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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.’


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.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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)

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) 


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.

Jo Nesbø’s Harrogate Crime Festival interview on Radio 4’s Front Row

Newsflash! Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s interview with Mark Lawson at the Theakstons / Harrogate Crime Writing Festival will feature on tonight’s Front Row.

You can listen on Radio 4 at 19.15, or catch up later at the Front Row website, where the whole of the interview is also available (and most interesting it is too).

Nesbø  will also feature in the ‘Foreign Bodies’ series which Lawson is presenting for Radio 4 from 22 October (see previous post for further details). Harry Hole is one of the 15 fictional detectives used by the series to explore how crime writing depicts the history of modern Europe.

Image for Foreign Bodies

Copyright BBC Radio 4

Also spotted: the ‘Front Row Crime Writers Collection’ – a marvellous set of interviews with leading crime novelists including Henning Mankell, Andrea Camilleri, Val McDermid, P.D. James and John le Carré.

Theakston File 3: Camilla Läckberg interview with Mrs. P. (Part 2) on The Hidden Child

Part 2: In which Camilla Läckberg (CL) and Mrs. Peabody (MP) discuss the author’s fifth novel, The Hidden Child – its origins, its impact, its depiction of wartime Sweden and Norway – as well as the the process of historical research, and why Swedish crime writers are still drawn to the subject of the Second World War.

I was particularly keen to discuss this novel with the author, because it forms part of the corpus for my academic research on Nazi-themed crime novels (crime novels that engage with the Nazi period or its post-war legacies).

SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve not yet read The Hidden Child, you might wish to come back to this interview at a later point, as it gives away major details about the plot. 

MP: Can I come on to The Hidden Child, in which you explore the legacy of the wartime past?

CL: They’re starting to film it in August for the cinema. I think it’s going to be great.

MP: I can imagine – it has lots of ingredients that would work very well. So what was it that drew you to the topic, because quite a few Swedish writers and Scandinavian writers do go back to look at the legacy of that past.

CL: Well, it actually started with an email from a reader, who thanked me for the books, and then said, ‘Did you know that there were lots of exciting activities going on in the area [around Fjällbacka, the coastal village north of Göteborg where the novels are set] during the Second World War? And I was like, ‘no, I never heard about that’. So I started doing some research and I found out about the smuggling, and the boats going back and forth [between Sweden and Nazi-occupied Norway], people fleeing over the border… And I thought ‘Wow!’, and the ideas started coming. Also, when I’d started writing about Elsy [Erica’s mother], who was already dead in the first book, I only knew that she had been cold with her daughters, but I didn’t know why. After four books, I still didn’t have a clue why. But when I started researching and started working on the idea of ‘the hidden child’, it literally dropped in my lap – Elsy’s whole story. It was one of those magical moments you have as a writer, when it’s like someone is telling you … I suddenly knew everything about  what had happened to her; why she was the way she was. That was fantastic. So that book is very special to me for that reason, because I was basically ‘told’ Erica’s mother’s story.

MP: And it’s a very moving book, I think, as well.

CL:  I had another very moving moment when it came to that book, actually. A year after it had come out in Sweden, I was doing a photo shoot for a cover, and there was this make-up artist, a woman who was around forty, forty-five. When we were alone for a few minutes, she asked me ‘How did you do your research into the Norwegian resistance and the people at Grini [Nazi concentration camp in Norway that held a number of political prisoners]? Did you know anyone who was there?’ No I didn’t; I researched through books and accounts that were on the internet by people who were there, but I hadn’t met one. And then she told me that her mother was from Norway: she had been part of the Norwegian resistance during World War Two, had fled from Norway, ended up in Sweden, and had never talked about her experiences with her children. But when she had read The Hidden Child, she got the children together and said, ‘read this, this is my story’. And then she talked about it: she was 19 when she was in the resistance and was put in Grini …. That was a special moment, because you guess so much. When you’ve done your research you have to guess a lot and fill in the blanks from your own fantasy. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you probably don’t, but those moments when you understand ‘I got that right’ – that’s fantastic.

MP: Can I ask you about the depiction of the main characters and their relation to the conflict? Because I think that you do something very interesting there – there’s a sort of twist.

CL: Hmmm. What do I do?!

MP: Well, you have a murder victim, who is supposedly a Norwegian resistance fighter, who then turns out to have a very different background – his father was an SS-officer and he also served in Grini. And the murderer is the Swedish resistance fighter, who was a prisoner in the camp. So it seems to me that there’s something complex going on there in terms of how you’re looking at the categories of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’…

CL: It’s all about playing with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’; who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’? If you do good your whole life, can that compensate for then doing something bad once in your life? And on the other hand, if you’ve done a lot of bad things, can you compensate by leaving them behind, or do you have to carry them with you? Can you turn over a new leaf? I love playing with those things. And also when it comes to murderers, I think it’s so much more interesting when good people do bad things, than when bad people do bad things. What can trigger a basically good person to do something bad? And that’s so much the case in that book – he [the murderer] has lived his whole life doing good things… But that’s also a question: for whom did he do those things? Was it for his own ego or was it out of true conviction? You can always play with those things as well.

MP: It seemed to me that there was a real complexity about the position of the victim and the perpetrator / the murderer and the victim. There’s a trading of places and what you end up with is very much a grey on grey [CL: yes], rather than a black and white morality [CL: yes], which leaves some questions in the mind of the reader… Were you looking for that complexity?

CL: Yes, hmmm, it’s the same thing again [see CL’s comments in part 1 about the inclusion of ‘issues’ in her crime novels]. I don’t think about it when I write it. I just … go along and tell the story. It’s only afterwards that I can see the patterns. It’s like when I wrote The Stonecutter: I wrote the whole book, and when I read the manuscript through to start editing, I was like ‘oh my goodness, there’s a theme in here that I didn’t know was here’ – about what makes a good mother and motherhood. I don’t realise those things while I write. But I guess it’s part of the structure for the book. It’s like scaffolding and I don’t see the scaffolding until I take a few steps back and look at the whole.

Original Swedish cover/title (translates as The German Child)

MP: When you were writing about this controversial past in The Hidden Child  – one that still has resonance in the present – were you ever anxious? You’re obviously portraying something that is quite delicate. Was there a particular kind of caution when dealing with that subject matter, or did you just dive in?

CL: Just dove in, I think. I don’t think there’s anything that I write about that I’m afraid of approaching. The only thing I’m afraid of writing is sex scenes. That’s mainly because I picture my mother and my mother-in-law reading the books and their imagination running wild, so I can’t bring myself to do it! But that’s the only thing that I’m afraid of writing.

MP: It seems like another key theme in that novel was one of trauma: Elsy’s trauma and then the way that trauma has knock-on effects and is communicated down a generation…

CL: I think that theme is in all my books, and especially the eighth one, The Angel Maker. Do you know what an ‘angel maker’ is? It was a Swedish term common in Norway and Denmark as well, that described women in the late 1800s and early 1900s…. If you had a child out of wedlock, and you couldn’t take care of it, you could pay a woman a lump sum to take the baby, and what happened sometimes was that the women thought, ‘OK, I’ve got the money and this baby is only going to cost me from this point on…’. So there are a few court cases where women were found to have killed eight or ten babies. I start the story with a woman who is an ‘angel maker’ being arrested and they discover bodies buried in the ground in the basement. And that then follows as a dark cloud over her daughter, over her grand-daughter and the next generation after that. I love that theme; it recurs in my books.

MP: You’re always very concerned about the human implications of acts, whether of criminal acts or…

CL:  It’s all about the characters for me. It’s the characters that make the crime plot, not the other way around. I don’t form the crime plot and then add the characters. I have a murderer and a motive and then I make the characters start doing things and that creates the plot.

MP: You mentioned some of the research that you undertook for The Hidden Child. Did you look at historical studies?

CL: I borrowed books about the Second World War in the area, because that’s what I was interested in. And then of course I always have to do research depending on where the story takes me. The story took me to Grini, and then it took me on the trains to the concentration camps in Germany, so then I had to do research about the camps and ended up with the ‘white buses’ going to Sweden [programme set up in 1945 by the Swedish Red Cross and Danish government to transport concentration camp inmates from Nazi-controlled areas to Sweden]. So I had to do more and more. I don’t do this amount of research, then I’m done and I write the book. I start at one end and then I discover that ‘I don’t know anything about the part I’m going to write now – I’m going to do some research’. So it’s a continuous process all through the book.

MP: When you’re dealing with that kind of historical event, is historical authenticity important?

CL: Well, I’m not a historian, so I will never get it absolutely right. If I were to get it absolutely right I’d spend five years doing research for every book… And then I’d probably write a thesis instead which would be really boring, compared to a crime novel [ironic laughter from Mrs. P, who once spent five years writing a boring thesis]. I mean I do think that I get it pretty right, but I can’t say that I’ve got all the details right.

MP: But again you were talking earlier about scaffolding in terms of plot; there’s historical scaffolding as well that you can make sure…

CL: I make some markers, and I drop some details, and I let the reader fill in the blanks. I don’t have to describe every detail of what a person was wearing in the 1800s. I can mention a few details; I can mention a dinner; but I don’t have to describe that in the 1800s they were eating this and this and this. But I also happen to have a father-in-law who’s a historian, so I always give him the manuscript and say, ‘please come back to me when you’ve read it and we can discuss the details’. So he always has a lot of good input.

MP: That’s very handy.

CL: Yes, I know! A police officer husband and a historian father-in-law: that’s two for the price of one. If only my mother-in-law had been a forensics expert. That would have been perfect!

MP: One last question… I’m really interested that there are lots of Scandinavian writers who are still bringing in the legacy of the Second World War into their crime novels. Is that legacy still a point of public discussion in Sweden? For example, that there were Swedish nationals who went to fight for the Germans.

CL: It’s brought up once in a while and the fact that we were not neutral is now established. We don’t pretend that we were neutral any more. And also I think there are several reasons why it keeps coming back: it’s a very fascinating war, and it’s also visually a very striking war – for example, the swastika symbol. So it’s easy to picture it. And it was so big in every way. I think that intrigues us as crime writers, because it’s the epitome of human evil. I mean, it’s evil. And also I think it’s still up for debate because of the fact that we now have – and I think it’s a disgrace – a nationalist party in Sweden as part of the government [the Sverigedemokraterna or Sweden Democrats].  And I’m so embarrassed that people actually voted for them. I’m horrified that we’re starting to forget. History repeats itself.

21 July 2012 in the Library, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate.

Extra links:

Part 1 of this interview

Camilla Läckberg’s website

Jo Nesbo interview with Mark Lawson in which he discusses his family’s wartime past and its impact on the Harry Hole novel The Redbreast

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Theakston File 2: Camilla Läckberg interview with Mrs. Peabody (Part 1)

Part 1: In which Camilla Läckberg (CL) and Mrs. Peabody (MP) discuss reasons for writing crime fiction, the flexibility of the genre, secrets from the past, bad guys getting their comeuppance, fusing the domestic with the grisly, and favourite authors.

Camilla Läckberg (copyright of the author)

MP: So if it’s alright with you, I’ll start by asking some general questions. What was it that drew you to crime fiction in particular?

CL: I never even thought about writing anything else. I’ve always been in love with crime fiction ever since I was little, so if I was ever going to write, it was going to be crime fiction.

MP: So you had a history of reading crime fiction?

CL: Oh yes. It started when I was seven with finding Death on the Nile on my father’s bookshelf. I absolutely fell in love with the Agatha Christie books, so I read all those, and I continued on, reading both crime fiction for youth, like the Enid Blyton books, but also more adult crime fiction.

MP: And was it mainly British and American crime fiction?

CL: Mainly British; some American writers as well, but mainly British. I always loved the British school of crime writing … And I’m not only saying that because I’m here!

MP: No, no, understood! Do you think that the crime genre offers you particular opportunities as a writer? I mean I’m coming at the question in a slightly different way, but what is it about the genre that attracted you – not as a fan, but as a writer?

CL: Well, I’m going to steal a quote from a Swedish colleague of mine, Håkan Nesser [author of the Van Veeteran and the Barbarotti crime series]. He once said that a murder is such a wonderful hook to hang a story on – because you have this natural element of drama in the whodunit question, but then you can add everything else that there is in other kinds of literature: you can add love, and everyday life, and humour, and sex … You can add anything. So in my world, crime fiction has more, because you can add all that in as well, and have a very exciting drama going on.

MP: So it’s formula fiction, but you’re saying that there is a flexibility as well…

CL: Yes, that’s why we [authors] all have different styles; we approach the task of writing crime fiction in different ways. I mean, we’re not much alike in the way that we tell our stories.

MP: Yes, that’s true – there’s lots of variety. One thing I’ve noticed is that many of your novels unearth a long-hidden secret from the past. Was that always an important theme for you, or was that something that simply developed as the series went on? I think there are four or five of your novels where you see this…

CL: Yes, actually it’s in all the novels. I did it that way in the first story, and then I did it again in the second and the third, and by that time I started realising that ‘oh! there’s a pattern here’. I probably like to tell a story this way, and when I myself try to analyse why, I think it’s because to me, even if you look at real crime, it’s really difficult to understand it and to explain it just by looking at the present. You always have to go back, to look at the person who did it, and how his or her life was. How was the upbringing, how was the childhood, the parents? Maybe you have to go back to the grandparents or even further back to understand the sequence of events that led up to the moment where someone was capable of doing that. And that’s why I tell my stories this way, because I want to explain the motive and the murderer and what happens. And in doing that I have to go back in time. But it varies how far back I need to go.

MP: Yes, and sometimes you’re going back and then bringing in a historical element as well…

CL: Yes.

MP: … which is interesting. Is there a ‘return of the repressed’ idea in there as well? The idea that there might be a secret in the past that people have been silent about…

CL: I think secrets are more common than we think. Most people have secrets. They’re big or they’re small or they’re in-between, but most people have secrets. There are things we don’t tell our husbands or wives or parents or children or friends or that we don’t tell at work. We keep secrets. And sometimes that’s OK and works out, but sometimes that has consequences. A small secret can turn into a big one…

The first novel in the series

MP: And is justice another theme that you’re interested in? I mean the way that you’re describing it, you’re very, very interested in the ‘why’, in the motivation, in looking at the psychology that leads up to the crime. Is justice a concern as well – what happens afterwards?

CL: Yes, I don’t like it when the bad guy gets away. I think there should be a punishment. I’m a bit Greek that way with the whole revenge thing. I do like a happy ending, which in crime fiction is that the killer is caught and punished. I don’t like having endings where the killer gets away. That doesn’t sit well with me.

MP: So there needs to be a proper closure at the end of the novel?

CL: Yes. I can still get annoyed with real life cases when you know that the bad guy … like the OJ Simpson case. That really annoys me. It disturbs the hell out of me. I don’t like that in my books either.

MP: Can I ask you a little about your main protagonists Erica and Patrik? I think that’s such a clever pairing, because they give you so much flexibility – having Patrik as a formal police investigator alongside Erica, who has a connection to crime through her writing, but is a kind of amateur sleuth. Did she come first or did you plan the two of them together?

CL: No, the thing was that I didn’t want to write a police novel, because I thought there are so many crime books with police investigations, so I wanted to do something different. And then I thought, I want to have a woman as a heroine, and I thought about what kind of job she could have so she could go around investigating murders. And a lot of jobs were already taken or I didn’t know anything about them, so an author came as a natural idea; that’s how I created her. But when I started writing about her, I quickly discovered that it’s pretty darn hard to write about someone not connected to the police, to police investigations, so I thought, hmmm, I need to create some kind of police officer here. And then a love interest was the kind of obvious thing to think of. So from the beginning – I love it now – but from the beginning it was a little bit with regret that I … that I thought I have to include police officers as well. But I love it now. I love my police officers and I love Erica and Patrik, so I’m happy it turned out that way … but it wasn’t meant to be from the beginning.

MP: No, but you’ve created something unusual there…

CL: I’ve included so much of their everyday life, which was taking a risk, because I didn’t know if people would like to hear about the little things happening in their life, which are big things – getting married, having children – but it’s not unusual drama; it’s drama we all have.

MP: And that was actually my next question. They are depicted as a very ordinary couple; they have universal problems of how to deal with childcare, of how Erica can keep her career on track, and you tackle the difficult subject of postnatal depression.

CL: Which I had myself, so that’s why I wrote about it.

MP: So did you want to incorporate that to raise awareness?

CL: The funny thing is that, no, I never….. I wish I could say, oh, I want to write about this cause or want to change society or want to make people aware of something, but I really don’t – it’s a side-effect. I’m happy when it happens, but I can’t write my books with an agenda. I tell a story, and as a side-effect my own experiences, my own political views and things like that will absolutely appear in the books, but it’s not my agenda. My agenda is to tell a good story and to entertain the reader. Everything else comes as a side-effect, actually.

MP: But at the same time, I was very struck when I first read your work… Um, a lot of women, a lot of female readers will connect with that experience…

CL: And I love when that happens – I love that. I still have mothers coming up to me on the street and saying, thank God I read your book when I had my baby, because I thought I was the only one who felt like this. I love that, but it’s not my agenda. What I do is write about things that are important to me, and that I’ve experienced, that have really had an impact on me, and of course those will also be things that are meaningful to other people, since I’m not unique, whatever my mother tells me! And because I write so much better when I write about things that I’ve experienced, or that upset me or concern me … That’s why I don’t write about global terrorism or spies. Of course I think it’s horrible when there are terrorist acts, but what gets me going is husbands beating their wives, or children not being taken care of – that’s the thing that’s closest to my heart and that’s what I write about.

MP: I understand. One thing I found interesting as well when I first read your books was the strong presence of ‘the domestic’ on the one hand, through Erica and Patrik’s home life, but then, some very explicit descriptions of corpses on the other [laughter] – there is a contrast between those two elements in the books that’s quite striking. And I felt that you were doing something new there…

CL: I think that is the exact success factor of the books: the relationship between Erica and Patrik, and the fact that it’s a mix between the ordinary drama of everyday life and the extraordinary drama of a crime investigation. I think it’s that contrast. And it’s also the contrast between, on the one hand, a scene with a corpse or a very dark scene with a mother grieving her child, and then on the next page it’s Melberg being stupid, and you can laugh a little bit, so it’s all about throwing the reader between different emotions.

MP: And in some ways you might think there’s a risk in doing that as a writer, because those elements are so contrasting, but it really works…

CL: I didn’t sit down and plan to write this kind of crime fiction. I just started writing something the way I would have liked to read it. I write books for one reader and that’s me. I’m very selfish that way. I just write the kind of book I would have loved to read, according to my taste, and it so happens that there are other people who have the same taste. And it was something quite new … It had to do a little bit with the Elizabeth George books. I think I probably got a little inspired there, because I’ve always loved Elizabeth George books. She’s got great crime plots, but the reason why I kept reading them was to see what would happen to Lord Lynley and Lady Helen. So I wanted a strong story about people that you wanted to follow through the books.

MP: Are there any Swedish authors who’ve influenced you or have your main influences come from outside Scandinavia?

CL: It’s difficult for me to say who’s influenced me or not, because I’ve read so … I mean I was such a book nerd when I was growing up and I still am, and 80% of my reading is crime fiction, so I’ve just always read tons and tons and tons of crime fiction, and I’ve probably picked up little pieces here and there from everybody. So it’s hard for me to say specific authors that I’ve been inspired by.

MP: Or are there any that you particularly like at the moment?

CL: Well of the Swedish ones, yes, I’ve got a few favourites: Åsa Larsson for example [author of the Rebecka Martinsson series], and Mari Jungstedt [author of the Knutas / Berg series]. I like Håkan Nesser – he’s fantastic, especially the Barbarotti books. I’m not that keen on Mankell. I loved the first books but then I got a little bit tired of Wallander always being tired and depressed. But I think my number one favourite is probably Åsa Larsson. I think she’s a fantastic writer.

21 July 2012 in the Library, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate.

Extra links:

Camilla Läckberg’s top 10 Swedish crime recommendations.

Camilla Läckberg’s website

Sarah at Crimepieces also had a very interesting interview with Camilla at Harrogate.

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