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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#43 / Pascal Garnier, Moon in a Dead Eye

Pascal Garnier, Moon in a Dead Eye, translated from the French by Emily Boyce (London: Gallic Books, 2013 [2009])  4 stars

Love this design: a seriously stylish series.

Opening line: Martial compared the photo on the cover of the brochure with the view from the window.

Pascal Garnier, who died in 2010, was a prolific French author who worked in a number of genres, including crime. Gallic Books have thus far published four of his works in translation, with more due in 2014.

To date, I’ve sampled two of Garnier’s novels – or more accurately novellas of modest length – and have very much enjoyed the sharp observational powers deployed in each. Moon in a Dead Eye is set in a posh French retirement village: a gated community whose inhabitants are attracted by its 24/7 security and the promise that they will be protected from nasty ‘foreign’ elements. But perhaps Martial, Odette, Maxime, Marlene and Lea should be worrying less about the threat from without than the threat from within? To all those fantasising about a retirement in the South of France, I can only say: be careful what you wish for…

In common with Garnier’s earlier novel A26, which I would also highly recommend, Moon in a Dead Eye digs beneath the apparent respectability of provincial life to reveal the violence lurking beneath. This violence is often male, erupting from unexpected sources following a series of interlinked events. Although the stories they tell are undeniably bleak, both books are leavened with a biting satirical humour (reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith or the German author Ingrid Noll), and are beautifully and precisely written.

I’m looking forward to reading the other two (superbly titled) Garnier novels already available – The Panda Theory and How’s the Pain? Together with A26 and The Moon in a Dead Eye, they’ll make a stylishly grim quartet on my bookshelf.

Mrs. Peabody awards Moon in a Dead Eye a beautifully-observed and rather wicked 4 stars.

With thanks to Gallic Books for sending me an advance copy of this book.

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#32 / Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place

Fred Vargas, An Uncertain Place, translated from the French by Sian Reynolds (London: Vintage, 2012 [2008]). A rather gruesome outing for Commissaire Adamsberg and his team  3.5 stars

Opening line: Commissaire Adamsberg knew how to iron shirts.

Fred Vargas is one of my favourite crime writers, but I always regard her novels as something of a guilty pleasure. By rights, I shouldn’t really like them, as I tend to favour crime novels that engage with history, politics or society (such as Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State), and which feature grounded, rational policemen (I’m a sensible type at heart). Not novels involving a hunt for a werewolf (Seeking Whom He May Devour), or a Commissaire who wanders aimlessly around Paris using intuition to solve his crimes.

And yet the Adamsberg novels have afforded me more reading pleasure than almost any other crime series I’ve read. This has a great deal to do with the quality of the writing – there’s a reason why Vargas has won the CWA International Dagger three times – and the way in which she uses her medieval historian’s knowledge to take the roman policier in a pleasingly original direction. Add in a large dash of quirky gallic – her police team are eccentrically and extravagently ‘French’ – et voilà, you have a classy, distinctive crime series on your hands that’s mighty hard to resist.

Those who’ve loved previous Adamsberg novels are not likely to be disappointed by An Uncertain Place, as all the usual ingredients are present and correct. For British readers and Anglophiles, there’s also the bonus of an initial stop in London, which includes a splendidly gothic discovery at the entrance of Highgate Cemetery.

So why have I given An Uncertain Place only 3.5 stars?

For me, this crime novel went slightly too far in two respects:

1. It features a truly gruesome murder and crime-scene description. An explanation of the murderer’s rationale and methods are supplied further on in the narrative, but I still found the enormous amount of detail too much to stomach (not helped by the fact that I read the worst bit over lunch).

2. Vargas is usually very skilled at suggesting that other-worldly forces are at work while maintaining a plausible crime narrative in a ‘realistic’ French setting. As in previous novels, the tension between those in the police team who work intuitively and those who rely on logic is thematised (Adamsberg and his disciples are the ‘cloud shovellers’, while Retancourt leads the ‘rational positivist movement’). But Vargas jumps in a clear direction at the end of the narrative, and it was one that left me rather cross. So – with a little sigh – 3.5 it is.

An Uncertain Place was my January read for the 2013 Translation Challenge.

Mrs. Peabody awards An Uncertain Place an enjoyable but slightly infuriating 3.5 stars.

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Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge / Ingrid Noll

Over at Barbara Fister’s blog, you can find details of the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge, which celebrates 25 years of Sisters in Crime and the wealth of quality crime fiction written by women. 

I’m embarking on the Easy challenge: write a blog post about a work of crime fiction by a woman author; list five more women authors who you recommend.

My choice is The Pharmacist (Die Apothekerin), by one of Germany’s most successful and respected crime novelists, Ingrid Noll.

Ingrid Noll is in now her seventies, and only started writing seriously in her mid-fifties, after her three children had left home. The delayed start to her career as an author -perhaps not too unusual for a woman of her generation – gives all of us late developers hope and is one of the reasons I’ve selected her for this challenge.

I’ve also chosen Noll because (as she herself says), her novels are predominantly concerned with the lives of ordinary women, and how they set about achieving their goals within the constraints of a patriarchal, bourgeois society … by fair means or foul. She’s the writer of darkly humorous and highly original crime novels, often compared to those of Patricia Highsmith, which offer an entertainingly twisted vision of female empowerment – part of the German subgenre known as the Täterinnenkrimi (female perpetrator crime novel). At the same time her depictions of relationships avoid gender stereotyping: both her male and female characters are complex and interestingly flawed, which allows you to sympathise with them and despair of them all at the same time.

Poster for the 1997 film adaptation of Die Apothekerin/The Pharmacist

The Pharmacist, first published in 1994, is narrated in the first person by Hella Moormann. She is the pharmacist of the title, currently a hospital patient, who during the dull evening hours relates her life-story to Rosemarie Hirte, a mousy woman who keeps falling asleep in the next-door bed. We hear how Hella’s penchant for shady characters and co-dependency leads her into a relationship with the younger, amoral Levin, and how before long, she is drawn into a series of dubious, not to mention criminal events. The big question is: just how passive is Hella? Is she a victim of her machiavellian boyfriend? Or is she actually much more in control of the situation than she would care to admit? And just how wise is she to tell her story to the seemingly innocent Frau Hirte, whose snores may not be all they seem?

Delicious stuff!

The Pharmacist, trans. from the German by Ian Mitchell (London: HarperCollins, 1999).

Five other women crime writers I would recommend:

Josephine Tay, author of The Daughter of Time – another ‘hospital mystery’ (UK)

Maj Sjowall, co-author of the Martin Beck series (Sweden)

Fred Vargas, author of the Adamsberg series (France)

Dominique Manotti, author of Affairs of State and a very different writer to Vargas (France)

P.D. James, the grand Dame of British crime writing (UK)

The case of the missing translation: Konop’s No Kaddish for Sylberstein

A fellow crime researcher and friend recently read a cracking little French crime novel called Pas de kaddish pour Sylberstein and recommended it to me as one I would enjoy. I duly trotted off to find the translation but came up against a sizeable problem: it’s not available in English.

The novel, by journalist Guy Konopnicky (aka ‘Konop’), was first published in France in 1994,  and went down extremely well with the critics at the time. It was also adapted for film as ‘K’ in 1997 – as I found out courtesy of the Swedish Film Database. And yet not a sniff of it in the UK or States.

However, I then discovered that the novel was available in a German translation entitled Kein Kaddisch fur Sylberstein (btb, 2004). This was a lucky break for me, as I read German a lot better than I do French, and so I was able to sample its delights after all.

Kein Kaddisch für Sylberstein.

This meandering little journey got me musing on the logic (or simply luck) that results in some texts being translated while others are not. There are a couple of good reasons I can think of that would explain why Sylberstein was translated into German. Firstly, some of it is set in Berlin and explores 20th century German history. Secondly, Germans have an insatiable appetite for both homegrown and international crime fiction (another crime researcher colleague of mine was telling me in all seriousness the other day that Swedish crime fiction sometimes appears in German before it has even been published back in Sweden). So there’s an extraordinarily huge market for crime in Germany, as this article on the Deutsche Welle website explains (in English :)).

Here in the UK, fewer translations make it through to the English-language dominated market, although there is of course a very healthy international crime fiction scene now, thanks to visionaries such as Christopher MacLehose at MacLehose Press – not to mention the good folk at Bitter Lemon Press and Arcadia.

It looks like my Konop novel slipped through the net, but perhaps (ahem) one of the above might be interested in picking up this little gem? Here’s a taster from the blurb on the inside cover of the German btb translation:

‘Paris, 20th district. Jewish antiques dealer Simon Sylberstein shoots and kills a German tourist, whom he recognises as his old tormentor. He then hands himself into the police and dies of natural causes shortly afterwards. But Police Inspector Samuel Benamou, originally from Algeria and also Jewish, can’t let go of the case: he travels to the newly reunified Berlin to continue the investigation himself. Once there, Benamou quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in Sylberstein and his story…’

All in all, I found No Kaddish for Sylberstein an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Darkly humorous and entertainingly over-the-top at times, it also succeeds in addressing the serious theme of post-war justice (and its lack) following the Second World War and the Holocaust. If you’re lucky enough to speak French or German, it’s available online for a reasonable price.

Summer’s here! Mrs Peabody’s holiday crime fiction recommendations

Now that it’s July, my thoughts are turning to the serious business of holiday reading.

Choosing reading matter to take on holiday is something I take extremely seriously: an afternoon of peaceful reading with ice-cubes tinkling in a cool drink by my side is one of my chief holiday pleasures, and the quality, quantity and variety of the crime fiction in my suitcase needs to be just right. Major disasters in the past have included being caught short in Spain, resulting in an exhaustive hunt for an English-language bookshop, and paying well over the odds for some crime fiction in New Zealand, where book prices are incredibly high. As a result, I now always carry a small library with me abroad (Kindle, of course, is another option, although I like to take second-hand paperbacks I can leave for other holiday-makers, which I then cunningly replace in my luggage with souvenirs).

The following are some random holiday crime fiction recommendations – all books that I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit for varying reasons. If you feel like posting suggestions in return I’d be very pleased to see them.

  • Light and frothy, with an emphasis on entertainment. Perfect for lounging by the pool or whiling away a few hours in a café with a cappuccino.

Fred Vargas’ Detective Commissaire Adamsberg series: a quirky and erudite collection of crime novels, mostly set in Paris. It’s not essential to read them in order, in my view, but Have Mercy on Us All is a good place to start. You may or may not know, but Fred is actually a female author, and an archaeologist by trade.

Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man: Murder, Mayhem and Damn Sexy Trousers (2009). It’s rare for writers to pull off a successful comic crime novel. This one made me laugh out loud, in spite of its ultimately rather serious subject matter – the legacy of the Nazi past and the weighty theme of post-war justice. A deft juggling act.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (televised earlier this year). Written quite a while ago now, but they’ve held up well, with a nicely rounded investigative figure. A wry look at Italian policing, politics and life. An earlier Mrs P. post on Ratking is available here.

  • Stronger stuff – more intense and challenging crime. The sort of novel you might not normally get round to, and which isn’t necessarily the easiest of reads in terms of its content or style.

Andrew Taylor’s Roth Trilogy. Brilliant and somewhat underrated, this trilogy excavates the history of a sociopathic killer, moving backwards in time from the present day to the 1970s and the 1950s. Best read in order for cumulative effect.

George P. Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown. First in the Washington Quartet by an author also famous for his contribution to The Wire. Grim and gritty depiction of D.C. just after the Second World War. Breathtakingly good.

Jussi Adler Olsen’s Mercy – a recent Danish sensation, which is brilliantly written, but very hard-hitting. First in the Department Q series, featuring detective Carl Mørck. A Mrs P. review of Mercy is available here.

Happy holidays and enjoy!

A bit of a treat: Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Belfast for a few days, and will pop my head round the door of the ‘States of Crime’ conference being held at Queen’s on Friday and Saturday. As its title suggests, the conference will be looking at representations of the state in crime fiction, and how it is shown negotiating issues such as criminality, policing, justice and civil rights. 

I’ve had a peek at the programme, and it’s stuffed with talks on international crime (Italian, French, German, Austrian, Swiss, Russian, Finnish, Swedish, African, Spanish, British, Irish, American). Heaven! 

The icing on the cake is a round table with David Peace and Eoin McNamee. Peace is a bit of a literary god in my eyes: I think his Red Riding Quartet is one of the best things ever written – irrespective of genre – and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in discussion at the No Alibis Bookstore on Friday evening. 

BBC4 Spiral Season 3: Was I wrong to stop watching?!

In an earlier post I gave my reaction to the first two episodes of the French police procedural series Spiral (Engrenage).

It was a bit mixed: while I enjoyed the charactisation of Laure Berthaud and the urban noir feel, I was somewhat put off by the grisly autopsy scenes.

And although I said at the end of the post I would probably continue watching, I didn’t return the following Saturday (something came up, the hamster needed cleaning out, you know how it is…). And that was that – I never quite managed to catch up.

Now that the series has finished, my question to Spiral-watchers is:

  • Have I make a grave mistake (pardonnez the pun)?
  • Should I give Spiral another go?
  • If you think I should have kept watching, should I start at series 1 and work my way through in order, or just dive in with series 3?

Answers on a postcard please…or by comment below.

Merci!

BBC4 Spiral Season 3: The Butcher of La Villette

Tonight I caught the first two episodes of the French police procedural series Spiral (Engrenage in the original; literal translation ‘gears’).

My primary reason for watching Spiral was to fill the two-hour viewing gap left by The Killing, but I was also curious about the French series, having heard praise for seasons 1 and 2.  It was a interesting start tonight, and could easily become compelling viewing for me, as this crime drama features yet another strong female investigator, Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust). As in The Killing, the first two episodes also set up a number of complex characters, plotlines and intrigues, and redefine our image of the cities in question by focusing on the gritty underbellies of Copenhagen and Paris (the Little Mermaid and Eiffel Tower are conspicuous by their absence).

I wasn’t as gripped by the opening episodes of Spiral as those of The Killing, but then again, this might be an unfair expectation, especially as I’m coming in cold to season 3, and don’t have the in-depth knowledge of the investigative team that has been built up over previous two seasons.

One aspect I really didn’t like, however, was the graphic nature of the autopsy scenes. While a key focus of the series is forensic policework, I’m not convinced it was necessary to provide so much stomach-churning visual detail. And a side-effect of covering my eyes during those scenes was that I was unable to read the subtitles, thus no doubt missing vital clues!

So a slightly mixed experience for this viewer. But I reckon I’ll be back for another two episodes next week. Those who are intending to watch the whole series (10 parts) will be interested to know that The Guardian is blogging Spiral 3 episode by episode. A splendid public service. Merci!