Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in SF crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

Summertime crime (Australia, UK, Iceland)

I hope you’re all in a summery mood and finding time for some relaxing crime fiction – novels that whisk you away from humdrum everyday life and morale-sapping political shenanigans.

Here are three that have done the trick for me lately.

Chris Hammer, Scrublands (Wildfire, 2019)

This debut novel, set an isolated Australian town suffering from drought, has attracted some rave reviews. It opens with a puzzle: why would charismatic priest Byron Swift open fire on his own congregation from the church steps one Sunday morning, killing five men? A year on, burned-out journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the impact of the tragedy on the community, and is struck by how what locals say doesn’t always fit into the accepted version of events.

I really enjoyed Scrublands, although things went a teensy bit bananas in the end. Big pluses for me included the intriguing puzzle of Swift’s actions, the depictions of troubled journalist Scarsden and the embattled Riversend community, and an utterly gripping section on the battle to contain a bushfire. The rather irritating characterization of the (stunningly beautiful) love interest and an increasingly overloaded plot were less beguiling. In the end, there were enough twists and turns to fill three crime novels, and the chunks of exposition needed to explain these felt a bit intrusive. But overall this was a worthwhile and entertaining read, and very well written in parts.

Lesley Thomson, The Dog Walker (Head of Zeus, 2017)

Lesley Thomson’s ‘The Detective’s Daughter’ series has become one of my favourites in recent years. I always enjoy the company of her quirky sleuthing duo, Stella Darnell (detective’s daughter and cleaner extraordinaire) and her sidekick Jack Harmon. In The Dog Walker, Stella and Jack investigate the 1987 disappearance of Helen Honeysett, a young wife who went for a run along the Thames towpath one evening and never came home. Suspicion immediately fell on one of her neighbours, but perhaps he was innocent after all? Thomson provides readers with an intriguing array of suspects living in a row of five riverside cottages (there’s a great little map at the front of the novel showing who lives where). The chapters set in the 1980s stand out for their narration of events from a child’s perspective – that of young Megan – and are extremely well observed.

If you’re new to this series, I’d recommend reading the series opener, The Detective’s Daughter, before you start this one.

Quentin Bates, Cold Breath, Constable 2018 

Another of my favourite investigators is Officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladdóttir, a no-nonsense middle-aged Icelandic policewoman. In this, the seventh novel in Quentin Bates’ absorbing series, Gunna is placed in the unusual position of acting as a police bodyguard to Osman, a high-profile foreign guest. What should be a straightforward assignment turns into something much more serious when there’s an attempt on Osman’s life. The novel tracks events from the perspectives of the would-be assassins, those unfortunate enough to inadvertently get in their way, and Gunna and Osman respectively. The larger mystery of Osman’s identity hangs over proceedings as well. A thrilling plot, strong characterization and plenty of wry humour all make for a great read – and the novel’s Icelandic settings are evocatively drawn.

What stand-out crime novels have you been reading this summer?

Post your recommendations below! 

Season 2 of Trapped (Iceland), Staalesen’s Big Sister (Norway) and Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer (Nigeria)

Trapped! The first two episodes of this Icelandic crime drama’s highly anticipated second season aired last night on BBC 4. It’s now three years after the events of season 1, and police chief Andri Olafsson is living in Reykjavík. But when a politician is brutally attacked outside parliament by her own brother, Andri is forced to head back north to Seyðisfjörður to unravel a tangle of familial and social conflicts. Locals are up in arms about a new aluminium plant and its effect on the community, and on top of all that, Andri has to deal with his estranged teenage daughter. Brooding landscapes, Icelandic jumpers, and a hefty dollop of the ancient sagas create a compelling mix. And it’s great to see Andri, Hinrika and Ásgeir back together as a team. If you have access to BBC iPlayer, you can catch up there.

Here’s a trailer to whet your appetite:

Which leads me on to…

Gunnar Staalesen’s Big Sister, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett (Orenda Books, 2018)

First line: I have never believed in ghosts.

This is the fifth of Gunnar Staalesen’s ‘Varg Veum’ detective novels to be published in the UK by Orenda Books, but it’s actually a pretty good place to start if you’re new to the series, as we’re given some interesting background to Veum’s own family.

The novel opens with the private eye receiving a surprise visit from a woman. Norma Bakkevik comes to him about a missing person’s case – so far, so conventional – but then reveals that she is Veum’s older half-sister, the daughter of his mother. The novel skilfully interweaves these two narrative strands, following Veum’s investigations into Norma’s goddaughter’s disappearance and his mother’s secret past. As ever, Staalesen treats us to a top-notch read, mainly set in Bergen on Norway’s southwest coast.

Staalesen won the 2017 Petrona Award for Where Roses Never Die. He’s up for the award again this year with Big Sister – can he make it a double?

Incidentally, I’m willing to bet 10p that the novel’s title was inspired by Chandler’s 1949 The Little Sister.

Which leads me to another big and little sister…

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer (Doubleday 2018)

First line: Ayoola summons me with these words – Korede, I killed him.

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a nurse: she is plain, respectable, and leads a neat and ordered life. Or rather, she would do if it weren’t for her volatile, beautiful younger sister, whose boyfriends seem to have a habit of winding up dead, and who then expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give too much more away, but suffice to say this is an arresting read, which fearlessly deploys the darkest of humour to tell its story. The question at the heart of the novel is: how far would you go to protect a family member whose actions you know are criminal? It’s all very nicely done, and manages to avoid an overly pat denouement.

Both the subject matter and tone of My Sister reminded me of Austrian author Bernhard Aichner’s Woman of the Dead, another wonderfully original novel featuring an unrepentant murderess…

You can read a very informative interview with Braithwaite here.

Crime smörgåsbord: Jónasson’s The Darkness (Iceland), Kidd’s Himself (Ireland), Miller’s American By Day (US/Norway), Herron’s Slow Horses (UK)

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! Work’s been a bit manic for the last few weeks, and looks set to continue that way for a while, so please excuse the slightly *ahem* stretchy gaps between my posts. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Happily, I’ve still been reading behind the scenes, even if I’ve not managed to post as much as I’d like. Here are some highlights…

Ragnar Jónasson, The Darkness, trans. Victoria Cribb (Penguin 2018, Iceland).

First line: ‘How did you find me?’ the woman asked.

Jónasson is best known in the UK for his ‘Ari Thór’ series, published by Orenda Books. The Darkness is the first in a trilogy called ‘Hidden Iceland’, featuring the rather taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Hulda is about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at its end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing where this trilogy will go next. The Darkness is one of this year’s Petrona Award contenders.

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

First line: ‘Mahony shoulders his rucksack, steps off the bus and stands in the dead centre of the village of Mulderrig’

Kidd’s The Hoarder was one of my top Christmas picks this year, and made me seek out her debut, Himself, as quickly as I could. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her behaviour and supposedly disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Derek B. Miller, American By Day (Penguin 2018, US/Norway).

First line: Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office.

Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night, is one of my favourite crime novels ever (see my rave review here), and this follow up novel features Sigrid Ødegård, the policewoman Sheldon met at the end of that first story. American By Day is a clever counterpart to its predecessor: while Norwegian By Night showed us an American recently transplanted to Norway, American By Day transplants a Norwegian to America, thereby opening the door to a wide-ranging comparison of the two countries’ values and policing cultures, especially in relation to race. Sigrid is a richly drawn, thoughtful character, unsettled by something she did in the course of her policing duties in Norway, and whose brother may have been involved in the death of his girlfriend, an American academic. With the help of US sheriff Irving Wylie and some Sheldon-esque chutzpah, she sets about getting to the bottom of the matter. Intelligent, accomplished and entertaining.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (Hodder & Stoughton 2010, UK)

First line: This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.

I’m extremely late to the party as far as the ‘Jackson Lamb’ series goes, but who cares – I’m here now and I’m having fun. Far from the glamour of the Intelligence Services in Regent’s Park sits Slough House, home of the Slow Horses: agents who in some way or other have screwed up, but can’t quite be pushed out of the service completely as yet. Assigned to mundane tasks and managed by the uncouth Jackson Lamb, each hides painful secrets, while yearning to get back into the action somehow. That moment may have arrived when some kidnappers threaten to broadcast the execution of their hostage Hassan live on the internet. A fabulously entertaining introduction to the Slow Horses, which also has plenty to say about the callousness of ambition and power. Hints of le Carré, but presented in a breezy and darkly humorous way.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas… Mrs Peabody’s 2017 recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s Christmas recommendations for 2017. Drawing on my top reads of the year, this list should contain something to suit even the most well-read crime fiction lover in your life. And don’t forget to treat yourself while you’re at it!

All available from a wonderful independent bookshop near you…

Masako Togawa, The Master Key, trans Simon Cove (Pushkin Vertigo 2017, JAPAN)

Masako Togawa was born in Tokyo and led a rich life as a writer, cabaret performer, nightclub owner and gay icon. The Master Key, her debut, was first published in 1962 and won the Edogawa Rampo Prize. Set in the K Apartments for Ladies (an apartment block similar to the one where the author herself was raised), this off-beat crime novel features an intriguing set of characters – mainly single women hiding secrets, some benign and some criminal. The theft of the master key to all the apartments sets off a sequence of events that disturbs everyone’s equilibrium and risks triggering further crimes. Rich character studies, a 1950s Japanese setting and an original, twist-laden plot deliver high levels of reader satisfaction. Hats off to Pushkin Vertigo for republishing this vintage gem, and to translator Simon Cove for his polished handling of the text. Another Togawa novel, The Lady Killer, is due out next year.

Gunnar Staalesen, Where Roses Never Die, trans. Don Bartlett (Orenda Books 2016, NORWAY)

Where Roses Never Die is the winner of the 2017 Petrona Award. It’s the sixth novel of the famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series to be out in English (set in Bergen on the west coast of Norway), but can easily be read as a standalone. We join private investigator Veum at rock bottom, wallowing in grief and drink, and about to take on a case that will push him to his limits – a cold case whose legal expiry date is drawing near, and which involves the unsolved disappearance of a small girl in 1977. The novel is an elegant fusion of American P.I. conventions and Scandinavian social analysis, but what I really liked was the way the narrative took the reader in an unexpected direction towards the end, delivering an original and convincing denouement.

Thomas Mullen, Darktown (Little, Brown 2016, USA)

Set in Atlanta, Georgia in 1948, Darktown is a murder mystery that also explores a key moment in the city’s history – the first ever induction of eight African American police officers into the Atlanta Police Department. The murder of a young black woman sees two sets of policemen come into uneasy contact with one another: black policemen Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith, and white policemen Lionel Dunlow and Denny Rakestraw. Each of their characters is superbly delineated, and adeptly used to unsettle racial stereotypes and easy assumptions. The novel is also a stunning portrait of post-war Atlanta, and opens the reader’s eyes to the dangerous and wearing realities of living in a society where racism is deeply ingrained in all areas of life. An excellent, satisfying read (full Mrs P review here). The second novel in the series Lightning Men, is just out.

Kati Hiekkapelto, The Exiled,  trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2016, FINLAND)

The Exiled, shortlisted for the 2017 Petrona Award, is the third in the ‘Fekete’ series to be published in English, but makes a good standalone due to its atypical setting – Serbia rather than Finland. We join Finnish police detective Anna Fekete as she visits the Serbian village of her birth to see family and take a holiday. But the discovery of a body pulls her into an investigation that raises a number of questions about her own father’s death decades earlier. As well as exploring the complexities of Fekete’s identity as a Hungarian Serb who has made her life in Finland, this accomplished novel looks with insight and compassion at the discrimination faced by Roma people, and the lot of refugees migrating through Europe.

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Penguin 2017, UK)

As a die-hard le Carré fan, I savoured every word of A Legacy of Spies. The novel opens in the present day, and shows Peter Guillam, George Smiley’s loyal right-hand man, being pulled out of retirement to justify his own and other British Secret Service agents’ actions during the Cold War. Of particular interest are the events surrounding the death of an agent and an innocent civilian – events that will immediately be familiar to readers of The Spy who Came in from the Cold. Not only does le Carré pull off the elegant closing of a literary circle – The Spy was his first major success in 1963 – but he also stays true to his core themes: the moral price and human cost of (maybe) safeguarding the nation. A must for any le Carré fan who hasn’t yet read it. And if your reader has not yet had the pleasure of entering le Carré’s world, then why not treat him or her to The Spy who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy as well (to be read in that order before Legacy).

Jane Harper, The Dry (Little, Brown/Abacus 2017, UK/AUSTRALIA)

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a small farming community a few hours from Melbourne in south-eastern Australia, which for the past two years has experienced a horrendous drought and sustained financial pressure. Even so, the town’s residents are stunned when Luke Hadler, a respected local farmer, kills his wife and six-year-old son before turning the shotgun on himself. Luke’s childhood friend, Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, returns to Kiewarra for the funerals, and reluctantly begins to look into the case…and to confront his own troubled relationship with the town. This novel was one of my absolute top reads of the year. The characterization is excellent, the plot is outstanding, and the landscapes and searing heat are brought vividly to life. A gripping police procedural and the first in a series. See the full Mrs P. review here.

Antti Tuomainen, The Man Who Died, trans David Hackston (Orenda Books 2017, FINLAND)

The Man Who Died is a joy from start to finish. It opens with a doctor telling a man he has been systematically poisoned, and that the end is just a matter of time. That man is Jaakko Kaunismaa, a 37-year-old from the small Finnish town of Hamina, who together with his wife Taina exports pine or matsutake mushrooms to the Japanese. Placed in a truly grave situation, Jaakko has to figure out what to do very quickly. The easiest course of action would be for him to give up, but instead he decides to investigate his forthcoming murder with admirable pluck and determination. Comparisons have rightly been drawn between the novel and Fargo: this is a stylish crime caper with lashings of black humour and a lot of heart. A special word of praise too for David Hackston, who also translated The Exile (above). He captures the off-beat humour of the novel perfectly.

Denise Mina, The Long Drop (Harvill Secker 2017, SCOTLAND)

Mina’s The Long Drop, based on the true case of Scottish rapist and murderer Peter Manuel, is a highly original re-telling of the circumstances leading up to his trial in a grimy, rough 1950s Glasgow. What makes the novel stand out is the originality of its storytelling, which expertly weaves together two narrative strands – a long night of drinking by Manuel and William Watt (the husband, father and brother-in-law of three of Manuel’s victims), and Manuel’s trial, which aroused lots of public interest. I found the book unexpectedly gripping, and the quality of the writing and characterization are sublime. Mina doesn’t shy away from describing Manuel’s horrific crimes, but her approach is never salacious, and she provides razor-sharp dissections of masculinity and class along the way.

Elisabeth Herrmann, The Cleaner, trans Bradley Schmidt (Manilla 2017, GERMANY) 

Elisabeth Herrmann’s The Cleaner is a polished, quirky German crime novel that features an outstanding protagonist, Judith Kepler. Judith is a prickly, awkward character who is extremely good at her job, which happens to be cleaning crime scenes for a specialist company in Berlin. As she cleans a flat following a particularly nasty murder, Judith unexpectedly comes across a clue to a mystery in her own East German childhood, and gets entangled in a potentially life-threatening situation. A hybrid detective novel, historical crime novel and thriller, The Cleaner is a gripping and highly engaging read with a wonderfully memorable lead. You may learn some handy cleaning tips along the way as well.

Arnaldur Indriðason, The Shadow District, trans Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker 2017, ICELAND)

I’ve been a big fan of Indriðason’s ‘Erlendur’ series over the years, and so was delighted to hear that the first of his new ‘Reykjavik Wartime Mysteries’ is out in English. The Shadow District interweaves two stories, one from the wartime past and the other from the present. In the first, a young woman is found strangled in Reykjavik’s ‘shadow district’, a rough area of the city. Icelandic detective Flovent investigates the case together with Thorson, a member of the American military police. In the present, retired police detective Konrad gets sucked into the odd case of a 90-year-old man who has been found dead in his apartment. In the course of the narrative, the two timelines begin to overlap in various ways… An absorbing page-turner that doesn’t hesitate to break some genre conventions.

Wishing you all a very happy festive season!

New Year crime fiction treats from Denmark, England, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway and Sweden

Happy New Year to you all!

I hope that 2017 has started well and that you have lots of lovely crime fiction lined up as we move into a new reading year.

One of the truly splendid things about a crime blogger’s life is being sent lots of fantastic books. The picture below shows my postbag for the last month, which contains some mouth-watering delights.

new-year-treats

As these crime novels come from a variety of publishers, it’s interesting to see how the contents of individual parcels combine. Quite a number in this consignment are entries for the 2017 Petrona Award, which I help to judge along with Barry Forshaw, Sarah Ward and Karen Meek. This explains the high ratio of Scandi crime, including novels by Norwegian crime writing stars Anne Holt (special guest at last year’s CrimeFest) and Karin Fossum. The latter’s ‘Inspector Sejer’ novel The Drowned Boy (Harvill Secker, tr. Kari Dickson) was shortlisted for the 2016 Petrona Award.

Another Petrona entry that’s particularly caught my eye is Finnish author Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Club (MacLehose, tr. Neil Smith). This novel originally appeared in Swedish (one of Finland’s official languages), is set in Helsinki in 1938, and explores the legacy of the Finnish Civil War. Two of the other novels are set around that time as well (both from Harvill Secker): Danish author Simon Pasternak’s Death Zones (tr. Martin Aitkin / Belorussia in 1943) and Arnaldur Indriðason’s The Shadow District (tr. Victoria Cribb / wartime Reykjavík). The latter is a proof copy and a very exciting bit of post, as it marks the beginning of a new series from this outstanding author (pub. April 2017).

Ragnar Jónasson’s Rupture (Orenda, tr. Quentin Bates), the latest in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series, is also one I’m very much looking forward to reading: it features a cold case from 1955, which sounds right up my street. Other delights include the latest Eva Dolan and Fred Vargas novels (Harvill Secker), Watch Her Disappear and A Climate of Fear (tr. Siân Reynolds). Both Dolan and Vargas are excellent writers, albeit with extremely different styles and authorial concerns.

Lastly, there’s been quite a lot of talk about Erik Axl Sund’s The Crow Girl (Harvill Secker, tr. Neil Smith). It features a highly unusual female protagonist and is definitely not going to be a boring read…

So, that lot’s going to keep me busy for a while.

Which crime novels are you particularly looking forward to reading in January? 

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:

xmasstamps

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)

chirstmas

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

#49 K.T. Medina, White Crocodile (UK/Cambodia)

K.T. Medina, White Crocodile (Faber & Faber, 2014). An impressive debut that explores the dangerous world of landmine clearance in Cambodia 4 stars

white-crocodile-jacket

Opening line: Tian was woken by a noise.

This powerful debut novel draws on K.T. Medina’s experience of working as a consultant for mine-clearance agencies in Cambodia. Its lead protagonist, Tess Hardy, arrives in the country following the suspicious death of her ex-husband while defusing a mine. The disappearance of several local women and mounting fear of the ‘White Crocodile’ myth soon confirm that there’s a clear and present danger – one that Tess must handle carefully if she wishes to survive.

There are several aspects of this novel that I really like. The first is its depiction of mine-clearance expert Tess, who faces complex personal and professional challenges throughout the narrative. The second is the insight into life in Battambang Province in north-west Cambodia, a highly fertile rice-producing region, but one ravaged by political conflict and the infamous Khmer Rouge regime, which have left the countryside studded with lethal mines. The novel also shows how UN peace keeping forces and aid agencies can sometimes worsen the situation of countries they’re supposed to be helping – for example by bringing HIV into local communities.

Two slight reservations: there was perhaps one plot-strand too many near the end of the novel, and a surfeit of scenes told from the perspective of terrified victims-to-be. But White Crocodile remains a highly impressive debut and is very much worth reading for its depiction of Cambodia, and for its nuanced and honest exploration of a number of important issues.

You can read a sobering essay by Jay Tindall called ‘Cambodia: Land Mine Nation’ here – http://jaytindall.asia/land-mine-nation/ – and about the work of the remarkable Halo Trust in Cambodia here – https://www.halotrust.org/where-we-work/south-asia/cambodia/.

Cambodian landmine sign

Photograph: Jay Tindall

Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind: 360° translation special

Nightblind

Nightblind is the second novel in the ‘Dark Iceland’ series to be translated into English by Orenda Books. Set in the fishing village of Siglufjörður high in the north of Iceland, it traces Ari Thór Arason’s investigation into the shooting of a fellow policeman outside a deserted house late one night. A gripping police procedural with excellent characterisation and a vivid sense of place, it’s a truly absorbing read (I sat down intending to sample the first three chapters and was rooted to the sofa for hours). Like all of Orenda’s novels, it’s beautifully produced, and includes a couple of maps, which is always a bonus.

Translating Ragnar Jónasson’s ‘Dark Iceland’ series

Today, as part of Nightblind’s Orenda blog tour, Mrs. Peabody is delighted to bring you a 360° translation special, which provides some fascinating (and hilarious) insights into Dark Iceland‘s journey from Icelandic to English.

Three individuals play a vital role: author Ragnar (who has himself translated a number of Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic), translator Quentin Bates (also the author of the ‘Gunnhildur‘ Icelandic crime series), and Orenda Books publisher Karen Sullivan, armed with her mighty red pen. Without their dedication, energy and hard work, we wouldn’t have the pleasure of reading this series in English. Here, in their own words, is what the process involves…

Jokes, idioms and swearing (Quentin)

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Translator Quentin Bates

It was something of a jump to translating crime fiction after the stuff I had been used to. News and technical material doesn’t leave a great deal of elbow room for interpretation; what’s required is precision, not anything fancy. Fiction is very different, not least because it’s a long text to work on rather than a handful of pages, so a book means you can become absorbed in it long before reaching the end.

The fun, challenging part of the shift to translating fiction, working on Snowblind, Nightblind and now Blackout, is precisely the stuff that doesn’t occur in bare-bones technical material. It’s the idioms and jokes, as these are the things that are often untranslatable, plus there are odd words in every language that don’t have a direct equivalent in English, or maybe not even in any other language. Oh, and there’s the swearing as well.

Frequently things can’t be translated faithfully. Especially with jokes, this leaves the translator with the dilemma of translating the jokes exactly and remaining faithful to the original text, or departing from it to go out on a limb with something different and retaining the author’s meaning rather than the author’s words.

Sometimes that’s not an option. In Snowblind there’s a nursery rhyme that contains an element of a play on words, playing on the name of one of the characters. That time I had to go down the faithful route, as there’s no comparable rhyme in English and in any case, trying to link it to that character’s name would have been stretching things too far for comfort. A more or less direct translation of Ugla sat á kvisti seemed to be the best way.

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Then there’s the swearing… Icelandic and English cursing are so different that you have to go back to bare metal. Everyday Icelandic swearing is largely blasphemous, while in English it tends to be biological. Icelandic has no real equivalent of the F-word or the C-word in English, nothing that carries the same one-syllable punch. That’s not to say you can’t be properly offensive in Icelandic, because you can, but it’s more of a roundabout route and not something that’s dropped with such careless abandon as we do in Britain.

If you were to translate an Icelandic curse directly into English, it would sound ridiculous, just as if some English epithets were to be translated directly into Icelandic. It just doesn’t work. Instead, go back to the character. Ask yourself what word would a vicious thug in his thirties choose in English – that means the F-word, no question, while a senior police officer in late middle age would go for something milder.

Old Icelandic

10 points for spotting the Old Icelandic for ‘murder’… (http://www.ling.upenn.edu/~kurisuto/germanic/oi_zoega_about.html)

Also there’s punctuation that’s surprisingly different. Icelandic fiction tends to use short sentences that don’t render well into English. The result can be staccato, almost childish sometimes, so sentences often need to be rolled together. A full stop in English is just that, while an Icelandic full stop is a more elastic beast and it’s up to the translator to keep the full stops and sharp-ended sentences where they work with the story, or decide if that particular full stop should become a comma or a rare semi-colon.

All the same, a translator shouldn’t give in to the temptation to improve the author’s work – that’s an editor’s job. Once the translator has finished, the editor can get to work with a hammer and chisel if he or she feels so inclined.

All this is a delicate task, and a good translation should do justice to a good book. An inspired translation (and I can think of a few) can make a good book into something special, just as a poor or hurried translation can ruin a decent book. All this has to be done without crossing a line into editor territory, and the line shifts and changes all the time.

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The original Icelandic cover of Nightblind

There’s a play on words in Ragnar’s next book, Blackout. A translator into another language simply left that particular slab of dialogue out, so I know he’s interested to see how I’m going to deal with it. I’m not going to reveal it here, but it needed a bit of thought before the solution popped up. Like the best ideas, it came to me while I was doing something completely different.

Translation isn’t a process that takes place only when your fingers are hovering over the keyboard. It’s great exercise for the grey matter, sometimes as good as the most fiendish crossword.

Letting go… (Ragnar)

Author Ragnar Jónasson

I had the great opportunity to translate fourteen Agatha Christie books into Icelandic during my student years, and into my early law career, before embarking on a writing career. As a fan of Christie, this was something I thoroughly enjoyed doing, although there were of course challenges along the way. My approach to translating Christie was to use a fairly ‘ancient’ vocabulary, some words that would have been used by my grandparents rather than by my generation, to give the books the classic mystery feel of something set in a bygone era. In some cases there were of course also difficulties relating to the English language, especially when Christie had hidden a clue in a word, so to speak. One book that I really wanted to translate was Lord Edgware Dies, but without giving anything away, that particular book contains a clue that is very hard, or almost impossible, to translate into another language. It took me years to gather the courage to tackle it, having tried to obtain copies of the book in other languages to compare how, for example, Scandinavian translators had solved the problem. In the end I did translate the book, even though the clue didn’t have quite the same impact in the translated version.

Snowflake

Having had this experience of translating, I have to admit that I may have been slightly too eager to help Quentin along the way with the translation of Snowblind! When he sent me the first chapters for review, I sat down very conscientiously and compared it almost word for word with the Icelandic version and sent him a very red mark-up, telling him that he missed a ‘snowflake’ here, or a ‘tree’ there … After that I didn’t hear from him in a couple of weeks, so I sort of realised that I had to give him much more leeway in terms of finding the right words in English, even though in some cases the translation would not be word for word perfect.  In other words, I had to let go of the book and give Quentin a chance to adapt it to the English language, with his unique skills – and since then I haven’t looked back!

Enter the red pen! (Karen)

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Publisher Karen Sullivan

I have massive respect for translators, and try not get involved in the actual process. The last thing they need is an editor peering over their shoulder and making suggestions. For some of my international books, we get early samples to create ‘samplers’ for booksellers and the press, and to tempt readers. I edit these as standalones, and if there are bits that concern me about the tone/voice or the vocabulary chosen, I keep it to myself. All translators get to the end and then go back and hone, polish, rethink. I like to see that final product, and that’s when I get my pen out!

To my mind, even the most successful books can use some editing, and all of my authors have been completely brilliant about revisiting books that they have usually written years ago. I’m aware that readers of international fiction often appreciate being transported to another country, to get a taste of the people, the geography, the culture, the subtle nuances that make a place and its inhabitants unique. So for that reason, I often ask authors to add more. Describe the snow, describe the sea, describe how one character dresses for the cold. What are they eating when they sit down for lunch? Put yourself in the position of a reader who has never been to your country, and give them atmosphere. Obviously authors write first for their own market, and it would not occur to them to include this type of details, nor would it be necessary. I think, however, that it brings a book alive in a way that might not otherwise be possible.

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Some Icelandic snow. Image courtesy of Málfríður Guðmundsdóttir via Flickr/Creative Commons.

Even the structure can be toyed with. In Nightblind, the letter that peppers the book, building tension and adding another strand to the plot, was originally at the end. All very Agatha Christie and pat, but breaking it up and moving it around was, I think, better for the overall structure of the book, and a good way to create another set of ‘clues’ to keep the reader guessing. We made some tweaks to the ending, too, and built up the characterisation in places. In Snowblind, we added more depth to the relationship between Kirsten and Ari Thor. The goal is to create a ‘perfect’ book, and with wonderful, willing translator and author on board, it’s absolutely possible.

I generally send back an edited document, with hundreds of queries and tweaks. I too ponder whether a character would use a particular phrase, and by the end of Snowblind I was desperately frustrated that the English language had so few words for snow. Snow, snow, snow! I got creative and made lots descriptive changes to prevent readers from glazing over! The edits go to Quentin first, as he can often answer the majority of queries, and then it hits Ragnar, who gets the first chance to read his book in English. He will add additional material, where required (as he says, Karen, you have an unhealthy interest in Icelandic weather!), adjust anything that does seem right to him (Ragnar’s English is great, so he has no trouble here), and make suggestions of his own. It’s one great big fantastic conversation, with input from everyone, that leads to the final product. It’s a process that I love, and the honour of publishing a fantastic international book, introducing a new author from another country to English readers, is just magnificent!

Thank you to Quentin, Ragnar and Karen!

Nightblind Blog tour

Kriminally good: NBG Krimi issue, Goethe Institut Krimi panel and David Young’s The Stasi Child

The autumn issue of New Books in German is out – a very special edition that celebrates the best of contemporary German-language crime fiction. In it you can read mouth-watering features, interviews and summaries of the hottest Krimis lining up to be translated into English.

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The contents are available online and include: 

A pair of features on British and German-language crime – Barry Forshaw’s ‘A New Golden Age? Contemporary British Crime Fiction’ and my own piece on ‘Quality, Diversity and Untapped Potential: the Contemporary Krimi’. Entertaining mugshots included…

A feature on ‘Killer Thrillers from Austria – an evening with Ursula Poznanski

Interviews with Daniela Rapp (editor at St. Martin’s Press in New York), Alison Hennessey (Senior Editor at Harvill Secker) and Imogen Rose Taylor (translator of Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies) on bringing international crime fiction to English-language audiences.

You can also browse individual Krimis (spoiler alert!) and take a comprehensive look at UK publishers of crime fiction and thrillers in translation, including Arcadia Books, Bitter Lemon Press, Harvill Secker, Hesperus Press, MacLehose Press, No Exit Press, Sinon & Schuster, Orion, World Noir/Europa Editions, Orenda and Vertigo Pushkin.

And as if all that goodness wasn’t enough, the Goethe-Institut London and New Books in German are hosting a Krimi evening on Tuesday 10th November. Snappily titled ‘In the Library with the Lead Piping’, the event will feature readings and a panel on German and British crime fiction with authors Mechtild Borrmann, Mario Giordano, Michael Ridpath and Louise Welsh.

Silence

Mechtild Borrmann is the German author of a number of novels, including the best-selling historical crime novel Wer das Schweigen bricht (Silence), which was the winner of the 2012 Deutscher Krimi Preis (German Crime Fiction Prize).

poldi

Mario Giordano is a German author and screenwriter, who has written for crime series such as Tatort (Crime Scene) and Schimanski. His crime novel Tante Poldi und die sizilianischen Löwen (Aunt Poldi and the Sicilian Lions) was published this year.

s_shadows_of_war_bookMichael Ridpath is the British author of financial thrillers, the Icelandic ‘Fire and Ice’ crime series, and two spy novels, Traitor’s Gate and Shadows of War, which are set in Europe at the beginning of the Second World War.

Girl Welsh

Louise Welsh is a Scottish writer who draws on crime fiction, psychological thrillers, apocalypse fiction and the Gothic. Two of her works, The Bullet Trick and The Girl on the Stairsare set in Berlin.

I have the good fortune to be the moderator for the event and am looking forward to it greatly. If you’re in London, do come along! Further details are available here. Entry is free, but booking is essential (simply email info@london.goethe.org).

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And finally… Over the past few days I’ve been reading a preview copy of David Young’s novel Stasi Child, which has the highly original setting of 1975 East Germany, and is proving to be a gripping and hugely absorbing read. It’s published on 1st October by twenty7 and has just been optioned for TV by Euston Films.

Here’s the cover blurb to whet your appetites:

>> When Oberleutnant Karin Müller is called to investigate a teenage girl’s body at the foot of the Wall, she imagines she’s seen it all before. But when she arrives she realises this is a death like no other: it seems the girl was trying to escape – but from the West.

Müller is a member of the People’s Police, but in East Germany her power only stretches so far. The Stasi want her to discover the identity of the girl, but assure her the case is otherwise closed – and strongly discourage her asking questions.

The evidence doesn’t add up, and Müller soon realises the crime scene has been staged. But this is not a regime that tolerates a curious mind, and Müller doesn’t realise that the trail she’s following will lead her dangerously close to home… <<

The novel is the first in a trilogy, and I’m already keen to meet Karin Müller and her team again. If you’re interested in how David came up with his ideas and wrote the novel, then check out his feature over on the twenty7 blog.

Marina Sofia has also just posted a great review of The Stasi Child over at findingtimetowrite.