeline, scheduled for international release in 2017.

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Another interesting German author is published in English for the first time next week. Melanie Raabe grew up in the former East Germany and has worked as a journalist, magazine editor and playwright. The Trap, published by Mantle/Pan Macmillan, is her first novel and won the Stuttgarter Krimipreis (Stuttgart Crime Prize) for best crime debut. It has a wonderfully intriguing premise: reclusive best-selling writer Linda Conrads is convinced that a journalist she sees on TV is her sister Anna’s killer. She decides to set a trap: after writing a novel about the murder of a woman whose killer is never caught, she offers the journalist an exclusive interview… I’ve read the first couple of chapters and am already hooked.

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CrimeFest takes place next week *excited face*. I’m hugely looking forward to attending and seeing a host of wonderful authors in action, including Anne Holt (Norway), Ian Rankin (Scotland), Claudia Piñeiro (Argentina) and Adam Sisman (biographer of John le Carre). And of course the Petrona Award winner will be announced at the gala dinner on Saturday evening :-).

The full CrimeFest programme is available here.

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Mrs. Peabody will also be in action at CrimeFest, with an ‘In the Spotlight’ session on all things Krimi (Friday 20 May at 11.20). There will be a giveaway of ten German-language crime novels, courtesy of the Goethe Institut London, Bitter Lemon Press, Penguin, Michael Joseph and Vintage. Two copies of the Crime Fiction in German volume will also be up for grabs thanks to the Goethe Institut and the University of Wales Press.

And a little reminder: you can download a completely FREE chapter from Crime Fiction in German here!

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Yes! Erich the Bavarian duck will be at CrimeFest!

Author interview with Abir Mukherjee about Calcutta crime novel A Rising Man

Wishing a very happy publication day to Abir Mukherjee! Abir is the winner of the 2014 ‘Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing’ competition. A Rising Man, his highly accomplished debut crime novel, is set in Calcutta in 1919 and marks the start of the ‘Captain Wyndham’ series. He joins me below for a fascinating interview about the novel, his historical research, and the writers who inspire him.

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Opening lines: ‘At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.’

Cover text: Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard Detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

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Abir Mukherjee (photo by Nick Tucker)

Mrs. Peabody: Abir, thanks very much for joining me. A Rising Man is set in the India of 1919, just after the end of the First World War. Why did you choose that particular historical moment for the start of your series?

Abir: My parents came to Britain as immigrants from India in the sixties, and my life has always been shaped by both cultures. As such I’ve always been interested in the period of British Rule in India. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and to modern Britain, but it’s a period that’s been largely forgotten or mischaracterised, either romanticised or brushed under the carpet.

I’ve always been rather surprised by this and wanted to look at it from the point of view of an outsider who’s new to it all. One of the things that’s always fascinated me is that, in an era when totalitarian regimes were rampant in Europe, regularly murdering anyone who showed any dissent, in India, this largely peaceful freedom struggle was playing out between Indians and their British overlords. At the time, there was no parallel to this anywhere in the world, and I think it says a lot about the people of both nations that such a struggle could be played out in an comparatively civilised way.

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A thoroughly British depiction of the Indian Raj

Abir: I also wanted to explore the effect of empire on both the rulers and the ruled. In particular I wanted to understand what happens when a democratic nation subjugates another, both in terms of the impact on the subjugated peoples, but just as importantly, on the psyche of the people doing the oppressing. I think the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system were immense and in something that’s been relatively unexamined.

I wanted to write a series exploring the relationships between these two different, but in many ways very similar cultures, but from the viewpoint of someone new to it all and 1919 just felt like the right place to start. To me, it was the start of the modern age. The Great War had just ended, it had destroyed a lot of the old certainties and left a lot of people disillusioned and no longer willing to simply accept what they were told by their betters. Sam, the protagonist, is a product of that time and I think he is one of the first modern men.

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Kolkata/Calcutta lies in the east of India on the Bay of Bengal

Mrs. Peabody: How did you go about recreating the Calcutta of the time? What kind of research did you carry out?

Abir: In the period that the book is set, Calcutta was still the premier city in Asia and was as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. At the same time, it was a city undergoing immense change and was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. It seemed the natural choice for the series I wanted to write. Of course, it helped that my parents are both from Calcutta and I’d spent a quite a bit of time there over the years. I even speak the language, though with a Scottish accent.

In terms of recreating the Calcutta of the period, it’s amazing how much of that history is still around in the Calcutta (or Kolkata) of today. Calcuttans have a great sense of the history of their city, possibly because the city was at its zenith during that period, and so many people were more than willing to answer the many questions I had.

During one visit, I was lucky enough to be granted access to the Calcutta Police Museum where a lot of the police documents from the period are on exhibit. That was fascinating as the Kolkata Police today has a rather ambivalent view of its own history during that time. In terms of research though, most of that was done sitting at home in front of the computer and trawling the internet.

Mrs. Peabody: Tell us a bit about your leading investigator, Captain Sam Wyndham, and the perspective he offers us of India.

Abir: Sam’s a rather strange fish. He’s an ex-Scotland Yard detective who’s basically spent his whole life struggling against the tide. Life’s not exactly been kind to him. He gets packed off to boarding school at a young age and some of his best years were spent sitting in a trench in France getting shot at by Germans. He survives the war, though only to find that his wife has died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Scarred by his wartime experiences and burdened by survivor’s guilt, he comes to India mainly because he has no better alternative.

At the point in his life where he arrives in Calcutta, he’s a pretty jaded soul with a bit of an alcohol and chemical dependency, though he’d tell you he used them for medicinal purposes. He’s been disillusioned by the war and I think he’s more open to seeing India with his own eyes than swallowing everything he’s told. He’s happy to point out hypocrisy where he sees it, whether it be from the whites or the natives.

Mrs Peabody: The novel does a wonderful job of dissecting the political, racial and social tensions of life under the British Raj. Do you think that crime fiction offers particular opportunities in this respect?

Abir: Definitely.

I think most authors have something to say beyond the telling of a good story and I think crime fiction is a wonderful vehicle for exploring deeper societal issues, because it allows you to look at all of society from the top to the bottom.

As Ian Rankin said in an interview earlier this year, “the crime novel is a good way of raising this stuff because … a detective has an access all areas pass to the entire city, to its riches and deprivations.”

In terms of India in 1919, as a white policeman, Sam has is exposed to all sections of Calcutta society, from the politicians and businessmen right down to the rickshaw-wallahs and brothel keepers. He’s part of the whole fabric, but at the same time separate from it and able to see it objectively.

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Kolkata flower market. Image Courtesy of Parasarathi Mukherjee, Walks in Kolkata

Mrs Peabody: Which authors/works have inspired you as a writer?

Abir: There are so many.

There are the books which have left the greatest impression on me and which I’ve read quite a few times. At the top of that list would come George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian views of the future and this is, in my opinion, the finest dystopian novel. I’ve read this book more times than I can remember and it’s a joy every time. The characterization of Winston and Julia’s relationship, set against the backdrop of this all-powerful totalitarian society is just fantastic.

Lahiri

Abir: Other works that have left an impression include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a story about the travails of a Bengali couple who immigrate from Calcutta to Boston and raise a family. My wife first introduced me to this book and I was just bowled over by it. The writing is sublime and I could relate to it in a way I haven’t with many other books.

Then there are others which are pretty special, like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a tale of love lost set in the world of string quartets, Kafka’s The Trial – the only book I’ve read that made me feel claustrophobic, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls with its amazing use of language.

In terms of crime and thrillers, there are a number of authors whose work I look out for and will buy as soon as it hits the shelf. Top of this list has to be Ian Rankin – I’m a huge Rebus fan, but also love the standalone novels too. Then there’s Philip Kerr, Martin Cruz Smith and Robert Harris, all three of whom produce novels shot through with wit and an intelligence, something which I love.

Finally, and in a special category, there’s William McIlvanney, whose Glasgow Detective, Laidlaw is a fantastic creation. I think McIlvanney was a true genius. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.

Mrs P: Many thanks, Abir!

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is published by Harvill Secker on 5 May 2016 (priced £12.99). And here’s an interesting Telegraph article in which Abir gives some tips on writing.

A Rising Man blog tour poster

 

‘Crime Fiction in German’ publication day! With a FREE CHAPTER!

Today sees the publication of Crime Fiction in German by the University of Wales Press. For all us involved in writing and producing the book, this is a hugely exciting moment, not least because Crime Fiction in German is a genuine first: the first volume in English to give a comprehensive overview of German-language crime fiction from its origins in the early nineteenth century to the present day. And it’s World Book Day here in the UK as well – what could be finer?

To celebrate there’s a FREE introductory chapter available to all readers!

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About the book

  • Crime Fiction in German explores crime fiction from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the former East and West German states.
  • It investigates National Socialist crime fiction, Jewish-German crime fiction, Turkish-German crime fiction and the Afrika-Krimi (crime set predominantly in post-colonial Africa), expanding the notion of a German crime-writing tradition along the way.
  • It examines key areas such as the West German Soziokrimi (social crime novel), the Frauenkrimi (women’s crime writing), the Regionalkrimi (regional crime fiction), historical crime fiction and the Fernsehkrimi (TV crime drama). In the process, it highlights the genre’s distinctive features in German-language contexts. And yes, humour is one of them 🙂
  • It includes a map of German-speaking Europe, a chronology of crime publishing milestones, extracts from primary texts, and an annotated bibliography of print and online resources in English and German.
  • All quotes are given in English and German. No knowledge of German is required!
  • The contributors – Julia Augart (University of Namibia), Marieke Krajenbrink (University of Limerick), Katharina Hall (Swansea University), Martin Rosenstock (Gulf University, Kuwait), Faye Stewart (Georgia State University), Mary Tannert (editor and translator of Early German and Austrian Detective Fiction) – are all experts in the field of crime fiction studies.

Further details, including a table of contents, are available at the University of Wales Press website. The paperback is available from Amazon here.

Now read on for details of the FREE chapter!

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The Free Chapter

While Crime Fiction in German is an academic volume that hopes to be useful to scholars in the field, a key aim has been to make the book accessible to ALL readers with an interest in crime fiction. We’re aware that not everyone may be able to buy the volume (academic texts have smaller print runs and are mainly bought by university libraries, and therefore have a different pricing structure to mass-produced books). If not, one option is to ask the local library to order a copy. Another is to read on for a very special treat…

Anyone, anywhere in the world, can download Chapter One of Crime Fiction in German for FREE.

The chapter gives an overview of the volume and of the history of German-language crime fiction. It’s PACKED with criminal goodness, and thanks to the generous financial support of Swansea University, you can download from the university’s Cronfa research repository. And did I mention that it’s FREE?

❤ In return, we ask two tiny favours ❤

  • If you like the chapter and want to tell other people, please send them the link below rather than the actual PDF. Why? Because then we can track how many times the chapter has been downloaded. If there’s lots of activity, more ‘open access’ projects like this one may be funded in the future.
  • Secondly, if you download the chapter and have a moment, could you leave a comment below saying where you’re from? This will help us see how far the chapter has travelled. It could be rather fun – I’m looking forward to seeing if we can get ‘Leipzig, Germany’, ‘Moose Jaw, Canada’, and ‘Beijing, China’ all in a row.

Right, here we go! The link to the Crime Fiction in German Chapter One is

https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191

Enjoy and please spread the word!

Map of World

A salute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

We’ve lost two cultural giants this week: American author Harper Lee (1926-2016), and the Italian philosopher, cultural theorist and writer Umberto Eco (1932-2016). Here’s a salute to each with some links to further reading.

Harper Lee

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience”

Harper Lee’s literary reputation rests almost completely on one novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Set in mid-1930s Alabama, it uses a court case to illuminate the ingrained racism of the Deep South: black field-hand Tom Robinson is falsely accused of raping a white woman and is defended at trial by attorney Atticus Finch, the father of precocious child-narrator Scout. The novel can be viewed both as a coming-of-age story and a historical novel about the Great Depression, and explores the themes of crime, racism, morality and justice in a way that still feels challenging today. The 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck is a classic.      

Lee was the daughter of a lawyer (on whom the character of Atticus was based), studied law herself, and had an interesting link to the world of crime writing. One of her childhood friends was Truman Capote, and she worked with him in conducting interviews and gathering materials for In Cold Blood (1966), his ground-breaking ‘true crime’ examination of the Clutter family murder case in Kansas.

Further reading:

Italian writer Umberto Eco listens to a question during the presentation of his latest novel "The Cemetery of Prague" in Madrid December 13, 2010. REUTERS/Andrea Comas

Umberto Eco in December 2010 (REUTERS/Andrea Comas)

“Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry”

In the world of crime fiction, Umberto Eco was most famous for his first novel, The Name of the Rose (1980), which is accurately described on the author’s website as ‘an intellectual mystery combining semiotics, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory’. The novel’s 500 pages provide readers with a riveting murder mystery, a wonderful detective (Brother William of Baskerville), a rich portrait of 14th-century monastic life and medieval intellectual/religious conflict. The fiendishly clever solution remains one of the best in the crime fiction.

I love the possibly apocryphal stories that Eco wrote The Name of the Rose in response to a dare, or because “I felt like poisoning a monk”. It may therefore have been something of a surprise to him that the novel sold 10 million copies in over 30 languages.

Eco regarded himself primarily as an academic who wrote fiction on the side. His key areas of inquiry were philosophy and semiotics (the study of signs), and he wrote influential articles on literary theory and popular culture. His essay collection The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (1979) has been useful in my own academic work on crime fiction, particularly the distinction he makes between ‘closed’ and ‘open’ texts (the latter offer the reader greater interpretive agency, rather than steering readers towards a predetermined narrative closure). Grazie, Professore.

Further reading:

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Eco’s original sketch for the labyrinthine abbey library in The Name of the Rose

Deutschland 83 series review: my take as a Germanist and fan

For the past seven weeks, Channel 4/Walter Presents viewers have been gripped by the German Cold War spy drama Deutschland 83, created by Anna and Jörg Winger, a talented German/American husband and wife team. Following tonight’s feature-length finale, here are my thoughts on the show as a Germanist who teaches/writes on German history and as a fan. The post contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the series, DON’T read on…watch the series instead!

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I watched the first episode of Deutschland 83 with slight trepidation. As a Germanist trying to persuade Brits of the merits of German culture, I wanted it to be good and to overturn some of the persistent UK tabloid stereotypes about Germans (earnest, humourless, Nazi). It was and it did. We were introduced to a host of intriguing characters and saw 24-year-old East German border guard Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay) bundled off to West Germany as secret agent Kolibri. Posing as Moritz Stamm, an aide to General Wolfgang Edel, he begins to gather classified military secrets in Bonn and to pass them back to the GDR, as Cold War tensions between East and West rise.

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Getting into the swing of this spying thing

One big question the first episode raised was that of historical veracity. A friend of mine, an academic expert on East Germany, described the depiction of Martin’s recruitment by the Stasi (the East German secret police) as ‘baloney’. I totally understood this reaction, as I’ve had similar responses to dramas set in Nazi Germany (e.g. one where a Jewish-German protagonist calls out a cheery ‘Shalom!’ to his friends on a busy Nazi-era street). But allowances should be made: writers of historical dramas need to communicate complex information to viewers very quickly, which sometimes means taking what I think of as ‘symbolic shortcuts’. In this case, the use of the spy thriller genre also demanded exciting action and a brisk narrative pace: we obviously couldn’t spend six episodes with Martin while he was being methodically trained in spycraft, so some suspension of disbelief was required.

On the other hand, the first episode managed to convey some fundamental truths: the Stasi‘s ruthless use of people’s personal circumstances to secure cooperation; the politicised nature of everyday East German life; the ideological hypocrisy of Western coffee and perfume making their way East via a border guard or a highly placed Stasi official; the very real military tensions of the time. And it was stylish. Beautifully shot, with a classy 80s soundtrack, its nuanced direction was serious or light as the action required. By the end of the episode I was hooked: how was young Martin/Moritz going to negotiate the tricky double identity that is the basis of a spy’s existence?

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Here are just some of the things I loved about Deutschland 83:

  • The episode titles originate from NATO military exercises. Quantum Jump, Brave Guy, Atlantic Lion, Northern Wedding, Cold Fire, Brandy Station, Bold Guard and Able Archer all took place in 1983. The latter is of particular significance throughout the series.
  • Tremendous historical and cultural breadth. The series successfully shows viewers the global scale of the Cold War in 1983 (from President Reagan’s ‘Evil Empire’ speech to the Russian downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007); the profound legacy of the student/68 movement (from Alex’s interest in the Green Party and Yvonne’s life in a Rajneesh commune to Tischbier’s faux political activism at the University of Bonn); and the devastating rise of AIDS.
  • The ‘coming-of-age’ theme. We see a number of characters having to grow up very quickly in the course of the series, such as Martin, Alex, Yvonne and Annett. The moral challenges they face in the process are effectively drawn, particularly in Martin’s case.
  • Politically subversive libraries. Martin’s mother Ingrid may be the sister of a Stasi apparatchik and gratefully receive bottles of Chanel/privileged medical attention, but she also has a stash of illicit literature such as George Orwell’s 1984 in a secret room in her basement. She’s in cahoots with Thomas, helping him to distribute banned books from the boot of her car (a subversive mobile library!). The scenes in which Martin’s girlfriend Annett discovers Ingrid’s library and then denounces Thomas to the Stasi made me incredibly thankful to live in a society that values free speech.
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What have we here…?

  • Ursula Edel and the fish (episode 5). One of the many darkly humorous moments from the series.
  • The soundtrack is a delight, featuring 80s hits from East and West Germany, and the English-speaking world. There’s a full Spotify playlist here. My favourites include the German version of Peter Schilling’s theme tune ‘Major Tom (völlig losgelöst)’, Nena’s ’99 Luftballons’ and David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.
  • Last but not least…Lenora Rauch. Martin’s ruthless Stasi aunt, who forces her nephew into the life of a spy, is beautifully played by Maria Schrader (whom you may remember from the film Aimée & Jaguar). Her ideological conviction is tempered by a world-weary, I’ve-seen-it-all-before vibe: the collapse of an operation just elicits a sigh and an extra-long drag on her cigarette. Oh, and she’s also a total 80s style icon, complete with perm, killer silk shirts and red lippy/nails.
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Things are about to go pear-shaped…again

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Cutting edge technology: the floppy disk

There may have been times where things threatened to get a bit silly, such as Episode 2’s entertaining but implausible attack on Martin/Moritz by the ninja-assassin-waitress. But the series always managed to pull itself back from the brink of parody and delivered some truly powerful moments.

  • Linda Seiler’s death halfway through the series in episode 4 was a game-changer. When Martin fails to shake the NATO secretary’s loyalty to the West, she is run over and killed by Tischbier in a truly traumatic scene. This event shows us that Martin’s spying assignment is grown-up and deadly. Even though he resisted letting Linda drown in the lake earlier in the episode, he must still bear some responsibility for her death, which was necessary to protect his cover. It’s a le-Carré-style moral low in which innocent individuals are shown becoming pawns in much larger political games. To add insult to injury, brave Linda is left in an unmarked grave in the forest (a German fairytale gone badly wrong) and it’s suggested that she defected to the East.
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Alas, poor Linda!

  • Linda’s apparent betrayal has consequences. It leads her boss, moderate NATO analyst Henrik Mayer to commit suicide, which allows hawks in the East and West to escalate military tensions. A special mention in this respect must go to Stasi official Walter Schweppenstette, whose ideological adherence is particularly dangerous. Told by a Russian superior that a decoded report must fit Moscow’s view of a predatory US, he dutifully edits and distorts its findings. In a chilling scene at the end of episode 6, the Russian is shown receiving the doctored report and accepting its contents as genuine, thereby turning fiction into fact, and taking the two sides perilously close to nuclear war.
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Was it something I said?

  • Tonight’s finale… took the world to the brink of nuclear destruction and back again. A number of characters had their morality tested, none more so than Martin, whose decisive action made key figures such as General Edel and Lenora begin to doubt Schweppenstette’s wilful insistence that NATO forces were about to launch an attack. One sobering aspect of this storyline was its emphasis on how the actions of just a few individuals have the power to trigger catastrophic destruction or perhaps…in a thriller at least, to stop it, allowing nuclear rockets to reverse back into their firing systems before our eyes. Phew.
  • Alex and Martin are revealed to have been ‘twins’ all along, both the sons of powerful fathers on the opposite sides of the Berlin Wall. The knowledge of that fact will definitely enrich a second viewing of the series.
  • Never has a border crossing – from WEST to EAST – been more thrilling. Didn’t the little fairy godmother in the car do well?
  • Comic highlight: Schweppenstette’s inept dad-dancing to Udo Lindenberg.
  • The series left a number of questions deliberately open. What of Martin and Annett’s future? If Martin passed his moral test, Annett failed hers spectacularly. Where will Lenora’s big adventure take her? And what of the Edels? Both father and son cut quite tragic figures at the end. Thomas is saved by Ingrid’s actions, but what awaits him in the West? To be continued….?

One of the best things about Deutschland 83 is that it’s made Germany and the German language cool. I’ve been made inordinately happy by tweets such as these: @jazzywoop ‘#Deutschland83 writing, directing, production, casting, acting, location, music and design is magic. Elevated further by being in German’; @Yasmin_Gooner ‘German is the sexiest language in the whole world. #Deutschland83’; @julzenthe1st ‘German students & graduates are giving each other high fives all over Britain’. Thank you Mr. and Mrs. Winger, thanks Walter!

Further reading: 

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