Thomson’s Ghost Girl (UK), Carrère’s The Adversary (France), The Handmaid’s Tale (Canada/US)

My TBR pile is well and truly out of control at the moment, so I’m going to have a reading blitz over the summer to reduce it as much as I can. My approach will be threefold: ruthlessly cull the books that don’t appeal to me (life is too short), read exactly the books I want to from the pile that is left, and write up a variety of short reviews for the blog. And, as is the case this week, I might add in the odd TV series or other random delight from time to time.

Lesley Thomson, Ghost Girl (Head of Zeus, 2014)

Opening line: ‘In the pale light the girl might be a ghost risen from one of the graves’.

I really liked the first in Thomson’s series, The Detective’s Daughter. It took me a little while to get into this second novel: slightly more signposting was needed at the beginning to help readers navigate the two timelines. However, I remained captivated by the character of Stella Darnell, the police detective’s daughter who picks up his unsolved cases after his death. Stella runs a cleaning agency and is more like her father than she would care to admit – her drive to restore order makes her a very tenacious and thorough investigator. In this case, a set of photos in her father’s cellar showing deserted London streets puts Stella on the trail of a murderer. Her investigative partner Jack Harmon is equally intriguing – a night-time tube driver whose life, in contrast to Stella’s, is governed by signs and intuition rather than rationality. Both are social misfits, but together they make a great team. Another strength of both books is Thomson’s depiction of the inner life of children and how they try to make sense of traumatic situations.

Emmanuel Carrère, The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception, translated from French by Linda Coverdale (Vintage, 7 July 2017 [2000]).

Opening line: ‘On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent-teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son’.

Emmanuel Carrère is a well-known writer, who here dissects a highly disturbing true crime: Jean-Claude Romand’s murder of his wife, two children and elderly parents in 1993. The book is both an archaeological excavation of the events leading up to the murders and the multiple deceptions Romand wove over twenty years. While to his family and the outward world he appeared to be a respectable, well-to-do doctor working for the World Health Organisation, in reality he was nothing of the sort. Carrère effectively explores how Romand deceived and betrayed his family, and the ways in which his lies corroded his own identity, creating a terrifying void. Hard-hitting and thoughtful, but avoiding sensationalism, Carrère makes no excuses for the murderer’s mythomania and his attempts to escape the consequences of his crimes. A fascinating, but utterly chilling read.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu/Channel 4), adapted from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Vintage, 1996 [1985])

American viewers are ahead of us here in the UK, where the highly anticipated TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale began to air last Sunday. The novel, of course, is not crime fiction, but ‘speculative’ fiction that portrays a theocratic America of the near future, and famously draws on a range of repressive historical examples (from seventeenth-century Puritan America to twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania). But the themes of crime and criminality are at the very heart of the novel: how totalitarian/ultra-religious states criminalise any form of dissent, and how in particular they police women’s behaviour, driving them out of the public sphere and back into a private space where their identity, sexuality and bodies are heavily controlled. In the process, of course, the state itself becomes criminal, because it is denying its citizens the most basic of rights. The novel has long been on my ‘most influential books of all time’ list, and the TV opener did a brilliant job of bringing its dystopian vision to life. Elisabeth Moss is outstanding as the narrator and central protagonist, Offred.

Here’s a wonderful recent essay on the novel by Margaret Atwood for the New York Times: ‘Margaret Atwood on What ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ means in the Age of Trump’.

The Missing (series 2), Stephen King’s 11.22.63, and the virtues of voting wisely

I’ve been catching up with lots of TV lately – Australian political thriller The Code (very good) and the new series of The Missing (BBC1), which also has me completely gripped.

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Series 1 of The Missing involved the disappearance of a young boy, Oliver Hughes, on a family holiday in France. The new series cleverly flips that ‘missing child’ scenario by opening with the unexpected reappearance of Alice Webster, a young woman abducted as a schoolgirl over a decade before. The main connection to series 1 is Julien Baptiste (Tchéky Karyo), the retired French police detective who investigated Oliver’s case, and who is now drawn to Alice by her possible link to a second abducted girl, Sophie Giroux. Aside from him, there’s a new set of characters featuring wonderful British actors such as Keeley Hawes, David Morrissey and Roger Allam. Hawes stands out for me in particular as Alice’s mother Gemma.

There were mutterings from some viewers after episode 1 about the difficulties of keeping track of three timelines (2003 when Alice was abducted, 2014 when she returns home, and the present day), but it’s very much worth persevering as those temporal layers create a wonderfully rich story. And while the drama feels very British in tone, its international settings and characters give it added depth: the Webster family live on a fictional military base in Eckhausen in Germany; we see British military police working together with German police and (with some reluctance) the French detective; the latter’s investigations even take him to Iraq for a while. And every single episode has had a twist that will make you drop your knitting – especially episode 4! I’m looking forward to the rest immensely.

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I’m a little late to this party – Stephen King’s 2011 time-travel epic 22.11.63, which sees English teacher Jake Epping step back into a 1958 America, five years before President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The big question at the heart of the narrative – ‘would you change history if you had the chance?’ – is explored in an inventive and nuanced fashion.

Like some of King’s other novels, such as Dolores Claiborne (a favourite of mine), 22.11.63 draws on elements of the crime and thriller genres. Alongside the infamous murder of Kennedy, there’s a second murder case that takes up a significant part of the narrative. Both of these place Jake in the role of a detective tracking suspects, and in the role of a potential murderer, as he *could* stop the perpetrators from committing their crimes by killing them. But taking such action would obviously raise serious ethical questions, leaving Jake with some tough choices to make…

King does a brilliant job of depicting Jake’s incredible journey back to ‘the Land of Ago’, and recreates the America of the late 1950s and early 1960s in meticulous, loving detail. The mechanics of time travel are given interesting new twists, and the ending is extremely satisfying. Two minor reservations include the sheer length of the novel (I listened to the 30-HOUR audiobook version) and the odd bit of excessive sentimentality (but that could just be me). Hats off to audiobook narrator Craig Wasson, who does a wonderful job of bringing the characters to life, and I must admit that I’m now curious to see the 2016 TV adaptation with James Franco.

Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder and Stoughton, 2011).

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Time to liberate this little chap!

All this talk of American presidents reminds me that there’s a certain US election next week. We’ll be watching the results with baited breath on this side of the pond, and hope that our American friends can learn from the Brexit Omnishambles here in the UK.

The EU Referendum taught us that:

  • not voting is not an option. VOTE!
  • protest votes are a luxury you can’t afford. VOTE WISELY!
  • talking to swing voters can make a difference. EVERY VOTE COUNTS!
  • and that there’s NO ROOM FOR COMPLACENCY (polls are fickle, so pretend your candidate’s 12 points down).

Good luck! And for anyone still undecided, I’ll just leave this here: The New York Times endorsement of Hillary Clinton. You might also want to check out this utterly inspiring and hopeful website: I’ve waited 96 years. It’s simply wonderful.

Bad case of Weltschmerz? Try Indian elephants, Icelandic chills and Series 2 of The Code

Tearing your hair out over Brexit? Anxious about the US election results? Worried about the bees and climate change? If so, you may be suffering from a German malady called Weltschmerz – a sense of frustration, pain and despair at the state of the world (Welt = world; Schmerz = pain, ache, sorrow).

When Weltschmerz strikes crime fans, certain reading difficulties may arise. You may not feel in quite the right mood to tackle a social crime novel revealing further grim realities about the world, or noir crime devoid of the faintest glimmer of happiness or hope. You may instead find yourself drawn to crime that provides a refreshing antidote or escape, also known as Respite Crime.

Option 1. Comedy crime involving baby elephants

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Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation (Mulholland Books/Hodder, 2015)

Any crime novel that’s been called ‘utterly charming’ (The Guardian) or ‘endearing’ (The Sunday Times), would normally make me run for the hills. The same goes for crime series that use excessive whimsy (‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, I’m looking at you). While The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra strays into such territory occasionally, there’s enough grit about modern-day Indian life in Mumbai to give this novel plenty of interest and depth.

The opening shows Inspector Ashwin Chopra, who’s about to retire from the police, discovering that he’s inherited an Indian elephant from his uncle Bansi. A cute, baby elephant. When Chopra investigates one last case – the suspicious death of a young man found on some waste ground – policeman and elephant form an unlikely investigative team. It’s a well-written, entertaining and satisfying read, and a funny, life-affirming antidote to Weltschmerz.

Did I mention the baby elephant? He’s really cute.

Option 2. Scare yourself witless with terrifying Icelandic crime

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Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Why Did You Lie?, trans by Victoria Cribb (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016 [2013]; a 2017 Petrona Award submission).

Or you could go completely the other way and immerse yourself in a chilling world where hapless individuals are being killed off one by one for telling lies. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves three narratives: that of a young policewoman whose journalist husband has recently committed suicide, a work group stranded on the Þrídrangar lighthouse as hostile Icelandic weather closes in, and a family who return after a house-swap to find their American guests are missing. The author has an impressively fertile imagination and expertly ratchets up the suspense. It’s perhaps not one to read too late at night, but is brilliant at keeping Weltschmerz at bay. You’ll simply be too terrified to think about anything else.

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The Þrídrangar lighthouse

Option 3. Lose yourself in some top-quality crime drama set on the other side of the world

By happy coincidence, the second series of outstanding Australian political thriller The Code starts on BBC4 this Saturday 22 October at 9.00pm. Series 1 aired back in 2014 – you can read my post on it here.

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Opening episode: After the events of series 1, journalist Ned Banks and his computer hacker brother Jesse face the prospect of being extradited to the US to face criminal charges. Fortunately for them, Australian National Security has an explosive case it can’t crack, and Jesse may be the man to do it. The brothers also encounter black-market king Jan Roth, and risk being drawn into his shady world. 

If those options fail, treat yourself to this lovely clip of Mike, aka the ‘Hamster of Serenity’. Here he is eating a carrot. If you turn the volume up you can hear him munching.

TV crime drama (Deep Water & McMafia) and John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel

Two TV crime dramas in the pipeline have recently caught my eye.

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Noah Taylor in Deep Water (photo Sean O’Reilly/SBS)

Deep Water (BBC Four)

From the BBC press release: ‘A gripping four-part crime drama set in contemporary Australia, the series is inspired by the unsolved gay-hate crime epidemic that swept through Sydney in the 80s and 90s, known as the Bondi Beach Murders.

The drama unfolds after detectives Tori Lustigman and Nick Manning are assigned a brutal murder case. They uncover evidence that suggests the killing is connected to a spate of unexplained deaths, ‘suicides’ and disappearances throughout the 80s and 90s. Is this the result of shoddy police work, indifference, or something far more sinister?’

The series stars Noah Taylor as detective Nick Manning; Yael Stone as detective Tori Lustigman; William McInnes as Inspector Peel; Daniel Spielman as Rhys; and Danielle Cormack as Brenda. It’s a Blackfella Films production for SBS Broadcasting Australia, Screen Australia & Screen New South Wales. Transmission date to be confirmed, but probably in the autumn.

There’s a bit more info in this Guardian article by Steph Harmon.

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McMafia (BBC One)

From the BBC press release: ‘Inspired by Misha Glenny’s bestselling book McMafia – a hard-hitting look at global crime – Hossein Amini and James Watkins have created a thrilling international crime drama that centres on one family in London.

James Norton (War & Peace, Happy Valley) will play the lead, Alex Godman, the English-raised son of Russian exiles with a mafia past. 

McMafia charts Alex’s journey through a terrifying labyrinth of international criminals, money launderers, corrupt politicians and ruthless intelligence agencies. He finds himself embroiled in an underworld that stretches from London to Moscow, Dubai to Mumbai, Africa to the Americas; a battleground where Mexican cocaine cartels compete with Pakistani drug lords, Balkan smugglers and the Russian Mafia itself. What starts out as a story of survival and revenge becomes an epic tale of a man’s struggle against the lures of corruption in the modern world and in himself.

This fast-paced thriller is epic and intimate, glamorous and gritty, global in scale and forensic in detail. It delves into how, with the rise of globalization, the corporate has become criminal and the criminal corporate and how, driven by the global demand for cheap products, everyone is complicit in some way.

The writing team includes David Farr (The Night Manager, Spooks, Troy – Fall Of A City), Peter Harness (Doctor Who, Wallander, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) and Laurence Coriat (Wonderland, Me Without You).’ Cuba Pictures. Transmission date tbc.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (CNW Group/Penguin Random House Canada Limited)

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life – John le Carré (Penguin)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge John le Carré fan (see my post ‘In praise of John le Carré‘), so I’m delighted that his autobiography The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life is now out with Penguin. Stacks of fabulous content has been released to promote the book, including an extract, readings from le Carré’s works by actors such as Rachel Weisz, and fantastic TV interview snippets. My favourite insight from the author so far: conflict makes for a good story (thus ‘the cat sat on the mat’ is not a promising start, whereas ‘the cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is).

le Carré will be reading extracts from The Pigeon Tunnel on BBC Radio 4 from Monday 12 September in the ‘Book of the Week’ slot.

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

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

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

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Getting into the swing of this spying thing

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

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

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

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

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

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Cutting edge technology: the floppy disk

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading: 

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Trapped: New Icelandic crime drama airs Saturday 13 February on BBC4

BBC4’s weekend crime slot moves from Montalbano’s sunny Sicily to a chilly northern Iceland on Saturday 13 February. Trapped, the channel’s first Icelandic crime drama, begins with two back-to-back episodes at 9.00pm (there are 10 episodes in total). This RVK Studios series will give many British viewers their first taste of the Icelandic language (subtitles also at the ready, of course).

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Trapped seems to be set in the east-coast port of Seyðisfjörður (although some of it was filmed in the northern port of Siglufjörður, which features in Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ crime series). The opening episodes show three events happening almost simultaneously: a ferry with three hundred passengers arriving from Denmark, the discovery of a corpse in the water, and the onset of a violent snowstorm. The storm prevents the ferry from leaving and blocks roads in and out of town, trapping the passengers and townsfolk with the killer. Step forward Police Inspector Andri, who is tasked with investigating this high pressure case…

Here’s a trailer, which looks quite brooding and scary (may need to hide behind the sofa for bits of this one):

The BBC’s Sue Deeks had this to say about Trapped following its acquisition for BBC4: “A truly gripping storyline, stunning Icelandic setting and renowned feature film director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest) was a combination impossible to resist. Trapped will be our first Icelandic drama series and I am certain that BBC Four viewers are in for an absolute treat.”

Trapped stars Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, True Detective) in the lead role and is joined by Bjarne Henriksen (Borgen, The Killing), Ingvar E Sigurðsson (Everest, K19 The Widowmaker), Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir (Virgin Mountain, White Night Wedding), Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir (The Sea) and Björn Hlynur Haraldsson (Borgias, Fortitude). The series is written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and Clive Bradley, and is produced by Baltasar Kormákur and Magnus Vidar Sigurdsson.

UPDATE – SPOILER FREE REVIEW OF EPISODES 1 AND 2

Well, that was a brilliant start. This is a high quality crime drama that has the potential to develop into a really great series. The first episode set up the different strands of the narrative very nicely: a mysterious fire, the ferry’s arrival, the discovery of the body and the complex personal life of police chief Andri. The actors are great, the writing is crisp with occasional wry humour, and the cinematography is excellent, making the most of the dramatic Icelandic landscape and weather. Wrap up warm when watching, because it’s almost impossible not to feel chilly with that blizzard swirling around.

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Andri and his police team

It was lovely to hear Icelandic, mingled in with some English and Danish (the captain of the Danish ferry will be immediately recognizable to fans of The Killing I and Borgen). I liked Andri and his down-to-earth female police colleague Hinrike very much, and was amused to see the Reykjavik police investigators depicted as arrogant city slickers (there’s some friction here that will hopefully be explored in later episodes).

Update: Just watched episodes 7 and 8, which were both excellent. The plot continues to thicken, and the quality of the screenwriting and acting remains extremely high. Andri and Hinrike make a brilliant team. Can’t wait for the finale next week.

One last tidbit: the Icelandic title of the series is Ófærð, which means ‘impassable’ – the word on the sign signalling road closure due to bad weather. Looking forward to more immensely.

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In other TV news, Sunday 14 February brings us the feature-length finale of Deutschland 83. This East/West German spy thriller has been an absolute gem, and has elicited an incredibly enthusiastic response from British viewers. I’ll blog my thoughts on the series as a Germanist and fan once the roller-coaster ride is complete!

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Happy Valley Series 2, Arctic thrills (Nesbo & McGrath)…and going green

My day is made: I’ve just heard the news that the second series of Happy Valley begins on BBC 1 next Tuesday, 9 February at 9pm.

Happy Valley 1

The first series of Happy Valley was one of the best TV crime dramas I’ve ever seen, with a wonderful lead, Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), and a storyline that was gripping and moving in equal measure. The script by acclaimed screenwriter Sally Wainwright was top-notch, celebrating female strength and endurance while exploring tough themes such as grief, gender and power, and the consequences of greed.

Series 2 picks up the story eighteen months after the end of series 1. Tommy Lee Royce is still safely locked up in prison, but continues to cast a shadow over Cawood’s life as she attempts to get on with raising her grandson and doing her job. Episode 1 starts off with a mild case of West Yorkshire sheep rustling, but things soon take a more serious turn… There are six episodes in total.

Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite and a great Guardian piece on the show (‘What makes Happy Valley TV’s most realistic police drama?’):

Other TV dramas I’m enjoying at the moment include Channel 4’s Deutschland 83 (which I’ll blog on more fully at the end of the series) and Vera, which has just started over on ITV. I’ve had to consciously pull myself back to some reading, not least as the Petrona Award judges will be meeting soon to shortlist for this year’s prize.

Midnight Sun

One of the submissions is Jo Nesbø’s Midnight Sun, expertly translated from the Norwegian by Neil Smith (Harvill Secker, 2015). I confess that I’ve sometimes struggled with Nesbø’s novels. While I like some of the ‘Harry Hole’ series, such The Redbreast (2006), and always initially enjoy the writing, I’ve put more than one of the novels aside when the violence becomes too eye-watering. Midnight Sun stayed within acceptable boundaries for me on that score, and as a result, I really enjoyed this tale of a young man on the run from Oslo’s nastiest underworld boss. Jon’s escape route leads him to Kåsund, a small (possibly fictitious) settlement near Alta in the Finnmark region of northern Norway, which lies in the Arctic Circle (close to Tromsø on the map below). Here, this city dweller has to deal with northerly solitude, the disorientating midnight sun, his Sami and Laestadian neighbours, and the threat of being found. The novel’s characterisation is rich, the geographical and cultural settings are intriguing, and the plot unfolds in a leisurely fashion, allowing Jon’s relationship with a young woman and her son from the nearby Laestadian religious community to grow at a natural pace. The novel also features the most original fugitive hiding place I’ve seen in a long time.

Another novel with a similar setting, which features the Norwegian Reindeer Police, is Olivier Truc’s Forty Days without Shadow see my earlier review here.

Arctic Circle

I’ve also just started M.J. McGrath’s third ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ novel, The Bone Seeker (Pan, 2015). I’m delighted to be back in Edie’s world as I love her company, and one of the series’ big strengths is the detail it gives about Inuit life on Umingmak Nuna (Ellesmere Island, in green on the left of the map) up in the High Arctic. The history, geography and culture of the region all fascinate me, bearing out Karen’s comments in the previous post about enriching the reading experiences of far-away audiences.

The novel opens with the disappearance of young Inuit Martha Salliaq, one of the students Edie has been teaching at a school in Kuujuaq. When a body is discovered in a polluted lake near a decommissioned radar station, a complex investigation begins… Like Nesbo’s novel, The Bone Seeker is set during the arctic summer in seemingly eternal daylight, and I’m very much looking forward to reading more. It’s beautifully written and a genuine crime fiction treat.

Bone Seeker

Finally, some of you may have noticed that this blog has turned a little green. The new design and colour scheme celebrate the fact that Crime Fiction in German has gone to press! The blog banner is taken from the marvellous cover by the University of Wales Press. Watch this space for further news about the publication date and launch.

🙂

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New Year goodies: The Young Montalbano (BBC4) and Deutschland 83 (Channel 4/Walter Presents)

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’ve had a wonderful festive season and are heading into 2016 with a spring in your step.

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We kick off the year with two fabulous series from Italy and Germany – the second season of The Young Montalbano on BBC4 and spy drama Deutschland 83 on Channel 4. The latter also marks the launch of the new on-demand service Walter Presents, which looks like a must for fans of international crime.

The new six-part series of The Young Montalbano begins on Saturday 2nd January at 9.00pm, with the episode ‘The Man who Followed Funerals’. Montalbano investigates the brutal murder of Pasqualino Cutufa’, a Vigata inhabitant who made a habit of showing up at people’s funerals to mourn their deaths. Livia has also come to stay, but is acting rather strangely…

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Young Montalbano (Michele Riondino) looking rather pensive

I thoroughly enjoyed the first series of The Young Montalbano, which did a stylish job of depicting the Italian policeman’s early years in 1990s Vigata, when he still had an unruly mop of hair. If you’re looking to escape from a wet and windy Blighty to sunnier shores, then this one could be for you. I blogged some background to the first series in this 2013 post. And here’s a link to Olivia Sellerio singing ‘Vuci mia cantannu vai’, which closed the series 1 episodes. Divine!

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The eight-part spy thriller Deutschland 83 (Germany 83) begins on Channel 4 on Sunday 3rd January at 9pm (in German with English subtitles). I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to seeing some quality German drama on our screens.

Here’s an overview from Channel 4:

‘It’s 1983. The Cold War is heating up. Russian SS20 Missiles in East Germany are pointed West, while American Pershing II Missiles in West Germany will soon be pointing East. Against this perilous political backdrop, DEUTSCHLAND 83, a gripping coming-of-age story and a suspenseful, fast-paced thriller, follows Martin Rauch (Jonas Nay), a 24-year-old East German, who is sent to the West as an undercover spy for the Stasi. Hiding in plain sight in the West German army, he must gather NATO military secrets while trying to resist the pleasures that the West has to offer. Everything is new to him, nothing is quite what it seems and everyone he encounters is harbouring secrets.

Stylish, fast-paced and utterly gripping, the series, created by German-American husband and wife team Anna and Joerg Winger, reveals the experiences of Germans from both sides of the Berlin Wall during a pivotal period of Cold War tensions.

The series was the first German-language drama ever to air in the US, proving a hit on Sundance TV channel this summer where it has was hailed as “engrossing” (Time Magazine), “slick” (The Hollywood Reporter) and “fresh and enjoyable” (The New York Times).’

Here’s the Sundance trailer of Deutschland 83 to give you a taster – with a storming 80s soundtrack:

The series premieres on the same day as Walter Presents, a new, FREE digital service showcasing ‘the best in world drama’ and available exclusively on All 4. The creation of this service testifies to the progress British TV has made in relation to foreign-language drama in recent years. Subtitled films/dramas, once the preserve of indie cinemas and international film nuts, are now positively mainstream, which is splendid. Judging by the website, there will be lots of international crime goodies available on Walter Presents, including the marvellous ‘Cenk Batu’ episodes from the German series Tatort. This Independent article has further details about the line up.

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New Welsh noir! Hinterland Series 2

Series 2 of the acclaimed Welsh crime drama Hinterland kicks off on BBC One Wales with four 90-minute episodes from Wednesday, 23rd December at 9.30pm. Viewers outside Wales will be able to watch live on satellite (Sky channel 952 or Freesat 964) and cable (Virgin Media 864).

UPDATE: BBC4 will begin showing Hinterland on Saturday 23 April at 9pm. The 2015 special will be shown first (which is well worth watching), followed by Series 2 (5 programmes in total). Further information is available here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0791w11

See below for an overview of Series 2 and some great insights from Hinterland’s producers/writers and Richard Harrington, who plays DCI Tom Mathias.

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Here’s the BBC overview of Series 2, Episode 1: ‘In this new series, Mathias is under pressure. Meg, his wife, has turned up in Aberystwyth, and he’s under investigation by the IPCC. When a bus driver’s body is found shot on an isolated mountainside, the investigation provides a welcome escape. In his current state of mind, Mathias is fascinated by the lifestyle choices of suspect and ex-soldier John Bell. He also knows that he cannot avoid Meg for much longer.’

And rejoice! Here’s an absolutely wonderful two-minute sneak preview from Series 2, Episode 1… Just click on the image below.

Season 2 Episode 1 clip

Now for an (almost exclusive) extra:

I had the good fortune to attend a TOP-SECRET Hinterland press briefing in Cardiff, at which Richard Harrington (Tom Mathias) spoke about the making of series 2, along with its Fiction Factory co-creators, producers and writers Ed Thomas, Ed Talfan and Gethyn Scourfield. They had some very interesting things to say about DCI Mathias, the series’ Welshness and international success, and the musical adventures of Hinterband… 

Richard Harrington told us about the challenges of playing the troubled Mathias in series 2, as more of his backstory is revealed. He was aware that some viewers felt frustrated at not knowing more about Mathias by the end of the first series, but didn’t feel it was a bad thing to keep the audience waiting a little. Series 2 was all the more exciting due to Mathias’ character development – a ‘seismic shift that changes everything’.

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Mathias in his caravan. They don’t make Harrington live there for the whole shoot…

The producers discussed the Welshness of the series from a number of intriguing angles. The brooding Ceredigion landscapes provide a ‘big space for big stories’. Hinterland is ‘a love letter to a disappearing Wales’ and a ‘distillation’ of a particular regional Welshness, but also a ‘made-up Wales’ that deliberately avoids contemporary political references to remain timeless. Harrington described the famously hostile Welsh weather as having a biblical feel and being an apt metaphor for Mathias’ mind.

Hinterland landscape 2

Close to the edge…

The producers are very proud of the drama’s Welshness. They talked of a Welsh ‘hunger’ for creating and consuming television dramas in both Welsh and English. These provide an opportunity to ‘reflect the Welsh back to themselves’ and to promote Wales to the world, which is a way of ‘helping people to get us better’. When the producers went to France, armed with images of amazing Ceredigion landscapes, they encountered a number of people who knew nothing about Wales, but loved what they saw. The series is shot completely on location in and around Aberystwth, and the producers feel this is key – they can’t imagine filming it in any other way.

Harrington spoke about the challenges of filming in two languages. The series is filmed twice over – once in Welsh for S4C and once in English (with some subtitled Welsh) for the BBC. This is hard work for the actors, who tend to feel more comfortable in one of the languages, and requires flexibility on the part of the writers – for example, they have to find ways around procedural police language that doesn’t work as well in Welsh. But working bilingually is also rewarding, and Harrington says he ‘finds certain emotions in Welsh’ that he doesn’t find in the same way when speaking English.

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Mathias’ colleague DI Mared Rhys, played by Mali Harris

Hinterland/Y Gwyll has been a huge international success. It’s sold to over 30 countries and has been picked up by Netflix. The producers hope this will lead to further success stories for Welsh-made drama, but stressed that understanding the ‘physics of distribution’ is vital. Hinterland is made with investment from S4C, BBC One Wales and other partners, and feel this kind of approach is the way forward. They clearly know what they’re doing, as series 3 has already been commissioned and begins filming in early 2016.

So how do cast and crew relax when they’re not filming? By playing in their very own HinterBAND, with Hannah Daniel (DS Sian Owens) on vocals and Harrington on drums. They’re so good that they headlined the Aberystwyth Carnival in the summer 🙂

There’s a great piece about Hinterband by Kathryn Williams – with photos – on Wales Online here. And here’s the band in action:

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas – Nadolig Llawen from Wales!

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Bron III Broen – The Bridge is back!

The Bridge 3

It’s back…! Bron III Broen (The Bridge series 3) returns to UK screens tonight after what seems like a very long wait. Martin Rohde (Kim Bodnia) may no longer be around, but the wonderful Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) will be strutting her stuff as usual – in her highly individual way.

The first and second episodes will air today, Saturday 21 November, on BBC4 between 9.00 and 11.00pm. The series contains 10 episodes in total, which are in Swedish and Danish with English subtitles.

Here, for your delectation, is the BBC4 trailer ‘A new Saga begins’ (terrible pun)…

And here’s an overview of the series from the BBC:

>> The Bridge 3: When Helle Anker, the founder of the first gender-neutral kindergarten in Copenhagen and a high-profile debater on gender issues, is found murdered in Sweden, the Danish and Swedish police are compelled to join forces once more for a third series of The Bridge. The brutal killing turns out to be only the first in a series of gruesome crimes, strung together in a case which involves Saga Norén of the Malmo Police personally and which will change her forever. A powerful, intriguing and unpredictable tale of crime, played out by fascinating and complex characters, the new season will revolve around the concept and structures of family – new, old, deviant, classical, constructive and destructive. At its heart, The Bridge carries a central theme of personal responsibility and its consequences. <<

The Radio Times also features a piece on Sofia Helin winningly entitled ‘I’d rather be a feminist icon than a sex symbol’. There’s an extract here and the full interview is carried in the RT magazine.

And over at Nordic Noir, there’s an insightful interview with Sofia about the new series and dealing with Kim’s departure (may contain the odd spoiler).

Happy viewing!

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