Crime in the summertime

I’m still busy writing, editing and researching, but am allowing myself the odd foray into international crime fiction as the summer sun works its magic. Here are some gems:

Happiness Is Easy

Happiness is Easy (published 17 July 2014 by Doubleday) is the second novel by Brazilian author Edney Silvestre. Its story is deceptively simple – the kidnapping of the wrong child from a rich man’s chauffeur-driven car – but is told with elegant brilliance, moving from past to present in such a way that we gain in-depth portraits of the characters involved while following the fall-out from the crime. Silvestre, who’s also a journalist, uses the genre to critique the corruption of Brazilian politics, the gulf between rich and poor, and the booming kidnap ‘industry’. It’s a bleak read in places, although not without hope. Nick Caistor does a great job translating from Brazilian Portuguese, and I’m now keen to read more from the country hosting the Football World Cup.

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs (trans. by Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press, 2014) comes to us already garlanded with prizes – it won the 2012 Riverton/Golden Revolver Prize and the 2013 Scandinavian Glass Key. I’m not remotely surprised, as this eighth novel in the William Wisting series (the third to be published in English) is one of the best Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read. Much has been made of Horst’s extensive policing experience, but for me, it’s the fantastic writing, plotting and characterisation that stand out in this novel, which sees Wisting suspended due to irregularities in a past case. Forced to re-investigate the murder of Cecilia Linde from the outside, he is helped by journalist daughter Line to uncover the truth. A top-notch summer read.

American author Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was published in 2002, but it’s one that I go back to every now and then, because it’s such an original crime novel. Set in the summer of 1973, it’s narrated by Susie Salmon, who’s murdered by a neighbour at the age of fourteen and witnesses the aftermath of the crime from her ‘heaven’. You’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds horribly mawkish, but the concept is brilliantly pulled off for the most part, and offers a sensitive portrayal of the effects of a murder on the family and friends of the victim. Be warned: when I first read the novel one summer holiday I found it *highly* addictive. It was subsequently made into a film by Peter Jackson (2009), which received mixed reviews.

Meanwhile, on the research front…

I’m about to start a 1968 crime novel by French-Jewish writer Romain Gary, entitled The Dance of Genghis Cohn. I came across it by chance when reading a piece on German film* and was immediately intrigued. It tells the story of a post-war murder investigation led by a Bavarian police chief (so far, so conventional), who is haunted by a Jewish comedian he murdered while an SS officer under National Socialism. Quite a starting point, isn’t it? Blackly humorous, it’s also an uncompromising critique of post-war West Germany’s reluctance to engage with the Nazi past. Intriguingly, it was adapted for television by the BBC in 1994 (starring Anthony Sher and Robert Lindsay) – something to follow up after reading the book.

*Frank Stern, ‘Film in the 1950s: Passing Images of Guilt and Responsibility’, in Hanna Schissler (ed.), The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany 1949-1968, (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 266-80.

The Bridge – Review of Episodes 1 and 2

At the centre of the 7,845 metre Oresund Bridge that links Denmark and Sweden, lying across the yellow line that marks the border between the two, the lifeless body of a woman is found. Although the victim at first appears to be Swedish, the national juristiction of the case turns out to be far from clear, leading a police officer from each country being assigned to the case. Swedish investigator Saga Noren (Sofia Helm) and her Danish counterpart Martin Rodhe (Kim Bodnia) both soon realise that they’ve been pulled into a difficult, bizarre and highly complex case.

Thus begins the acclaimed crime drama The Bridge/Bron/Broen, whose first episodes aired last night on BBC4 between 9.00 and 11.00pm.

Even from the title sequence, with its beautiful, nocturnal time-lapse photography and haunting theme (‘Hollow Talk’ by the Choir of Young Believers), it was clear that we were in for a treat. By the end of the first two episodes I was fully gripped, as the investigative narrative unfolded and two intriguing sub-plots took shape: a rich wife rushing her husband to hospital for a transplant operation, and a man helping a young woman escape an abusive husband, but with a murky past of his own.

In Saga Noren and Martin Rodhe we are given a classic investigative ‘odd couple’. Saga is a particularly interesting character, whose sometimes unconventional behaviour leads her colleagues to regard her as ‘a bit special’. She is a brilliant and knowledgeable investigator, who is ruthlessly logical and focused, and finds social niceties a baffling waste of time. As already discussed in the comments of an earlier post, it’s possible that she has a form of high-functioning autism. (In terms of other TV characters, she reminded me a bit of Star Trek‘s Seven of Nine!) Martin, by contrast, is more of an old school cop, who has a complicated private life and doesn’t always do things by the book, but who seems to take Saga’s behaviour (such as calling him in the early hours with a fresh lead) in his stride. The dynamic between the two looks promising.

- Hmm, not sure what I make of you.
- Feeling's mutual

Some other random observations at this point:

In contrast to The Killing, there are moments of genuine, albeit dark humour in The Bridge, which worked well for me. Watch out for Saga’s ‘romantic’ date (and make a note of how not to put off hunky Swedes the morning after).

The obligatory autopsy scene allows us to appreciate Saga’s intelligence and investigative focus (and was therefore justifiably included in my view). There are some quite graphic photos from the autopsy featured later on, but I’m hoping that’ll be it for now.

The series has an interesting 70s styling. Its palette of browns, oranges and beiges reminded me a little of the recent film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, directed by the Swede Tomas Alfredson. One of the characters (flares, leather jacket, moustache) could have stepped straight out of Life On Mars.

I’m very much enjoying the transnational flavour of the series, which is evident in the Danish/Swedish credits, the characters’ dialogue, and of course the plot itself. And yes, they do all understand one another, but Martin has to repeat himself more s-l-o-w-l-y at one point so that the Swedes can follow him properly!

The murderer’s motives look complex and interesting: ‘if you had cared there would have been no victims’. It looks like the series will follow in the tradition of Swedish crime writing (Sjowall & Wahloo, Mankell) by foregrounding social issues. Mindful of spoilers, I shall say no more.

The Oresund Bridge looks remarkably like the Severn Bridge at times (Welsh-English remake please!).

Tonight’s episodes are both repeated and available on BBC iPlayer.

Below is a handy map with the Oresund Bridge to help with orientation: it joins Denmark and its capital city Copenhagen on the left and Sweden’s Malmo, the third largest city after Stockholm and Gothenburg, on the right.

Looking forward to next week’s episodes already!

Friday snippets: ‘Death of the remake?’ and ‘Once upon a Time in Anatolia’

FRIDAY SNIPPET 1

An article by Charles Gant in today’s Guardian asks ‘Is the Hollywood remake dead?’. In it he explores why some English-language remakes (most notably of the Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) are not fairing as well as expected at the box office, and highlights the increased success of foreign-language films in recent years. Gant quotes Marianne Gray, a producer with Yellow Bird Films, who feels ‘everything is getting more global, and audiences are more accepting of subtitles’, but goes on to argue that there’s a bigger factor at play here as well. Put simply, ‘films are succeeding because of their foreignness, not in spite of it’; their unique selling point is authenticity, with audiences keen to sample ‘authentic originals’ rather than commercially-driven copies.

Good marketing tactics don’t hurt either, of course. The Norwegian adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s Headhunters opens in cinemas this Good Friday, a release date that proved highly profitable for Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish film Let the Right One In back in 2009.

The article raises some other interesting questions, such as why English-language remakes are considered necessary in the first place, and is well worth a read.

FRIDAY SNIPPET 2

Critics seem to be unanimous in their praise of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Bir zamanlar Anadolu’da): ‘a carefully controlled masterpiece’  (French / Observer); ‘completely gripping…an astonishing crime procedural’ (Quinn / Independent); ‘murder mysteries rarely run so deep’ (Calhoun / Time Out). It also won the Grand Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.

The more I read about this film, the more I want to see it, and the more frustrated I become at its apparently limited distribution in the UK. I’d love to see it in on the big screen in the cinema, but may have to wait for the DVD *sigh*

Here, in any case, is a tantalising synopsis from the Cinema Guild film website:

‘In the dead of night, a group of men – among them a police commissioner, a prosecutor, a doctor and a murder suspect – drive through the Anatolian countryside, the serpentine roads and rolling hills lit only by the headlights of their cars. They are searching for a corpse, the victim of a brutal murder. The suspect, who claims he was drunk, can’t remember where he buried the body. As night wears on, details about the murder emerge and the investigators’ own secrets come to light. In the Anatolian steppes nothing is what it seems; and when the body is found, the real questions begin’.

Read Anthony Quinn’s 5 star review of the film in The Independent here (no major spoilers).

Would the real Finland please stand up?

Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Pony trekking or camping
Or just watching TV
Finland, Finland, Finland
It’s the country for me

You’re so near to Russia
So far from Japan
Quite a long way from Cairo
Lots of miles from Vietnam

Monty Python, ‘Finland Song’

My first youthful awareness of Finland came via the affectionate musical tribute by the Monty Python team. A keen ‘Fin-o-phile’ ever since, I’ve very much enjoyed reading crime novels set amongst its ‘mountains so lofty’ and ‘treetops so tall’. Along the way, via the novels of Jan Costin Wagner, I’ve developed an image of the country in line with Nordic writers such as Indridason (Iceland): freezing cold, austerly beautiful, and as melancholy as can be. This brief excerpt from Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions illustrates the point: ‘Then he got to his feet, walked down the dimly lit corridor and through the driving snow to his car. He drove to Lenaniemi. As the ferry made the crossing, he stood by the rail in the icy wind’ (… before visiting his wife’s grave and keeping a late-night appointment with a bottle of vodka). 

However, I’ve just had an interesting reading experience that’s challenged this romantic-melancholic view of Finland. Having finished – and very much enjoyed – Costin Wagner’s Winter of the Lions (see review here), I embarked on James Thompson’s Snow Angels (HarperCollins 2010), another police procedural, set in northern Finland (Lapland), which presents a much grittier image of a country characterised by high rates of violent crime: ‘Per capita, our murder rate is about the same as most American big cities. The over-whelming majority of our murders are intimate events. We kill the people we love, our husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and friends, almost always in drunken rages’. The kaamos, the ‘darkness’ that falls over the land for long winter months, is shown to trigger high levels of depression, drinking, violence and suicide, and the way that it’s depicted here moves well beyond melancholy to something altogether darker.   

These divergent depictions of Finland ‘clashed’ for me as a reader, particularly as I read the novels more or less one after the other. Much of that sense of disjunction lay in the very different tone of the novels, which in turn reflected the contrasting literary traditions in which the authors had chosen to locate themselves. Costin Wagner (German with a Finnish wife) draws heavily on the model of Nordic crime established by writers such as Sjowall and Wahloo, Mankell, and Indridason (which reveals the underbelly of society, but has a highly controlled, pared-down style, and an introverted and melancholic feel). In contrast, Thompson (American with a Finnish wife) has channelled the grit and tone of the American thriller to create a hybrid text which his publicity blurb describes as ‘nordic noir’. It’s an often engaging, but very hard-hitting first-person narrative with frequent, extreme depictions of violence (a topic for another post another time).

The contrast between these texts and their depictions of Finland acts as a useful brake for those of us who might unquestioningly accept the portrait of any given country in a crime novel – or indeed any novel – as ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ (literature as travel guide). It’s a timely reminder of an obvious point: that authors provide representations of countries in their novels, which are often very beguiling or sell well in the literary marketplace, but which may or may not be accurate in the eyes of their citizens. And it’s not necessarily a case of ‘would the real Finland please stand up’: some Finns might identify more strongly with Costin Wagner’s portrayal of Finland than Thompson’s, or vice versa, or even think that both have validity. 

A final thought: how intriguing that neither author is Finnish by birth. Given this, one could argue that neither has a true ‘native’ insight into Finnish society, although the counter-argument that the ‘outsider’ can often see you more clearly than you see yourself could equally be applied. In the case of Costin Wagner and Thompson, it would perhaps be more accurate to speak of a complex ‘insider-outsider’ status, as foreigners who have married Finns, lived in the country for a number of years and learned the language (respect!). This dual status grants the authors a highly valuable perspective from which to write about Finland, albeit in strikingly different ways.

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#18 Jan Costin Wagner / The Winter of the Lions

Jan Costin Wagner, The Winter of the Lions, translated from German by Anthea Bell (London: Harvill Secker, 2011 [2009]). The third novel in the beguiling Kimmo Joentaa series. 4 stars

 Opening sentence:  Kimmo Joentaa had been planning to spend the last hours of Christmas Eve on his own, but it didn’t turn out like that.

I was given a copy of The Winter of the Lions by my lovely brother for Christmas (following a sisterly nudge in the right direction) and it proved to be the perfect festive read, as the novel’s action begins on 24th December and ends on New Year’s Eve. The evocative cover, with its snowy Finnish birches, also made the novel an attractive winter gift.

Regular readers to this blog will know that I’m a firm fan of of the Kimmo Joentaa series, which, intriguingly, is set in Finland but is authored by a German whose wife is Finnish. The novels are suffused with nordic melancholia, and are in large measure a study of grief, as the first novel, Ice Moon, opens with the death of Detective Joentaa’s young wife. Thus, while each book contains a discrete police investigation, collectively they trace the arc of Joentaa’s grief and the slow process by which he comes to terms with his loss. The Winter of the Lions, set around three years later, sees him embarking on a fragile and rather unconventional new relationship with a women he meets through his duties as a policeman.

One of the big strengths of the series is its focus on the characters within the police team, in a way that’s reminiscent of Scandinavian writers such as Sjowall & Wahloo and Mankell. Joentaa isn’t the only team member with problems, and there are some very human depictions of individuals trying to juggle the demands of their professional lives with the stresses and strains of life beyond the office. In this novel, however, the team also has to deal with the collective trauma of one of their own being murdered. Forensic pathologist Patrik Laukkanen is found dead on a snowy cross-country ski trail in the forest, the victim of a frenzied knife attack. Soon afterwards, another man is found stabbed, and when the link between the two victims is established it proves to be a strange one: both were guests on the popular Hamalainen talk show. As the front cover tantalisingly points out, ‘careless talk costs lives’…

As in previous Joentaa novels, sections of the narrative are written from the murderer’s point of view, and we gradually build up a picture of their character and the circumstances that have led them to commit their crimes. The murderer in The Winter of the Lions is portrayed with sensitivity and a degree of sympathy, although the consequences of his/her crimes for the families of the victims are also carefully spelled out. Here, again, trauma and grief are key themes, and as in Ice Moon, there are some intriguing similarities between the murderer and the investigator whose job it is to track him/her down.

I enjoyed The Winter of the Lions almost as much as the previous two Joentaa novels (although I missed the presence of Ketola, Joentaa’s former boss), and will certainly be back for more. At the end of this third book, I realise that the value of the series lies less for me in the plot or investigative process and more in the novels’ use of the crime genre to explore human reactions to death, trauma and loss. Melancholy and beguiling, these novels are a wintry treat of the highest order.

For other Mrs P. posts on the Joentaa series see Ice Moon and Silence.

The first few chapters are available via the Random House website.

Incidentally, Silence was made into a German film in 2010 (entitled Das letzte Schweigen [the final silence]. You can see the trailer here, which looks great and makes wonderful use of the Finnish *summer* landscape (for a change). It’s in German, but don’t let that put you off!

Mrs Peabody awards The Winter of the Lions a snow and vodka fuelled 4 stars.

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Double celebration…and wishing you a Happy 2012!

Today Mrs P. celebrates not falling over while ice-skating and reaching the milestone of 70,000 hits on the Mrs. Peabody Investigates blog 🙂

To close out the year, here are two lists: 5 popular Mrs P. posts from the 60 published in 2011, and Mrs Peabody’s top 5 reads of the year.

*****

5 of the most popular Mrs P. posts of 2011:

1. BBC4’s The Killing Series 1 [Danish crime TV]

This was the first of a number of Mrs P. posts on the Danish drama Forbrydelsen, whose instant popularity took everyone by surprise (not least BBC4). If you haven’t seen it yet, make doing so one of your resolutions for 2012. Outstanding.

2. BBC1’s Zen [British / Italian crime TV]

My review of the TV series based on Michael Dibdin’s ‘Aurelio Zen’ novels, starring the delectable Rufus Sewell. The BBC, somewhat oddly, decided not to commission a second series.

ZEN (high res)

3. Crime novels that make you want to rant: Philip Kerr’s Field Grey [British / German crime fiction]

This was a lament or a rant, depending on your point of view, which examined Philip Kerr’s seventh Bernie Gunther novel in the context of the previous six books in the series. The eighth, Prague Fatale, which I have yet to read, was released in October 2011.

4. Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy [Danish crime fiction]

A review of one of my standout novels of the year, and the first in this Danish author’s Department Q series. The second, Disgrace, is due out with Penguin in June 2012.

jacket image for Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen - large version

5. Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates [Japanese crime fiction]

This was one of my early posts, and remains a favourite – a review of a Japanese classic from 1961, which still holds up extremely well today.

 ******

Mrs Peabody’s top 5 reads of 2011 (in alphabetical order as I can’t bring myself to rank them):

1. Jussi Adler-Olsen, Mercy (2011 [first published in 2008])

Danish. A bravura start to the Department Q series: powerful, gripping and moving in equal measure. Features a strong and compelling female protagonist  5 stars

jacket image for Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen - large version

2. Jan Costin Wagner, Silence (2011 [2007])

German author / Finnish setting. The second novel in the Kimmo Joentaa series. An absorbing police procedural and a sensitive portrayal of grief  5 stars

3. Sam Hawken, The Dead Women of Juárez (2011)

American. An outstanding crime novel set in the corrupt Mexican border city of Juárez, infamous for its high rate of ‘feminicidios’ (female homicides) 5 stars  

4. Ernesto Mallo, Needle in a Haystack (2010 [2006])

Argentinian. An excellent crime novel, which paints a searing portrait of 1970s Argentina under military rule  5 stars

5. Shuichi Yoshida, Villain (2011 [2007])

Japanese. A gripping dissection of a murder and its repercussions  5 stars

*****

Many thanks to everyone for reading and – most importantly – for contributing in such an illuminating and generous way to the discussions on this blog in 2011.

Wishing you a very Happy New Year and all the very best for 2012!

BBC4 lines up a double helping of Swedes for 2012: Sebastian Bergman and The Bridge

While fruitlessly browsing BBC press releases for the start date of The Killing 2, I came across an interesting bit of news: two Swedish crime series (with Danish and German input) have been acquired by BBC4, and will air in 2012.

The press release describes them as follows:

The Bridge, a 10-part investigative crime drama, begins when the body of a woman is found in the middle of the Oresund Bridge between Sweden and Denmark. A bi-national team is put together to solve the crime and the killer, always one step ahead of the police, becomes the object of a dramatic manhunt. The Bridge is a Danish/Swedish co-production.

START DATE FOR THE BRIDGE NOW CONFIRMED

Sebastian Bergman, a compelling new police thriller, stars Rolf Lassgård, one of Scandinavia’s most popular actors [the ‘first’ Wallander] in a powerful new role as profiler Sebastian Bergman.

Strong-headed, politically incorrect, abrasive and grief-stricken, Bergman has still not come to terms with the loss of his wife and daughter in the 2004 Thailand tsunami. In the first of the two thrillers, he helps police in his hometown solve the murder of a 15-year-old boy. In the second, he attempts to catch a serial killer who seems to be modeling his attacks on those of a jailed killer whom Bergman put behind bars himself.”

There’s a trailer available of Sebastian Bergman on ZDF Enterprises’ English-language website. It’s pretty dreadful (cheesy voiceover, gratuitous violence and pompous movie-trailer music).

I fervently hope that the programmes are better than the trailer suggests. I like Rolf Lassgård as an actor, and it would be a shame if he ended up in something sub-standard. The project has the same film-makers behind it as the Wallander film cycle, and expectations will be high.

UPDATE: The start date for Sebastian Bergman has now been confirmed in The Radio Times as Saturday 26 May 2012, 9pm.

My review of Episode 1 is now available here.

For the love of God, someone turn that music OFF!

#11 Henning Mankell / The Troubled Man

Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London: Harvill Secker 2011 [2009]). Wallander’s final case, in which he faces his biggest challenge yet 5 stars

Opening sentence: The year Kurt Wallander celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday, he fulfilled a long-held dream.

While at the airport bookshop before going on holiday, I spotted Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man, a novel I’ve been looking forward to reading for a good year. After a few moments I decided rather regretfully to resist, as I wasn’t sure the Very Last Wallander would make for a cheery holiday read. Later that day, while exploring the hotel, I came across the usual bookshelf of novels left by other holidaymakers. There, but of course, was another copy of The Troubled Man, at which point I gave in, put aside the carefully selected crime novels I’d brought with me and, armed with a hanky, started to read.

Before saying any more I should confess that I am a thoroughly biased reviewer when it comes to this Swedish writer and series. I have loved all the Wallander novels, and it would have taken a complete car-crash of a book for me to rate it anything other than five stars. So a five it is – and in some senses this is a rating for the entire series, which is referenced numerous times in various ways throughout the book.

Troubled Men

The first troubled man of the title is Hakan von Enke, a retired Swedish naval official and the father of Linda Wallander’s partner Hans, who disappears into thin air one day while out on his regular walk. Shortly before he vanishes, Hakan voices some concerns to Wallander about an unsettling naval incident that took place in 1982 involving a Russian submarine. Not long afterwards, Hakan’s wife Louise also disappears. To help a distraught Linda and Hans, Wallander begins an unofficial investigation, and uncovers an espionage story that reaches back into the complex history of the Cold War. This forms the central case within the novel, and is an absorbing and well-constructed read (albeit with the odd loose end that’s rather too casually tied up at the end). As ever, Mankell challenges us to question our assumptions, in this case about the dominant historical narrative of the Cold War years – there are a number of enjoyable and unexpected twists that force us to see key events in a whole new light.

The second troubled man, of course, is Kurt Wallander himself, whose personal and working life is overshadowed by a growing anxiety, in spite of the joy that becoming a grandfather brings. Now at the age of sixty, when most people start reflecting on their lives and the choices they have made, Wallander becomes a vehicle for Mankell to explore some very large themes: the value of family ties, the passing of time, the individual’s fear of losing his or her identity and, of course, death. There’s very much a feeling of closing the circle, with a number of references to Rydberg (Wallander’s mentor early in the series), Wallander’s late father (whose relationship with his son was often fraught), Baiba Leipa (his one-time love from The Dogs of Riga), and individuals from past cases (such as the husband of the victim in The White Lioness). For anyone who has travelled with Wallander down the long and winding road of this ten book series, it can’t help but be an absorbing, poignant and moving read.

One final word: if you’ve not yet read the earlier Wallander books, or if there are any in the series that you need to catch up on, I would strongly recommend doing so before embarking on The Troubled Man, which should be read at the end of the sequence as the author intends.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Troubled Man a slightly mournful, but deeply satisfying 5 stars.

Other Mankell/Wallander links you may enjoy

Henning Mankell’s official website

In the Footsteps of Wallander – a PDF guide to the locations featured in the books, films and TV series.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction – a blog that does what it says on the tin.

#10 Dominique Manotti / Affairs of State

Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State, translated from the French by Ros Schwarz and Amanda Hopkinson (London: EuroCrime 2009 [2001]). A breathtaking exposé of political power games and corruption in 1980s Paris  4 stars

 

Opening sentence: Outside, it’s sunny, summer’s round the corner, but the offices of the RGPP, the Paris police intelligence service, are dark and gloomy with their beige walls, grey lino, metallic furniture and tiny north-facing windows overlooking an interior courtyard.

In one way, Affairs of State is less a crime novel than a tale of power and corruption, in which murders are inevitable as the stakes for political survival rise. In another, though, this is a crime novel through and through, in the sense that it dissects a bewildering range of criminal behaviour and leaves the reader looking at the world of politics through somewhat jaundiced eyes.

The spider at the centre of the web is François Bornand, a special advisor to the French President, who is guilty of all manner of corruption and decadence in the mid-1980s: the sinking of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, lucrative arms deals with Iran, and a never-ending consumption of high-class call girls.

Bornand is the ultimate survivor, and when information about his illicit activities threatens to reach the press, he uses a maverick security unit based at the Elysée, the very heart of the French political establishment, to protect his empire. As the bodies pile up, the novel focuses less on the puzzle of who commits each crime (readers are privy to the identities of all the murderers), than on the investigative efforts of the police and intelligence service, who would like nothing more than to bring Bornand down. In the process, we are shown the fascinating journey of rookie policewoman Noria Ghozali, who starts out at the periphery of the investigation, but makes the crucial shift into intelligence work by the end of the novel. Like one of the murder victims, Ghozali is of Arab extraction, and her battle for acceptance within the police force and wider society allows Manotti to examine French attitudes to gender and race in an uncompromising and very effective way.

What’s particularly fascinating about the novel is how closely it dares to reference the reality of French politics in the 1980s. The original title of the novel is Nos fantastique années fric, or ‘our fantastic years of dosh’, and Manotti sets out to critique what she describes in her afterword as ‘this decade in which money came to represent, for an entire political class, an end and a value in itself’. Particular venom is reserved for the Socialists who came to power with Mitterrand and who ‘assumed and practiced their new religion with the zeal of neophytes’.  A professor of economic history in Paris, Manotti demonstrates an acute understanding of the corrupting influence of money in political life – and this is really the novel’s central theme. Bornand appears to be a composite of several politicians of the time, outwardly respectable but tainted by a Vichy past, and bears a particularly marked resemblance to one individual (as I learned from Véronique Desnain’s paper at the Belfast ‘States of Crime’ conference). Manotti sails remarkably close to the wind here, and I salute her bravery in doing so.

That having been said, there are elements of the narrative that are overly melodramatic, especially towards the end of the novel. But I suspect these are designed as symbolic indicators of corruption more than anything else – and they didn’t overly detract from the power of the narrative.

One lovely extra detail: it’s noted on the inside front cover that ‘this book is supported by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’!

 A film of the novel, entitled Une affaire d’État, was released in 2009.

Mrs. Peabody awards State of Affairs an intrigue-filled 4 stars.

#9 Jan Costin Wagner / Silence

Jan Costin Wagner, Silence, translated from the German by Anthea Bell (London: Vintage 2011 [2007]). The second novel in the Kimmo Joentaa series. An absorbing police procedural and a sensitive portrayal of grief  5 stars

 

Opening sentence: The time came when they got into the little red car and drove away.

I wrote a short but enthusiastic post on Jan Costin Wagner’s Ice Moon back in March. While German by nationality (and writing in German), Costin Wagner is an honorary Finn by marriage, and appears to have acquired the stylistic DNA of nordic crime in the process. His police detective Kimmo Joentaa convincingly goes about his business in and around the Finnish city of Turku, and little within the narrative hints at the fact that its author was actually born and brought up in Frankfurt, nearly 1500 kilometers to the south-west.

Silence is the second in the Kimmo Joentaa series. The first, Ice Moon, depicted the harrowing weeks following the death of Kimmo’s young wife Sanna, and his desperate attempts to manage his grief by throwing himself into police-work. Silence is set a year or so later, and continues the sensitive exploration of Kimmo’s grief, as well as other kinds of grief felt by those around him, such as the parents of those who have disappeared or been murdered, or the former work colleague trying to communicate with his gravely troubled child.

When I’ve read an outstanding first novel, I’m often a bit wary of reading the second in the series, in case it doesn’t live up to the high standards of its predecessor. But Silence does a fantastic job of picking up the threads of Ice Moon, while developing the characterisation of the investigative team and providing the reader with an aborbing new crime narrative. In particular, the developing relationship between Joentaa and his recently retired and rather curmudgeonly boss, Ketola, is very nicely handled.

The novel’s investigation centres on the sudden disappearance of a teenager on her way to volleyball practice. The girl’s bicycle is found in exactly the same spot where another girl was attacked and murdered thirty-three years earlier, raising the possibility of a belated copy-cat killing. The cold case, in particular, has haunted Ketola, who was involved in the original investigation at the beginning of his career, and who now employs some rather unorthodox methods in his attempts to uncover the truth. In common with Ice Moon, the narrative also shows events from the perspective of the perpetrator, allowing readers to gain insights into the circumstances of the crime that are denied even Joentaa and Ketola. By employing this dual narrative structure, the novel succeeds in both satisfying the reader and in providing a thoughtful, nuanced, and rather disturbing conclusion to the case.

The third novel in the series, The Winter of the Lions, has just been published in translation by Vintage.

Mrs. Peabody awards Silence a classy 5 stars.