The 2017 Crime Writers’ Association Daggers – a golden year!

It’s one of the biggest crime events of the year. And 2017 has been a particularly golden year for the CWA Daggers, with a number of awards going to outstanding and pleasingly varied works.

No less than three CWA winners – set in Australia, India and Sweden – have been championed on Mrs. Peabody Investigates:

Huge congratulations also to Ann Cleeves and Mari Hannah on their richly deserved awards!

If you’re looking for new crime reads or present ideas, then I would thoroughly recommend having a browse on the individual Dagger webpages, each of which lists the winning, shortlisted and longlisted titles. Here’s a link to the Historical Dagger page so you can see – it’s quite a treasure trove. Links to the other Daggers are on the left-hand side.

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‘German Historical Fiction’ and ‘German Noir’ panels at Newcastle Noir, Sat 29 April

A week today, I’ll be chairing two wonderful German-themed panels at Newcastle Noir. If you’re anywhere near Newcastle, please do come along. The events are truly excellent value (£5!) and offer a brilliant opportunity to see six outstanding British, Irish and German crime writers in action.

 

Panel 4 on ‘German Historical Fiction’, Sat 29 April, 3 – 4pm at the Lit and Phil.

*Book your tickets here*

The ‘German Historical Fiction’ panel features Luke McCallin, William Ryan and David Young, three English-language authors who write historical crime novels and thrillers featuring German protagonists and/or German settings. We’ll be exploring each of these authors’ works and the challenges of writing on morally complex historical subjects.

Luke McCallin’s work with the UN inspired him to write the ‘Gregor Reinhardt’ historical crime series, which follows a German intelligence officer in Sarajevo during the Second World War (No Exit Press). His latest novel, The Ashes of Berlin, sees Reinhardt return to Berlin, now under Allied occupation, in 1947.

William Ryan’s ‘Captain Korolev’ series, set in 1930s Stalinist Russia, has established him as a top historical crime writer. His latest novel, The Constant Soldier (Mantle), is a historical thriller set in German-occupied Silesia in 1944, and was inspired by genuine photos showing SS personnel on leave at a ‘rest-hut’ near Auschwitz.

David Young was a journalist before becoming a full-time author. His debut novel Stasi Child, set in 1970s East Germany, won the 2016 CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger. The second in the ‘Karin Müller’ series, Stasi Wolf, was published earlier this year (Bonnier Zaffre).

 

Panel 6 on ‘German Noir’, Sat 29 April, 6.30-7.30pm at the Lit and Phil.

The ‘German Noir’ panel features three of German crime fiction’s brightest talents – Sascha Arango, Cay Rademacher and Wulf Dorn. They’ll be talking about their works, ranging from historical crime to psychological thrillers, and the vibrant German Krimi scene.

*Book your tickets here!*

Sascha Arango is one of Germany’s most prominent screenplay writers and a two-time winner of the Grimme Prize for his work on the iconic TV-crime series Tatort. His 2015 novel The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor; Simon & Schuster), features an outrageous Ripley-esque protagonist and was a Radio 2 Bookclub choice.

Cay Rademacher is the author of the ‘Stave’ trilogy (trans. Peter Millar; Arcadia), which shows Chief Inspector Frank Stave fighting crime in the ruins of 1947 British-occupied Hamburg. Cay is also the author of a series set in the Provence – the first, Murderous Mistral, will be available in English in September 2017 (St Martin’s Press).

Wulf Dorn’s first novel Trigger was an international bestseller. Since then he has published six more psychological thrillers, which have been translated into ten languages. He has won numerous awards, including the French Prix Polar for Best International Author.

The Night Belongs to Wolves

‘German Noir’ is supported by Goethe-Institut London and Swansea University.

And for a free chapter from Crime Fiction in German, just click here > https://cronfa.swan.ac.uk/Record/cronfa25191

AND if you’re around on Thursday 27th AprilDavid Young, author of Stasi Child and Stasi Wolf, offers an illustrated talk about the real-life stories behind his novels at the Newcastle Noir fringe. This includes world exclusive photos of a mid-1970s escape with a twist which inspired a key plot point in Stasi Child. Dare you take part in a Communist v Capitalist tasting test of hazelnut chocolate spread? I’ll be helping out… Yum!

*Book your tickets here*

 

 

Heretics: Exclusive interview with top Cuban crime writer Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura, one of Cuba’s foremost authors, was in London last week for the launch of his new novel, Heretics, with Bitter Lemon Press at Daunt Books. And while he was here, he kindly gave ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ an exclusive interview.

If you haven’t heard of Padura or read any of his crime novels, now is the time… Padura is a master of the genre, “whose prize-winning series of novels about Cuban detective Inspector Mario Conde has changed the face of Latin American crime writing, taking a conventional formula into the category of dark and serious literary fiction” (Jane Jakeman, The Independent).

The first four Mario Conde novels, known as The Havana Quartet, were published in Cuba in the 1990s, and a few years later in the UK by Bitter Lemon Press, which has consistently championed Padura’s work. The quartet comprises Havana Blue, Havana Gold, Havana Red and Havana Black all translated by Peter Bush – and track four of Conde’s investigations in winter, spring, summer and autumn.

Padura has recently been involved in the quartet’s TV adaptation for American Netflix – entitled Four Seasons in Havana – which I very much hope we will see in the UK soon. Here’s the trailer, which gives a really good flavour of the crime novels and the starring role Havana plays in them (some explicit content):

The highly acclaimed fifth novel, Havana Fever (trans. Peter Bush), rejoins Conde in 2003. Now working as an antiquarian bookseller, he is pulled into investigating the disappearance of 1950s bolero singer Violeta del Rio.

And so we come to Heretics, the latest Conde novel, translated by Anna Kushner. It has to be regarded as something of a departure for Padura, as it’s nearly twice as long as any other novel in the series and moves far beyond the author’s usual Havana setting. I’ve read about a quarter of it so far, and am dazzled by its ambition and heart. In my view, it could be read either as a new instalment in the series or as a standalone in its own right.

Here’s the book jacket description –

“In 1939, the Saint Louis sails from Hamburg into Havana’s port with hundreds of Jewish refugees seeking asylum from the Nazi regime. From the docks, nine-year-old Daniel Kaminsky watches as the passengers, including his parents, become embroiled in a fiasco of Cuban corruption. But the Kaminskys have a treasure they hope will save them: a Rembrandt portrait of Christ. Yet six days later the vessel is forced to leave the harbour with the family, bound for the horrors of Europe. The Kaminskys, along with their priceless heirloom, disappear.

Nearly seven decades later, the Rembrandt reappears in an auction house in London, prompting Daniel’s son to travel to Cuba to track down the story of the lost masterpiece. He hires Mario Conde, and together they navigate a web of deception and violence in the morally complex city of Havana.

In Heretics, Leonardo Padura takes us from the tenements and beaches of Cuba to Rembrandt’s gloomy studio in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, telling the story of people forced to choose between the tenets of their faith and the realities of the world, between their personal desires and the demands of their times.

A grand detective story and a moving historical drama, Padura’s novel is as compelling, mysterious, and enduring as the painting at its centre.”

The original cover of the novel, showing the painting at the heart of the narrative.

Now it’s time for that interview!

Leonardo gave his interview answers in Spanish, and I’m very grateful to Peter Bush for providing us with this excellent translation.

Mrs. Peabody: Leonardo, a very warm welcome to the blog. Heretics, your latest Mario Conde novel, is over 500 pages long and thus significantly longer than the others in the series. Can you tell us why the story Heretics tells needed more space than those featured in the other novels?

Leonardo Padura: Novels are realms of freedom, and what that allows is the potential to exceed yourself as much as you need, to say whatever you need, always with one aim in mind: to communicate whatever you need. Moreover, this isn’t simply another novel in the Mario Conde series, but an experiment in the fusing of the historical novel and police procedural, in having more than one hero and more than one story, in mixing everything up and breaking all limits…even the number of pages.

Mrs PeabodyHeretics has incredible historical breadth. Portions of the novel are set in Poland in the 1600s, Havana and Europe in the 1930s, Havana in the 1950s, America in the 1980s, as well as more modern-day Havana. How did you go about researching the historical events you portray? And was it difficult to integrate so much history into one literary narrative? Was there a danger that the history would overwhelm the novel?

Leonardo PaduraThe research behind this novel was complex because, as you say, it involves different eras and locations. I had to study in depth Jewish culture and religion, the art of Rembrandt, Cuba in the 1940s and 50s… in order to focus on the issue of our right as individuals to exercise our freedom. I wanted it to be a reflection that went beyond a perspective locked into a single context and became as universal as the issues of freedom, free will and heresy are… And if you are a novelist you must recognise your limits and aims and try to write a novel rather than a historical essay. There is a frontier between history and fiction and you must never let it out of your sight.

Map of Cuba

Mrs PeabodyWas there a particular historical incident that inspired the novel, such as the shameful story of the Saint Louis in 1939?

Leonardo PaduraThe story of the Saint Louis is the origin of everything, but that’s all: I used it as a highly dramatic and horrific historical pretext to go in search of other stories relating to individuals who suffer the weight of history, who are condemned though they have never committed a crime, who only suffer because they are what they are or want to be. That’s why the novel is what it is.

Mrs PeabodyWhat is the significance of the novel’s title, Heretics?

Leonardo PaduraThere are various heretics in my novel, in different historical periods and places. They are individuals who decide to exercise their free will and then pay the price. Society doesn’t ordinarily accept people who refuse to toe the line, non-conformists, rebels, people who are different, and generally considered to be “heretics”… However, the world would never have progressed or changed without “heretics”. In a way, even if they don’t take up arms, they are the revolutionaries…

Mrs PeabodyHow would you categorise Heretics – as a crime novel, historical crime novel or historical epic?

Leonardo PaduraI don’t know. It is a “heretical” novel in the sense that it can be read as combining all those perspectives, and even a philosophical one. And that was what I intended. A novel that was simultaneously many different novels, in its plot, possible interpretations and structure and language.

Leonardo Padura

Mrs PeabodyWas Heretics designed to be read as a warning from history?

Leonardo PaduraTo a degree, it was. History is something that you live and when you look back, it becomes History with a capital H. While you are living it, you are often unaware that such an act, whether individual or social, may be crucial, but History relentlessly pursues us, stays with us, influences our lives and… requires careful handling!

Mrs PeabodyYou describe your detective, Mario Conde, as a ‘paradigmatic member … of the most disappointed and f*cked up generation within the new country that was taking shape’ (Heretics, 10). Can you explain to readers unfamiliar with recent Cuban history why Mario’s generation feels this way?

Leonardo PaduraMario Conde’s, my generation, grew up with and participated in the [Cuban] Revolution, with greater or lesser faith, but nevertheless participated. And we thought we would have a future that we had earned through our own efforts as students, professionals or workers… That future had a different face, it wasn’t lavish, but it existed and… then suddenly everything fell apart, because it was a dream based on another dream that turned into a nightmare. The disappearance of the USSR and, with it, the aid that sustained Cuba economically, reduced us to a state of poverty and meant we really had to struggle to survive, now without the possibility of imagining a future. We could only struggle … in Cuba or in the diaspora. Over the last few years some things have changed in Cuba and with these changes my generation has been displaced. Too young to die, too old to recycle itself and… and many people have simply felt a huge sense of failure and loss… Beginning with the dreams we once had.

Mrs PeabodyThe city of Havana plays a major role in the Conde series. Did you always intend to use the series as a way of chronicling the changes taking place there, or did that happen naturally as the series unfolded?

Leonardo Padura: I write intending to write the best novel possible, and reflect the trials and tribulations of the human condition and, at the same time, to leave a chronicle that closely follows the nature of life in Cuba over recent decades. That’s why time and space are so important. My time, my country and, of course, my city, because I am, above all a writer who is from Havana – un habanero -, who writes in the language of Havana and sets his stories in Havana… and when I wander far off in time or history, I always return to Cuba, to Havana. A Cuba and a Havana that, for sure, sometimes seem both enigmatic and alien to a character like Mario Conde.

Mrs. Peabody: Many thanks for visiting the blog, Leonardo, and for taking the time to answer those questions. It’s much appreciated!

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.

Holt-Anne-credit-Jo-Michael

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.
claudia_pineiro_1

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.

le-carre-bio

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.

Krimi Spotlight collage

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.

Petrona collage

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.

photo-by-andy_26585418893_o

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!

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.

Abir Mukherjee c. Nick Tucker MAIN PHOTO

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.

Huntley and Palmer Raj

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.

Calcutta map

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.

Kolkata flower market

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

 

THIN ICE extract & Quentin Bates interview: Gunna, Iceland and Trapped

I’m delighted to welcome crime author Quentin Bates to the blog. Thin Ice, his latest novel, has just been published by Constable and features one of my all-time favourite investigators, Icelandic police officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir. Below, Quentin answers questions about writing the character of Gunna, the kind of Iceland he tries to depict, and the recent Icelandic crime drama Trapped. But first, here’s an exclusive extract from Thin Ice

Thin Ice

The little boy’s eyes were wide with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. He swung his legs under the chair that was too high for him while his mother fussed making coffee.

‘Tell the lady what you saw, Nonni,’ she said. ‘It’s all right. You’re not in trouble.’

‘Are you really a policeman?’ he asked and corrected himself. ‘A police lady, I mean?’

‘I am,’ Gunna assured him. ‘I’m a real-life detective.’ 
‘Who solves crimes and catches bad people?’ 
‘Sort of. That’s only part of what I have to do, and most of it isn’t all that exciting.’ 
‘Do you have a gun?’ Nonni asked, eyes wide. 
‘No, we don’t carry guns,’ Gunna said, and his disappointment was immediately visible.
 ‘So what do you do if you meet someone bad who has a gun?’ 
‘I don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet. So I don’t know what I’d do,’ Gunna said and picked up the mug of coffee that had appeared in front of her, while Nonni got a glass of squash and a slice of cake, which he bit into.

‘What would you have done if you had seen the man I saw today?’ he asked in a serious voice. ‘He had a gun and I saw him shoot it. Would you have been frightened?’

‘I expect so,’ Gunna said. ‘Guns are very dangerous things. Were you frightened, Nonni?’

He thought as he chewed his cake and washed it down with squash.

‘I wasn’t at the time, but I was afterwards,’ he decided. ‘But he didn’t see us, so we were all right.’

Snowflake

Mrs P: Quentin, you’re in the unusual position as a British author of having lived in Iceland for many years. How has that experience – together with your ongoing links to the country – shaped your ‘Icelandic Murder Mystery’ series and Thin Ice?

Quentin: To begin with I shied away from the idea of using Iceland as a backdrop when I started toying with the idea of fiction. There were a few false starts, until it dawned on me that it would be plain daft not to use all that knowledge, insight and experience, so that’s when Frozen Out started to take shape. Being familiar with the language gives you a huge advantage in being able to understand the intricacies of Iceland’s internecine politics and much of the subtext to what goes on that an outsider simply wouldn’t be aware of, as well as being able to laugh at all the otherwise incomprehensible jokes.

Nightblind 2

Author Quentin Bates aka Graskeggur (grey beard)

Quentin: I was in Iceland a lot in 2008. First in January and it was business as usual, then two visits in the spring and summer when it was becoming clear that something was up. Nobody wanted to say much out loud, but everyone knew something was seriously wrong. It was common knowledge that the banks’ coffers were empty, but this wasn’t reported anywhere. Everyone knew something momentous was about to happen, but nobody had a real idea of when or how hard it would hit. Then I was there in that week in the autumn when the first of the three banks went belly-up. It was painful and fascinating. People were genuinely frightened, and also deeply confused with no idea what was going to happen to their jobs, homes, etc. The aftermath hurt and it was painful to see friends and relatives lose jobs and homes.

I couldn’t not use it. I was working on Frozen Out at the time and re-wrote a lot of it so it coincided with that truly unnerving couple of weeks when all the cards had been thrown in the air and nobody knew anything.

Icelandic bank crisis

One of the three Icelandic banks that collapsed in 2008

Mrs P: Which particular aspects of Icelandic society have you been keen to share with English-language readers via your crime writing?

Quentin: Let’s say I prefer to avoid the clichés, the stuff the tourists see. Very little of my stuff seems to be set in Reykjavík 101, the central district where all the hotels, bars and whatnot are, which is hipster central these days, lots of manbuns and frothy coffee. I’m happier with the outlying parts of the city and the surrounding towns that are so different to what many visitors see. I can’t avoid mentioning some of the bizarre foodstuffs… all of which I prefer to keep well clear of.

Salted fish

Salted fish (we have chosen not to show fermented shark or sheep’s head on this occasion)

Quentin: What I really like to try and work in there is the quiet, subtle humour of the older generation of Icelanders that has its roots in a time when Iceland was a very different place. It’s a humour so bone-dry that it’s easy to miss it, and it can fly right over your head if you’re not watching out for it.

Mrs P: Icelandic police series by authors such as Arnaldur Indriðason and Ragnar Jónasson feature male detectives. What made you decide to create a female police investigator?

Quentin: I didn’t set out to create a female investigator. She just appeared. Originally Gunnhildur was the sidekick to a fairly dull male main character who just didn’t click. He was so forgettable that I can’t even remember what name I gave that ill-thought out character back in that very first draft of Frozen Out. He was quite quickly jettisoned once it had occurred to me that the sidekick was the more interesting character, and she did demand attention.

To my surprise, I didn’t find it especially difficult to write a female character. People seem to like her and say she’s realistic, but I think I’m too close to her to be able to judge. I’m sure it would have been much harder to get to grips with a much younger prominent character of either sex – I feel the gender gap was easier to bridge than a significant age gap would have been.

Hinrika by redscharlach

This wonderful drawing by @redscharlach is of Hinrika in Trapped, but she really reminds Mrs P of Gunna as well

Mrs P: Tell us a little about the way you depict Officer Gunnhildur in the series.

Quentin: Initially she was supposed to be older, in her mid-forties in Frozen Out and about five years older than that today. But the publisher wasn’t happy and wanted a character with a career ahead of her rather than someone with an eye on retirement – preferably much younger. Eventually we compromised and she was transformed into a more youthful but still mature character, which meant reorganising her family circumstances, making her children younger etc. – essentially re-working the entire back story.

Gunnhildur is a character who is definitely not from Reykjavík, and she was deliberately given roots in a coastal region in the west so she can have something of an outsider’s point of view. That’s why she and Helgi connect so well, as he’s also from a rural background in the north and they share a similar background as immigrants to Reykjavík, while Eiríkur is a city boy with little in common with his two middle-aged (or ancient, as he would see them) colleagues.

Gunnhildur’s boyfriend (if I can call him that) was a late addition. It was made clear with the original draft of Frozen Out that a little love interest would be desirable, so I introduced Steini, not expecting him to stay for long. But he’s still there and has become a surprisingly important character, even though he doesn’t appear all that frequently. Maybe it’s time to involve him in some nefarious crime…

Iceland map

Gunna hails from the west of Iceland

Mrs P: Have your crime novels appeared in Iceland (either in Icelandic or in English)? If yes, what kind of reception did they have?

Quentin: The books have been for sale in English in bookshops in Iceland, although I don’t know how many have been sold there and I’m not aware of any feedback from Iceland. They haven’t been translated into Icelandic and I don’t seriously expect they will be.

The problem is that so many Icelanders speak English that they tend to snap up stuff in English. I know of several big sellers in English whose Icelandic publishers gave up on them for just that reason – people wouldn’t wait six months for an translation to appear. It’s almost the opposite of the situation 20-30 years ago when Nordic languages were more prevalent. In that distant age before cable TV and the internet, fewer people spoke English readily and there were more books translated from English and fewer from Nordic languages, presumably because more people would read those in the original. Now only guaranteed top-sellers make it into translation from English and there seem to be more Danish, Swedish and Norwegian books translated into Icelandic.

What I’d really like to see is one of the Gunna novels filmed in an Icelandic production, but that’s an even longer shot than getting a translation.

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Reykjavik is packed with funky bookshops

Mrs P: You’re the translator of Ragnar Jónasson’s crime series (Orenda Books). Has the process of translating his works had any impact – positive or negative – on your own crime writing or the way that you approach writing your own novels?

Quentin: Ragnar’s stuff is very different from mine, so I’m not aware of any particular influence there. One of the keys to being able to translate competently is familiarity with the culture and background as much as the language itself, so I guess that having written my own crime fiction also means that I have something of a criminal vocabulary ready to use. But writing and translation are very different. Translation calls for some of the same skills as writing fiction – a different set of tools from the same toolbox – as well as the discipline not to be tempted to tinker with the original, albeit within some rather elastic limits.

The negative impact is that I’m so busy now with translation, with three of Ragnar’s books to deliver this year, that I’m struggling to find time for Gunnhildur and the other things at the back of my mind that I’m itching to get to grips with but daren’t start.

Trapped

Mrs P: Trapped, a gripping Icelandic crime drama, has just finished airing in the prestigious BBC4 Saturday-night crime slot. Do you think it will significantly help to raise the profile of crime fiction set in Iceland? And how was it received in Iceland itself?

Quentin: I would imagine that Trapped should lift the profile of Icelandic crime fiction tremendously and can only hope it does for Iceland what The Killing and The Bridge have done for Sweden and Denmark – not just raising the profile of crime fiction but awareness about those countries and their cultures in a more general way. It’s something that ought to give us all a boost.

I’m not entirely sure how Trapped was received in Iceland, as I’ve been getting some mixed messages. On the other hand, it got good viewing figures with something like 60% of households watching it (also good ratings in France and Norway) and I’d hazard a guess that a lot of people who said they weren’t all that bothered about it actually spent those evenings glued to the box.

There have been a few disparaging comments about it being unrealistic. But come on – this is a crime drama. Of course it’s never going to be entirely realistic and there’s no getting away from a certain suspension of belief that has to take place to make the story work.
 But the snow scenes were very reminiscent of the winters I spent in the north of Iceland, not all that far from where some of Trapped was filmed. My feeling is that Trapped is a far more accurate representation of coastal Iceland than Midsomer Murders is of rural Hampshire, but I get the feeling that Icelanders watched it in much the same way that we watch Inspector Barnaby at work.

Iceland Noir

Mrs. Peabody attended Iceland Noir in 2014 and can thoroughly recommend

Mrs P: You’re one of the founder members of Iceland Noir. How has the convention developed since it started in 2013? And are there new directions that you’d like to take it in future?

Quentin: Iceland Noir started in 2013 on a wing and a prayer as a one-day free event as we pulled in favours here and there to get it off the ground. That was fine for a one-off, but we quickly realised we couldn’t keep it free, so now we charge the lowest festival pass fee that we can.

The second Iceland Noir was bigger and better, and stretched to two days. The third one is planned to be two and a half days, mostly because of the level of interest in it, but that also means more organisation. So the original trio has been added to, with Lilja Sigurðardóttir joining us in ’14 and Grant Nicol this year. So now we have five pairs of hands instead of just three.

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A panel from Iceland Noir 2014

My feeling is that we should keep it at two to three days. Any longer than that is likely to be too much of a good thing. I’m also very much in favour of keeping it as a fairly informal, low-cost, non-profit enterprise. So far we’ve been satisfied if we’ve all had a good time with a bunch of criminally-minded people and not lost any money, so I’ll be happy if it stays that way. But the amount of time and effort involved means that holding it every year is possibly going to be too much, so like last year (when we lent the November date to Shetland for their excellent festival), we’d like to continue with Iceland Noir every second year and to lend the slot to some other suitable location in the off years. Shetland was 2015, and it looks very much like Hull will be 2017, as that’s a European City of Culture that year, and that will fit nicely for us to be back in Reykjavík in 2018.

This year we have an outstanding line-up of female crime writers as headliners. But I’d really like Iceland Noir to be the place where you can also see tomorrow’s interesting and exciting talent, not least because it’s so damn hard as a debut novelist to get any attention and there’s so much good stuff that deserves it. This year we have some truly excellent new writers taking part. Reykjavík was where you saw them first and that’s something I’d like to continue.

Many thanks, Quentin! 

Catch some other stops on the Thin Ice blog tour here:

Thinice

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

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

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

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

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

The first novel in the series (1965)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Jørn Lier Horst to mark the publication of The Caveman

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Caveman is published today by Sandstone Press. The ninth in the Norwegian William Wisting police series, the novel begins with the discovery of a four-month-old corpse in an armchair just down the road from Wisting’s home. While both the policeman and his journalist daughter Line are troubled by their neighbour’s lonely death, they have no idea where this harmless-looking case will lead…

If you’ve not yet read any of the prize-winning Wisting series, now’s a good time to start. These novels are top-notch Norwegian/Scandi crime, which, thanks to their author’s background in policing, provide genuine insights into investigative procedure and are utterly gripping throughout. Four in the series have been translated so far: Dregs, Closed for Winter, The Hunting Dogs, and now The Caveman. I reckon you can pretty much dive in anywhere, as they all read well as standalones – and in fact the first to be published in English (Dregs) is the sixth in the original series.

To mark The Caveman‘s publication, Jørn Lier Horst kindly agreed to an interview with Mrs. Peabody. Read on for some great insights into the Wisting series, how Jørn writes his books, and the crime writers who inspire him.

Jørn Lier Horst

1. Jørn, you were a policeman for around twenty years until 2013. How have your policing experiences informed your crime writing?

JLH: I have extensive experience in various types of police work. For ten years, I was a Senior Investigating Officer, the leading investigator in serious and complex cases. That professional background is my great strength as a crime writer. Police service is an excellent vantage point for observing society, as well as an excellent starting point for writing realistic crime fiction. Sooner or later, the ineffective aspects of our society end up on the police’s plate.

As a detective, I have spent many hours close to multiple murderers, rapists and robbers, and been completely inside their heads. These experiences, the insights into why criminals do what they do, are deeply valuable to me as a writer, but have also taught me a lot about being a human. It can be difficult to understand, but in almost all people, even criminals who have committed atrocities and created despair and destruction, there is something good. I use the word ‘good’ for lack of a better one, but something human one might say. As investigator and author my interest has always been in the duality.

2. You’re good at showing the uncertainty police investigators face when solving crimes. In The Hunting Dogs, you have Chief Inspector Wisting compare his case to ‘an unfinished work of art: a landscape already in its frame, the main features in place, but the details missing. For the moment, the outline was so indistinct he could not imagine how it would look when it was complete’. How important is it to you to reflect the difficulties and complexities of policing in your work?

JLH: The classic fictional police detective is a man with major issues: he drinks too much, feels misunderstood, has strained relationships with women, but resolves the cases completely on his own, often risking his life and breaking the law. This is far from reality. What I try to show in my books is how detective work is a collective task. Several investigators contribute with their different qualifications, knowledge and abilities, but they have a continual, nagging doubt. Uncertainty that they have done the right thing, or overlooked something. I know that troubling feeling well.

3. The other investigative figure in the Wisting series is William’s daughter Line, who works as a journalist. Could you tell us a little about their investigative partnership and Line’s contribution to the crime narrative?

JLH: Those who follow the William Wisting books also become acquainted with his daughter Line, who at first worked as an apprentice in a local newspaper and now works as a crime reporter in Norway’s largest newspaper, VG (Verdens Gang). Their professional paths occasionally cross when both are dealing with the same case, but duty of confidentiality (for Wisting) and protection of sources (for Line) means they cannot talk. This creates an exciting father-daughter relationship and not only gives greater depth to Wisting’s character but also a more complete look at the crime. Line has developed into a good sparring partner for Wisting and, by now, a traditional sidekick.

The police environment has been easy for me to describe, but as Line demands more space in the books, the press environment has become more important. In my job I met many crime reporters, but I have been concerned that the presentation of their role should be as accurate as that of the police. While researching The Hunting Dogs I interviewed the VG editorial staff and so got close to some of the country’s leading crime journalists, just to get the authenticity right.

The first Wisting novel, Key Witness

4. When did you start writing and why?

JLH: I never had a youthful dream of becoming either a cop or a writer, but ended up being both. The fact is, I always loved to write, and remember as a little boy, when a radio play left a cliffhanger ending, sitting down and writing the sequel myself instead of waiting for the next episode.

I also remember starting what eventually became my debut. It was late autumn of 2001 and I was home in bed, finishing a Norwegian crime novel. I threw it against the wall and told my wife that I could do better myself. She told me I should go ahead in that case. Half an hour later I got up and made a start.

5. How much crime fiction do you read?

JLH: Probably around 25 books in a year, mostly Scandinavian writers but also police procedurals from all over the world.

6. Are there crime authors (or simply authors) who inspire you?

JLH: No favorite, but I would probably not have been the writer I am without Henning Mankell, and probably not the same cop. My first encounter was the first Kurt Wallander novel, Faceless Killers, published in Norwegian in 1993. I read it at the Police Academy thinking that here was the kind of policeman I wanted be: an upright and good detective and a leader. Mankell / Wallander inspired both my careers.

7. The Caveman opens with the discovery of a corpse that has ‘been sitting dead in front of his television set for four months’, highlighting the isolated position of some individuals in society. Is it important to you that your crime novels have a social dimension?

JLH: I like to think about my novels as more than crime fiction. They reflect the reality we live in: a society that is becoming colder, tougher and more violent. William Wisting reflects on how that affects us all.

In my books the offenders are always caught, the crime is solved, but the social structures and problems that created the criminal remain. I try to draw attention to a social system that makes promises about protection and inclusion, but still fails many of its citizens. At the same time, of course, I try to tell an exciting and compelling story.

8. Your novels are set in the town of Larvik and Vestfold county on the south-west coast of Norway. What makes this area a good setting for a crime series in your view (aside from the fact that you live there…)?

JLH: The numerous Nordic small towns presented as scenes of literary murders do not provide obvious settings for crime stories. The beautiful scenery inspires picturesque, enticing descriptions of nature, but the attraction of the story lies in the contrast with the brutal violent action.

How does he do it? Not like this…

9. The plotting of your novels is expert and intricate. Do you have all aspects of the narrative worked out in advance of writing? I’m imagining some fabulous wall-charts above your desk as you work.

JLH: I have to disappoint you when it comes to the wall-chart. I travel a lot and have an electronic version on my computer. This probably sounds strange, but I actually write my books in Excel before I write in Word. I use the spreadsheet to plot and sketch the stories. Each column is a chapter, and in the cells I write keywords for the action. I have rows which track time and place and help all the little cogs in a crime novel fit into place. This analytical approach is another trait I have brought with me from investigations, but things happen during the writing process. The story goes in directions other than I had planned, and up pop new people. In this way the stories become alive.

10. A fun one to finish with! If you could have dinner with any character from literature, TV or film, who would it be and why?

JLH: Oh, let us keep a large company! If I have to choose one, it must be Inspector Maigret, since both he and Georges Simenon’s writing have had such a great influence on all subsequent crime literature. I stand tall on his and Mankell’s shoulders and owe them a big thank you – and a finer dinner.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Caveman, trans. by Anne Bruce (Sandstone Press, 2015) 

Skål!

Dylan Thomas at 100 / Getting hooked on crime fiction

Today, 27. October 2014, is the 100th birthday of poet Dylan Marlais Thomas. As I live in Swansea, just around the corner from where he was born, I thought I’d mark his centenary on the blog.

Today I was lucky enough to have a tour of 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, the lovingly restored Thomas family home, which I would heartily recommend. Here are some photos to give you an idea:

The bedroom where Dylan Thomas was born…100 years ago today

Dylan’s TINY bedroom and a reconstruction of his writing desk

They made him an awesome birthday cake! With smarties!

And for the last few days, the city has been buzzing with all manner of Dylan events, from the Do Not Go Gentle festival (featuring Danish band Eggs Laid by Tigers, who set Dylan’s poetry to music) to the Dylathon at the Swansea Grand Theatre, a non-stop, 36-hour reading of Dylan’s writings and works. I’m very excited to be heading to the final session tonight, which features Ian McKellen, Sian Phillips, Katherine Jenkins and The Morriston Orpheus Choir, amongst others.

AND … last night Port Talbot boy Michael Sheen’s production of Under Milk Wood was broadcast live from the 92nd Street Y in New York, the same venue where the only recording of the piece with Dylan Thomas was made in 1953. It’s a vivid, humorous and moving evocation of a day in the life of a Welsh town called Llareggub (spell it backwards…!) and is well worth a listen. My favourite character is Mr. Pugh, who yearns to murder his cold, nagging wife: ‘Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr. Pugh … mixes especially for Mrs. Pugh a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel’. And there we have our link to crime! It’s always there if you look closely enough…

Marina Sofia interview photo (1)

In other news, the lovely Marina Sofia invited me to take part in her ‘what got you hooked on crime’ interview series. It was great to be asked and I had a lot of fun answering her questions. If you’d like to see my responses, they are over at her findingtimetowrite blog, and take in most of the books featured on the pile above. Perhaps you have some views on my choices?

Theakston File 4: Jason Webster interview with Mrs. P.

If you tuned in to the 8th episode of the Radio 4 ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Wednesday, you’ll have heard crime authors Jason Webster and Antonio Hill in animated discussion with Mark Lawson about Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s investigator, Pepe Carvalho.

Listening to the episode, I realised now was the time to post my interview with Jason Webster at the 2012 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Key areas explored with the author of the ‘Max Cámara’ series, which is set in Valencia, include the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the influence of Vázquez Montalbán.

Mrs. Peabody (MP): You’re a very versatile author: you started out as a travel writer, examining the history and culture of Spain, before turning your hand to crime fiction. Could you say a little bit about what led you to crime?

Jason Webster (JW): I suppose in some ways writing crime allows me to keep exploring Spain – this massive country that I’m really fascinated by – and has become an extension of the travel books, because the ‘I’ of the narrator in the travel books isn’t a million miles away from a detective: it’s exploration, it’s questioning, it’s looking for clues. And often there was a quest format in my previous books, so my writing has rolled on quite easily from those into crime.

MP: Are you able to take some of the material from those earlier books and incorporate it into your crime novels – say about flamenco or bull-fighting or Spain’s historical past?

JW: Definitely the past – the Spanish Civil War. I draw on that quite heavily for the third Max Cámara book, The Anarchist Detective, which will be coming out next year. So there’s a lot about this dark, dirty legacy of the Civil War – stuff that lots of people in Spain don’t want to talk about. Flamenco a little bit as well. Max likes flamenco so that fits, but it hasn’t played a huge part yet in any of the books.

MP: And do you think the crime genre is particularly suited to tackling subjects like the Spanish Civil War and the legacy of the past?

JW: Yes, absolutely. I mean there’s this largely untold violent history and lots of old wounds which haven’t healed. You have to remember that the families of those who were killed by Franco’s troops couldn’t mourn their dead. Anybody who was on the other side – on Franco’s side – and was killed or wounded – their stories were glorified for years and years. And when Franco died there was this period called ‘the pact of silence’ [pacto de silencio]. During ‘the transition’ [from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy] everybody agreed that you ‘don’t mention the war’… because that’s the only way we’ll get out of the dictatorship and move into democracy. But about eight years ago people started to ask – ‘hang on, what did happen to grandpa?’. So the grandchildren of the people who had suffered during the Civil War were saying, ‘well actually, I want to know’. And that opened up a can of worms, because a whole section of Spanish society – the political right, essentially – just didn’t want to go there. So there are a lot of untold stories, a lot of unhealed wounds, and a legacy of violence.

It’s perfect for writing crime, I think, because there are a lot of secrets … And in a sense there’s a long tradition dating back from the period of ‘the transition’ – just before Franco dies and just afterwards – of great Spanish crime writers like Vázquez Montalbán writing very much from a political point of view. They want to talk about what’s going wrong in Spain, and finally can publish their books once Franco dies, when the dictatorship is over and censorship has come to an end. So that’s very much part of the tradition of Spanish crime writing.

MP: Do you see yourself now as part of that tradition?

JW: In some ways, sure. Vázquez Montalbánwas definitely an inspiration, and the name that I gave Max Cámara…I was thinking of two things, really. I was thinking of Christopher Isherwood and ‘I am a camera’: ‘cámara’ means ‘camera’ in Spanish and it’s a perfectly legitimate surname as well. And this gives us a handle on Max’s character – he observes, he waits, he doesn’t really jump to conclusions. But I was also thinking of Vázquez Montalbán when he was writing under Franco and had been thrown in jail and had to write under a pseudonym – one of the pseudonyms he used was ‘Sixto Cámara’. So there’s a sort of homage to that, to Vázquez Montalbán…

MP: Can I take a tiny detour to your third book, Guerra: Living in the Shadows of the Spanish Civil War. What prompted you to write it?

JW: I was talking to one of the locals near where we live, which is in the middle of nowhere, off the grid. We were just chatting away, when she started telling me some things about the Civil War and took me to a place where she said there was a massacre, in around ’38 – so getting towards the tail end of the war, just as Franco was moving south towards Valencia. And she had seen this happen as a young girl – these bodies being buried. I’d sort of heard about this and it was about the time when it was starting to come out – these mass unmarked graves dotted around the country where people who had died at the hands of the Francoists were just buried… There was no commemorative plaque, there was no gravestone, no one had been allowed to mourn, the dead were buried there for years and years. And you know, death is important in Spain; it’s a culture where you seriously mourn the dead, and so for a whole side of the country not to have been able to mourn their dead… that’s a big deal.

I think a lot of people are just hoping that that generation– anyone who lived through that, anybody who suffered – will just die and then we can all forget about it. But there are quite a lot of people who are trying to recreate the oral history from the time – not let it just slip away. Paul Preston [the historian] and I have met on a number of occasions … and the book that he’s written on the ‘Spanish Holocaust’ is a very interesting one with a very interesting title… He’s deliberately being controversial. And he’s doing that because he’s making a statement about contemporary Spain as much as he is about the past. There are lots of Spaniards who don’t accept what happened. And they say we should just ‘turn the page’. But how are you going to get over the wounds unless you confront the past?

MP: It’s the classic model of the repressed, isn’t it?

JW: Yes, absolutely. Spanish society is still very much divided and this is what forms the backdrop to my second novel, A Death in Valencia. I’m trying to look at these massive divisions that split Spain apart still, eighty years after the Civil War.

MP: You build that history into your crime fiction through the figure of the grandfather, Hilario. He’s somewhat disapproving that his grandson Max chose to join the police.

JW: That deep paradox goes to the heart of who Max is, and I bring this to the fore in the third novel, The Anarchist Detective. Max comes from an anarchist family; he is essentially an anarchist himself, but an anarchist in the broad sense of the word. At the same time he’s an agent of the state, and of state authority, so how does that work? How does he square that circle? In some ways, what I’m doing in the second book, A Death in Valencia, is showing a breakdown in his character, because of this contradiction, whereas in the third book, he kind of resolves that paradox within himself.

MP: Do you think it’s helpful that you speak Spanish? I notice from having read some of A Death in Valencia ­that you include Spanish proverbs [refranes] in their original form, perhaps as a way of communicating with readers who are non-Spanish speakers – imparting the culture and giving us a flavour of the language as well. Is that a deliberate strategy?

JW: I think so. The problem is that it’s hard for me to put myself in the position of not knowing Spanish. Sometimes I’m just writing and there are certain phrases which I just think are so wonderful that I want to put them down in English. The proverbs are there because they are an important part of Max’s character. The Spanish are very, very proud of their proverbs, and it’s one of the things I love about Spain. It’s not Spanish intellectual culture that gets me going in the morning, it’s this intuitive side to the country and to the culture – and I see that in the proverbs. Essentially, there’s a deep wisdom that you feel has been passed on for centuries, by word of mouth – it’s an oral tradition. And I love that, so I did want to get that across in the novels.

MP: What do you think the Spanish would make of your crime novels?

JW: The first one, Or the Bull Kills You, might wind some people up because it’s about bull-fighting, but the second and the third ones don’t deal with so-called Spanish stereotypes, so they might be more acceptable. Basically, don’t talk about anything they term ‘el folklórico’ – flamenco, bull-fighting, all that kind of stuff that the Franco regime tried to promote in the 1950s and 1960s to get tourists to come over. It’s what they consider to be the backward side of their culture and they don’t want to perpetuate the image that that’s all Spain is about. But the Spanish Civil War is a legitimate topic for foreigners to discuss…. It’s complicated!

Interview carried out at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, 20 July 2012

You can still listen to the ‘Foreign Bodies’ episode on Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho via BBC iPlayer.