Belfast, Bateman and Bora

I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Highlights included:

The Belfast ‘States of Crime’ Conference…

which was held 17-18 June and featured 60 academics from over 14 countries speaking on a wide range of international crime fiction. The focus of the conference was ‘the state’ and papers explored crime’s treatment of this topic from a number of angles, such as: state authority, state violence, the state and social exclusion, the criminal state, state memories and counter-memories, the welfare state, complicity with the state and resistance to the state. My paper was on the ‘The Nazi Detective and the State’, and examined the depiction of this controversial figure in three texts: Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal, Robert Harris’s Fatherland, and the German crime novel Wer übrig bleibt, hat recht by Richard Birkefeld and Göran Hachmeister [published the journal Comparative Literature Studies in 2013].

Other crime writers under discussion included Ian Rankin, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, James Ellroy, Ross MacDonald, Massimo Carlotto, David Peace, Dominique Manotti, Stieg Larsson, Chester Himes and Didier Daeninckx.

There’s a real buzz about crime fiction as an area of academic research at the moment. In the past there’s been some snobbery in academic circles about the value of studying popular culture, and many academics from previous generations felt they had to research crime fiction ‘on the side’ as a kind of guilty pleasure. There’s a significant shift now, with younger academics already writing doctorates on crime fiction rather than waiting until later when they’ve established an academic reputation. It’s a very welcome development, especially given that crime fiction is read by such huge audiences, and has an important cultural influence that merits analysis.

The Belfast Book Festival…

was running at the same time as the conference. Delegates and crime fans joined together for a roundtable with David Peace and Eoin McNamee on Friday evening. Both authors were very eloquent about their work and the kinds of problems raised when writing about real life crimes (the Yorkshire Ripper murders and the Patricia Curran murder respectively). Both also felt strongly that depicting the victims’ stories, so often overlooked in crime fiction, was of paramount importance to their own projects.

Each of the authors read from their works. Peace’s selection of GB84 was especially resonant given the the current economic climate.

The No Alibis Bookstore

on Botanic Avenue, just around the corner from the university, is a treasure trove of crime fiction from all four corners of the world. But it also has a literary claim to fame, as it’s the same bookshop that’s featured in Belfast crime writer Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man: Murder, Mayhem and Damn Sexy TrousersI had an illuminating discussion with the owner about what it was like to see your shop, and in large measure yourself, depicted in a work of fiction…

Aside from the fabulous selection of crime fiction, I’d recommend a visit for the following lovely touch: all customers are offered a cup of tea as they browse the bookshelves or read on the highly comfy sofas. What’s not to love?!

A greatly enlarged TBR pile for my own research project on Nazi-themed crime has resulted from those four days away. New reading includes: Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State, Andreas Pittler’s Bronstein series (largely set in Austria before and during Nazi Occupation and featuring a Jewish policeman, but not yet translated, alas), Camilla Lackberg’s The Hidden Child, and Ben Pastor’s Lumen. The latter, which I’ve just started, is the first in the Martin Bora series, set in Nazi-occupied Cracow in 1939. It’ll be very interesting to compare it to other historical crime fiction set in the same period such as Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.

#6 Andrea Camilleri / The Terracotta Dog

Andrea Camilleri, The Terracotta Dog, translated from the Italian by Stephen Sartarelli (London: Picador, 2004 [1996]. A thoroughly entertaining read, with a very likeable investigator and well-constructed plot. Only the cliched representations of women let it down 4 stars

Opening sentence: To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be an iffy day – that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind…

I came across this novel in a charity shop the other day, and thought I’d give it a go, as I hadn’t read any Camilleri novels before and it looked promising.

The Terracotta Dog is the second in Camilleri’s series featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano, who has been described by The Guardian as ‘a cross between Columbo and […] Philip Marlowe, with the added culinary idiosyncracies of an Italian Maigret’.  He makes for an intelligent but endearingly human investigator in a police procedural that never takes itself too seriously. The novel’s rather gentle critique of the incompetence of the Sicilian police force, the activities of the Mafia, and the corruption of the ‘system’, is leavened with considerable humour.

At the heart of the novel is the tale of two lovers, who are found dead in a secret cave fifty years after their disappearance, guarded by the eponymous terracotta dog. Montalbano’s investigations into this cold case lead him in all kinds of unexpected directions, including a tutorial on semiotics (the study of signs). I loved the fact that Camilleri wasn’t afraid to reference Umberto Eco’s Treatise of General Semiotics and Julia Kristeva’s Semiotics – both key texts in the field. Eco, of course, is a semiotician turned crime writer, and Camilleri gives a stylish nod to other crime novelists as well: Montalbano has read both Dürrenmatt and his namesake Montalbán, the creator of the Spanish Pepe Carvalho series (apparently a deliberate homage on the part of the author).

One aspect of the novel I particularly enjoyed was its expertly constructed plot. Camilleri is an excellent storyteller, who knows how to weave a stylish narrative. This skill may well be linked to the author’s ‘other’ job as a teacher of stage direction at he Silvio d’Amico Academy of the Dramatic Arts.

The only down-side was the cliched and quite literally laughable depiction of women in the text. The most extreme example is the character of Ingrid, who is a young, blond, long-legged Swede draped in conveniently see-through blouses. Having become used to positive depictions of strong women in Scandinavian crime series like The Killing, it was a bit of shock to be confronted by the old stereotypes of women as either objects of sexual desire or fabulously good cooks. Some bits were so daft they made me chortle out loud, so arguably there was some added entertainment value (though if you were to ask me on different day I might decide to be grumpier about the sexism).

An extract from the novel is available here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Terracotta Dog a highly entertaining 4 stars.

#5 Henning Mankell / The Man from Beijing

Henning Mankell, The Man from Beijing, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London: Vintage, 2011 [2008]). A gripping crime novel spanning a hundred years and four continents. Arguably a little over-ambitious, but a highly enjoyable read nonetheless 4 stars

Opening sentence: I, Birgitta Roslin, do solomnly declare that I shall endevour, to the best of my knowledge and in accordance with my conscience, to pass judgement without fear or favour, be the accused rich or poor, and according to the laws and statutes of Sweden…

My Easter treat was a copy of Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing. Like many others, I’ve been a Wallander fan for many years, but have come to enjoy Mankell’s standalone novels as well, and to admire his continued enthusiasm for writing and tackling big subjects when he could so easily be resting on his laurels.

The novel opens with the discovery of a brutal massacre in the remote northern hamlet of Hesjövallen that shocks the whole of Sweden. The first few pages are also liable to shock even a seasoned crime reader. As the Sunday Times quote on the back of the novel so accurately observes: ‘it is hard to think of a crime novel with a more grisly opening’. Snacking is not to be recommended for the first 50 pages.

After reading a newspaper report, Judge Birgitta Roslin realises that she has a family connection to two of the victims, and becomes increasingly involved in unravelling this highly unusual case, which has its beginnings in the harsh histories of nineteenth-century migration and colonial oppression. Taking Roslin and the reader on a sweeping set of individual, historical, political and geographical journeys, The Man from Beijing is both a detective novel and political thriller, featuring an eclectic range of characters from all over the world.

For this reader, one of the novel’s strongest points was the characterisation of Roslin and the policewoman Vivi Sundberg (thank you Mankell for creating these complex, interesting, older women!). The plot was also gripping, but perhaps overly ambitious in places, with different sections located in 2006 Sweden, 1860s China and America, as well as present-day China and Africa. Mankell is to be applauded for the scope of the history that he tries to show us, his exploration of the complex relations between Europe, America and China, and his illumination of developing economic ties between China and Africa, but towards the end of the novel I felt that these political strands were in danger of overshadowing the crime narrative.

That having been said, the novel was still an extremely satisfying and thought-provoking read. And it’s always good to see authors pushing the boundaries of the crime novel in interesting ways.

An extract from the novel is available here.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Man from Beijing a hearty 4 stars.

The last Wallander: UK publication of Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man

Today sees the UK publication of Henning Mankell’s tenth – and final – Kurt Wallander novel, The Troubled Man.

Here’s the Vintage synopsis:

>> The first new Wallander novel for a decade, the culmination of the bestselling series from the godfather of Swedish crime.

Every morning Håkan von Enke takes a walk in the forest near his apartment in Stockholm. However, one winter’s day he fails to come home. It seems that the retired naval officer has vanished without trace.

Detective Kurt Wallander is not officially involved in the investigation but he has personal reasons for his interest in the case as Håkan’s son is engaged to his daughter Linda. A few months earlier, at Håkan’s 75th birthday party, Kurt noticed that the old man appeared uneasy and seemed eager to talk about a controversial incident from his past career that remained shrouded in mystery. Could this be connected to his disappearance? When Håkan’s wife Louise also goes missing, Wallander is determined to uncover the truth.

His search leads him down dark and unexpected avenues involving espionage, betrayal and new information about events during the Cold War that threatens to cause a political scandal on a scale unprecedented in Swedish history. The investigation also forces Kurt to look back over his own past and consider his hopes and regrets, as he comes to the unsettling realisation that even those we love the most can remain strangers to us. <<

The Daily Telegraph carries an exclusive extract – available here.

There’s also a nice piece in The Guardian, in which Jon Henley talks to Henning Mankell about The Troubled Man, the Wallander series, and looking back over life at 60.

Can’t wait to get my hands on it.

#3 Davidsen / The Woman from Bratislava

Leif Davidsen, The Woman from Bratislava, trans. from the Danish by Barbara J. Haveland (London: Arcadia Books 2010 [2001]). An ambitious thriller that explores the legacy of the Second World War, but doesn’t quite live up to its early promise. 3 stars

The Woman from Bratislava (Eurocrime)

 Opening sentence: It was a story often used by security-cleared lecturers in the civilian branch of FET, by serving officers of a certain rank and other trusted members of PET when briefing new volunteers on the special conditions under which the secret services had to operate in a post-communist world.

As I’ve noted in a previous post, Davidsen has been described as ‘one of Denmark’s top crime writers’ (The Sunday Times). As a former journalist specializing in Russian and Eastern European affairs, he tends to use the crime/thriller format to explore larger political and historical issues – in the case of The Woman from Bratislava, the legacy of the Second World War, set against the backdrop of the Bosnian War and the collapse of communism in the 1990s.

More specifically, the novel uses the story of a rather unusual family as a means of approaching the complex history of Danish involvement in the Second World War. In the post-communist Bratislava of 1999, middle-aged Danish lecturer Teddy Pedersen is approached by Mira, an Eastern European woman who claims to be his half-sister. She reveals that their Danish father, a former Waffen-SS officer, had not died in 1952 as Teddy had been led to believe, but had gone on to lead a secret second life in Yugoslavia. Shortly afterwards, Teddy’s Danish sister Irma is arrested on suspicion of being a former Stasi (East German) agent, one who has possible links to ‘the woman from Bratislava’. The novel explores the father’s influence on the political development of both sisters – and via them the lingering legacy of fascism in post-war Europe. If you haven’t spotted it already, Irma and Mira are anagrams of one another, which I *think* is supposed to indicate how inextricably intertwined their fates are. Or something profound, at any rate.

This is a very ambitious novel, but one that I felt over-reached itself in places. Davidsen chooses to focus on an extremely controversial bit of Denmark’s wartime past, namely the role of thousands of Danes who fought for the Nazis as members of the Danish Legion and Waffen-SS. The author attempts to provide a 360-degree examination of this historical moment, highlighting on the one hand the war-crimes committed by these young Danes in the service of Nazi ideology, and on the other, the hypocrisy of the Danish government, who in 1941 ‘blessed’ their departure for war, only to treat them as ‘pariahs and outcasts’ when Germany was defeated in 1945 (p.100). (Denmark is shown white-washing its wartime history, recasting its years of occupation by the Germans as a period of heroic resistance, and developing a strategic amnesia to cover the less savory aspects of that past).

In some respects, I admire Davidsen’s bravery in taking on such a controversial subject, and in trying to provide a rounded discussion of how these ‘Nazi Danes’ should be viewed. But at times, I felt that the exploration of their actions needed to be more nuanced, and I wasn’t able to follow the reasons why certain individuals felt moved to defend the Waffen-SS father, or to consider his post-war treatment unjust. It’s possible that Davidsen is trying to critique these characters’ blindness to the father’s criminal wartime activities (a form of misguided love or loyalty), but I’m not entirely convinced that this is the case. At certain points, there’s also a casual, problematic elision of fascism and communism, which rather confusingly leads communist characters to exhibit fascist sympathies and/or sympathy for fascists.

As if all of this were not enough, there’s an overarching thriller/espionage plotline involving the downing of a NATO fighter plane over Yugoslavia, which ends in a (for me largely incomprehensible) twist. It was all a bit too much for this simple reader.

Summary: There’s much to admire about the ambition and scope of this thriller, but its constituent parts do not add up to a satisfactory whole. It may be best suited for readers with an interest in the legacy of the Second World War and the Cold War.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Woman from Bratislavia a rather wobbly 3 stars.

Historical crime fiction: Sansom vs Eco

I hugely enjoy historical crime fiction, and so was looking forward to reading C.J. Sansom’s Dissolution (2008), which features the lawyer-detective Matthew Shardlake, working under Thomas Cromwell as the monasteries of England are dismantled by Henry VIII.

The reviews I’d seen of Sansom’s work were extremely good, and I was rubbing my hands in anticipation not just of a single book, but of a whole new crime series. But I found Dissolution a bit of a disappointing read. Not bad, by any means, but one that fell short of expectations (an illustration, perhaps, of how the overhyping of crime novels can backfire). I was hoping for richer historical detail, and felt that the depiction of Shardlake’s moral crisis, brought about by his realisation that Cromwell is less than a model of virtue, was rather weak. I guessed the murderer pretty early on as well (which of course is not necessarily a deal-breaker – just sayin’).

As I was reading, I was reminded of a classic historical crime novel: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, first published thirty years ago (yes really) in 1980.

This was no doubt triggered by the similar narrative framework of the two novels. In both we see the detective and his younger companion entering the enclosed, ritualistic world of the monastery, now transformed into a gruesome crime scene, with monks being picked off left, right and centre, and hints of devilish forces at work. In Eco’s work, though, it’s the young companion, the novice monk Adso, who narrates the tale many years after the events have taken place, rather than the detective in the historical present. Interestingly, Sansom is an admirer of Eco’s (see Guardian interview), and has clearly drawn on aspects of the earlier novel for inspiration when writing his own.

For me, The Name of the Rose leaves Dissolution in the dust, in terms of its depth and erudition, its status as a novel of ideas, and its fabulous evocation of a past time – in this case, of medieval Europe. And I love that Eco, an Italian professor of semiotics, is said to have written The Name of the Rose just to show everyone that he could. Write an international best-seller? Non c’è problema!

There’s a good profile of Eco and his works here.

Of course, it’s possible that my lack of enthusiasm for Dissolution is a reflection (ahem) of my own critical shortcomings. Am I missing something here? Does the series get better as it goes along? Willing to give the Shardlake novels another go if the case is made persuasively enough…