Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children (Germany) – author interview and exclusive extract

Cay Rademacher’s The Murderer in Ruins, the first in the ‘Inspector Frank Stave’ series, was shortlisted for the CWA International Dagger. Its sequel, The Wolf Children, is now out with Arcadia Books, and looks to be another exceptional historical crime novel, set in the bleak post-war Germany of 1947.

Cay has kindly answered some questions about the novels below, and there’s also an exclusive extract from The Wolf Children for Mrs. Peabody readers, courtesy of Arcadia Books.

Cay will be on the ‘German Noir’ panel I’m moderating at Newcastle Noir on Saturday 29 April, thanks to the support of the Goethe-Institut London. If you’re in the area, do come along! You can see the full Newcastle Noir programme here.

Author interview with Cay Rademacher

MP: Welcome, Cay. The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are both set in Hamburg in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War. Why did you choose this particular location and year?

CR: I stumbled over it by chance – I did some research, as a journalist, for an article on daily life in post-war Germany. So this was the time: after 1945 and before 1949 (the Occupation years between the fall of National Socialism and the foundation of West and East Germany). And Hamburg was my home-town then, which I knew quite well.

Partly cleared bomb damage in 1947 Hamburg, photographed by Arabella Kurdi

MP: You very effectively depict life in a ruined post-war German city. How do you go about researching the detail of what it was like to experience that place and time?

CR: It’s a multi-layer approach –

  • Talk to historical witnesses and survivors.
  • Study documents from the period: police records, newspapers, letters, official documents, anything written.
  • Visit the Hamburg Museum, the city’s history museum, which has lots of things on display.
  • Historical research: interviews with historians and historical literature on the subject.
  • Films and photographs (the visual aspect is very important).
  • And, last but not least: visit all places personally. Though a lot of them have changed considerably, there are still many places to see. And even when a certain house or street has changed, there is still some kind of atmosphere there.

A Spiegel magazine cover from 1947, the year in which it was established with the support of the Allies. It’s still going strong 50 years later…

MP: Tell us a little about your investigator, Chief Inspector Frank Stave.

CR: There was a real ‘Oberinspektor Frank Stave’ in the Hamburg police, who signed a lot of documents in this period. But he is long gone and his biography is completely fictional. ‘My Stave’ was in the police even before Hitler came to power. He was never in the Nazi-party, but also never wanted to quit the service. So he feels guilty, in a way. His wife died during a night of bombing. His only son was an ardent follower of the regime and joined the Wehrmacht [the army] as a teenager in the last days of the war. He went missing fighting against the Red Army. So, working as a CID-man amidst the ruins of post-war Germany, Stave has to fight crime – and his inner demons too.

MP: Who are the ‘wolf children’, and why did you decide to make them central to the second Stave novel?

CR: Wolfskinder were, mostly, children who lost their entire families during their flight from Eastern territories around the end of the Second World War (roughly from the end of 1944 to the summer of 1946). These refugees were stranded in the cities, mostly in what would become West Germany. They formed gangs to survive. In Hamburg, which had about one million citizens at that time, there were about 10,000 to 12,000 wolf children in 1947. This, in itself, was for me reason enough to make them the tragic heroes of the novel.

The original German cover of The Wolf Children

MP: The Murderer in Ruins and The Wolf Children are part of a trilogy – the final part, Der Fälscher [The Forger], was published in Germany in 2013. Why did you decide to write a trilogy rather than a longer series?

CR: It’s a kind of circle. The Murderer in Ruins is set in the winter of 1947, which was, in a lot of ways, really Germany’s darkest hour (even more than 8 May 1945) – concerning poverty, desperation, shame, chaos. The third novel is set in the summer of 1948 – exactly during the weeks when the famous Deutsche Mark (German Mark) was introduced as new currency. This marked the beginning of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) and the birth of West Germany. All of a sudden, optimism was everywhere (and the will to ‘forget’ the Nazi past). So these three novels were set in the transition period between two very different regimes, in a kind of historical no man’s land.

Extract from the opening of Cay Rademacher’s The Wolf Children, trans. by Peter Millar and reproduced with the kind permission of Arcadia Books, 2017 (pp.1-12).

Chapter 1. The Boy and the Bomb

Friday, 30th May 1947

The dead boy’s blood coated the five-hundred-pound British bomb like a red veil. Light coming through the shattered roof of the warehouse fell on the corpse and on the unexploded bomb, a thing the size of a man, like some monstrous fish that had buried itself in the concrete flooring. The rest of the warehouse was in darkness. It was as if the sunlight shining in on the boy and the bomb was some giant theatrical floodlight, Chief Inspector Frank Stave of Hamburg CID thought to himself.

Stave was in charge of a small team investigating the murder and had to prepare a report on the condition of the body and the presumed crime scene, take statements from witnesses, look for clues or traces of the killer. There was no question that the boy, aged about twelve, or fourteen at most, had suffered a violent death. But Stave was crouched down with a few other policemen behind the partially concealed steel frame of a broken crane, looking through a hole in the wall into the warehouse. There was just one man in the building, taking careful steps as he walked around the scrawny body of the boy and the fat bomb. He gave the corpse a brief glance before finally kneeling next to the bomb and gingerly setting down the big heavy leather bag he had been carrying in his right hand.

He was a bomb disposal expert, sent to defuse the thing. As long as the detonator was still active, it was far too dangerous for the investigation team to approach the body. I just hope he doesn’t remove any traces the killer might have left, Stave thought to himself.

The chief inspector had been alerted to the incident by a phone call just as he was starting his shift. He had gathered together a few uniformed police and set off from the CID headquarters on Karl Muck Platz. Most of them were young, wet behind the ears, appointed by the British occupation forces. Stave spotted among them Heinrich Ruge, a captain who had helped on previous enquiries.

‘The victim isn’t going to run off on us’, Ruge had called out to him rather too snappily.

Stave had said nothing, just gave a sympathetic look at the lad who had beads of perspiration leaking out from under his helmet and running down his temples. Even at the best of times the uniformed police called their tall, uncomfortable headgear ‘sweat boxes’. Today the temperature was nearly thirty degrees.

Stave thought back with a shiver to the previous winter, a merciless six months when the thermometer regularly showed between minus ten and minus twenty – sometimes even lower. And now this spring was as warm as anyone could remember. It was as if the weather was going as mad as humanity had done all too recently.

The war’s over, the chief inspector reassured himself. Ruge and another five uniforms were bent down next to him, shielded by the damaged crane, the sun right above their heads, no shade anywhere around them. He could smell their sweat evaporating. Was it just the heat? Or maybe it was fear that had them dripping with sweat?

A small, scraggy red-haired man whose freckled face was already glowing red from the sun crouched alongside them. Ansgar Kienle was a police photographer and at the moment, for lack of alternatives, Hamburg CID’s sole crime scene specialist.

Only one person seemed to be suffering worse from the sun than Kienle – Dr Alfred Czrisini, the pathologist, whose bald head was going bright red. Czrisini just happened to have a British colleague visiting when Stave called him, and was able to borrow his Jeep to drive to meet them at the crime scene. Despite his sunburn, Czrisini looked pale as his shaking hands held a Woodbine to his lips.

‘Do you think that’s a good idea when there’s a five-hundred-pound bomb being defused nearby?’ Stave hissed between his teeth, even though he knew that nobody and nothing, not even a bomb, would stand between Czrisini and his cigarettes. The doctor gave him a brief smile and shook his head, a little pale blue wisp of smoke rising from his mouth over the sea of ruins. Stave had brought his men across the Elbe in a launch to Steinwerder. Blohm & Voss shipyard lay at the hammer-shaped end of a peninsular on the southern side of the Elbe. There were two huge docks parallel to the river, and a third jutting diagonally into the shore like a giant sword. Behind the two big docks there was a third basin. All along the riverbank stood long brick warehouses, cranes lined up in rows like soldiers standing to attention, and the tangle of rails for the puffing narrow-gauge railways that brought boilers, gun barrels and steel bulkheads down to the docks. Or rather used to.

It was only a few years ago that the battleship Bismarck had been built here by Blohm & Voss. It was from here that nearly fifty per cent of the German U-boat fleet had first slid down the gangways into the sea. Stave could still see some fifteen almost finished hulls, tubes of grey steel, some sixty or seventy metres long, with the closed torpedo door flaps in their hulls, rudders, gleaming propellor screws, a few of them so new they could almost set off immediately to patrol the seas, others already half-submerged beneath the waters of the basin, like stranded whales. Two or three of the wrecks looked as if they had been beaten to death by some giant right here in the shipyard. The British and Americans had bombed Blohm & Voss again and again.

Stave looked at the mountains of rubble, stretching hundreds of metres in every direction: toppled chimneys lying on the two- to three-hundred metre docks, the walls of which had been blown in, heaps of molten metal produced in a matter of seconds in the ferocious heat. Bracken and sorrel bushes sprouted from the broken cobblestones. The old bulkheads with their shattered concrete now covered in verdigris. Beyond the last of the docks the Elbe flowed on, fast and grey. And beyond that again ruins upon ruins with only the tower of St Michael’s rising in the heat haze like some giant tombstone.

Only a few years ago, even in the CID headquarters, they could hear the sound of the jackhammers echoing across the Elbe like a low humming, as continuous and unremarkable as the gurgling sound of a waterfall: after a while you simply didn’t notice it any more.

Now it was almost totally silent. There were no ships in the docks, no sparks flying from welding machines or ice saws. The only noise came from a crane on rails at the far end of the dock, jerking and creaking as it pulled steel girders out of the ruins of a building and piled them on to a barge floating on the Elbe: material that could be melted down and recycled somewhere.

A fireman colleague of the specialist in the warehouse crawled over to the crouching police.

‘How much longer is he going to take?’ Stave asked him. He noticed that he was speaking softly, as if a word pronounced too loudly might set off the unexploded bomb.

The fireman spoke softly too, though: ‘Hard to say. Depends on what type of detonator it is, and what state it’s in. We’ve seen hundreds of bombs like that. Most of them have an ordinary detonator, one that should set the explosives off the minute it hits. Sometimes they get stuck, either because they hit a roof that was already damaged or because they were screwed in wrongly in the first place. Those we can deal with quickly enough. But some of these beasts have timed fuses set to go off hours or even days later.’

Stave nodded. He remembered how sometimes days after the horrific nights of the bombing raids, suddenly there would be an enormous boom and another building would collapse in ruins. The Americans and British had done it deliberately to make the job of clearing up the rubble more difficult – that was one of the reasons why the local Gauleiter Karl Kaufman had ordered prisoners from the Neugamme concentration camp into the ruins to do the clearing up. On two or three occasions he had been told to watch over them.

‘Those types of detonators,’ the fireman went on, ‘sometimes don’t work. When you look at them they can seem undamaged, but if you make the slightest mistake, even the tiniest vibration, the whole thing can explode in your face.’

‘Would human footsteps be vibration enough?’ the chief inspector asked him.

The fireman smiled. ‘Sometimes, yes. But not in this case. My colleague has clearly already tested that.’

‘Risk of the job, I suppose,’ Stave muttered.

‘We get extra rations cards for doing difficult work.’

‘Sounds fair enough.’ The CID man looked round and saw, about fifty metres away, a group of workers watching them morosely. Then he turned back to the figure crouching next to him.

‘How long is he going to stay there leaning over the bomb?’

The fireman nodded at the part of the roof that had caved in. ‘That’s where the bomb hit,’ he said. ‘We call that a “wall hit”, where the bomb hits the wall first, goes into a spin and eventually hits the ground at such an oblique angle that the detonator doesn’t go off properly. It’s complex. My colleague is going to be in there for an hour at least.’

‘Wait here,’ Stave ordered the uniformed policemen. They nodded, not exactly thrilled with the instruction. ‘Dr Czrisini, come with me. You too, Kienle. Won’t do any harm if we use the time to ask a few questions of the workers over there. They look like they’re bursting to help us.’

‘They look as if they think you’re more likely to explode on them than the bomb,’ replied the pathologist. He pulled himself to his feet – no easy task given his weight – grunting with the effort, and followed the two CID men.

Five men in dark reefer jackets over collarless blue-and-white striped shirts, corduroy trousers, peaked caps and with hands like shovels shot hostile looks at Stave and his companions as they approached. The chief inspector introduced himself, whipped out his police badge and handed round English cigarettes: John Player, a sailor wearing a life belt round his neck on the packet.

The men looked surprised, then hesitated, before finally grabbing them, with sounds that might even be interpreted as thanks. Stave, who was a non-smoker, had been carrying a few spare cigarettes on him for a while now. At one time he had traded them with returning prisoners-of-war down at the station for any possible information on his missing son. But ever since he had found out that Karl was in a Soviet camp in Vorkuta, he no longer needed to do that. Now he used the cigarettes to make interrogations go a bit more smoothly.

Czrisini put a Woodbine between his lips. The men stood there silently for a few minutes, blue wisps of smoke twisting in the air between the cracked brick walls, the smell of sweet oriental tobacco oddly comforting against the background aroma of bricks and lubricating oil. There was a heat haze in the air, and a stench of rubbish and dead fish rose from the Elbe. Stave could have done with a glass of water.

The oldest worker present – Stave put him at sixty or more – cleared his throat and took a step forwards.

‘Your name?’

‘Wilhelm Speck.’

He was as skinny and hard packed as a smoked sausage. Stave didn’t like to think how many times he must have heard jokes about his surname – ‘bacon’.

‘Was it you who called us?’

‘No, that was the site manager.’ He nodded towards a square redbrick building a few hundred metres away, which Stave guessed was the administration building.

‘We found the bomb,’ the man hesitated a moment before continuing, ‘and the dead boy, just after we came on shift. We ran over to the office.’

‘How long have you been working for Blohm & Voss?’

Speck gave him a surprised look. ‘Forever.’ He thought a moment and then added, “Forty-four years. If you can call the past few years “work”.’

His colleagues muttered in agreement. Even that sounded threatening.

‘You don’t exactly look as though it’s been a holiday.’

‘I’m part of the shit squad,’ the old man announced proudly.

Stave stared at him in surprise.

Kettelklopper,’ Speck said, as if in explanation. Then he realised that the chief inspector still didn’t get the message and repeated, in standard German rather than the thick Hamburg dialect: ‘Kettle knocker: we climb inside the kettles – the hulls of ships laid up in the docks for refit – and knock on the walls to dislodge any dirt.’

‘That sounds like hard work, harder than what you’re doing now.’

‘Work?’ Speck said. ‘Work is building ships or refitting them. Hammering, riveting. You start out with an empty dock and at the end a ship slides down the slipway into the Elbe. That’s what work is.’

‘And nowadays?’ The chief inspector knew what Speck was getting at, but he wanted to hear it from the man’s lips. It would make it easier for a man who wasn’t used to speaking much to answer his other questions.

‘Nowadays?’ The man was getting worked up. ‘Nowadays we’re dismantling the yard. The English want us to destroy our own workplace. Or what’s left of it after they bombed most of it to hell.’

It was true enough that the giant shipyard had been bombed to hell. Officially. Any machinery and tools had been sent off to other countries in reparation for the damage the Germans had done to them in the war. In Hamburg it was an open secret that the British wanted to close down once and for all what had been one of the best shipyards in the world. They wanted to eliminate a rival that had not just turned out warships and U-boats, but in peacetime had also built hundreds of ocean liners and freighters, orders that had more often than not been snatched from shipyards in Liverpool or Belfast.

Speck nodded towards a pile of machinery roasting in the sunshine some thirty metres away near one of the workshops: ‘Lathes, welding machines, riveting machines, milling machines,’ he said. ‘Nine months ago they made us dismantle all that stuff and leave it over there. It’s supposed to be delivered to the Soviet Union. They sent in English military police specially to keep an eye on us. And now it’s all lying there rusting away. Comrade Stalin isn’t interested in our machinery. The English just made us move it out there so it would fall apart.’

He had to be a communist, Stave reckoned. Since 1945, when the Brits allowed elections to take place again in Hamburg, one in every five shipyard workers had voted for the Communist Party of Germany. It wasn’t hard to understand, he told himself, but out loud he said, ‘You’ve been working here for two years, dismantling the shipyard, but nobody spotted an unexploded bomb lying around?”

Speck shook his head. ‘Up until 1945, U-boat spare parts were stored in here. Ever since it’s been lying empty. It was only by chance that we looked in this morning.’ He hesitated for a moment, glanced round as if he was worried somebody was eavesdropping, and added in a quieter voice: ‘All that machinery over there, we couldn’t just leave it lying there. We wanted to move it in here to…’ he was looking for the right word, ‘to keep it safe.’ And then added hastily, ‘Until the English come to take it away.’

‘Absolutely,’ Stave said in a sarcastic tone of voice. What the old man meant was they wanted to keep their tools safe until the day when they could get Blohm & Voss back up and running again. But what business was that of his? ‘And that’s when you came across the bomb with the dead body lying on it?’

‘We could hardly miss it,’ Speck said, his chapped hands shaking slightly. ‘We were shocked.’

‘How close did you get? Did you touch anything?’

They all shook their heads. ‘Touch an unexploded bomb? I’m not that tired of living yet,’ Speck said. ‘We’re forever coming across them. The bomb disposal people could set up shop here, the number of times we’ve had to call them in.’

‘So you didn’t go past the entrance?’ the chief inspector asked, glancing at the door lying open at the narrow end of the hangar, further away from the dead body than the hole in the wall they had been taking cover behind.

Speck nodded. ‘Maybe a couple of paces, then we turned tail.’

‘Did you recognise the boy?’

They all shook their heads again.

‘Could he have been an apprentice? An errand boy?’

‘No. We’re not allowed to train any more apprentices. What would we be training them for anyway? And we’ve no need for errand boys.’

Speck dithered for a moment, until Stave gave him an encouraging nod and handed over another cigarette. Then he said, ‘There are always lads running around here. Orphan kids. Refugees. Displaced persons, as they call them. Urchins with no homes and no parents to take them by the scruff of the neck. They steal anything they can get their hands on. You should know that, in the police.’

The chief inspector sighed. There were between ten and twelve thousand children living in the ruins of Hamburg. Kids of ten, twelve or fourteen years of age who had been the only ones in their families to survive the hail of bombs or the long trek west from homes they’d been expelled from. They stole coal from the freighters, pinched ration cards, worked as lookouts for black market traders or hung around the station selling themselves for sex in exchange for a couple of cigarettes and a bed for the night. Some of them had even gone so far as to kill.

‘When the bomb disposal man has done his job, this man here,’ Stave indicated Kienle, ‘will take photos of the dead body. Afterwards he will pass them around the shipyard, and you need to ask all your workmates to take a look. It might be that somebody will recognise him, might have caught him up to something, chased him off. I need to know who he is, where he lived – or at least where he hung out if he was homeless. What he was doing here, in an empty shipyard hangar with a five-hundred-pond English bomb lying in it.’

After dismissing the workers with a nod, Stave and his colleagues tiptoed back to their cover next to the crane, where the uniformed police were still sitting motionlessly, dripping with sweat and scarcely daring to breathe.

‘Why would the dead boy be lying on top of the bomb?’ he asked Czrisini.

The pathologist coughed, causing the policemen to start with fright, and shrugged his shoulders. ‘I’ll need to take a closer look at the lad – that is, providing the bomb disposal man does his job well enough.’

‘It looks as if the murderer deliberately deposited the body on a live bomb to make our investigation all the harder,’ Stave muttered.

‘Or wanted to send us a message,’ Kienle replied.

The chief inspector turned to him in surprise, and the photographer gave an embarrassed smile. ‘A dead boy lying on an English bomb – maybe the killer wanted to make a point? Tell us something? Or maybe it’s a signature of some sort?’

‘If that’s his signature, then I’d appreciate it if he used a typewriter next time,’ the chief inspector replied.

The bomb disposal man made a gesture towards his colleague who was taking cover alongside the police, then took from his pocket a longish object that looked like a steam hammer of some kind, reduced to the size of a man’s forearm, and set it on the far end of the bomb, between the stabiliser fins.

‘What’s he doing now?’ Stave asked, whispering unintentionally.

‘It’s got a timer fuse, housed at the end of the bomb,’ the disposal team man replied. ‘Shit things. The English dropped more than 100,000 bombs fitted with them, and one in seven didn’t go off. My grandchildren will still live in fear of the things; that’s if I live long enough to have grandchildren.’

He nodded in the direction of the odd piece of equipment his colleague had produced. ‘That’s what we call a “rocket clamp”, the only thing that enables you to deal with a timer fuse. In a normal fuse there’s a needle that strikes the charge and sets the whole thing off. But with a timer fuse the needle is held back by steel springs, like a bowstring. Between the needle and the charge there’s a little celluloid plate. When the bomb hits, the impact releases acetone from a little glass ampule. The chemical gradually eats away the celluloid and as soon as it does, the needle is released – and BOOM!’

‘The tricky bit about these things is that you can’t see in. It may be that the acetone was never released and the celluloid plate is still intact, or on the other hand it may equally well be that the plate is long gone and the needle could strike at any moment, but has just got stuck somehow. Then one cough might well be enough to set it off. On top of all that the way the detonators are fitted means you can’t just unscrew them. Try that and the answer’s the same: BOOM!”

‘Who on earth would think up something like that?’ Stave mumbled.

‘The same boffins who dreamed up the rocket clamp. It’s a sort of specialist spanner that means you can get at the detonator and unscrew it. A lot faster at any rate than a human being could. But most importantly, faster than the detonator can react. Any minute now my colleague is going to set off a tiny explosive charge within the clamp and that will yank the detonator out in one go. The centrifugal force within the rotating detonator will squeeze all the mechanical components together for a fraction of a second, meaning that the released needle will be delayed that tiny bit so that it can no longer detonate the bomb, because by then the detonator will already be out. Most of the time, anyway.’

The chief inspector was staring at him disbelievingly: ‘Sounds a bit like Russian Roulette to me.’

The bomb disposal man shrugged. ‘There’s always the possibility that the detonator got screwed in at an angle, in which case even a rocket clamp won’t get it out quickly enough. Then there’s always a chance that the explosive charge in the clamp doesn’t go off properly and it’s not fast enough. Nobody can be sure about that. When something like that happens, you can’t exactly ask the disposal man what happened afterwards. This is the one occupation where there’s no opportunity to learn from your colleagues’ mistakes or bad luck.’

The man in the hangar had by now carefully put the rocket clamp over the pointed tail of the bomb. He could be seen taking a deep breath. Then he made a brief movement, so fast the CID man barely noticed it. There was a short, sharp bang, like a gunshot. Involuntarily Stave caught his breath, dropped to the ground and put his hands over his ears.

Nothing happened.

Ever so slowly, he breathed out, noticing that he was shaking and that there was sweat running into his eyes.

‘Good,’ said the bomb disposal man next to him. He was already on his feet, stretching his legs. He waved through the hole in the wall to his colleague inside. ‘The detonator is out. The bomb is now just a big steel tube with a few chemicals inside. No longer a direct threat.’ He glanced at Czrisini. ‘But we’ll have to ask you not to smoke when you’re in there. It would be a pity if a spark were to drop through the detonator hole into the bomb.’

The pathologist looked bleakly into the hangar and seemed paler than ever under his suntan. Nonetheless he took long drags on his Woodbine until it was down to the tiniest of butts, and then carefully extinguished it.

Stave dusted himself down and said, ‘Let’s go and take a look at our corpse.’

The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut.

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’. 

Babylon Berlin

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.

Trap

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.

CFIG launch book collage

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.

A RISING MAN

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.

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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:

Eco 2

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