Crime fiction prologues – love them or hate them?

Sometimes when you read lots of crime novels in quick succession, particular trends start to emerge. For me recently, it’s been the increasing use of prologues that are action-dominated and gruesomely violent. Perhaps I’ve had a bad run, but in the space of ten books I’ve encountered the following ‘gritty prologues’ (from male and female authors of different nationalities):

  • A man wakes to find himself bound to a table. He is tortured to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A woman arrives home in the dark, is attacked from behind and almost strangled to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A father drops his son off at a friend’s house, only to discover that the family has been brutally murdered. Told from the father’s point of view.
  • A father tries and fails to stop his daughter seeing a grisly corpse he has just uncovered in a peat bog. Told from the daughter’s point of view.
  • A stray dog scavenging for food finds three fresh corpses that will make a nice supper. Told from the dog’s point of view (!).
  • A woman is suffocated in her bed with a pillow. Told from the murderer’s point of view.

Truly. I kid you not.

A number of questions arise:

  1. What’s the aim of this kind of prologue? To grab the reader’s attention in a competitive market place? To demonstrate the crime writer’s ‘chops’ when describing extreme violence? To sell more books?
  2. Why does the violence have to be dialled up to 11, described in minute detail, and told from the victim/murderer POV? Is there some kind of grim inflation going on, with authors competing to describe ever more violent/sadistic acts? And is this really what authors/editors/publishers think readers want?
  3. Are these kinds of prologues new? A quick scout of my bookshelves tells me they’re not. Henning Mankell uses prologues in Sidetracked (1995), The Fifth Woman (2000) and other Wallander novels. So does Hakan Nesser in Borkmann’s Point (1994), George Pelecanos in The Big Blowdown (1996) and Jan Costin Wagner in Silence (2007).
  4. Do prologues feature regularly in crime before the 1990s? I’m not sure. I couldn’t find any, but haven’t done an exhaustive search by any means. It would be interesting to know when crime fiction prologues became an established feature.
  5. Has the nature of the crime fiction prologue changed? On the basis of an admittedly tiny sample, it seems to me that they have. The older prologues listed under 3. include the story of a family in the Dominican Republic, a woman reading a letter informing her of her mother’s death, and an encounter between two friends in an ambulance en route to hospital. Rather than depicting acts of violence, they give information that helps readers to make sense of acts of violence later in the narrative. The other two do portray graphic violence, but the first is leavened with black humour, and the second is vital to understanding the psychology and roles of two characters in relation to the crime. Neither are told from the POV of the victim or murderer. By contrast, the more recent prologues feel much more gratuitous, and could easily be left out without disturbing the narrative.
  6. Does a terrible prologue = a terrible crime novel? Not necessarily. In fact, there’s sometimes an odd shift in tone between the prologue and the main narrative, which suggests that the prologue could have been tacked on.
  7. Whose idea are these prologues? Do authors come under pressure to add gritty prologues from their editors or publishers or readers? Is the driving force a commercial one, and if so, is there actual proof that such prologues ‘work’ in terms of getting readers to buy books?

The Tempest, Act II, Scene I

But all is not lost. Just this morning I picked up a new crime novel by a certain Norwegian author. Its prologue shows a policeman receiving a letter that will help him to solve an open case from 33 years ago. Hooray!

What’s your view as a reader? Take part in the mini-polls below if you fancy, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If any authors, editors, publishers or translators would like to add to the discussion they’d be most welcome 🙂 ***The polls are now closed*** 

Thanks to everyone who took part in the prologue polls. The results are now visible below.

Some thoughts on the results: In each poll, the highest-scoring response (between 47% and 53% of respondents) was a neutral one. So around half of those who took the polls didn’t have strong views about prologues or their usefulness, and didn’t feel that their buying decisions were influenced by them one way or the other. Notably, however, the second-highest response in each poll was negative. In the first poll, 29% said they disliked prologues, in the second poll, 29% felt that they were largely unnecessary, and in the third, 24.5% said that a prologue had put them off buying a book. So at least a quarter of readers don’t seem to like prologues very much or consider them largely necessary. The third-highest responses in the first two polls were more positive: 10% said they liked prologues in poll one, and 17% felt that prologues often had a useful function in poll two. In the third poll, which looked at buying decisions, almost 18% said that the prologue had influenced them in both directions (to buy and not to buy). Only 5% said that a prologue had led them to buy a book. That last finding might surprise some editors and publishers (though the percentage would go up a bit if one added more points from the ‘both’ response).

Obviously, the sample size here is small, but the results are thought-provoking nonetheless.

Treats galore: Crime Time’s Top 100 Books of 2016

Using a fiendish algorithm, the good people at Crime Time have converted nominations from a selection of criminal experts into a wonderfully rich list of the year’s top 100 crime novels.

So if you’re lying beached on the sofa after Christmas dinner, or need a tiny break from your loved ones over the festive season, you could dip in here:

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The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: Day 1 – #100 To 51

The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: Part Deux – #50 To #21

The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: It doesn’t get any bigger than this! – #20 To Numero Uno

I haven’t yet checked how the list breaks down by sub-genre/gender/nation, but am looking forward to taking a closer look, as well as adding some more crime to my TBR pile. Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake has already found its way onto my bookshelf.

The panel: Barry Forshaw (Financial Times), Andre Paine (Crime Scene), Marcel Berlins (The Times), Steph Broadribb (Crime Thriller Girl), Jon Coates (Daily Express), Jake Kerridge (The Telegraph), Sarah Ward (Crime Pieces), Karen Robinson (The Sunday Times), Maxim Jakubowski (Lovereading), Kat Hall (Mrs. Peabody Investigates), Russell Mclean (russeldmcleanbooks.com), Doug Johnstone (dougjohnstone.com) and Woody Haut (woodyhaut.blogspot.co.uk)

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Merry Christmas / Happy Hanukkah / Happy Holidays to you all!

American Pie

I met a girl who sang the blues
And I asked her for some happy news
But she just smiled and turned away

Don McLean, American Pie

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I haven’t read any crime fiction for the last two weeks, mainly because I’ve been mesmerised by the slow-mo car crash of the 2016 US election. So this post is mostly about that seismic political event, with some crime fiction stuff mixed in. Normal service will be resumed shortly, promise.

Quite a few of us in the UK stayed up for the results, and saw almost exactly the same story unfold as for the EU Referendum back in June: the polls were unreliable, the results started going in the wrong direction almost immediately, and as the hours passed, an awful sinking feeling set in. My heart went out to my American friends, because like many of us here I could understand (at least to some extent) what you were feeling during that long, dark night: the total and utter dismay of witnessing a ‘black swan’ phenomenon that will fundamentally alter your political landscape, unleash destructive forces of xenophobia, and have potentially catastrophic long-term effects.

I’ve largely steered clear of the papers since then – the headlines read like some really bad dystopian alt-history novel – but have dipped into a few online pieces. There is some solace to be had there, such as the fact that HRC appears to have won the popular vote, and that people/organisations are already rolling up their sleeves for the work ahead (see this HuffPost piece: ‘If you’re overwhelmed by the election, here’s what you can do now’).

One thing we’ve realised here in post-Brexit UK is the importance of speaking up for our core democratic values (I explain why in the final comment below), and I’ve been struck by how vocal writers/actors such as Stephen King, George Takei and J.K. Rowling have been about the US election online. Their willingness to speak up is no small thing given the often hostile response they receive in return. This wonderful tweet from Rowling (after the results) ended up being shared over 40k times: “We stand together. We stick up for the vulnerable. We challenge bigots. We don’t let hate speech become normalised. We hold the line“. King and Rowling are part of our crime-writing community too, of course, so I’m particularly proud of them.

Two thoughts on all of this and crime fiction. Firstly, Ben Winter’s ‘Last Policeman’ trilogy has been on my mind a great deal. These novels play out in an America threatened by an asteroid strike (!!!), but I’m drawn to them at the moment because they depict individuals reacting to hostile situations with integrity and resilience (for more on the trilogy, see my post here). Secondly, crime writer Eva Dolan and I had a brief Twitter chat yesterday about how crime fiction might respond to the political events of 2016. Two trends are likely: the gritty, hard-hitting crime novel that addresses these events directly, and ‘cozy’ crime fiction that offers an escape from it all. I think both have an important role to play. We obviously need crime fiction (all fiction) to illuminate serious political, social and ethical issues, but also need to look after ourselves, which may mean seeking solace in ‘respite crime’ when required. I suspect I’ll be mixing them up liberally according to mood.

Anyhow – hands across the pond, lots of love, and on we go…

Extensive re-run of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on now!

Thanks to Andy Lawrence for spotting that BBC Radio 4 is re-running episodes from Mark Lawson’s excellent ‘Foreign Bodies’ crime fiction series on BBC Radio Four extra and BBC iPlayer Radio. Most episodes will be available online for a month following broadcast, and offer 15-minute opportunities to delve into the work of key crime writers and traditions from around the world.

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The ‘Foreign Bodies’ series are close to my heart for their celebration of international crime fiction, their focus on some of our most interesting detective figures, and their analysis of how crime fiction is used to explore important political and social issues. I was also lucky enough to contribute to two episodes in Series 1 – on the works of Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Jakob Arjouni respectively.

Here’s a list of the ‘Foreign Bodies’ programmes you can listen to via BBC Radio iPlayer, either now or in the coming days. If you’re looking for some gems to add to your reading list, then these programmes are definitely for you.

Series 1, Episode 1  Belgium: Hercule Poirot and Jules Maigret (Agatha Christie and Georges Simenon)

Series 1, Episode 2  Switzerland/Germany: Inspector Bärlach (Friedrich Dürrenmatt… with a contribution from Mrs Peabody)

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Series 1, Episode 3  Czechoslovakia: Lieutenant Boruvka (Josef Skvorecky)

Series 1, Episode 4  The Netherlands: Commissaris Van Der Valk (Nicolas Freeling)

Series 1, Episode 5  Sweden: Inspector Martin Beck (Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö)

Series 1, Episode 6  UK: Commander Dalgliesh/Chief Inspector Wexford (P.D. James and Ruth Rendell)

Series 1, Episode 7  Sicily: Inspector Rogas (Leonardo Sciascia)

Series 1, Episode 8  Spain: PI Pepe Carvalho (Manuel Vázquez Montalbán)

Series 1, Episode 9  UK: DCI Jane Tennison (Linda La Plante)

Episodes 10 to 15 are not yet listed as available, but they may well be soon – I’ll update if so (these include Montalbano/Italy, Kayankaya/Germany, Rebus/Scotland, Wallander and Salander/Sweden, Harry Hole/Norway and Fandorin/Russia).

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Series 3, Episode 1  Cuba: an exploration of fictional investigations of Cuba after the Castro revolution with Leonardo Padura, author of The Havana Quartet, and Caroline Garcia-Aquilera, a Cuban-American writing from exile in Miami.

Series 3, Episode 2  USA: Laura Lippman and Walter Mosley, the creators of private eyes Tess Monaghan and Easy Rawlins, discuss how they introduced the experience of women and black Americans into crime fiction dominated by men and a McCarthyite fear of outsiders.

Series 3, Episode 3  Poland: Zygmunt Miloszewski and Joanna Jodelka reflect on how Polish crime fiction depicts the country’s occupation by Nazis and Communists, the transition to democracy through the Solidarity movement and lingering accusations of racism and anti-Semitism.

Series 3 Episode 4  Australia: Australia’s leading crime novelist, South African-born Peter Temple, discusses depicting a society shaped by both British colonialism and American power, and why Australian crime fiction should contain as few words as possible.

Series 3 Episode 5  Nigeria: Writers Helon Habila and C.M. Okonkwo discuss how a flourishing new tradition of Nigerian crime fiction explores British legacy, tribal tradition and the new “corporate colonialism” as global companies exploit the country’s mineral reserves.

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Mark Lawson’s article on the first ‘Foreign Bodies’ series is also available via The Guardian: ‘Crime’s Grand Tour: European Detective Fiction’.

Summer musings on Walters (UK), Hykänen (Finland), and the visibility of women in crime fiction awards

After a busy few months, I’m looking forward to 1. writing up reviews of some excellent crime novels and 2. getting down to some quality summer reading.

A fairly random start: two very different novels I’ve recently enjoyed, and some musings on the visibility of women on crime fiction award longlists/shortlists.

Minette Walters

Minette Walters, Disordered Minds (Pan Macmillan 2003). I picked up this plump psychological crime novel at Oxfam Books, and it turned out to be a perfect summer read. Two amateur detectives – Jonathan Hughes, a social anthropologist with a chip on his shoulder, and George Gardener, a middle-aged local councillor, find themselves drawn into investigating a contested old case, the murder of Grace Jeffries in 1970. Her grandson Harold was convicted of the crime, but new evidence suggests that the original investigation may have been botched.

I’ve not read anything by Walters before – a bit of an omission on my part – and am now keen to read more. Her approach to dissecting criminality reminded me of PD James and Ruth Rendell, particularly in its focus on British attitudes to race and class. A satisfying read with some lovely characterisation and interesting socio-political commentary (it’s set against the backdrop of the Iraq war in 2003), but with a slightly over-convoluted ending.

Nykanen

Harri Nykänen, Behind God’s Back, trans. from Finnish by Kristian London (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015 [2009]). This novel is the second in the ‘Ariel Kafka’ series (I reviewed the first here back in 2012). Aside from its Finnish setting, the most distinctive aspect of this series is its lead investigator, who is one of only two Jewish policemen in Helsinki. He views the world with a typically wry Jewish humour and allows readers to gain an insight into Helsinki’s small Jewish community, with which he has a slightly strained relationship as he’s not exactly a ‘model Jewish citizen’ – non-observant and stubbornly single.

The novel opens with the murder of a Jewish businessman. Kafka is tasked with figuring out whether the murder is racially motivated, a business deal gone wrong, or something altogether more complex… As was the case with the first novel, the plot got a bit complicated towards the end, but I thoroughly enjoyed Kafka’s irreverent, blokey company, and was very happy to go along for the ride. A superior police procedural.

And so to the subject of crime fiction longlists and shortlists.

Gold

My last post included the CWA International Dagger longlist, which I was disappointed to see included no works by women authors. Here it is again:

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

I started thinking about how this all-male longlist might have come about. Here are some possibilities, some of which are valid, some not. The answer probably comprises a few of these factors in combination.

  • No works by women authors were submitted for the award. Not the case: the list of novels submitted for this year’s International Dagger is available at http://cwadaggers.co.uk/cwa-international-dagger/. It shows that there were 45 works submitted, of which 13 were authored or co-authored by a woman. If my maths is right, that’s nearly 30%.
  • Fewer works by women were submitted, so the chances of these reaching the longlist were accordingly smaller. That’s definitely the case, given the 70% (male), 30% (female) split. And this kind of ratio seems to be typical. Translator Katy Derbyshire, writing in The Guardian, recently identified a twofold negative trend in relation to international fiction. Firstly, fewer women authors are published in their home markets; secondly, fewer still are selected by English-language publishers for translation. This means that works by international women authors in English are ‘a minority in a minority’. Their chances of winning prestigious literary prizes are thus pretty low.
  • However, even given those factors, the law of averages would still suggest 2 or 3 works by women could have made the International Dagger longlist. There were certainly some strong contenders on the submission list, such as Karin Fossum’s The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker), Kati Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless (Orenda) and Claudia Pinero’s Betty Boo (Bitter Lemon Press). Why didn’t they make the cut?
  • At this point we have to acknowledge that judging is a subjective process involving a number of factors and evaluations. So it may simply be coincidence that the longlist ended up being male-dominated (their novels happened to be the best this time round). Equally, however, there may be unconscious biases that drew the judges towards that particular set of novels. These *may* include a gender bias, but could also include others, such as a preference for a particular type of crime fiction (psychological, police procedural, thriller, whatever), or for crime set in a particular country (Sweden, Japan, South Africa)…

A swift look at some other recent longlists/shortlists shows the following: 

  • The 2016 CWA Goldsboro Gold Dagger features three women authors on its longlist of eight (37%).
  • The 2016 Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel (announced today!) features three women authors on its longlist of nine (33%).
  • The 2016 Petrona Award (for which I’m a judge) featured two women authors on its shortlist of six (33%). Our submission list had a worse male/female ratio to the International Dagger this year – 8 works by women authors on a submission list of 42 (19%).
  • The 2016 Man Booker International featured two female authors on its shortlist of six (33%). It was won by Han Kang – a woman author – for The Vegetarian.
  • A significant exception is the 2016 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, which features eleven women authors on its longlist of eighteen (61%). This award has also been won by women for the last four years (Denise Mina twice, Belinda Bauer and Sarah Hilary).

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

All the above has made me scrutinise my own reading practices and biases (not always a comfortable process). I’m keeping a list to check my own reading/gender ratio, which I know some other bloggers do as well. It’ll be interesting to compare notes.

Some thought-provoking articles on and around the subject

Katy Derbyshire, ‘Translated fiction by women must stop being a minority in a minority’The Guardian, 10 March 2016

Hannah Ellis Peterson, ‘Male writers continue to dominate literary criticism, Vida study finds’, The Guardian, 7 April 2015 (particularly interesting contribution by Rob Spillman on tackling systemic problems)

VIDA, ‘The 2015 VIDA Count’, 30 March 2016. VIDA (Women in Literary Arts) is a US-based organisation that scrutinizes the representation of women in the sector (looking at interesting stats like the proportion of women reviewers on magazines).

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Renoir’s The Reader

‘Crime Fiction in German’ book launch and giant Krimi giveaway

The book launch for Crime Fiction in German takes place on Thursday 14th April in Swansea, Wales. To celebrate this event, we’re having a giant Krimi giveaway.

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Erich is very excited about the book launch

The giveaway includes two copies of Crime Fiction in German (University of Wales Press, 2016), which is the first volume in English to provide a comprehensive overview of German-language crime fiction from its origins in the early 19th century to the present day. *You can download a free chapter from the volume here*

We’re also giving away a wonderful selection of the Krimis featured in the volume, thereby showcasing the best of German-language crime in translation:

CFIG launch book collage

A selection from the giant Krimi giveaway

Sascha Arango, The Truth and Other Lies (Simon and Schuster, trans Imogen Taylor). A darkly humorous tale following the fortunes of the outrageous Henry Hayden. A modern-day homage to Patricia Highsmith by one of the screenwriters for the renowned TV crime series Tatort (Crime Scene).

Friedrich Glauser, In Matto’s Realm (Bitter Lemon Press, trans Mike Mitchell). Originally published in 1936, In Matto’s Realm is the second in the groundbreaking ‘Sergeant Studer’ series. Studer is shown investigating the escape of a murderer from a psychiatric institution, a setting that holds a dark mirror up to Swiss society.

Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin (Penguin, trans Michael Hofman). An extraordinary literary crime novel written in 1946, based on the genuine case of Elise and Otto Hampel, who were executed on charges of treason during the Nazi regime. Recently made into a film starring Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson and Daniel Brühl.

Auguste Groner, The Case of the Golden Bullet (Amazon, unknown trans). Groner was a pioneer of Austrian and women’s crime fiction, and created the first German-language police detective series. Joseph Müller investigates in this opening novella, originally published in 1892.

Petra Hammesfahr, The Sinner (Bitter Lemon Press, trans John Brownjohn). A gripping psychological thriller and Frauenkrimi, which excavates the reasons for an explosion of violence by young mother Cora Bender one sunny summer afternoon.

Paulus Hochgatterer, The Sweetness of Life (MacLehose, trans Jamie Bulloch). In this Austrian crime novel, Detective Ludwig Kovacs and psychiatrist Raffael Horn work on a murder case in which the only witness is a girl too traumatised to speak. Winner of the 2009 European Literature Prize.

Andrea Maria Schenkel, The Murder Farm (Quercus, trans Anthea Bell). A former resident returns to a village following a family massacre, and begins to piece together events via interviews with assorted villagers. A spare, chilling tale set in rural 1950s Germany. Winner of the German Crime Prize.

Ferdinand von Schirach, The Collini Case (Michael Joseph/Penguin, trans Anthea Bell). Barrister Caspar Leinen takes on a seemingly impossible case: his client, Fabrizio Collini, admits the murder of a rich German industrialist, but refuses to say why he committed the crime. A gripping courtroom drama that interrogates notions of justice.

Simon Urban, Plan D (Vintage, trans Katy Derbyshire). An ambitious novel that blends police procedural, detective novel and alternative history genres. Set in a 2011 in which the Berlin Wall still stands, it explores East-West tensions as the GDR teeters on brink of bankruptcy. A biting social satire.

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TO ENTER the giveaway and win one of the books above, write your name in the comment section along with the answer to this question –> What is the popular term for ‘crime novel’ in German?

A. Schwarzwaldkuchen

B. Krimi

C. Bratwurst

You can be anywhere in the world to enter – from Tenby or Tokyo to Tasmania. The closing date for entries is Sunday 17th April. THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED! See below for the winners!

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There was a fantastic response the Great Krimi Giveaway, with nearly 100 entries from all over the world – and amazingly everyone got the answer right ;-). Thanks to everyone who took part. The twelve lucky winners are listed below. Congratulations!

Winners – please email me your postal address and I will send your book out to you (mrspeabody68 at yahoo.co.uk). 

THE WINNERS ARE……..:

  • John Grant (realthog) – Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies
  • Roberta Marshall – Aykol’s Hotel Bosphorus
  • Bill Selnes – Glauser’s In Matto’s Realm
  • Lucy Dalton – Glauser’s Fever
  • Annegret Harms – Fallada’s Alone in Berlin
  • Sebastian Raggio – Groner’s The Case of the Golden Bullet and Schenkel’s The Murder Farm (two for one because the Groner is short!)
  • Robert J (Robie) – Hammesfahr’s The Sinner
  • Bett Mac – Hochgatterer’s The Sweetness of Life
  • Beatriz Simonetti – von Schirach’s The Collini Case
  • Ankush Saikia – Urban’s Plan D
  • Georgie Kelley – Crime Fiction in German volume
  • Sarah Pybus – Crime Fiction in German volume
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The faithful Krimi bag, from which the draw was made, with the pile of freshly won prizes

Mrs. Peabody gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the sponsors below, who have made this Krimi giveaway possible.

CFIG sponsors 1

CFIG sponsors 2

RIAH title high res

A salute to Harper Lee and Umberto Eco

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

Harper Lee

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

Umberto Eco in December 2010 (REUTERS/Andrea Comas)

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

Holiday reading and the 2015 Betty Trask Award: The Spring of Kasper Meier

The Crime Fiction in German volume has had its final polish and been delivered into the tender care of the University of Wales Press. Time for a little break, then – a tour of west Wales in our trusty VW camper, with plenty of downtime for reading in various seaside cafes.

I’ve been eyeing up my real and virtual bookshelves to see what I fancy taking along. So far I have the following modest pile, which will no doubt expand a bit by tomorrow morning.

 Behind God's Back

Finnish author Harri Nykänen’s Behind God’s Back (trans. Kristian London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2015) is the second in the Ariel Kafka series – I enjoyed the first, Nights of Awe, very much. Here’s the publisher description:

>> There are two Jewish cops in all of Helsinki. One of them, Ariel Kafka, a lieutenant in the Violent Crime Unit, identifies himself as a policeman first, then a Finn, and lastly a Jew. Kafka is a religiously non-observant 40-something bachelor who is such a stubborn, dedicated policeman that he’s willing to risk his career to get an answer. Murky circumstances surround his investigation of a Jewish businessman’s murder. Neo-Nazi violence, intergenerational intrigue, shady loans – predictable lines of investigation lead to unpredictable culprits. But a second killing strikes closer to home, and the Finnish Security Police come knocking. The tentacles of Israeli politics and Mossad reach surprisingly far, once again wrapping Kafka in their sticky embrace. << 

Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet (Picador 2015). I’ve heard lots of good things about this Canadian/British Columbia writer, who often uses crime conventions in her literary works (have heard comparisons to David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame):

Emily’s website describes Lola as ‘literary noir’, with the following overview >> Gavin Sasaki is a promising young journalist in New York City, until he’s fired in disgrace following a series of unforgivable lapses in his work. The last thing Gavin wants is to return to his hometown of Sebastian, Florida, but he’s drifting toward bankruptcy and is in no position to refuse when he’s offered a job by his sister, Eilo, a real estate broker who deals in foreclosed homes.

Eilo recently paid a visit to a home that had a ten-year-old child in it, a girl who bears a strong resemblence to Gavin and who has the same last name as Gavin’s high school girlfriend Anna, whom Gavin last saw a decade ago. Gavin — a former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed homes, obsessed with film noir and private detectives — begins his own private investigation in an effort to track down Anna and their apparent daughter.<<

And then today saw the announcement of the 2015 Betty Trask Award, a £10,000 prize for debut writers under 35. The winner is Ben Fergusson’s The Spring of Kasper Meier (Little, Brown, 2014), which is set in the ruins of Berlin after 1945 and looks mighty like a crime novel to me. So that’s coming along too.

Here’s the blurb from Ben’s website >> Set in Berlin in 1946, The Spring of Kasper Meier follows the friendship that develops between Kasper Meier, a black-market trader, and Eva Hirsch, the young woman who is blackmailing him. As soldiers in Berlin begin to be killed in mysterious circumstances, both Kasper and Eva’s troubled pasts threaten to reveal themselves, and their fragile lives begin to spiral out of control. <<

The novel has also featured on the Radio 2 bookclub (you can access a free extract via its website here).

What holiday reading do you have lined up? All recommendations gratefully received!

Stieg Larsson sequel, crime versus thrillers, Easter bunnies

Big news this week: the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s acclaimed ‘Millennium Trilogy’ is well on its way. The cover and English title – The Girl in the Spider’s Web – were revealed by MacLehose Press on Monday, although its contents will remain firmly under wraps until publication on 27 August. Here’s what we know: the sequel is ‘based on Larsson’s universe and characters’, is written by Swedish writer David Lagercrantz; will be published in Sweden by Norstedts; is titled Det som inte dödar oss  (That Which Doesn’t Kill Us) and is currently being translated into 38 languages.

 

Like many, I have rather mixed feelings about the publication of the new novel. On the one hand, I thought the trilogy had a pretty perfect resolution and am not sure it could be bettered. On the other, I loved Lisbeth Salander and am keen to see how her story develops. I don’t envy Lagercranz the task of taking on such a weighty literary legacy – it must be hugely difficult to find a voice and narrative that are faithful to the original, but more than pure mimicry. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that he’s found a way through. For more information, see this Guardian article by Alison Flood.

There was another interesting article in The Guardian yesterday by Val McDermid, entitled ‘Why crime fiction is left-wing and thrillers are right-wing’ (thanks to Vicky Newham for flagging this up on Facebook).

In it McDermid argues (with help from Ian Rankin) that ‘the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the Krimi lean to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote. The thriller, on the other hand, tends towards the conservative, probably because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”’

That got me thinking hard about whether these political distinctions hold up more widely. While I can think of plenty of examples to support McDermid’s argument – especially in the context of European crime – I can also think of a number of exceptions. Golden Age crime fiction is often thought of as being ‘conservative in style, setting, characterisation, subject matter and socio-political views’, with a dubious social order in relation to class, gender and race being restored at the end of the narrative (quote from Lee Horsley’s excellent chapter on ‘Classic Detective Fiction’ in Twentieth Century Crime Fiction, OUP, pp. 12-65, p. 39). Hard-boiled crime fiction features private investigators not known for their tolerance or diplomatic skills. They may well be critical of the status quo, but are often shown delivering violent, eye-for-an-eye justice rather than handing criminals over to the law so they can be properly put on trial. There’s an interesting discussion on these points in an article by Arlene Teraoka, which explores the lack of a private eye tradition in German crime fiction – arguably due to the P.I.’s fascistic tendencies – and the post-war preference for paternalistic police inspectors who guarantee a democratic social order (who also have their conservative sides…).

Equally, two exceptions in relation to thrillers spring to mind. John le Carré’s works are highly critical of the power wielded by governments and shady secret services, and repeatedly highlight the price vulnerable individuals pay in these larger political games (e.g. The Spy who Came in from the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Most Wanted Man). I also read a very good Swedish thriller in the course of my Petrona judging duties that raises big moral questions about the conduct of national intelligence agencies in wartime – Joakim Zander’s The Swimmer.

In sum, different crime genres/subgenres are flexible enough to be employed for liberal or conservative political ends, and elements of both can even co-exist alongside one another in individual texts. But I’ll be bearing McDermid’s assertions in mind as I read on, to see if her distinctions hold up as current trends.

Update: Over on findingtimetowrite, Marina Sofia also muses on Val McDermid’s article and gives a wonderful overview of the Quais du Polar, at which Val’s comments were originally made. The post gives a summary of various crime writers’ views about writing on politics from the event; these provide a very nice counterpoint to this post – showing how crime fiction is used by many writers as a progressive means of critiquing and exploring the power structures of their societies.

Wishing you all a very happy Easter break filled with fluffy bunnies, chocolate and lots of crime fiction!

New Wellcome Collection exhibition – Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

An exciting and FREE new exhibition has opened in London that will be of interest to many crime fans.

>> Following a £17.5 million development, Wellcome Collection has opened a major exhibition exploring the history, science and art of forensic medicine. ‘Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime’ travels from crime scene to courtroom, across centuries and continents, exploring the specialisms of those involved in the delicate processes of collecting, analysing and presenting medical evidence. It draws out the stories of victims, suspects and investigators of violent crimes and our enduring cultural fascination with death and detection.

‘Forensics’ contains original evidence, archival material, photographic documentation, film footage, forensic instruments and specimens, and is rich with artworks offering both unsettling and intimate responses to traumatic events. Challenging familiar views of forensic medicine shaped by fictions inspired by the sensational reporting of Victorian murder cases and popular crime dramas, the exhibition highlights the complex entwining of law and medicine, and the scientific methods it calls upon and creates. It surveys real cases involving forensic advances, including the Dr Crippen trial and the Ruxton murders, pioneers of forensic investigation from Alphonse Bertillon, Mathieu Orfila and Edmond Locard to Alec Jeffreys, and the voices of experts working in the field today. << Wellcome Collection Press Release.

Image courtesy of Wellcome Trust

The exhibition, curated by Lucy Shanahan, has five sections:

‘The Crime Scene’ investigates the different techniques used to record the location of a crime and its power both as a repository of evidence and as a haunting site of memory. It includes one of Frances Glessner Lee’s ‘Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ – one of twenty miniature dollhouse crime scenes created by the American heiress and criminologist in the 1940s and 50s. They are still used to train police investigators in observing and collecting evidence today. You can listen to a BBC Radio 4 programme about them here (thanks to Sarah Hilary for the link).

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death

‘The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death’ – Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection

‘The Morgue’ traces a history of pathology, from Song Ci’s 13th century Chinese text ‘The Washing Away of Wrongs’, often seen as the first guide to forensics, to the celebrity pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury (1877–1947), whose autopsy note cards are displayed for the first time.

Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

‘The Laboratory’: Edmond Locard founded the first police crime laboratory in early 20th century Lyon and his simple theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ (now known as the exchange principle) guides the array of disciplines, including serology, toxicology, microscopy, criminal profiling and DNA analysis.

Police crime laboratory, Lyon

‘Every contact leaves a trace.’ Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

‘The Search’ considers the reconstructions of movement and identity required in looking for missing people – both individual cases and mass disappearances. It includes a newly commissioned artwork by Šejla Kameric that seeks to recover the human stories behind the critical mass of statistics and data generated by the on-going identification of massacre victims in the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

‘The Courtroom’ section explores the final test of forensic medicine’s success, as evidence is gathered and presented in the courtroom in pursuit of justice.

William Hartley – Courtroom sketches of the Crippen trial at the Old Bailey, 1910. Image courtesy Wellcome Collection

Doesn’t that look amazing? I’m already plotting my trip to London to see the exhibition, which I suspect will be fascinating and disturbing in equal measure. I have enormous respect for the expert and dogged work that forensic scientists do, so I’m looking forward to learning lots about the history of forensics and the amazing techniques it employs. At the same time, as the press release makes clear, the exhibition seeks to challenge the way in which forensic work is depicted in crime novels and crime dramas – and by extension, may jolt regular crime readers and viewers out of their sometimes overly comfortable fictional world into one that is altogether grimmer. I suspect that being confronted with real cases, techniques and investigations will a sobering experience. I’m also very interested in seeing how the artwork used in the exhibition provides a way of moving behind the science to the human stories and emotions that lie beneath, and how it explores our cultural fascination with crime. It really does look like a very thoughtfully designed exhibition that will engage visitors on a number of different levels.

The book accompanying the exhibition is by crime author Val McDermid – I’m keen to get my hands on this also (memo to self – no reading before, during or just after mealtimes).

The ‘Forensics’ exhibition, curated by Lucy Shanahan, is FREE and runs from 26 February to 21 June 2015 at Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London NW1 2BE. For travel info, see here.

Further information about ‘Forensics’ is available via the exhibition website and the Wellcome Collection press release.