The East Long Beach Sherlock: Joe Ide’s IQ (USA)

Joe Ide, IQ (Mulholland Books, 2016)

First lineIsaiah’s crib looked like every other house on the block except the lawn was cut even, the paint was fresh, and the entrance was a little unusual.

I’d heard lots of good things about Joe Ide’s IQthe first in the ‘Isaiah Quintabe’ series, and on finishing it, can say that this novel is easily one of my most enjoyable and satisfying reads of the year. It’s a remarkably polished debut that introduces us to a wonderfully original detective, tells an absorbing coming-of-age story, and treats us to a cracking crime investigation bristling with intriguing characters. Oh, and it’s also extremely funny.

The opening immediately had me hooked. It starts out with one of those depressingly familiar prologues in which a creepy guy in a pick-up truck is stalking a young girl with malevolent intent. As a seasoned crime reader you think, uh oh, I know exactly where this is going. And then it begins to go the way you thought it would…until all of a sudden it very much doesn’t, heading off in such a gloriously unexpected direction that you feel like cheering. And at that moment, you know you’re in for something very special.

Isaiah Quintabe – or IQ – is an unlicensed African-American private investigator who lives in Hurston, a deprived neighbourhood on the edge of East Long Beach in Los Angeles. He solves ‘local cases where the police could not or would not get involved’, and as he often takes payment in kind (sweet potato pie, a new tire or a live chicken), finances are tight. Which is a problem because there are hefty bills to pay. Isaiah’s cash-flow difficulties will force him to work with Juanell Dodson, a hustler and former housemate of IQ’s, with whom he shared a dark chapter of his adolescence. And Dodson will provide the key to learning about IQ’s past and its consequences, while also accompanying him into the world of rap to solve the central investigation.

Things I loved about this novel: it takes features we associate with iconic detectives – especially Sherlock Holmes and Easy Rawlins – and fuses them into a highly original PI whose intelligence sizzles off the page, but who also knows how to handle a Determinator HX Grenade Launcher. It effortlessly entwines IQ’s backstory with the present-day narrative and crime investigation. It creates three-dimensional characters who are often extremely flawed, but who also ring true, while leavening their depictions with an affectionate, sardonic humour. It’s gripping, authentic, beautifully written, and a lot of fun.

You can read an extract from the first chapter of IQ on Joe Ide’s author website.

The second in the series, Righteous, is already out, with the third, Wrecked, on its way this October.

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The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s Tale

Yes, I know it’s a dystopian TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state and their terrible effects.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain – security, status, power – and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as the historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead now sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

Hard truths: D. B. John’s Star of the North (USA & North Korea)

D. B. John, Star of the North, Harvill Secker, 2018

First line: The sea was calm the day Soo-min disappeared.

I was half-way through this excellent thriller when Donald Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un turned it into an especially potent read. Because what this novel offers is a meticulously researched depiction of one of the world’s most secretive societies – a dictatorship that has mind-boggling control over its citizens and is guilty of horrific, sustained human rights abuses. And which is now getting pally with the USA.

Star of the North weaves together the stories of three individuals caught up in the history and politics of North Korea – Jenna Williams, an American-Korean academic whose sister disappeared ten years previously from a beach in South Korea; Mrs. Moon, a sixty-year-old North Korean black-market trader from Ryanggang Province near the Chinese border; and Lieutenant Colonel Cho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat based in the capital Pyongyang. Each, for different reasons, will put their lives on the line to subvert or resist the North Korean regime.

Cult of the leader: huge statues of the Kims at which North Korean citizens are made to pay their respects. See http://allthatsinteresting.com/north-korea-photographs#1

I found myself pulled into Star of the North’s fast-paced narrative straight away, thanks largely to the nuanced depiction of the three main characters and their very different points of view. John uses each of them to illuminate different aspects of North Korean society and its criminality, but does so in a way that never makes readers feel like they’re being lectured. And of course the kind of detail he can draw on as an author is grimly fascinating: the way that all aspects of citizens’ lives are governed by an extraordinary Cult of the Leader; the jaw-dropping, frankly crazy abductions programme; the criminal profits that allow North Korean leaders to live a life of unimaginable opulence while their citizens starve. And that’s just for starters…

A sobering read? Absolutely. But there are also moments of lightness and redemption and hope. And this is a skilfully constructed and very well-written thriller to boot – John really does pull off that very difficult trick of entertaining and enlightening his readers simultaneously. Highly recommended.

Read an extract from the novel here, courtesy of dead good books. And there’s a great Q&A with the author over at Sarah Ward’s Crimepieces blog.

D. B. John also co-wrote The Girl with Seven Names, a memoir by North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee.

A depressing coda: today Donald Trump gave an interview to Fox News in which he said ‘Hey, he’s [Kim Jong Un] the head of a country, and I mean he’s the strong head. Don’t let anyone think anything different. He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same’. It’s the strongest indication yet of Trump’s dictatorial leanings and should set alarm bells clanging everywhere.

A celebration of Welsh crime fiction & ‘Crime Cymru’ at Cardiff Libraries’ ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’

The inaugural ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’ was held in Cardiff on 1-2 June, organised by Cardiff Libraries (@cdflibraries), which provided a very lovely and hospitable setting for the event.

A number of the writers featured at the festival are members of Crime Cymru, a collective of Welsh crime writers who live in Wales, identify as Welsh, or set their books in Wales. ‘Cymru’, in case you’re wondering, is the Welsh word for Wales and is pronounced ‘kum-ri’. You can follow their activities on Facebook or Twitter (@CrimeCymru), or check out their website here: http://crime.cymru/.

The rather impressive line up for the ‘Crime & Coffee Festival’ included Belinda Bauer, Christopher Fowler, Katherine Stansfield, Kate Hamer, Mark Ellis, Rosie Claverton, Alis Hawkins and Matt Johnson, along with Welsh-language crime writers Gareth Williams, Geraint Evans and Jon Gower.

I managed to get along to some of the Saturday sessions, all of which featured lively discussions with panellists and attentive, engaged audiences.

One stand-out session for me was ‘Beyond Psychopaths: Mental Health in Crime Fiction’, with Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. Rosie is a junior psychiatrist, whose ‘Amy Lane’ mysteries features an agoraphobic investigator suffering from anxiety. Matt is a former soldier and policeman who left the service with C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder), and took up writing as a form of therapy. His ‘Wicked Game’ trilogy draws on his own experiences, and the first was shortlisted for the CWA John Creasy Dagger.

It was fascinating to hear Rosie and Matt, informed by very different professional and personal experiences, discussing the depiction of mental health conditions in crime fiction and film (such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Gone Girl). Both emphasised the importance of researching mental health issues, and felt that writers had a responsibility to ‘find out and not simply imagine’. Reading will get you a long way, but MIND, the mental health charity, is apparently also able to put writers in touch with individuals willing to discuss their experiences, thus helping to minimise inaccurate depictions of mental health issues.

I picked up Binary Witness, the first in the ‘Amy Lane’ series, at the Octavo’s festival bookshop (after reading the first chapter I won’t be putting my bins out late any time soon).

Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson

The afternoon featured an engaging discussion with Mark Ellis, author of the ‘DCI Frank Merlin’ series, set in World War Two London. Mark told us a bit about how he came to write the series (partly inspired by anecdotes his Welsh mum told him about the war), about Merlin’s Spanish heritage, and about the rich possibilities that wartime opened up for the criminal community in London – a bonanza for the unscrupulous. His discussion partner was his editor Hazel Cushion, who also runs the Octavo’s Book Cafe and Wine Bar in Cardiff Bay. On my list of places to visit shortly!

Mark Ellis

The evening brought us all a wonderful treat, in the shape of Belinda Bauer, who’s undoubtedly one of the UK’s most exciting and most versatile crime authors. Belinda has written a number of outstanding novels, including Blacklands and Rubbernecker (a particular favourite of mine), which have been garlanded with prizes such as the CWA Gold Dagger. Her eighth novel, Snap, has just been published by Penguin.

A slightly blurry shot of Belinda Bauer, but one that captures the fun we all had.

Belinda was in conversation with Kate Hamer, and in spite of the sometimes grim subject matter, there was a lot of laughter.

Belinda talked a little about Snap and read us an unsettling extract from the opening chapter, which depicts what happens when three children are left by their mum in a car after it breaks down. We also heard how – rather astonishingly – she now reads only non-fiction, because she’s too aware of the mechanics of fiction to enjoy it when writing herself, and feels it frees her up to write whatever she wants (she probably wouldn’t have written Rubbernecker if she had known that there were other novels featuring leading protagonists with Asperger’s Syndrome at the time).

The need for meticulous research was another key theme – especially the importance of going to places to experience, for example, how they would smell. Rubbernecker, which features an anatomy student, involved visits to the Wales Centre for Anatomical Education in Cardiff, which wasn’t easy as she is rather squeamish. But, as she also wisely noted: ‘research always pays off’.

Another intriguing revelation: Belinda lived in South Africa for ten years in her youth, and would like to set a novel there during the Apartheid era. I’m very much hoping she does…

If you haven’t yet read any of Belinda Bauer’s novels, then I recommend you do: they have wonderfully compelling premises, are dark but leavened with sardonic humour, and feature beautifully rounded, interesting characters.

Congratulations and thank you to everyone involved in organising the first Coffee & Crime Festival. It was a rip-roaring success!

 

German Krimi writers shine at CrimeFest 2018

The sun shone at CrimeFest, and so did the four German crime writers who had travelled from Berlin, Hamburg and Frankfurt to join us in Bristol for our panel ‘Krimi Time! The Best of German Crime Fiction’.

Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger have produced an impressive array of crime novels between them, ranging from police procedurals to thrillers and noir. Our panel focused on the novels they’ve published in English – Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (MacLehose), Buchholz’s Blue Night (Orenda), Kurbjuweit’s Fear (Orion) and Pflüger’s In the Dark (Head of Zeus) – and the authors each gave a short, tantalising reading from their works to a rapt audience.

In the course of the panel discussion, we heard from Simone about the influence of German writer Jakob Arjouni and his Turkish-German PI Kemal Kayankaya on on her ‘Chastity Riley’ series, and about why the St. Pauli area in Hamburg, where Blue Night is set, is so much more than the city’s red-light district. Oliver talked about his rural Black Forest setting and its proximity to France, which is designed to reflect the German-French heritage of his policewoman Louise Boni, and why he decided to incorporate Buddhist philosophy into Zen and the Art of Murder. Andreas explained some of the reasons he choose to create Jenny Aaron, his blind lead protagonist – including the challenge this presented to him as a writer – and about why the Japanese Bushido code is so important to Jenny. Dirk related the real-life events behind his psychological thriller Fear – and explained how the law was able to offer only limited help in dealing with their family’s stalker, placing him in a difficult position as a husband and father keen to protect his family.

The Krimi panel in action (l to r): Mrs P, Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger. Photo taken by Sarah Ward.

We were also very fortunate to have two of the authors’ translators with us in the audience – Jamie Bulloch, who translates Oliver’s ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series, and Astrid Freuler, who is currently translating the second of Andreas’ ‘Jenny Aaron’ series. Each of the authors spoke about the process of working with their translators (Rachel Ward and Imogen Taylor in the case of Simone and Dirk respectively) – and were keen to praise their skills and expertise. A recurring theme was the importance of communication between the author and the translator, who typically asks lots of detailed questions. Simone felt that these made her look afresh at the text, and she particularly enjoyed seeing her work in English, the ‘first language’ of noir.

Astrid with Andreas, and Oliver with Jamie. In both cases it was the first time the authors had met their translators! Jamie is holding the proof of A Summer of Murder, the second in the ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series.

To close the panel, I asked each of the authors to nominate one German crime writer/novel they would recommend to English-language readers. Their picks were as follows:

  • Simone: Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk (trans. Anselm Hollo, No Exit Press)
  • Oliver: Jan Costin Wagner’s ‘Kimmo Joentaa’ novels; Ice Moon is the first novel in the series (trans. John Brownjohn, Vintage)
  • Andreas: Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies (trans. Imogen Taylor, Simon & Schuster)
  • Dirk: Ferdinand von Schirach’s Crime and Guilt (trans. Carol Brown Janeway, Vintage)
  • Mrs P: Petra Hammesfahr’s The Sinner (trans. John Brownjohn, Bitter Lemon Press)

Each of the authors also appeared on a second panel, discussing topics such as disability, obsession, the figure of the villain, and ‘putting your characters through the mill’. Here are a few slightly grainy photos of them in action:

One lovely surprise over the weekend was the news that Oliver’s Zen and the Art of Murder had been longlisted for the CWA International Dagger Award – congratulations to Oliver, Jamie and MacLehose Press! Here’s the full list, which includes several crackers:

Finally, I had lots of fun wandering around CrimeFest giving away 14 German-language crime novels. Here are photos of a few happy recipients:

Richard, Abir, Alison and Janet with their free Krimis!

Huge thanks to the Goethe-Institut London for its generous support in bringing our German writers to CrimeFest. Many thanks also to the CrimeFest organisers, and Adrian Muller in particular for his help.

2018 Petrona Award goes to Malin Persson Giolito’s Quicksand

The winner of the 2018 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year is 

*QUICKSAND* 

by Malin Persson Giolito, translated from the Swedish by Rachel Willson-Broyles and published by Simon & Schuster.


The winner was announced at the CrimeFest Gala Dinner on 19 May. The trophy was kindly collected on Malin’s behalf by last year’s Petrona Award winner Gunnar Staalesen, who also read out Malin’s acceptance speech:

“Quicksand is a story about justice and fundamental human values, and I understand that Maxine Clarke – who inspired the Petrona Award – was someone who appreciated the social and political awareness of Scandinavian crime literature. We have that in common, and that is one of the many reasons why I am particularly proud that Quicksand has received the award.

My warmest thanks to the members of the jury whose expert knowledge and passion helps Nordic Noir travel far. I also want to thank my publisher Suzanne Baboneau, and it is a special honour to share the prize with my excellent translator Rachel Willson-Broyles.”

The Petrona trophy / Gunnar Staalesen with Team Petrona – Karen Meek, Sarah Ward, Barry Forshaw and Mrs Peabody – and our wonderful sponsor David Hicks.

The judges’ statement on QUICKSAND:

“In a strong year for entries to the Petrona Award, the judges were impressed by Quicksand’s nuanced approach to the subject of school shootings and the motives that lie behind them. Persson Giolito refuses to fall back on cliché, expertly drawing readers into the teenage world of Maja Norberg, who faces trial for her involvement in the killings of a teacher and fellow classmates. The court scenes, often tricky to make both realistic and compelling, are deftly written, inviting readers to consider not just the truth of Maja’s role, but the influence of class, parenting and misplaced loyalty in shaping the tragedy. Rachel Willson-Broyles’s excellent translation perfectly captures Maja’s voice – by turns vulnerable and defiant – as she struggles to deal with events. Gripping and thought-provoking, Quicksand is an outstanding Scandinavian crime novel and the highly worthy winner of the 2018 Petrona Award.”

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous continued support.

The 2018 Petrona Award shortlist is announced!

Here we go!!!

Six outstanding crime novels from Denmark, Finland and Sweden have made the shortlist for the 2018 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year, which is announced today. They are… *drumroll*

  • WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr.  Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)
  • QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)
  • AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)
  • THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)
  • THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)
  • THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr.  Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

Her ‘Nina Borg’ novels, co-written with Lene Kaaberbøl, have a dedicated following, but this first solo outing by Danish author Agnete Friis is a singular achievement in every sense. Ella Nygaard was a child when her mother was killed by her father. Did the seven-year-old witness the crime? She can’t remember, but her body does, manifesting physical symptoms that may double as clues. Ella’s complex character is superbly realised – traumatised yet tough, she struggles to keep her son Alex out of care while dealing with the fallout from her past.

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

In this compelling and timely novel, eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is on trial for her part in a school shooting which saw her boyfriend, best friend, teacher and other classmates killed. We follow the events leading up to the murders and the trial through Maja’s eyes, including her reaction to her legal team’s defence. Lawyer-turned-writer Malin Persson Giolito successfully pulls the reader into the story, but provides no easy answers to the motives behind the killings. Gripping and thought-provoking, the novel offers an insightful analysis of family and class dynamics.

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

Henning Mankell’s final novel sees the return of Fredrik Welin from 2010’s Italian Shoes. Living in splendid isolation on an island in a Swedish archipelago, Welin wakes up one night to find his house on fire and soon finds himself suspected of arson by the authorities. While there’s a crime at the heart of this novel, the story also addresses universal themes of loss, fragile family ties, difficult friendships, ageing and mortality. The occasionally bleak outlook is tempered by an acceptance of the vulnerability of human relationships and by the natural beauty of the novel’s coastal setting.

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

Many readers are familiar with the ‘Van Veeteren’ detective stories of Håkan Nesser, but his second series, featuring Swedish-Italian Detective Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, is only now beginning to be translated. An engaging figure who navigates his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a witty dialogue with God, Barbarotti is asked to investigate the disappearance of two members of the Hermansson family following a birthday celebration. The novel’s multiple narrative perspectives and unhurried exploration of family dynamics make for a highly satisfying read.

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

Karolina Ramqvist’s novella focuses on an often marginalised figure: the wife left stranded by her gangster husband when things go wrong. Karin’s wealthy, high-flying life is over. All that’s left are a once grand house, financial difficulties, government agencies closing in, and a baby she never wanted to have. This raw and compelling portrait of a woman at rock bottom uses the sometimes brutal physical realities of motherhood to depict a life out of control, and persuasively communicates Karin’s despair and her faltering attempts to reclaim her life.

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The grim starting point of Antti Tuomainen’s novel – a man finding out that he has been systematically poisoned and his death is just a matter of time – develops into an assured crime caper brimming with wry black humour. Finnish mushroom exporter Jaakko Kaunismaa quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects, and sets about investigating his own murder with admirable pluck and determination. The novel’s heroes and anti-heroes are engagingly imperfect, and Jaakko’s first-person narration is stylishly pulled off..

Congratulations to all the authors, translators and publishers!

The Petrona judges – Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and myself – had the following to say about the shortlist: 

There were 61 entries for the 2018 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 33 translators and submitted by 31 publishers/imprints. There were 27 female and 33 male authors, and one brother-sister writing duo.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist sees Sweden strongly represented with four novels; Denmark and Finland each have one. The crime genres represented include a police procedural, a courtroom drama, a comic crime novel and three crime novels/thrillers with a strong psychological dimension.

As ever, the Petrona Award judges faced a difficult but enjoyable decision-making process when they met to draw up the shortlist. The six novels selected by the judges stand out for the quality of their writing, their characterisation and their plotting. They are original and inventive, and shine a light on highly complex subjects such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, school shootings, and life on the margins of society. A key theme that emerged across all of the shortlisted works was that of family: the physical and psychological challenges of parenting; the pressures exerted by family traditions or expectations; sibling rivalries; intergenerational tensions and bonds; family loyalty… and betrayal.

We are extremely grateful to the translators whose expertise and skill allows readers to access these gems of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia and published in the UK in the previous calendar year. The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 19 May during CrimeFest, held in Bristol 17-20 May 2018.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2018 Petrona Award. Enormous thanks too to Karen Meek (aka Euro Crime), for all of her excellent organisational work throughout the year!

For further information about the Petrona Award, see http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

CrimeFest 2018 – Krimi panel with Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger on Friday 18 May

It’s less than a month to CrimeFest 2018, which this year celebrates its 10th anniversary!

You may remember that CrimeFest hosted its very first Krimi panel last year, featuring German crime authors Mario Giordano, Merle Kröger, Volker Kutscher and Melanie Raabe.

Happily, we’re repeating the experience this year with another four top German authors – Oliver Bottini, Simone Buchholz, Dirk Kurbjuweit and Andreas Pflüger – thanks to the generous continued support of the Goethe-Institut LondonI once again have the pleasure of moderating, and can’t wait to get into discussion with the authors.

Our Krimi panel takes place on Friday 18 May at 13.40. If you’re at CrimeFest this year, please do come along!

We’ll be exploring a range of topics: the authors’ choice of genre (police procedural, urban noir, action thriller, psychological thriller); their settings (from the confines of a single house and the snowy landscapes of the Black Forest to the urban hustle and bustle of Hamburg and Berlin); key themes such as criminality, crises of identity, toxic masculinity, friendship, disability, and Bushido and Zen Buddhism; and the joys of working with the translators who bring their works to English-language audiences.

Photograph of Oliver Bottini © Hans Scherhaufe

Oliver Bottini is a prize-winning German author based in Berlin. Four of his novels, including Zen and the Art of Murder (Mord im Zeichen des Zens, part of the ‘Black Forest Investigations’ series) have been awarded the Deutscher Krimipreis, Germany’s most prestigious award for crime writing. His novels have also been awarded the Stuttgart Crime Prize and the Berlin Crime Prize.

Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder, translated by Jamie Bulloch (who will also be at CrimeFest), is published by MacLehose Press. An off-beat police procedural, it features talented chief investigator Louise Boni, who is struggling to deal with a number of personal and professional demons. Plenty of snow, a gripping investigation and a Zen monk are also in evidence. See Mrs. Peabody’s review of Zen here.

Photo of Simone Buchholz © Droemer Knaur Verlag

Simone Buchholz studied philosophy and literature, worked as a waitress and a columnist, and trained to be a journalist at the prestigious Henri-Nannen-School in Hamburg. In 2016, Simone Buchholz was awarded the Crime Cologne Award as well as a German Crime Fiction Prize for Blue Night (Blaue Nacht). The novel was number 1 on the KrimiZEIT Best of Crime List for a number of months. She lives in Sankt Pauli in the heart of Hamburg.

Blue Night is translated by Rachel Ward and published by Orenda Books. It’s part of the highly acclaimed ‘Chastity Riley’ series, which draws on private-eye conventions to create stylish, urban noir with a German twist. As well as celebrating the less glamorous bits of Hamburg, the novel is a moving meditation on the importance of friendship. You can read Mrs. Peabody’s interview with Simone here.

Photo of Dirk_Kurbjuweit by Julian Nitzsche

Dirk Kurbjuweit is deputy editor-in-chief of the German current affairs magazine Der Spiegel, and divides his time between Berlin and Hamburg. He’s received numerous awards for his writing, including the Egon Erwin Kisch Prize for journalism, and is the author of seven critically acclaimed novels, many of which have been adapted for film, TV and radio.

Kurbjuweit’s novel Fear, translated by Imogen Taylor and published by Orion, explores the psychological effects of stalking on a middle-class family after they move into a flat in a shared house. Based on Kurbjuweit’s own experiences, the novel is an unsettling exploration of how stalking turns people’s lives upside down and leads them into situations they never thought possible. The capacity of fear to erode civilised values is a key theme.

Photo of Andreas Pflüger by Andreas Buron

Andreas Pflüger has lived in Berlin for many years. He is the author of a number of novels and one of the most renowned scriptwriters working in Germany today. His award-winning works include The Ninth Day and Strajk, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, and over twenty episodes of the cult German crime series Tatort.

Pflüger’s In the Dark, translated by Shaun Whiteside and published by Head of Zeus, is the first in the ‘Jenny Aaron’ series. Aaron is an extraordinary lead protagonist – blinded after a police operation goes horribly wrong, she has to learn to ‘see’ in new ways and to confront her traumatic past when her old police unit asks her to help with a case. An action-packed thriller that’s underpinned by an extraordinary amount of research.

In case you’re wondering, Erich the Bavarian duck will also be in attendance at CrimeFest…

Warmest thanks to the Goethe-Institut London, whose support is enabling this event to take place place. Further details about this panel and other CrimeFest panels involving the four authors can be found on its website here.

Going south: Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird (USA), Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (GER), Brynard’s Weeping Waters (South Africa)

Today I explore three interesting crime novels from different countries, which have a southern geographical setting in common — Texas in the American south, the Black Forest in south-west Germany, and a remote corner of South Africa.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird, Serpent’s Tail, 2017 

Opening line: Darren Mathews set his Stetson on the edge of the witness stand, brim down, like his uncles taught him.

I’d heard a number of good things about this novel set in East Texas, and found it a rich and absorbing read. Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger whose work takes him all across the state, often to isolated communities marked by racial tensions. After becoming too closely involved in a friend’s case, he’s sent to the small town of Lark, where the murders of a local white woman and a black man from Chicago are making waves. While his prestigious status as a Texas Ranger will offer him some protection from the racist forces in the town, he knows he’ll need to keep all his wits about him to stay in one piece.

Bluebird is a finely observed novel that shows us rural America from a range of black American perspectives. Mathews, our lead investigator, is particularly well drawn. Brought up in a highly educated middle-class family, he feels pulled between a safe career in law and his desire for a more hands-on law enforcement role. Deeply conflicted about Texas and the profound racism he encounters, he also has a deep love of the place and its people. His views are complemented by a range of other black voices, such as Geneva Sweet, the sixty-nine-year-old owner of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a cafe offering ‘the best fried pies in Shelby County’. Her family story is one that has probably played out hundreds of times in American history, and is deeply moving.

You can read an extract from the novel at the Serpent’s Tale website.

A brief extra observation: a recent discussion on Facebook explored the lack of black crime bloggers and readers at UK crime conventions and publishing events, and led to a wider discussion about black crime authors. There really aren’t that many big names (Walter Mosley most obviously springs to mind), and it is notable that recent crime novels exploring black American experience (such as Thomas Mullen’s excellent Darktown) are often written by white authors. All the more reason to be delighted that Attica Locke is such a crime writing success story.

Oliver Bottini, Zen and the Art of Murder, trans. from the German by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press, 2018 [2004]) 

Opening lines: Louise Boni hated snow. Her brother had died in the snow, her husband had left her in the snow and she had killed a man in the snow.

Zen and the Art of Murder is the first in Oliver Bottini’s ‘Louise Boni’ series, and is set in the Black Forest region of south-west Germany. It opens with a rather unusual sight: a Japanese monk, dressed only in a robe and sandals, is wandering through the snow. He is injured, but doesn’t seem to want official help, accepting only a cheese roll before trudging on through the snowy landscape. When Boni and her local police contacts follow him to find out what’s going on, the mystery suddenly takes a frightening and serious turn.

On one level, Zen is a police procedural that shows us the inner workings of a police investigation and the sometimes fraught dynamics of a police team investigating a stressful case. But the figures of the Zen monk and chief inspector Louise Boni – who is dealing with personal demons, traumatic memories from a previous case and borderline alcoholism – give the narrative a fascinating off-kilter feel. Much of the novel is seen from Boni’s embattled perspective, as she struggles to piece things together with unshakeable determination and undoubted investigative talent. The result is a highly unusual and beguiling police procedural, whose complex lead protagonist will stay with you for a long time to come.

Oliver Bottini is appearing on a special Krimi panel at this year’s CrimeFest – of which more soon!

Karin Brynard, Weeping Waters, trans. from Afrikaans by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon

Opening lines: The call came through just after two. He was at his desk at the police station, having his lunch of vetkoek and mince. 

Like Zen’s Louise Boni, Inspector Albertus Beeslaar is a traumatised cop. Haunted by the consequences of a case gone wrong, he has fled the big city of Johannesburg for a small town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Already dealing with a spate of stock thefts in farms around the area, he now receives a call telling him that a local artist, Frederika Swarts, has been found murdered on her family farm, along with the four-year-old child she was planning to adopt. He embarks on the investigation with rookie policemen Ghaap and Pyl, while fighting off ever more frequent panic attacks.

While I found some parts of Weeping Waters a little uneven, there also was much to like. The characterisation of Beeslaar and of Freddie’s estranged sister Sara are excellent, and the latter’s struggle with guilt and grief is particularly well drawn. The novel also has a fantastic sense of place: the incredible heat and vastness of the desert landscape are brought vividly to life, as is the claustrophobic nature of small-town life. There’s also a good attempt to explore on-going racial tensions in post-Apartheid South Africa – for example how the murders of white farmers are exploited for political gain by right-wing factions. I also very much appreciated the translators’ approach to rendering the Afrikaans dialogue – the syntax and vocabulary are kept close to the original in such a way that you can really hear the characters’ voices and appreciate their local culture.

The novel is the winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, and is the first in a series.

Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow Killer: exclusive extract and giveaway!

I’m delighted to feature an exclusive extract from Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow Killer on the blog today. Plus: to celebrate the publication of the novel, the good people at Harvill Secker have donated two copies to give away to UK readers! All you need to do is answer one simple question (see the bottom of the post for details).

Indriðason is one of my very favourite crime writers. He’s best known for the excellent long-running ‘Detective Erlendur’ series featuring Erlendur and his colleagues Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli (see Crime Fiction Lover’s wonderful guide here).

Happily, the author has now embarked on an absorbing new ‘Reykjavík wartime’ series, set in Iceland during the Second World War, a time that brought a huge number of changes to its little capital city, not least due to the presence of the British and American armies. As well as treating readers to an intriguing investigation, The Shadow Killer also provides some fascinating insights into the dramatic social changes in Iceland at the time.

Place: Reykjavíc

Time: August 1941

Detectives: Flóvent (Reykjavic’s only detective) and Thorson (an Icelandic-Canadian military policeman)

Case: A travelling salesman is found murdered in a basement flat, killed by a bullet from a Colt 45. Could a member of the Allied Occupation forces be involved?

View of Reykjavik (taken a few years ago during Iceland Noir)

EXTRACT from The Shadow Killer, translated by Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker, 2018), pp. 50-52 (reproduced with kind permission of the publisher).

US counter-intelligence had been given temporary quarters in one wing of the old Leper Hospital on Laugarnes Point. They shared it with their British colleagues who had requisitioned the hospital building shortly after the occupation. The few remaining patients had been sent to a sanatorium in Kópavogur, the settlement to the south of Reykjavík.

Although the United States was officially still neutral, within a few months American troops were scheduled to relieve the British garrison and take over responsibility for the defence of Iceland. First to arrive had been the Marine Corps and 5th Defense Battalion on 7 July with their anti-aircraft units, followed by the first land army contingent on 6 August, and more reinforcements were expected any day now to swell their ranks – thousands of armed men who had never even heard of Iceland before, let alone known where to find it on a map. In no time at all Reykjavík had become a seething mass of British troops preparing to withdraw, reinforcements from America, incomers from the Icelandic countryside – seeking a better life in the suddenly prosperous city – and the citizens of Reykjavík themselves, young and old, who had yet to come to terms with the transformation their town had undergone in the last year.

As Thorson drove up to the imposing edifice of the old Leper Hospital on the northern side of Laugarnes, he found himself thinking about prejudice and ostracism, thoughts which were no strangers to him. Naturally the location was no coincidence: the patients had been segregated, kept at a safe distance from the town, or rather, more importantly, the townspeople had been kept at a safe distance from them. A second hospital, the Kleppur Asylum, stood down by the sea a little to the east, even further removed from the town. The Leper Hospital was the most impressive wooden building in the country. It consisted of two floors and an attic, with rows of windows the length of the building and two gables projecting from the front, one at each end. As he admired it, Thorson thought about all the disruption the military occupation had brought to this sparsely populated island and its simple society. On a calm spring day in 1940, the war had come knocking on Reykjavík’s door, and transformed the lives of its inhabitants. Thorson, together with a handful of other Canadian volunteers, had been among the first to come ashore with the British invasion force, as a private in the Second Royal Marine Battalion. They had marched under arms to the country’s main government offices and witnessed first- hand the look of bewilderment on the faces of the townspeople, who must have feared that life in Iceland would never be the same again.

Thorson’s thoughts returned to the task in hand. Analysis of the cyanide capsule found in Felix Lunden’s flat had confirmed his suspicions: it was a so-called suicide pill, manufactured in Germany. If the user bit down on the capsule, or ampoule, the potassium cyanide it contained would theoretically kill him in a matter of seconds, though in practice it could take as long as fifteen minutes, causing indescribable suffering. It was the first time a capsule of this kind had turned up in Reykjavík, and the intelligence officer was demanding to know how it had come into the hands of the Icelandic police. He was a major, fiftyish, aggressive and gruff, with a pockmarked face and a black glove on one hand. It looked to Thorson as though he was missing two fingers. His name was Major Graham and he had served in the US Military Intelligence Division for many years. With him was his opposite number from British intelligence, who had been consulting the records for any mention of Rudolf Lunden in the period immediately after the invasion. He was somewhat younger than Major Graham and disfigured by a burn that extended from his neck up one side of his face, leaving only a stump of an ear. He had transferred to intelligence after sustaining serious injuries when his plane came down. His name was Ballantine – like the whisky, he said as he introduced himself, adding that he was no relation. The smile that accompanied this remark was more like a grimace. Thorson got the impression that the joke had grown
rather stale.

‘Why would an Icelander be carrying a suicide pill?’ asked
Major Graham. ‘Hidden in a suitcase, you said?’

Sailing out of Reykjavik harbour

THE SHADOW KILLER GIVEAWAY!

We have two copies of The Shadow Killer to give away (UK readers only on this occasion…)

Just pick the correct answer to the question below and pop it in a comment below. The draw will close at midnight on Monday 19th March; I’ll contact you directly if you’re one of the lucky winners!

Question: What’s the name of the dour Icelandic murder detective in Arnaldur Indriðason’s first series?

A) Gylfi Þór Sigurðsson

B) Katrín Jakobsdóttir

C) Erlendur Sveinsson

D) Halldór Kiljan Laxness

E) Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

🙂