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:

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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

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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).

StasiChild_firstlook_540

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.

Stieg Larsson sequel, crime versus thrillers, Easter bunnies

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature goes to Patrick Modiano (who’s a bit of a crime writer)

The winner of the 2014 Novel Prize for Literature was announced yesterday. He is French writer Patrick Modiano, who appears to be extremely well known at home, but less so internationally, although some of his works have been translated into English down the years, and have won acclaim in Germany for their engagement with the wartime past.

Patrick Modiano

I’ve not read any of Modiano’s works, but am keen to do so for two reasons. Firstly, he’s of Jewish-Italian, Belgian and French extraction, and much of his writing focuses on the German Occupation of France (1940-44) and the themes of history, memory, identity and guilt.

Secondly, he’s the author of an intriguing, off-beat crime novel, entitled Rue des Boutiques Obscures (the street of shadowy shops), which was published in 1978 and received the Prix Goncourt, France’s premier literary prize, the same year.

The novel was translated into English by Daniel Weissbort, published by Jonathan Cape in 1980, and republished by Verba Mundi in 2004. Here’s the blurb from the back cover of the latter:

>> In this strange, elegant novel, Patrick Modiano portrays a man in pursuit of the identity he lost in the murky days of the Paris Occupation, the black hole of French memory.

For ten years, Guy Roland has lived without a past. His current life and name were given to him by his recently retired boss, Hutte, who welcomed him, a one-time client, into his detective agency. Guy makes full use of Hutte’s files – directories, yearbooks, and papers of all kinds going back half a century – but his leads are few. Could he really be the person in that photograph, a young man remembered by some as a South American attaché? Or was he someone else, perhaps the disappeared scion of a prominent local family? He interviews strangers and is tantalized by half-clues until, at last, he grasps a thread that leads him through the maze of his own repressed experience.

On one level Missing Person is a detective thriller, a 1950s film-noir mix of smoky cafés, illegal passports and insubstantial figures crossing bridges in the fog. On another level, it is also a haunting meditation on the nature of the self. Modiano’s sparce, hypnotic prose, superbly translated by Daniel Weissbort, draws his readers into the intoxication of a rare literary experience. <<

An amnesiac detective investigating his own identity and past in a post-war Parisian setting. Mmmmm, yes please!

See also: ‘Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano hailed as modern Marcel Proust’The Guardian, Thursday 9 October.

CRIME NOVEL wins Man Booker Prize!

I was working late last night and found myself having a midnight snack in the company of The Guardian newspaper. In the course of browsing, I realised that I’d missed the announcement for the Man Booker Prize, and was interested to see the winner was The Luminaries (Granta) by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander who is now the youngest winner in the prize’s history (just 28), with its longest ever book (a corking 832 pages).

My eye then fell upon this bit of text: ‘The Luminaries is, at the plot level, a page-turning, suspenseful story about a series of unsolved crimes, written in the manner of a Victorian sensation novel. In January 1866, in the New Zealand town of Hokitika, a Scot called Moody walks into a hotel smoking room to find twelve men ruminating on a series of mysterious events: the disappearance of a rich prospector, the death of a wealthy recluse, the beating to a pulp of a prostitute. All the men are connected to these events and bound to each other’.

On digging around a bit further I discovered the following little details:

  1. Moody has arrived on a ship captained by a suspected murderer.
  2. Moody has legal training: he agrees to listen to the mens’ stories and to become ‘the unraveler’ … or might we say investigator?
  3. The narrative features a tense courtroom drama.

My first thought was: this would be a great book to review on the crime blog. My second thought was: that means A CRIME NOVEL HAS WON THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE!

I then rushed over to the Man Booker Prize webpage, only to find near invisible acknowledgement of Catton’s engagement with crime. While there is passing mention of Wilkie Collins, of mystery and a lawsuit, the idea that the novel incorporates and plays with significant aspects of the crime genre has been written out. The word CRIME does not feature once. Might this be evidence of an in-built Man Booker ‘prestigious literary prize’ prejudice? Its slogan is ‘fiction at its finest’, and it looks suspiciously like they couldn’t bear to elevate crime into that elite category.

The author with slogan…

Contrast the refreshing take of blogger Danylmc over at The Dim-Post, who asserts:

The Luminaries is primarily a very entertaining crime novel … It’s written in the style of a Victorian novel, but I suspect that two of the biggest influences were the golden-age HBO shows Deadwood and The Wire. Deadwood because of the frontier goldrush town setting, and The Wire because Catton is interested in using crime stories to examine how the society she’s writing about really works in terms of power-relationships and influence’.

Hurray! That’s more like it!

I can’t help but think of Ian Rankin here, who for many years has bemoaned the sidelining of crime fiction when it comes to major literary prizes. Well Ian, I think we’re well over half way there now. While The Luminaries can be classified as a historical novel, a Victorian sensation novel, a literary novel, or even a postmodern novel, we can also definitely view it as a crime novel. So I’ll say it again: A CRIME NOVEL HAS WON THE MAN BOOKER, and that’s really something to be celebrated. Now all we have to do is persuade ‘literary’ prize-givers that ‘crime’ is the door to rich and wonderfully innovative narratives, rather than a dirty word to be avoided. We’ve known it all along, and after reading The Luminaries, they really should too.

Update: PM Newton has kindly drawn my attention to a 2010 article in The Guardian entitled ‘Could Miles Franklin turn the Booker Prize to Crime?‘. It appeared just after Peter Temple’s success in winning Australia’s top literary prize, the Miles Franklin Award, with his crime novel Truth. The article provides a nice overview of the crime fiction/literary prize debates, and is worth reading for John Sutherland’s ‘donkey-in-the-Grand-National’ comment alone.

Theakston File 4: Jason Webster interview with Mrs. P.

If you tuned in to the 8th episode of the Radio 4 ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Wednesday, you’ll have heard crime authors Jason Webster and Antonio Hill in animated discussion with Mark Lawson about Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s investigator, Pepe Carvalho.

Listening to the episode, I realised now was the time to post my interview with Jason Webster at the 2012 Harrogate Crime Writing Festival. Key areas explored with the author of the ‘Max Cámara’ series, which is set in Valencia, include the legacy of the Spanish Civil War and the influence of Vázquez Montalbán.

Mrs. Peabody (MP): You’re a very versatile author: you started out as a travel writer, examining the history and culture of Spain, before turning your hand to crime fiction. Could you say a little bit about what led you to crime?

Jason Webster (JW): I suppose in some ways writing crime allows me to keep exploring Spain – this massive country that I’m really fascinated by – and has become an extension of the travel books, because the ‘I’ of the narrator in the travel books isn’t a million miles away from a detective: it’s exploration, it’s questioning, it’s looking for clues. And often there was a quest format in my previous books, so my writing has rolled on quite easily from those into crime.

MP: Are you able to take some of the material from those earlier books and incorporate it into your crime novels – say about flamenco or bull-fighting or Spain’s historical past?

JW: Definitely the past – the Spanish Civil War. I draw on that quite heavily for the third Max Cámara book, The Anarchist Detective, which will be coming out next year. So there’s a lot about this dark, dirty legacy of the Civil War – stuff that lots of people in Spain don’t want to talk about. Flamenco a little bit as well. Max likes flamenco so that fits, but it hasn’t played a huge part yet in any of the books.

MP: And do you think the crime genre is particularly suited to tackling subjects like the Spanish Civil War and the legacy of the past?

JW: Yes, absolutely. I mean there’s this largely untold violent history and lots of old wounds which haven’t healed. You have to remember that the families of those who were killed by Franco’s troops couldn’t mourn their dead. Anybody who was on the other side – on Franco’s side – and was killed or wounded – their stories were glorified for years and years. And when Franco died there was this period called ‘the pact of silence’ [pacto de silencio]. During ‘the transition’ [from Franco’s dictatorship to democracy] everybody agreed that you ‘don’t mention the war’… because that’s the only way we’ll get out of the dictatorship and move into democracy. But about eight years ago people started to ask – ‘hang on, what did happen to grandpa?’. So the grandchildren of the people who had suffered during the Civil War were saying, ‘well actually, I want to know’. And that opened up a can of worms, because a whole section of Spanish society – the political right, essentially – just didn’t want to go there. So there are a lot of untold stories, a lot of unhealed wounds, and a legacy of violence.

It’s perfect for writing crime, I think, because there are a lot of secrets … And in a sense there’s a long tradition dating back from the period of ‘the transition’ – just before Franco dies and just afterwards – of great Spanish crime writers like Vázquez Montalbán writing very much from a political point of view. They want to talk about what’s going wrong in Spain, and finally can publish their books once Franco dies, when the dictatorship is over and censorship has come to an end. So that’s very much part of the tradition of Spanish crime writing.

MP: Do you see yourself now as part of that tradition?

JW: In some ways, sure. Vázquez Montalbánwas definitely an inspiration, and the name that I gave Max Cámara…I was thinking of two things, really. I was thinking of Christopher Isherwood and ‘I am a camera’: ‘cámara’ means ‘camera’ in Spanish and it’s a perfectly legitimate surname as well. And this gives us a handle on Max’s character – he observes, he waits, he doesn’t really jump to conclusions. But I was also thinking of Vázquez Montalbán when he was writing under Franco and had been thrown in jail and had to write under a pseudonym – one of the pseudonyms he used was ‘Sixto Cámara’. So there’s a sort of homage to that, to Vázquez Montalbán…

MP: Can I take a tiny detour to your third book, Guerra: Living in the Shadows of the Spanish Civil War. What prompted you to write it?

JW: I was talking to one of the locals near where we live, which is in the middle of nowhere, off the grid. We were just chatting away, when she started telling me some things about the Civil War and took me to a place where she said there was a massacre, in around ’38 – so getting towards the tail end of the war, just as Franco was moving south towards Valencia. And she had seen this happen as a young girl – these bodies being buried. I’d sort of heard about this and it was about the time when it was starting to come out – these mass unmarked graves dotted around the country where people who had died at the hands of the Francoists were just buried… There was no commemorative plaque, there was no gravestone, no one had been allowed to mourn, the dead were buried there for years and years. And you know, death is important in Spain; it’s a culture where you seriously mourn the dead, and so for a whole side of the country not to have been able to mourn their dead… that’s a big deal.

I think a lot of people are just hoping that that generation– anyone who lived through that, anybody who suffered – will just die and then we can all forget about it. But there are quite a lot of people who are trying to recreate the oral history from the time – not let it just slip away. Paul Preston [the historian] and I have met on a number of occasions … and the book that he’s written on the ‘Spanish Holocaust’ is a very interesting one with a very interesting title… He’s deliberately being controversial. And he’s doing that because he’s making a statement about contemporary Spain as much as he is about the past. There are lots of Spaniards who don’t accept what happened. And they say we should just ‘turn the page’. But how are you going to get over the wounds unless you confront the past?

MP: It’s the classic model of the repressed, isn’t it?

JW: Yes, absolutely. Spanish society is still very much divided and this is what forms the backdrop to my second novel, A Death in Valencia. I’m trying to look at these massive divisions that split Spain apart still, eighty years after the Civil War.

MP: You build that history into your crime fiction through the figure of the grandfather, Hilario. He’s somewhat disapproving that his grandson Max chose to join the police.

JW: That deep paradox goes to the heart of who Max is, and I bring this to the fore in the third novel, The Anarchist Detective. Max comes from an anarchist family; he is essentially an anarchist himself, but an anarchist in the broad sense of the word. At the same time he’s an agent of the state, and of state authority, so how does that work? How does he square that circle? In some ways, what I’m doing in the second book, A Death in Valencia, is showing a breakdown in his character, because of this contradiction, whereas in the third book, he kind of resolves that paradox within himself.

MP: Do you think it’s helpful that you speak Spanish? I notice from having read some of A Death in Valencia ­that you include Spanish proverbs [refranes] in their original form, perhaps as a way of communicating with readers who are non-Spanish speakers – imparting the culture and giving us a flavour of the language as well. Is that a deliberate strategy?

JW: I think so. The problem is that it’s hard for me to put myself in the position of not knowing Spanish. Sometimes I’m just writing and there are certain phrases which I just think are so wonderful that I want to put them down in English. The proverbs are there because they are an important part of Max’s character. The Spanish are very, very proud of their proverbs, and it’s one of the things I love about Spain. It’s not Spanish intellectual culture that gets me going in the morning, it’s this intuitive side to the country and to the culture – and I see that in the proverbs. Essentially, there’s a deep wisdom that you feel has been passed on for centuries, by word of mouth – it’s an oral tradition. And I love that, so I did want to get that across in the novels.

MP: What do you think the Spanish would make of your crime novels?

JW: The first one, Or the Bull Kills You, might wind some people up because it’s about bull-fighting, but the second and the third ones don’t deal with so-called Spanish stereotypes, so they might be more acceptable. Basically, don’t talk about anything they term ‘el folklórico’ – flamenco, bull-fighting, all that kind of stuff that the Franco regime tried to promote in the 1950s and 1960s to get tourists to come over. It’s what they consider to be the backward side of their culture and they don’t want to perpetuate the image that that’s all Spain is about. But the Spanish Civil War is a legitimate topic for foreigners to discuss…. It’s complicated!

Interview carried out at the Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate, 20 July 2012

You can still listen to the ‘Foreign Bodies’ episode on Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho via BBC iPlayer.

#26 / Mons Kallentoft, Midwinter Sacrifice

Mons Kallentoft, Midwinter Sacrifice, translated from the Swedish by Neil Smith (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2012 [2007]). An impressive debut and the first in a series featuring talented police investigator Malin Fors  4 stars

Opening line: Love and death are neighbours.

I tend to have an allergic reaction to any cover trumpeting that there’s a new Larsson or Nesbo in town, as nine times out of ten such claims are overblown. However, in the case of the debut novel Midwinter Sacrifice, author Mons Kallentoft shows that he can hold his own in such company at least, with a well-written, page-turner of a narrative, and an impressively-realised female detective.  

Set in the city of Linköping in southern Sweden, where the author was raised, the novel makes good use of a ferociously icy nordic winter and the landscapes of the region – dark forests and frozen plains – to create a lyrical, chilling backdrop for the opening crime: the murder and ritual hanging of a local man, who for much of his life was a social outsider. Malin Fors, a gifted police investigator who struggles to balance a demanding job with her role as a single parent following the break-up of her relationship, is called to the crime scene one cold February morning. Together with her partner Zeke, she begins to piece together the events that led to the murder, in a first-class police procedural that repeatedly makes you want to read on (just one more chapter, honest…).

The elements of this crime novel that I particularly liked were: Malin’s nuanced portrayal as a thirty-something woman dealing with the lifelong consequences of her teenage pregnancy; the thematisation of parenting, and the relationships between parents and children (whether infants, teenagers or adults); the depiction of the rest of the police team; the innovative use of the murder victim’s voice in parts of the narrative (difficult to pull off, but effectively done); and a surprise reference to Douglas Adams’ Life, the Universe and Everything (stylish).

The only aspect of the novel that jarred slightly for me was its ending, which was a little too melodramatic for my taste. However, I’m keen to follow Malin on her next case, in the series’ second novel, Summertime Death, which has also recently appeared in translation. The third novel, Autumn Killing, is out in September, revealing a nice use of seasons to structure the series: spring next, I presume…

You can read an extract from Midwinter Sacrifice here.

Mrs. Peabody awards Midwinter Sacrifice a highly more-ish 4 stars.

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