A Swiss gem: Hansjörg Schneider’s Silver Pebbles, tr. Mike Mitchell (Switzerland)

Hansjörg Schneider, Silver Pebbles, tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell, Bitter Lemon Press 2022 [1993]

First lines: The Frankfurt-Basel Intercity – a sleek, streamlined train – was crossing the Upper-Rhine plain. It was the middle of February, and there were fingers of snow along the bare branches of the vines going up the slope to the east.

I read Silver Pebbles at the end of last year, thanks to an advance copy from Bitter Lemon Press, and enthusiastically included it in my best-of-year round up. But I want to give the novel a bit more breathing space here in a post of its own, as it’s just out in the UK now and will be out in the US in February.

Although the Bitter Lemon website describes the novel as the second in the acclaimed ‘Inspector Peter Hunkeler’ series, it was actually the first of the novels to be published in the German-speaking world back in 1993. This makes it an especially good place to start if you’ve not yet read The Basel Killings, which came out last year.

Silver Pebbles introduces us to jaded Basel police inspector Peter Hunkeler, who’s nearing retirement, and treats us to a wonderfully absorbing case.

When elegantly attired Lebanese smuggler Guy Kayat flushes some diamonds down a station toilet to evade the police, he sets off a chain of bizarre events. The diamonds are found by Erdogan Civil, a sewage worker called in to clear a blockage, who immediately thinks his dream of opening a hotel back in Turkey is about to come true. But of course, life is infinitely more complicated than that, as Erdogan’s supermarket-cashier girlfriend Erika Waldis realises straight away…

This is a very human tale, told in a way that reminded me a bit of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series – the novel has a matter-of-fact style leavened with genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour, not to mention the odd Keystone Cops moment when the police tie themselves up in knots. But it’s Erika who is the slow-burning star of the show, with a perceptiveness and intellect to match the police inspector’s own.

Silver Pebbles still feels remarkably fresh today, probably because it has some universal truths to share with (middle-aged) readers. It’s no surprise to find that Schneider is a famous playwright and essayist back in Switzerland, or that his 10-novel crime series has won major awards such as the Friedrich Glauser Prize. And translator Mike Mitchell does a particularly lovely job of capturing the novel’s humour and Inspector Hunkeler’s grumpiness.

And speaking of Swiss crime fiction… if you haven’t yet read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge (1958), then you’re in for a treat. It remains one of my all-time favourite crime novels, and has to be one of the cleverest Krimis ever written, especially in terms of subverting genre conventions. You can read my (updated) post on it here…

And finally, a topical crime oddity…

Many of you will know the British TV police series Line of Duty, which features the iconic AC-12 unit carrying out internal investigations into potentially corrupt members of the police.

Yesterday, the satirical campaign group Led by Donkeys released a spoof video that features AC-12 (Ted Hastings, Kate Fleming and Steve Arnott) interrogating Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the political scandal dubbed #PartyGate – as part of ‘Operation BYOB’!

Now, I’m a keen crime drama and politics watcher, but I’ve never seen anything like this before: a cult TV series that pulled in 12.8 million viewers for its last season finale being used to intervene directly in a political situation, and instrumentalising crime fiction conventions (in this case the classic ‘police interrogation scene’) in order to expose a politician’s ‘crimes’.

Leaving the politics of the matter aside, can anyone think of a similar kind of intervention in the past? A political statement made using a TV drama in ‘real time’, as opposed to being incorporated into an episode after the fact?

The video was posted yesterday and has had 7.2 million views on Twitter to date… You can read all about it here.

Homage to Sidney Poitier: In the Heat of the Night (1967)

The actor Sidney Poitier, who appeared in a number of groundbreaking films in the course of his long and illustrious career, has died at the age of 94.

The news made me revisit Norman Jewison’s 1967 crime drama In the Heat of the Night – both to watch the great man in action and to marvel that a film dealing so overtly with racism could have been made in 1967, let alone received the Oscar for Best Picture that year. It’s an extraordinary and enduring achievement, and feels freshly relevant in the context of America’s current divisions.

Do avoid watching the dreadful MGM trailer, which fuses all the shouty bits together in rather a crass way. The film is capable of significantly more nuance, as the outstanding scene below shows…

Here we see Virgil Tibbs (Poitier) – guilty of nothing more than waiting for a train to Philadelphia – being brought to the sheriff’s office in the town of Sparta, Mississippi on suspicion of having killed a businessman. Why? Because he’s black and has money in his wallet, which strikes the white arresting officer as a category error. The push-and-pull of Tibbs’ relationship with racist Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger), who quickly realises he’ll need the black man’s expertise to solve the murder, is immediately on display. The two deliver a masterclass in acting to the fortunate audience.

The film is an adaptation of John Dudley Ball’s 1965 crime novel In the Heat of the Night, which won the 1966 Edgar Award for best debut by an American author and was the first in a series featuring homicide detective Virgil Tibbs. Ball worked for a while as a deputy in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office and clearly drew on this experience when writing the novel, which rings true both in terms of police procedure and law enforcement working culture.

The plot of the novel differs from the film in some respects: Tibbs is from California rather than Philadelphia, the murder victim is an Italian-American conductor organising a music festival in the town, and there’s a storyline involving policeman Sam Wood which doesn’t completely make it into the film. But lots of the film dialogue is taken directly from the novel, such as bits of the exchange between Tibbs and Gillespie in the scene above, and the iconic line ‘They call me Mr. Tibbs’.

The novel also does something extremely valuable: it gives us access to the minds of Gillespie, Wood and the other townsfolk, so that we can observe the workings of racist thought processes up close – along with the strategies Tibbs employs to overcome the many obstacles placed in his path.

In the Heat of the Night does fall down in one key respect: its depictions of gender and class are often stereotyped. But the novel is still very much worth reading and is widely available, most recently in the handsome 50th anniversary Penguin Modern Classics edition.

I’ll leave you with Ray Charles singing the soulful, gospel-inflected ‘In the Heat of the Night’ (Quincy Jones/Marilyn & Alan Bergman), which plays during the opening credits of the film. Thank you, Mr. Poitier.

Sound of the 70s: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet was the Night (Mexico)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Velvet was the Night, Jo Fletcher Books 2021

First line: He didn’t like beating people.

Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those ridiculously talented authors who can turn her hand to any genre. She’s probably best known for her novel Mexican Gothic (it does what it says on the tin), but describes her latest novel as ‘noir/pulp fiction’, albeit with an unusual historical twist.

Velvet was the Night is set in 1970s Mexico during the ‘Guerra sucia’ or Dirty War, which saw the right-wing government abduct, imprison and often murder those viewed as a threat to its ideology and power – especially left-wing students and working-class activists. Audaciously, one of the novel’s main characters is a member of Los Halcones – the Hawks – a shadowy group of heavies trained by the government (with the covert backing of the CIA) to disrupt student demos and worse. The codename of the young man in question is El Elvis, after his musical idol, and it is through his eyes that we observe both the internal workings of the group and the psychology of an individual who’s got himself into a serious fix.

Velvet‘s other key figure is Maite Jaramillo, a secretary terrified of spinsterhood, who escapes the everyday grind and turbulent politics around her through a love of music and Secret Romance magazines. She also harbours a grubby secret of her own: she likes to steal small items from her neighbours’ apartments while pet-sitting for them. It’s when beautiful, bohemian student Leonora disappears –  and thus fails to reclaim her cat – that Maite’s humdrum world gets turned upside down.

Along with the characterisation, a key strength of Velvet was the Night is its tightly plotted narrative. Its ending feels satisfying and complete, but could also serve as an intriguing beginning to a whole other story. Another very nice touch is the playlist at the back of the novel, which showcases the songs woven into the text – a clever nod to the subversive status of certain kinds of music in 1970s Mexico. You can find it on Spotify here.

True crime tidbit: many who work in the world of publishing, like my good self, have been following a bizarre, long-running case involving fake identities and a phishing scam whose aim was getting hold of valuable manuscripts prior to publication. News comes this morning that the FBI has made an arrest… Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but it’s quite a breakthrough in what’s an absolutely fascinating case for bookish types – not least in relation to the question of motivation. It’ll make a great podcast.

Sisterly devotion: Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon, tr. Janet Hong (South Korea)

Kwon Yeo-sun, Lemon, tr. Janet Hong, Head of Zeus 2021 [2019]

First line: I imagine what happened inside one police interrogation room so many years ago.

This opening line is narrated by a young woman called Da-on, as she reflects on her beautiful older sister’s murder in Seoul on 1 July 2002.

There are two prime suspects, both of whom attended the same high school as victim Hae-on: Shin Jeongjun, the privileged son of wealthy parents, and Han Manu, the son of an impoverished single mum. But while the mystery of what happened to the nineteen-year-old girl is a powerful component in the narrative, its main focus is the impact of Hae-on’s death on those closest to her – her sister, her mother, her classmate. We are shown events unfolding largely through female eyes, in eight pithily titled chapters spanning from 2002 (‘Shorts’) to 2019 (‘Dusk’).

Here’s Da-on, for example, on the early trauma of her sister’s death:

Since both Mother and I were falling at a very slow speed,
I didn't realise we were falling at first.

The women’s grief and their struggle to fill the gap left by the dead girl are very finely drawn. Da-on embarks on two highly original strategies in this respect, each of which ultimately comes with a price – both to her and others – in the seventeen long years following Hae-on’s death.

Interwoven with all this is the theme of class, which is front and centre in other recent examples of crime-inflected South Korean culture, from the Oscar-winning film Parasite to Netflix hits Squid Game and Signal. We’re shown a justice system that’s stacked against those from less well-off backgrounds, and how the rich have more options due to their connections and wealth.

Lemon is a beguiling, unsettling, worthwhile read, which also offers some fascinating glimpses into South Korean culture thanks to Janet Hong’s sensitive and attentive translation.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Kwon Yeo-sun’s work, there’s an interesting interview with her over at Korean Literature Now.

What next for Mrs. Peabody Investigates?

Happy New Year to you all! I hope you had a relaxing break and managed to squirrel yourself away for some of it with a good crime novel or two.

As is customary at this time of year, I’ve been doing a bit of a stocktake, particularly in relation to this blog. It’s been a sobering experience:

  1. It turns out I wrote a paltry five blog posts in 2021. FIVE! These consisted of one literary obituary, two Petrona Award posts, one set of summer reviews, and Mrs P’s Christmas recommendations. Spot what was missing: any semblance of regular crime reviewing. Hmmm.
  2. I managed to miss the 10th anniversary of Mrs. Peabody Investigates!!! I started blogging in January 2011, but that wonderful milestone just passed me by…

All of which tells me I can’t outrun the laws of time and space.

I won’t bore you with the details – just imagine a classic pandemic brew of extra work and family pressures. However, one thing is clear: something needs to change.

Option 1 is to say ‘it’s been a good run’ and let Mrs. Peabody bow out gracefully.

Option 2 is to say ‘must do better this year’, knowing that the end result is likely to be much the same.

Option 3 is to try a little experiment… And that’s what I’ve decided to do.

You’ll see there’s a jazzy new ‘donate’ button on the main menu bar at the top of the blog.

The idea is this: for those blog readers who can and wish to, there’s the option of donating a little something to help ‘power’ the blog. What this means in practice is that any donations will go towards buying me time to write reviews. Or to put it another way: as a freelancer with finite resources, they’ll allow me to liberate some precious hours to review and post more regularly.

BUT – and this is very important – there will never be any expectation on my part that readers should donate. The blog will always remain accessible and ‘free at the point of delivery’. No paywall for Mrs P! And you have my word that I’ll remain independent. ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ will always review the best international crime fiction, TV and film without fear or favour.

As I say, all of this is an experiment and I’m very relaxed about the outcome. We’ll just see how things go…

So onwards and upwards, starting tomorrow with a review of Kwon Yeo-sun’s Korean crime novel Lemon!

Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2021 Xmas crime recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2021 Christmas crime recommendations! 

Treat others! Treat yourself!

Please support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Belinda Bauer, Exit (Black Swan, 2021 – UK)

First line: The key was under the mat.

I adore pretty much everything Belinda Bauer has written – she seems capable of turning her hand to almost any kind of crime – and Exit is no exception. Mild-mannered pensioner Felix Pink is an ‘Exiteer’, one of a group of volunteers who keep the ill and infirm company when they decide they’ve had enough of life. But one day an assignment goes horribly wrong, and Felix finds himself needing to stay one step ahead of the police while frantically trying to work out what is going on. Exit tackles weighty issues of life and death with humanity, compassion and a lot of laughs. I’m not sure how Bauer pulls it off, but she emphatically does, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t loved this impeccably constructed crime novel (including those who claim not to like crime).

Jane Harper, The Survivors (Little, Brown, 2020 – Tasmania)

First line: Kieran hoped the numbness would set in soon.

Two things drew me to this crime novel: its top-notch author and its setting – a little town on Tasmania’s wild coastline. Kieran Elliott is on a rare visit to Evelyn Bay where he grew up. His mother Verity is struggling to look after his father, who has dementia, and the absence of his dead brother Finn looms large both within the family and his wider circle of friends. When Bronte, a young artist working at a cafe, is found dead on the beach, unresolved questions from the past resurface, not least the disappearance of schoolgirl Gabby during the same big storm that claimed Finn’s life. The Survivors is a crime novel that delivers on a number of levels: superb characterization, an absorbing and gripping plot, and a sensitive examination of grief.

Jess Kidd, Things in Jars (Canongate, 2019 – England/Ireland)

First line: The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned.

Jess Kidd is one of the most original crime authors writing today, both in terms of her subject matter and her rich writing style. Things in Jars is her first ‘proper’ historical crime novel, set in and near London between 1841 and 1863. It features a number of formidable women, chief among them Bridie Devine, ‘the finest female detective of her age’, who begins investigating the kidnapping of a highly unusual child. Oh, and she can see ghosts – specifically, a heavily tattooed boxer (a ‘circus to the eye’) called Ruby Doyle, who claims to have known Bridie in life, and keeps her company through the ups and downs of the case. Filled to the brim with the eccentric, the otherworldly and the gothic, Things in Jars explores female oppression, survival, and how, with the help of allies, women can carve out a space for themselves in a hostile world.

John le Carré, Silverview (Penguin, 2021 – UK)

First line: At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak, a woollen scarf pulled around her head, strode resolutely into the storm that was roaring down South Audley Street.

For le Carré fans, this is a poignant read – a final novel from the master of the spy genre. In many ways, this is a classic le Carré tale – a forensic deconstruction of one story among the many making up the intelligence world, and a scathing examination of the moral vacuum at the heart of foreign policy. We see events through the eyes of Julian Lawndsley, who has moved to a small seaside town in East Anglia to run a bookshop, and Stewart Proctor, senior intelligence troubleshooter, who gets word of a security breach in the very same spot. At the heart of it all: a mysterious Polish émigré living in ‘Silverview’, a grand manor house. It was a pleasure to be back in le Carré’s world and to spend time with his richly drawn characters. Happily, as with Agent Running in the Field, there are redemptive elements that temper the bleaker aspects of the novel.

Abir Mukherjee, Death in the East (Harvill Secker, 2020 – UK/India)

First line: I’d left Calcutta with a grim resolve, a suitcase full of kerdu gourd, and, in case of emergencies, a bullet-sized ball of opium resin hidden between the folds of my clothes. 

This is the fourth in Mukherjee’s ‘Wyndham and Banerjee’ series, and I think it’s my favourite so far: a rich historical crime novel that offers not just one, but several discrete murder mysteries, including two intriguing locked-room cases. The novel switches between 1922 Assam, where Captain Sam Wyndham is trying to conquer his opium addiction, and 1905 London, during the early days of his policing career. The link: a villain whose reappearance in Assam threatens Wyndham’s life. This is a beautifully plotted crime novel that offers atmospheric depictions of Assam on the one hand and London’s Jewish East End on the other. Gripping, entertaining, and with a nice line in Chandleresque humour, it also shows us the changing face of India – Sergeant Banerjee’s welcome appearance near the end of the novel marks an important shift in the relations between the two.

Hansjörg Schneider, Silver Pebbles, tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell (Bitter Lemon Press, January 2022 – Switzerland)

First line: The Frankfurt-Basel Intercity — a sleek, streamlined train — was crossing the Upper-Rhine plain.

Schneider’s Silver Pebbles was originally published in 1993, but feels remarkably fresh today. The first in the acclaimed ‘Inspector Peter Hunkeler’ series, it introduces us to the jaded Basel police detective and treats us to a wonderfully absorbing case. When Lebanese smuggler Guy Kayat flushes some diamonds down a station toilet to evade the police, he sets off a chain of bizarre events. The diamonds are found by Erdogan, a sewage worker called to clear a blockage, who thinks his dream of opening a hotel back in Turkey is about to come true. But of course, things get complicated… A very human tale, told in a way that reminded me of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series – a matter-of-fact style leavened with genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour. Erika Waldis, Erdogan’s long-suffering girlfriend, is the slow-burning star of the show.

Signal, by Kim Eun-hee, dir. by Kim Won-seok (Netflix – South Korea)

This 2016 South Korean crime drama – with shades of Life on Mars – has stolen my heart. I’m about half way through and love the way it’s developing the ambitious idea of a criminal profiler in 2015 who’s able to talk to a police detective in 1989 via a chunky old walkie-talkie. As well as working on cold cases together, the mystery of the police detective’s own disappearance in 2000 increasingly moves centre stage. Unbeknownst to profiler Park Hae-young, his boss Detective Cha Soo-hyun is also searching for Detective Lee Jae-han – he was her mentor when she was a rookie back in 1989. Along with the police-procedural elements and occasional slapstick humour, it’s Signal‘s wonderfully human characterization that stands out for me.

And here’s a trio on my own Christmas wishlist.

Mick Herron’s Dolphin Junction, a collection of short stories featuring, among others, Jackson Lamb, and Zoë Boehm & Joe Silvermann (the stars of his ‘Slough House’ and ‘Oxford’ series respectively). Expect brilliant storytelling and acerbic wit.

Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, about an interpreter whose duties involve interpreting for a potential war criminal at the International Court in Hague.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts, a much-lauded debut that takes a hard-hitting, nuanced look at life on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation.

********

There are some big changes coming to Mrs. Peabody Investigates in 2022: keep your eyes peeled for those!

Until then, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

The 2021 Petrona Award Winner!

We’re delighted to announce the winner of the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year

The winner is….*drumroll*


TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by MacLehose Press.

It is the first historical crime novel to win the Petrona Award.

Here’s what the judges had to say:

The judges adored TO COOK A BEAR, a historical crime novel set in northernmost Sweden in 1852, and were unanimous in our decision to select it as the Petrona Award winner for 2021. We were particularly impressed with the novel’s use of historical detail, its fascinating reimagining of a figure from history, the sense of location and atmosphere, the rumination on religion versus the natural world, and the depiction of early forensics. TO COOK A BEAR’s superb characterisation of the main protagonists Læstadius and Jussi, which is tinged with sadness yet hope, also allows the author to explore the issues of literacy and class with sensitivity and compassion. The beautiful translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner lets the novel shine for English-language readers around the world.

And here are reactions from the winning author, translator and publisher:

Mikael Niemi: I am very proud and happy to have received the Petrona Award and would like to thank my editor, Katharina Bielenberg, my translator Deborah Bragan-Turner, and my agency, Hedlund Literary Agency, who have made it possible for this novel to reach British readers. This happy news has brightened the growing winter darkness here in the very north of Scandinavia. I am sending my warmest thanks to all my British readers.

Deborah Bragan-TurnerI am absolutely thrilled and very honoured to receive the Petrona Award. It’s a great privilege to be in the company of such accomplished authors and translators on the shortlist. Many congratulations to you all. Thank you to MacLehose Press for your support and editorial advice, and to the panel of judges for your championing of and enthusiasm for Scandinavian fiction in translation. And of course thank you most of all, Mikael Niemi, for bringing the story of Jussi and the pastor to us in TO COOK A BEAR, an inspired novel and a joy to translate.

MacLehose Press: We are delighted that Mikael Niemi’s novel has been recognised with the Petrona Award. TO COOK A BEAR is immersive and transporting, historical crime fiction at its best, and it has been thrilling to watch it find its readers in English. Powerfully vivid and lush in its descriptions of Sweden’s very far north, and brilliant on literacy and the power of language, it has been beautifully and imaginatively rendered in Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation. Congratulations to them both!

Huge congratulations to everyone! And heartfelt thanks to our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2021 Petrona Award.

And for all things Petrona, see http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

The 2021 Petrona shortlist is available here.

2021 Petrona Award – the shortlist is here!

Six outstanding crime novels from Iceland, Norway & Sweden have been shortlisted for the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year.

The shortlisted titles are:

A NECESSARY DEATH by Anne Holt, tr. Anne Bruce (Corvus; Norway)

DEATH DESERVED by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, tr. Anne Bruce (Orenda Books; Norway)

THE SECRET LIFE OF MR. ROOS by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Mantle; Sweden)

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner (MacLehose Press; Sweden)

THE SEVEN DOORS by Agnes Ravatn, tr. Rosie Hedger (Orenda Books; Norway)

GALLOWS ROCK by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Victoria Cribb (Hodder & Stoughton; Iceland)

The winner will be announced on Thursday 4 November 2021!

Today, very aptly, is International Translation Day. We are extremely grateful to the five translators whose expertise and skill have allowed readers to access these outstanding examples of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The judges’ comments on the shortlisted titles:

A NECESSARY DEATH by Anne Holt, tr. Anne Bruce  

Anne Holt, according to Jo Nesbø, is the ‘godmother of modern Norwegian crime fiction’. Best known for her ‘Hanne Wilhelmsen’ and ‘Vik/Stubø’ series (the inspiration for TV drama Modus), she also served as Norway’s Minister for Justice in the 1990s. A Necessary Death is the second in Holt’s ‘Selma Falck’ series, whose eponymous protagonist is a high-flying lawyer brought low by her gambling addiction. The novel shows Falck resisting an attempt to kill her: on waking in a burning cabin in a remote, sub-zero wilderness, she has to figure out how to survive, while desperately trying to remember how she got there. A pacy, absorbing thriller with a gutsy, complex main character.

DEATH DESERVED by Jørn Lier Horst and Thomas Enger, tr. Anne Bruce 

Death Deserved marks the beginning of an exciting collaboration between two of Norway’s most successful crime authors. Thomas Enger and Jørn Lier Horst are both already well known for their long-running ‘Henning Juul’ ­and ‘William Wisting’ series. Death Deserved, in which a serial killer targets well-known personalities, mines each writer’s area of expertise: the portrayal of detective Alexander Blix draws on Horst’s former career as a policeman, while Enger brings his professional knowledge of the media to the depiction of journalist Emma Ramm. The novel expertly fuses the writers’ individual styles, while showcasing their joint talent for writing credible and engaging characters, and creating a fast-paced, exciting plot.

THE SECRET LIFE OF MR. ROOS by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death  

Håkan Nesser, one of Sweden’s most popular crime writers, is internationally known for his ‘Van Veeteren’ and ‘Inspector Barbarotti’ series. The Secret Life of Mr. Roos is the third in a quintet featuring Gunnar Barbarotti, a Swedish policeman of Italian descent, who is a complex yet ethically grounded figure. His relatively late appearance in the novel creates space for the portrayal of an unlikely friendship between Mr. Roos, a jaded, middle-aged man who has unexpectedly won the lottery, and Anna, a young, recovering drug addict of Polish origin, who is on the run. Slow-burning literary suspense is leavened with a dry sense of humour, philosophical musings, and compassion for individuals in difficult circumstances.

TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner 

Mikael Niemi grew up in the northernmost part of Sweden, and this forms the setting for his historical crime novel To Cook a Bear. It’s 1852: Revivalist preacher Lars Levi Læstadius and Jussi, a young Sami boy he has rescued from destitution, go on long botanical treks that hone their observational skills. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear, but Læstadius and Jussi find clues using early forensic techniques that point to a far worse killer. Niemi’s eloquent depiction of this unforgiving but beautiful landscape, and the metaphysical musings of Læstadius on art, literature and education truly set this novel apart.

THE SEVEN DOORS by Agnes Ravatn, tr. Rosie Hedger 

Agnes Ravatn’s The Seven Doors has shades of Patricia Highsmith about it: a deliciously dark psychological thriller that lifts the lid on middle-class hypocrisy. When Ingeborg, the daughter of university professor Nina and hospital consultant Mads, insists on viewing a house that her parents rent out, she unwittingly sets off a grim chain of events. Within a few days, tenant Mari Nilson has gone missing, and when Nina starts to investigate her disappearance and past life as a musician, worrying truths begin to emerge. A novel about gender, power and self-deception, expertly spiced with Freud and Bluebeard, The Seven Doors delivers an ending that lingers in the mind.

GALLOWS ROCK by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, tr. Victoria Cribb 

Gallows Rock is the fourth in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s ‘Children’s House’ series, featuring child psychologist Freyja and police detective Huldar as a reluctant investigative duo. Their relationship provides readers with some lighter moments and occasional black humour, along with a frisson of mutual attraction. The novel’s intricate plot focuses on skewed morals and revenge: what begins as a ritualistic murder at an ancient execution site in the lava fields – the Gallows Rock of the title – leads to the unearthing of a case of long-term abuse, whose devastating impact is sensitively explored. The author won the 2015 Petrona Award for The Silence of the Sea.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist once again sees Norway strongly represented with three novels; Sweden with two and Iceland with one. The crime genres represented include the police procedural, historical crime, psychological crime, literary crime and thriller.

The six novels stand out for their writing, characterisation, plotting, and overall quality. They are original and inventive, often pushing the boundaries of genre conventions, and tackle complex subjects such as class and power, the bonds of friendship, and the failure of society to support the vulnerable.

The Petrona Award judges are:

Jackie Farrant – Crime fiction expert and creator of RAVEN CRIME READS; bookseller for twenty years and a Regional Commercial Manager for a major book chain in the UK.

Dr. Kat Hall – Translator and editor; Honorary Research Associate at Swansea University; international crime fiction reviewer at MRS. PEABODY INVESTIGATES.

Ewa Sherman – Translator and writer; blogger at NORDIC LIGHTHOUSE; regular contributor to CRIME REVIEW; volunteer at crime fiction festivals in Reykjavik, Bristol and Newcastle.

Our award administrator is Karen Meek – owner of the EURO CRIME website; reviewer, former CWA judge for the International Dagger, and Library Assistant.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his continued generous support of the Petrona Award.

The Petrona Award is open to crime fiction in translation, either written by a Scandinavian author or set in Scandinavia, and published in the UK in the previous calendar year. Further information can be found on the Petrona Award website: http://www.petronaaward.co.uk.

Summer smörgåsbord of international crime

Somehow it’s been five months since I last blogged, but thankfully I’ve still found time to read some quality crime – a very welcome oasis amidst the grind of daily life. Here’s a round-up: an eclectic assortment of international crime fiction to suit various reading moods.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town, Century 2014 (USA)
First line: Dawn broke over Peachtree Street.

This standalone by Karin Slaughter was featured on Margot Kinberg’s excellent crime blog and immediately piqued my interest.

Atlanta, 1974: Kate Murphy’s first day as a policewoman gets off to a rough start when she runs into a wall of sexism at the precinct. On top of that, a policeman has just been killed and tensions are high. Paired with reluctant but street-savvy patrolwoman Maggie Lawson, Kate has to learn the job fast while navigating a highly dangerous case.

Cop Town provided an illuminating and enjoyable glimpse into the everyday life of pioneering policewomen. I couldn’t help but imagine the lead characters as a young Cagney & Lacey – two characters from very different backgrounds who somehow form a great team. The novel is also a good ‘sequel’ to Thomas Mullen’s Darktown, which focuses on the difficulties faced by black policemen in the Atlanta force during the late 1940s.

Håkan Nesser, The Secret Life of Mr Roos, tr. by Sarah Death, Mantle 2020 (Sweden)

First line: The day before everything changed, Ante Valdemar Roos had a vision.

The Secret Life of Mr Roos is the third in Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarotti’ series and the most satisfying installment yet.

Middle-aged, unhappily married accountant Valdemar Roos wins the lottery and secretly buys himself a hut in the remote Swedish countryside. Anna Gambowska, a twenty-one-year-old former drug addict fleeing from a domineering partner, is forced to seek refuge there one night. Before long, a crime takes place that will transform both their lives.

This was a wonderfully absorbing 500-page read. The characterisation of the two main protagonists is excellent, as is the story of their relationship, which is told with both compassion and humour. Barbarotti only makes his entrance half-way through the novel, ensuring that Valdemar and Anna remain firmly centre stage and that we genuinely care about their fates. Scandi crime at its best.

Agnes Ravatn, The Seven Doors, tr. by Rosie Hedger, Orenda Books 2021 (Norway)

First line: Berg slinks along the walls, just as the two surveyors did the week before.

The Seven Doors is a deliciously dark psychological thriller that skewers middle-class hypocrisies and the individual’s capacity for self-deception when unpalatable truths threaten a comfortable life.

Ingeborg, the pregnant daughter of university professor Nina and consultant Mads, unwittingly sets off a chain of events when she insists on viewing the house her parents rent out as a prospective new home. Within days, tenant Mari has gone missing, and bit by bit, things spiral out of control. This is a novel about gender, class entitlement and wilful blindness, expertly spiced with some Freud and Bluebeard, and has a cracking ending – I had to re-read it twice for the sheer thrill of it!

Adania Shibli, Minor Detail, tr. from the Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette, Fitzcarraldo Editions 2020 (Palestine)

First line: Nothing moved except the mirage.

This is a novel to save for when you are feeling emotionally robust. I think it’s one of the most devastating reading experiences I’ve ever had.

Shibli is a Palestinian writer based in Berlin, who uses elements of the crime genre to create a story with two distinct halves. The first is a crime committed in 1949 just after the War of Independence or Nakba: an Israeli officer and his platoon rape, murder and bury a young Palestinian woman in the Negev desert. The second follows a woman from present-day Ramallah who becomes obsessed with this ‘minor detail’ of history, and decides to investigate and memorialise the young woman’s death. However, doing so means travelling to areas that are strictly off-limits to her as a Palestinian, a nerve-wracking journey that subverts any conventional narrative expectations we might have.

The novel was longlisted for the 2021 International Man Booker Prize, and reminded me how crucial translation is for illuminating under-represented viewpoints and for giving a voice to authors who write in less frequently translated languages.

It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove.

I also recently watched an outstanding Danish crime series –The Investigation (dir. Tobias Lindholm) – which explored the extraordinary Kim Wall murder case.

The way the drama approached its subject matter blew me away. It completely sidelined the attention-seeking murderer – to the point where his name wasn’t even mentioned – and focused instead on the investigative process that convicted him, on the relationship between lead investigator Jens Moller Jensen and Kim’s parents – and crucially on Kim and her journalism. The acting is fantastic throughout (fans of Wallander, The Killing and Borgen will recognise a number of faces), and the details of how the investigation unfolded to the point where they could successfully prosecute are riveting. A grown-up crime drama that makes conventional serial-killer narratives look tired and formulaic.

The series is still available to view on BBC 2 iPlayer.

And finally…. I’m currently reading Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 Trilogy, translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. The whole thing comes to a whopping 1318 pages, so should keep me out of mischief for a while.

The reason I include it here is because it turns out to have a strong crime element, as I discovered to my amusement about 50 pages in, when one of the lead characters was revealed not to be a smart young businesswoman after all, but something rather more murderous. You can always rely on the wildly unexpected when you read Murakami. Bananas, but in a very marvellous way.

I hope you’re all keeping well and enjoying some quality crime reading. Do let me know your top reads below. And is anyone watching Mare of Easttown with Kate Winslet? Is it as good as everyone says?!

John le Carré (1931-2020) — an appreciation

I’m so very saddened by the death of John le Carré – a brilliant, insightful and humane writer, whose ability to capture the personal and political complexities of our time was second to none.

John le Carré

Below is a slightly edited post I first wrote eight years ago – my homage to this great writer and his works. I never met le Carré, but we did briefly have contact once, when he rode to the rescue of my beleaguered languages department after it was threatened with redundancies in 2010. He gave his help immediately and with a generosity that none of us have forgotten. During that period, he signed off a note to me with the words “All fine. Please feel free”. It sits framed on my mantlepiece, where I can look at it fondly: I reckon it’s a pretty good principle to live your life by.

Later, I was tickled to find out from Adam Sisman’s biography that we had both lived, at different times, in the same small town in our youth. I have happy memories of watching the TV series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with my dad back then – we adored Alec Guinness as Smiley, and that incredibly haunting Russian doll title sequence.

Here’s my personal appreciation of John le Carré and his works, which is shaped by our mutual love of Germany and its culture. Do you have a favourite le Carré work? Please let me know if so in the comments below.

1. I love that the author and his creation George Smiley are outward-looking linguists. Le Carré studied German literature for a year at the University of Bern, and graduated with first-class honours in modern languages from Oxford. Most of his spies are linguists, and the most famous of them all, George Smiley, studied Baroque German literature and was destined for academia until the British Secret Service came knocking — in the shape of the brilliantly named ‘Overseas Committee for Academic Research’. The profession of intelligence officer offers Smiley ‘what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behaviour, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions’ (Call for the Dead). And languages still really matter. Smiley’s ability to speak fluent German plays a vital role in Smiley’s People when he gathers intelligence in Hamburg, the city where he spent part of his boyhood, as well as a number of years ‘in the lonely terror of the spy’ during the Second World War. Le Carré says of him in an afterword that ‘Germany was his second nature, even his second soul […] He could put on her language like a uniform and speak with its boldness’. This author’s world, then, is overwhelmingly multilingual, multicultural and international. Monoglot Brits need not apply…

2. Many of le Carré’s novels brilliantly evoke Germany during the Cold War. The frequent use of a German setting was practically inevitable given le Carré’s education, his membership of the British Foreign Service in West Germany (as Second Secretary in the British Embassy in Bonn and Political Consul in Hamburg, which provided cover for his MI6 activities), and the timing of his stay between 1959 and 1964 at the height of the Cold War. Berlin was the frontline of the ideological battle between the Eastern and Western blocs, and le Carré says in an afterword to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold that ‘it was the Berlin Wall that got me going, of course’. Le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead, was published in 1961, the year the Wall went up, and, along with a number of his other novels, is partially set in East/West Germany (see list below). The most memorable for me are The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Smiley’s People (1979), both of which feature dénouements involving Berlin border crossings and evoke the Cold War tensions of that time and place perfectly.

3. I admire le Carré’s sophisticated understanding of 20th-century German and European history. This is evident in his Guardian piece marking the 50th anniversary of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, where he references the complexities of Allied intelligence operations in West Berlin, including the pragmatic but unethical protection of former Nazis, because they were viewed as valuable in the fight against communism. The difficult legacy of National Socialism in post-war Germany is most closely examined in his 1968 novel A Small Town in Germany.

4. I love le Carré’s ability to communicate complex histories to a mass readership in the form of intelligent and entertaining espionage novels. This isn’t something that many authors can do well; le Carré is one of the best.

5. All of le Carré’s novels reveal a deep engagement with moral questions — A fascination with the themes of loyalty and betrayal – in relation to both individuals and ideologies/states – is particularly visible in the Cold War ‘Karla Trilogy’ (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy 1974; The Honourable Schoolboy 1977; Smiley’s People 1979), which in turn forms part of the eight-novel Smiley collection. What’s always had the greatest impact on me as a reader, though, is the critique of how the intelligence services (on either side of the ideological divide) are willing to sacrifice the individual for the ‘greater good’, and the recognition of the immorality of this act. Le Carré’s third and fourth novels – The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and The Looking Glass War (1965) – are extremely powerful in this respect, as they recount the tragic tales of those who become pawns in larger political chess games. Incidentally, I’ll bet my maximum bet of 10p that the figure of Avery in the latter most accurately embodies the professional and moral disillusionment that led Carré to leave the Service. The central question for this author was and continues to be: ‘how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them on the way?’ (see Guardian piece).

6. — and their characters are fantastically drawn. Aside from the masterpiece of Smiley — the dumpy, middle-aged, unassuming, sharp-as-a-tack intelligence genius — who could forget Control, Connie Sachs, Toby Esterhase, Peter Guillam, Ricky Tarr, Jerry Westerby, Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux? All are so beautifully depicted that you feel they are living, breathing people.

Kathy Burke as Connie Sachs in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

7. You won’t find more perceptive writing anywhere. In German one would say that le Carré is ‘wach’: he is awake. He really SEES the world around him and has a deep understanding of how its political and power structures work, and how individuals get tangled up in them.

8. Le Carré’s works have given us wonderful TV and film adaptations, starring great actors such as Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Rachel Weisz and Gary Oldman. My favourites are probably still the two Guinness ‘Smiley’ TV series, but I do have a soft spot for the Tinker Tailor film, which was very stylishly done and featured a stellar cast including Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth.

Alec Guinness as Smiley, retrieving a clue in Smiley’s People (1982) The man sees everything….

9. The quality of le Carré’s work is consistently outstanding — the plotting, the characterisation and the settings are all sublime. One of my own later favourites is 2001’s The Constant Gardener – a brilliant exploration of pharmaceutical corruption in the developing world. In his review of 2013’s A Delicate Truth, Mark Lawson wrote that ‘no other writer has charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times, from the second world war to the war on terror’. The sheer range of his writing is breathtaking — and it was all impeccably researched.

10. Last but not least, le Carré was a true friend of languages, and was extremely generous in using his influence to promote language learning in the UK. He was deservedly awarded the Goethe Medal in 2011 for ‘outstanding service for the German language and international cultural dialogue’.

I’ll be raising a posh glass of red to his memory tonight.

Here’s a list of Le Carré novels that reference the German-speaking world/history:

  • Call for the Dead (Smiley’s German links; Nazi past; East Germany)
  • The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (Nazi past; divided Berlin; East Germany)
  • The Looking Glass War (East and West Germany)
  • A Small Town in Germany (Nazi past; Bonn, West Germany)
  • Smiley’s People (Hamburg, West Germany; Bern, Switzerland; divided Berlin)
  • The Perfect Spy (German at Oxford; Vienna and Berlin)
  • The Secret Pilgrim (diverse, including East Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Zurich)
  • Absolute Friends (West Germany, East Germany)
  • A Most Wanted Man (Hamburg, Germany)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (Switzerland).