A gripping cold case: Jørn Lier Horst’s A Question of Guilt, tr. by Anne Bruce (Norway). PLUS the CWA Dagger shortlists are out!

Jørn Lier Horst, A Question of Guilt, tr. from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce (Penguin 2022)

First line: A fly landed on the rim of his water glass.

A Question of Guilt is the fourth novel in the ‘Cold Case Quartet’, which itself forms part of the larger, hugely successful ‘William Wisting’ series, first published in the UK by Sandstone Press.

I’ve been a fan of the ‘Wisting’ series from the start, and am always super-impressed by its consistency. No wobbles, no dips — just top-quality, utterly engrossing Norwegian police procedurals. Jørn Lier Horst was a police officer for many years, and his novels always give readers an excellent picture of the painstaking work involved in police investigations.

This cold case involves a potential miscarriage of justice. Seventeen-year-old Tone Vaterland was killed while cycling home from work in 1999, and her on-off boyfriend, Danny Momrak, was quickly convicted of the murder. Twenty years later Wisting receives an anonymous letter suggesting that the wrong man was sent to prison, which logically means the real murderer is still out there.

One aspect of this novel I particularly enjoyed was Wisting’s introduction to police techniques that weren’t around when he originally investigated the case. Although he trained in the 1970s and holds a senior position, he’s very open to learning from younger colleagues who are more technologically nimble. Clearly you can teach an old dog new tricks, which is great news for old dogs everywhere. But of course Wisting’s long experience is also a key asset when it comes to figuring out what’s going on. He knows to keep an open mind, as ‘when you reopen old cases, unexpected things always happen’. And they do.

Here’s a nice set of links for you: The first in Jørn Lier Horst’s ‘Cold Case Quartet’, The Katharina Code, won the 2019 Petrona Award, which was announced at CrimeFest here in the UK. Jørn Lier Horst also appeared at this year’s CrimeFest on a panel entitled ‘IT’S A FAIR COP: WRITING THE MODERN POLICE PROCEDURAL’. And CrimeFest is also where the 2022 CWA Dagger shortlists have just been revealed. You can see them all here: https://thecwa.co.uk/news/cwa-dagger-shortlists-announced

This is the shortlist for the CRIME FICTION IN TRANSLATION DAGGER – a lovely, varied selection from five different countries:

  • Hotel Cartagena, Simone Buchholz, translated by Rachel Ward (Orenda Books/GERMANY)
  • Bullet Train, Kōtarō Isaka, translated by Sam Malissa (Penguin Random House; Harvill Secker/JAPAN)
  • Oxygen, Sacha Naspini, translated by Clarissa Botsford (Europa Editions/ITALY)
  • People Like Them, Samira Sedira, translated by Lara Vergnaud (Bloomsbury Publishing; Raven Books/FRANCE)
  • The Rabbit Factor, Antti Tuomainen translated by David Hackston (Orenda Books/FINLAND)

Congratulations to all!

All at sea: Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters (Picador 2022)

First line: When Jory opens the curtains, the day is light and grey, the radio playing a half-known song.

Author Emma Stonex was inspired to write The Lamplighters by an unsolved mystery from 1900: the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote rock light on the island of Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides.

The Lamplighters transposes this event to the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, fifteen miles southwest of Land’s End, on 31 December 1971. When the boat bearing the relief keeper arrives at the lighthouse after a delay of several days, it’s found to be completely empty. The door is barred from the inside and the table is set for a meal, but there’s no trace of Principal Keeper Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper Bill Walker or Supernumerary Assistant Keeper Vince Bourne.

I loved this novel. Stonex brings a keen intelligence to bear on the possible solutions to the mystery and explores these skilfully via two interlinked timelines. The first is set in 1971/1972, in which the reader is shown the events prior to and immediately following the disappearances from multiple characters’ perspectives. The second takes place in 1992 and examines the unsettling effects on the still unsolved mystery on those left behind, particularly Helen and Jenny, Arthur and Bill’s wives, and Vince’s girlfriend Michelle.

Cutaway of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Scotland, built by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Lamplighters draws on different genres with aplomb. It’s most definitely a mystery novel, but also a ghost novel of sorts, and a novel about the complexity of human relationships (the characterisation is wonderful). It also offers fascinating insights into the lost world of lightkeeping and the realities of living in a very confined space with two other people for weeks on end — something that will resonate with those who’ve been through pandemic lockdowns. And then there’s the vast, beautiful, treacherous sea, which is really a character in its own right, and influences the action in a number of ways.

I hoovered up this novel in the course of just two evenings. It’s a wonderfully absorbing page-turner, with revelation after revelation forcing you to recalibrate your ideas about what the truth of the mystery might be.

Do we find out what happened in the end?
You’ll have to read it yourself to see…

The 2022 CWA Daggers longlists: international crime galore!

The 2022 CWA Daggers Longlists were announced last weekend. For fans of international crime, the Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger is rightly the immediate draw, but a saunter through the other categories also reveals a wealth of international crime – both fiction and non-fiction.

The Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger Longlist

Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, Girls Who Lie, tr. Victoria Cribb, Orenda, ICELAND

Simone Buchholz, Hotel Cartagena, tr. Rachel Ward, Orenda, GERMANY 

Andrea Camilleri, Riccardino, tr. Stephen Sartarelli, Mantle, ITALY 

Sebastian Fitzek, Seat 7a, tr. Steve Anderson, Head of Zeus, GERMANY 

Kōtarō Isaka, Bullet Train, tr. Sam Malissa, Harvill Secker, JAPAN 

Victor Jestin, Heatwave, tr. Sam Taylor, Scribner, FRANCE 

Sacha Naspini, Oxygen, tr. Clarissa Botsford, Europa Editions, ITALY

Samira Sedira, People Like Them, tr. Lara Vergnaud, Raven Books, FRANCE 

Antti Tuomainen, The Rabbit Factor, tr. David Hackston, Orenda, FINLAND 

Hilde Vandermeeren, The Scorpion’s Head, tr. Laura Watkinson, Pushkin Vertigo, BELGIUM/GERMANY 

A tasty bunch, I’m sure you’ll agree… But because this blog’s definition of international crime fiction is very elastic (e.g. an international author or setting is more than enough to fire my interest) I took a good, hard look at the other categories as well.

Here’s a list of those that particularly caught my eye:

D.V. Bishop, City of Vengeance, MacMillan, 1536 Florence, ITALY (Gold Dagger & Historical Dagger)

Jacqueline Bublitz, Before You Knew My Name, Sphere, NEW ZEALAND/NEW YORK, USA (Gold Dagger)

S.A. Cosby, Razorblade Tears, Headline, USA (Gold Dagger & Steel Dagger)

Eloísa Díaz, Repentance, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1981/2001 BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA (New Blood Dagger)

Sonia Faleiro, The Good Girls: An Ordinary Killing, Bloomsbury, RURAL INDIA (ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction)

Eliot Higgins, We Are Bellingcat: An Intelligence Agency for the People, Bloomsbury, THE WORLD (ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction)

Femi Kayode, Lightseekers, Raven Books, NIGERIA (Gold Dagger)

Julia Laite, The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey, Profile Books, NEW ZEALAND, ARGENTINA, UK (ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction)

Laura Lippman, Dream Girl, Faber, USA (Steel Dagger)

Abir Mukherjee, The Shadows of Men, Harvill Secker, UK/INDIA (Gold Dagger)

Håkan Nesser, The Lonely Ones, tr. Sarah Death, Mantle, NORWAY (Steel Dagger)

Karin Nordin, Where Ravens Roost, HQ, RURAL SWEDEN (New Blood Dagger)

Peter Papathanasiou, The Stoning, MacLehose, AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK (Gold Dagger & New Blood Dagger)

Rahul Raina, How to Kidnap the Rich, Little, Brown, DELHI, INDIA (New Blood Dagger)

Patrick Radden Keefe, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Picador, USA (ALCS Gold Dagger for Non-fiction)

Meeti Shroff-Shah, A Mumbai Murder Mystery, Joffe Books, MUMBAI, INDIA (New Blood Dagger)

Joe Thomas, Brazilian Psycho, Arcadia, UK/SAO PAULO, BRAZIL (Gold Dagger)

Mark Wrightman, Waking the Tiger, Hobeck Books, 1940s SINGAPORE (New Blood Dagger)

Well, that should keep us going for while! Many congratulations to all the longlisted authors, translators and publishers. And a big thank you to the judges for their hard work in bringing us the best of the best.

Further info is available here:

CWA: https://thecwa.co.uk/awards-and-competitions/the-daggers (where you can also download a handy pdf of all the longlists)

Waterstones: you’ll find a page dedicated to the CWA longlists with gorgeous carousels for each category here – https://www.waterstones.com/category/cultural-highlights/book-awards/the-cwa-daggers

When translators go rogue: Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother, tr. Stephanie Smee (France)

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. from the French by Stephanie Smee, Old Street Publishing 2020

Opening line: My parents were crooks, with a visceral love of money.

I re-read this smart, blackly comic French crime novel while holidaying in Weston-super-Mare — a setting about as far removed from Paris as Jupiter (think chips on the beach, donkey rides etc.) And I’ve found myself thinking increasingly about the central figure of ‘The Godmother’ over the last few days, probably due to the news coverage of this Sunday’s French elections.

Meet Madame Patience Portefeux, a respectable 53-year-old French-Arabic translator and interpreter whom life has dealt a series of blows. After years of freelancing and struggling to pay her mother’s care home fees, she realises that all she can expect is a poverty-stricken, pension-less old age. When fate hands her the opportunity to get rich, thanks to her work translating police phone-taps of drug gang conversations, she takes it, fashioning a new identity for herself as The Godmother, drug dealer extraordinaire.

Patience relates her story with wit and verve – all credit to Stephanie Smee here for her assured and sparky translation. And it really is a hugely funny, outrageous tale featuring an eccentric cast of characters, such as DNA the ex-drug-detection-dog. But reading the novel for a second time, I definitely appreciated its satirical dimensions more. The author has some serious things to say about middle-aged women who endlessly prop up their offspring and parents, the financial traps that poorly paid freelancers can fall into, and the way in which French racism and the collapse of the ‘social contract’ (work-hard-and-you’ll-be-rewarded) can lead individuals to a life of crime.

The latter applies to her own parents – Patience is the daughter of a French-Tunisian father and Austrian-Jewish mother – as well as to young men from immigrant communities in the banlieues outside Paris. And it’s notable that this outwardly respectable and very ‘French’ woman is careful not to reveal her own complex heritage to others: it’s vital that she’s perceived as someone who belongs, not a ‘vulgar foreigner or outsider’ — unless she’s posing as a Moroccan drug dealer, that is….

The Godmother won the 2019 European Crime Fiction Prize, the 2019 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger Award. It was recently made into a warmly received film entitled La daronne / Mama Weed (2020/2021), starring none other than the fabulous Isabelle Huppert.

On boggy ground: Tana French’s The Searcher (Ireland)

Tana French, The Searcher, Penguin 2020

First line: When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something. 

I loved this crime novel’s premise: a Chicago police detective takes early retirement after twenty-five years of service and a tricky divorce, and starts over in rural west Ireland. While fixing up his dilapidated house, he’s approached by a local teenager whose older brother has gone missing. Will he help?

Characterisation and location are at the heart of this novel, so everything unfolds at a leisurely pace. We come to know ex-cop Cal Hooper, teenager Trey and the inhabitants of Ardnaskelty, and get a feel for the dynamics of village life. While Cal really doesn’t want to get involved, Trey’s invisibility as the child of a poor family disliked by the community bothers him. Before he knows it, he’s started to investigate – and to stir things up.

Something about Cal reminded me of an old-fashioned sheriff in Westerns like High Noon. He has moral codes and a strong sense of right and wrong, but soon realises that things are more complex than he could ever have dreamed. Choices will have to be made, and the ground he walks on as an outsider is extremely boggy in parts – literally and metaphorically.

The Searcher is a thoughtful and satisfying crime novel with a particularly keen sense of place – conveyed both though its descriptions of nature and brilliant dialogue. Tourist Board Ireland this ain’t, but it’ll have a grip on you by the end.

Reading The Searcher reminded me of two other excellent (literary) crime novels.

In Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006), teenager Ree searches for her missing father amid the grinding rural poverty of the American Ozarks. Trey’s brittle toughness and determination put me in mind of Ree, and the novel’s sense of place and dialogue are equally evocative. Jennifer Lawrence starred in the much-lauded film.

And then we have Jess Kidd’s Himself (2016), which is one of my all-time favourite crime novels. Like The Searcher, it’s set in a remote Irish village with an eccentric cast of characters, and traces a young man’s search for Orla, his vanished mother. It’s a freewheeling, psychedelic, wholly original portrait of 1970s rural Ireland, and although it’s tonally quite different to The Searcher, it also explores the secrecy and darkness that outwardly respectable communities hide.

Wishing you all a wonderful Easter break filled with bunnies, chocolate and plenty of crime! 

The Perfect Crime: Around the World in 22 Murders

The Perfect Crime: Around the World in 22 Murders, ed. by Vaseem Khan & Maxim Jakubowski, HarperCollins 2022

This hefty volume of crime stories is an absolute treat for all crime fans, but especially for fans of international crime. With twenty-two gripping tales that range from cosy to chilling to historical to noir, it takes us on a journey through a number of diverse cultures and satisfyingly murderous scenarios.

The volume is ground-breaking in one extremely important respect. As Maxim Jakubowski points out in the introduction, it gathers ‘for the very first time […] authors from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including African-American, Asian, First Nation, Aboriginal, Latinx, Chinese-American, Singaporean and Nigerian’. And as Vaseem Khan rightly asserts: ‘The case for diversity is overwhelming […] Fiction — especially crime fiction — provides a lens onto society […and] when we underrepresent minority backgrounds, we run the risk of aiding divisiveness rather than helping to correct it’.

Khan also highlights the important role readers play in terms of ‘being willing to take a chance on books featuring diverse characters’. Well, this reader is very enthusiastically raising her hand, and I know many others will be too (not least anyone who’s enjoyed Bridgerton, which has done more to break down racial barriers via another popular genre — historical romance — than many a more earnest endeavour. Seriously, it’s genius).

And of course the volume is a great resource: in addition to featuring stories by well-known names such as Walter Mosley, Abir Mukherjee and Oyinkan Braithwaite, it gives tasters of other authors you might not yet know, but will definitely be keen to check out. The biographical notes at the back provide very helpful overviews of the authors’ profiles and works – such as David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel Winter Counts, which had a wonderful reception last year and is now firmly on my TBR list. Riches indeed!

The authors showcased are: Oyinkan Braithwaite, Abir Mukherjee, S.A. Cosby, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, J.P. Pomare, Sheena Kamal, Vaseem Khan, Sulari Gentill, Nelson George, Rachel Howzell Hall, John Vercher, Sanjida Kay, Amer Anwar, Henry Chang, Nadine Matheson, Mike Phillips, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Felicia Yap, Thomas King, Imran Mahmood, David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Walter Mosley.

Many thanks to Vaseem Khan and HarperCollins for sending me a review copy of the very handsome hardback (which incidentally would make a really fabulous gift…)

The dutiful policeman: Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. Beth Cary (Japan)

Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. from the Japanese by Beth Cary, Soho Press, 2003 [1961].

Opening: The first train on the Keihin-Tohoku Line was scheduled to leave Kamata Station at 4:08 A.M.

First published in 1961, Inspector Imanishi Investigates is often viewed as a police procedural. But although it begins with a police investigation into the murder of a man found beneath a train, it soon turns into the story of Inspector Imanishi’s own quest to solve the case (as the title helpfully suggests). When the investigation is wound down due to lack of evidence, Inspector Imanishi simply refuses to give up: he painstakingly gathers clues until the full picture of the victim’s story, and that of his murderer, emerges.

One big difference between Japanese and Western police cultures becomes apparent in the process. Imanishi’s solo sleuthing isn’t viewed as a flouting of orders by his superiors, but rather as a laudable attempt to honour the victim and do a good job as a policeman, even if that means using his own time and resources. And when he uncovers vital clues, he reports back to his superiors as a matter of course, and the two continue working harmoniously together. The Western maverick police detective (think Serpico or Sarah Lund), in conflict with his/her superiors and the system, is conspicuously absent.

The pace of the investigation is leisurely with a number of dead ends. Like other police procedurals of the time, such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Beck’ series (1965-75), the novel conveys the often tortuously slow progress of police work, and the grit and determination required to solve a case. Some readers might find the pace a little slow, but there’s plenty to sustain interest: clues that involve regional dialects, theories of linguistic migration, bus timetables and postcards, as well as one of the most inventive murder weapons that’s ever appeared in a crime novel.

Along the way, there’s also intriguing detail about everyday Japanese life, customs, culture and food (circa 1961, at least). The conversations between individuals are always impeccably courteous, measured and polite – even between the police and the criminals they’re arresting.

The only aspect of the novel that grated was the uniformly subservient characterisation of women. I’d be interested to know if this portrayal stemmed from the author’s own attitudes or was simply a reflection of women’s social status and role in Japanese society at the time. If the latter, then I sincerely hope things have moved along in the sixty years since then.

Two other little tidbits: in 1974, the novel was turned into a film, Suna no Utsuwa, directed by Yoshitaro Nomura, which is regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The novel’s original title was also Suna no Utsuwa, meaning Castle of Sand.

Confidence tricksters: Inventing Anna & The Shrink Next Door (USA)

Inventing Anna (Netflix 2022)

Inventing Anna has been a chart-topper on Netflix and eventually managed to lure me with its siren song. I’m glad it did: while possibly a little uneven, it’s a lively and thoughtful look at the real-life case of Anna Delvey – supposedly a super-rich German heiress, but actually a confidence trickster who managed to worm her way into the heart of New York high society.

The series is based on a 2018 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler called Maybe She Had So Much Money She Just Lost Track of It”, which charted the rise and fall of Anna (Delvey) Sorokin. The TV adaptation is stylishly done, with a tongue-in-cheek reminder at the beginning of every episode that “This story is completely true. Except for all the parts that aren’t”. The disclaimer cleverly references not only Anna’s wobbly relationship with the truth, but the fact that the series is a representation of often murky events.

Strengths and weaknesses: like other reviewers, I’ve wondered whether a whole nine episodes were needed and found a couple of them rather uneven. But there’s some great acting, and I like the way the series poses questions about Anna’s behaviour – not to excuse it, because hers were not victimless crimes – but to acknowledge her undoubted talents and to ask whether things might have been different had she been wealthy and/or male.

Inventing Anna reminded me of a great podcast I listened to a little while back – The Shrink Next Door – which focuses on a truly staggering case that also unfolded in New York, this time over a period of thirty years.

The podcast came about after journalist Joe Nocera made a startling discovery. His neighbour in the Hamptons, a therapist called Ike Herschkopf, was a larger-than-life figure who liked to throw star-studded parties. But one day Joe found out that Ike had abruptly left, that he actually never owned the house, and that its real owner was Marty Markowitz – the man Joe had assumed was Ike’s gardener. It turns out that Ike was Marty’s therapist, and had taken over much of his life in the course of their twenty-nine year relationship, embezzling Marty’s money and estranging him from his family along the way.

In six episodes, the podcast traces this remarkable story with the help of the very engaging Marty, his sister Phyllis, and other patients of Ike’s who had similar, often heart-breaking experiences. It’s both fascinating and enough to put you off therapy for life.

The podcast has now been turned into an Apple TV series starring Will Ferrell as Marty and Paul Rudd as Ike. It seems to have had mixed reviews, but I’ll definitely take a look if I get the chance.

Anna and Ike, two New York confidence tricksters exploiting their wealthy, high-society victims, seemingly oblivious to the impact of the crimes they’ve committed… Choose your friends wisely, folks.

Mrs. Peabody is away next week – happy reading and stay safe.

Courage & resilience: Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division (USA/Japan)

Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division, Soho Crime 2021

First line: Rose was always there, even when I was being born.

I’ve had my eye on this crime novel for a while, because it uses the mystery genre to explore an under-represented part of American history: the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour, and the long-lasting impact this had on their communities and lives.

The novel is narrated by Aki Ito, born in the States to Japanese first-generation immigrants — the ‘Issei’. She and her charismatic sister Rose are of the ‘Nisei’, the ‘second generation’, and are raised in reasonably stable and prosperous circumstances in California. Until Pearl Harbour, that is, when they are interned in the Manzanar camp and then relocated to Chicago, where they settle in the Japanese district.

Rose was allowed to move to the city before the rest of the family, and when Aki and her parents arrive they’re given terrible news: Rose has been killed by a train at the Clark & Division subway station. The family’s grief takes different forms – in Aki’s case, it means talking to those who knew Rose best in order to figure out what actually happened – was it suicide, an accident, or murder?

Clark and Division is a well-crafted and absorbing standalone with a great sense of place, and I really liked the insights it gave into Japanese culture and the lives of Japanese-Americans at a turbulent moment in history. The author, Naomi Hirahara, has written non-fiction books on the subject, so she really knows her stuff — and for the most part manages to integrate it well. The novel is also a life-affirming coming-of-age story, as we follow Aki from childhood through to adulthood, learning to shoulder extra responsibilities in the wake of her sister’s death, but also to find her own path.

Separator

I hope you’re all as OK as you can be given the current political situation. Reading can be a real boon in times like these, so here’s a link to my earlier post on ‘Respite Crime’. Look after yourselves!

Crime Fiction: 7 Kinds of Respite Reading

Gallic charm: Sébastien Japrisot’s The Sleeping Car Murders, tr. Francis Price (France)

Sébastien Japrisot, The Sleeping Car Murders, tr. from the French by Francis Price, Gallic Books 2020 [1962]

First lines: This is the way it began. The train was coming in from Marseille.

If you need to tiptoe away from the world and its troubles, why not head to the Gare de Lyon in Paris on an October morning in the 1960s. There, a guard checking a newly arrived sleeper from the South of France has just discovered a corpse in Berth 222: a woman last seen alive that morning by those who shared her sleeping compartment, but who is now very definitely and mysteriously deceased.

Enter Inspector Antoine Pierre Grazziano — or Grazzi — from police HQ at the Quai des Orfèvres. He and his team begin to investigate Georgette Thomas’s murder by tracking down the occupants of the other six berths, but soon find themselves stretched to the limit as the body count starts to rise.

There really is a lot to like about this inventive police procedural. Grazzi, the rather weary, harassed lead detective, is a sympathetic and quietly tenacious figure. The characterization throughout the novel – from the train guard to the other passengers to the perpetrator – is a rich delight. The style is sparky and wry, and there are some cracking plot twists, particularly towards the end.

Author Sébastien Japrisot (1931–2003) is the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossi (spot the anagram), who was a prolific crime writer, screenwriter and director. In 1965, The Sleeping Car Murders was turned into the film Compartiment tueurs, starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret; it was also the first film directed by Costa-Gavras. Here’s a brilliantly mad trailer.

I’m looking forward to reading more by this author – somewhere on the dial between Georges Simenon and Pascal Garnier?!