Autumn crime picks: Marple (UK), Sally McGrane’s Odesa at Dawn (Ukraine) & Kevin Chen’s Ghost Town, tr. Darryl Sterk (Taiwan)

Yes, it’s been a while. I’ve been laid low with Covid (now better), which knocked all sorts of things off course (alas). So here’s a very random selection of crime-related goodies, starting with the excellent new short story collection Marple…

Marple, Harper Collins 2022
First line: ‘I wonder, sometimes, if there isn’t a concentration of evil in small places’

I loved this collection of twelve brand-new Miss Marple stories, written by a talented group of crime writers from all around the world: Naomi Alderman, Leigh Bardugo, Alyssa Cole, Lucy Foley, Elly Griffiths, Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok, Val McDermid, Karen M. McManus, Dreda Say Mitchell, Kate Mosse, and Ruth Ware.

According to a Guardian piece on Marple, the authors were given some ground rules before they started writing: “Firstly, the stories had to be set within the period covered by Agatha Christie’s own Miss Marple fiction. They could draw on characters and situations that occurred in any of the Marple novels and short stories, but weren’t allowed to incorporate characters or events from any of Christie’s non-Marple books, nor to invent any backstory upon which Christie herself had not touched.”

That said, there was still plenty of scope for the authors to have fun, with Miss Marple solving crimes everywhere from a friend’s front garden to Italy, Manhattan and Singapore. Each of the stories captures the essence of Miss Marple’s keen intellect and sharp eye, and finds a balance between paying homage to Christie’s crime icon and taking her to new places.

After finishing Marple, I couldn’t resist re-reading Agatha Christie’s 13 Problems, first published in 1932, which introduces Miss Marple to readers in thirteen interlocking stories. We join a group of friends, each of whom offers up a knotty mystery for the rest of the group to solve – and of course it’s the unassuming Victorian spinster in their midst who gets to the heart of the matter every time. The collection is still an absolute delight, showcasing Christie’s lively plotting, characterisation and humour.

Sally McGrane, Odesa at Dawn (V&Q Books 2022)
First line: ‘
Mr Smiley was a fat, dirty cat, with ragged mouse-coloured fur, mottled with a darker shade of rat’

Sally McGrane is a freelance writer and journalist based in Berlin, who wrote her thriller on site, in the Black Sea port of Odesa, where she had previously worked. The whole thing reads like an wonderful, off-kilter love letter to the Ukrainian city, whose mercurial nature is reflected in its complex history, unique inhabitants and catacomb-riddled foundations.

Odesa at Dawn is set in an earlier, more peaceful time, before the current Russian invasion, but with Ukrainian-Russian tensions bubbling beneath the surface. It opens with Mr Smiley rescuing his favourite human Sima from a bombing, and I’m hopeful that this moggy’s name pays homage to John le Carré’s most famous creation. Engaging ex-CIA agent Max Rushmore plays a central role in the proceedings: he is back in the city to investigate something murky, and gets pulled into something even murkier, including a convoluted crime-family saga.

I particularly loved McGrane’s sparky, wry, highly observant writing style, which is freewheeling in all the best ways. Here’s a short extract that showcases its capacity for humour and absurd, oddly moving details:

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen footage of Gagarin’s life,’ said Albu, after he’d half sunk, half fallen into his faux-leather seat. ‘He grew up in a hut, literally a wooden hut. I think perhaps they had a goat.’ The Romanian paused, shifted his large black shoes. ‘Only a deep capacity for mystical belief could have taken that village boy and sent him to the heavens in a spaceship.

The curvy, earnest girl reappeared carrying a tray. She set three thin white cups on a glass table. The tea was transparent, with a high sour taste, garnished with the East’s eternal, heartbreakingly pale slice of lemon.”

Kevin Chen, Ghost Town, tr. Darryl Sterk, Europa Editions (Taiwan)
First line: “Where are you from?”

Ghost Town is a story of a young Taiwanese man and his family, but is also packed to the rafters with crime. The young man in question, Keith Chen, the second son of a family of seven, returns home after serving a prison sentence in Berlin for killing his boyfriend. The truth of that story emerges in the course of the novel, alongside the stories of his parents and siblings, who struggle to find their identities or happiness in the village of Yongjing (which ironically means ‘eternal peace’) as it starts to modernise.

This is the first Taiwanese novel I’ve ever read, and it paints a fascinating portrait of a small community in transition, and of the nature and climate of rural Taiwan. There’s also clever use of the Ghost Festival to explore the titular ghost town of Yongjing, and how individuals who have lost their way can feel ‘ghostly’ in their own lives. Like Odesa at Dawn, this is a highly original, lively and imaginative novel that’s a feast for the curious reader. Hats off to translator Darryl Sterk, who finds ways to weave Taiwanese and Mandarin terms into the narrative, thereby illuminating key phrases and cultural details.

The Long Con: Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (Canada) and the Liar Liar podcast (Australia). Plus: our Punishment Giveaway winners!

Sometimes random themes emerge across books and podcasts, and before you know it, you’ve fallen down a fascinating rabbit hole — in this case the world of financial crime.

After my fellow crime aficionado Susie G. mentioned that characters from Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility had featured in her previous novel The Glass Hotel, I decided to take a look. And indeed, here is the much fuller story of brother and sister Paul and Vincent, the former a troubled young composer, the latter a rootless young woman catapulted into the world of the ultra-rich after marrying the owner of the hotel where she was a bartender. Alas, things soon go awry: it’s not too long before she’s catapulted back out again when a giant Ponzi scheme implodes in New York…

Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel (Picador 2020)
First line: Begin at the end.

This is a novel about all sorts of things vanishing — money, people, relationships, futures. It painstakingly explores how people kid themselves about what they do or don’t know, or allow themselves to be pulled into something dodgy or shady or too good to be true. As always, St. John Mandel weaves together the messy, fascinating stories of people’s lives with great empathy, but is also unsparing about people’s weaknesses and the heavy price of fraud, whether paid by those who perpetrate it or by their highly unfortunate victims. The Ponzi scheme at the heart of the novel draws on New York financier Bernie Madoff’s infamous swindle, which lasted decades and involved an eye-watering $50 billion.

Then I tumbled into the Liar Liar podcast, hosted by journalists Kate McClymont and Tom Steinfort. In the course of ten episodes, they examine the staggering case of Melissa Caddick, an outwardly successful Sydney businesswoman who spent years defrauding investors — mainly family and friends — with an elaborate Ponzi scheme of her own.

At the heart of this story lie the following questions: what kind of person systematically defrauds (among many others) her own parents and the best friend she has known since childhood? What kind of person takes $23 million of other people’s retirement savings and blows them on a lavish house, cars, jewellery, shoes, ski trips to Aspen, while still cheerily attending their birthday parties? What happens when lies infuse every aspect of a person’s professional and personal life so completely that nothing else really remains?

The core strength of Liar Liar is its granular examination of Caddick’s evolution as a con artist and the specific techniques she used (sadly, preying on those closest to you is a hallmark of fraudsters, because it’s easier for them to exploit the existing bonds and trust between you). It also deliberately and rightly makes space for Caddick’s victims to relate the horrendous personal consequences of her crimes: the devastation of retirement savings being wiped out, the bleak financial futures many now face, together with the emotional fallout of having had one’s trust so comprehensively betrayed. A sad and cautionary tale.

Last but not least, I can announce the three winners of Mrs Peabody’s Punishment Giveaway competition. Congratulations to Lisa D., Iain M., and Sarah Q! Copies of the book will be winging their way to you shortly 🙂

Publication Giveaway! Ferdinand von Schirach’s PUNISHMENT, tr. Katharina Hall (Germany)

Ferdinand von Schirach, Punishment, trans. from the German by Katharina Hall, Baskerville 2022

First line: Katharina was raised in the Upper Black Forest.

Well, this isn’t your standard Mrs. Peabody review, because for the first time in eleven years of blogging I’m the translator of the featured book! So here’s a bit about this bestselling German author and his work, followed by details of a scrumptious Punishment Publication Giveaway!

Some of you may already have read works by German defence-lawyer-turned-writer Ferdinand von Schirach. He came to prominence in the English-speaking world with his debut novel The Collini Case (tr. Anthea Bell), a gripping page-turner that asked some big legal and ethical questions of post-war Germany.

Alongside other novels, plays and TV dramas, von Schirach has also published three collections of crime stories, the latest of which is Punishment. I’ve always had a soft spot for von Schirach’s short stories, which (to a greater or lesser degree) draw on his own experiences and observations of the German justice system. He’s a master of the form, creating punchy tales based on fascinating premises and scenarios.

Punishment features 12 stories, 12 crimes, 12 punishments, each of which raises complex questions about morality, justice, and what it means to be human in extremis – whether you’re a young woman, defence lawyer, bereaved mother, lonely widower, school boy, supermarket manager, disgruntled wife or simply a devoted friend. By turns hard-hitting, moving and darkly humorous, these stories and fates will stay with you for a long time to come.

Six of the stories have just been adapted for TV by German channel RTL, and premiered at this year’s CANNESSERIES festival. These stills will give you a flavour…

And here are a couple of snippets from Christian House’s recent review of Punishment in the Financial Times ‘Best Books of the Week’ section:

I’m delighted the reviewer chose to highlight the humour of this particular story, as I think von Schirach’s talent for deadpan comedy often gets overlooked!

There’s also a lovely vlog review by Victoria Heldt – it’s a 10/10 from her…

AND NOW TO OUR PUNISHMENT GIVEAWAY…

To celebrate the publication of Punishment, Mrs. Peabody has three copies of the book to give away! If you are in the UK and would like to enter, just answer the following question in the comments below: what was the title of Ferdinand von Schirach’s debut novel?

The draw will take place on Saturday 27 August and winners will be contacted directly. Good luck! Viel Glück!

Finally, for those of you interested in the experience of translating Punishment, take a look at my piece over on Crime Time, which discusses the pleasures and challenges of the process!

The Giveaway competition has now closed 🙂

Summer smörgåsbord of crime

The big work deadlines have been met, so it’s time to wind down with some summer crime…

I recently treated myself to two crime novels from the wonderful selection at Orenda Books: Vanda Symon’s Overkill and Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor (translated from the Finnish by David Hackston).

So far I’ve read the excellent Overkill, the first in Symon’s ‘Sam Shephard’ series, which is set in rural New Zealand. When young mother Gaby Knowes goes missing in odd circumstances, Sam, the police constable with sole responsibility for the small town of Mataura, is called in to investigate. After Gaby is found washed up dead on the river bank, things get very complicated, not least because Gaby’s husband is Sam’s ex. Now, as well as having to untangle what happened to Gaby, Sam has to prove that she had no involvement in events herself.

Sam is a really great character: down-to-earth, self-deprecating and smart as a whip (as is her long-suffering flatmate Maggie). I hugely enjoyed the novel’s depiction of small-town New Zealand life and its nature, and the resolution to the mystery was very satisfying as well.

Mick Herron has just won the 2022 Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award for his thriller Slough House, the seventh in the ‘Slough House / Slow Horses’ series. It was actually Mick’s fifth shortlisting for the award in six years, so this must have been a particularly satisfying win, and was possibly helped along by the new TV adaptation featuring Gary Oldman as Jackson Lamb. I’m a big fan of the series, which I always think of as an off-beat successor to John le Carre’s ‘Smiley’ novels. How funny that Gary Oldman has now played both Smiley and Lamb!

As it happens, I’ve just read Herron’s Dolphin Junction (Baskerville 2021), a wonderful set of stories starring both Jackson Lamb and the investigative duo Joe Silverman / Zoë Boehm. Highly enjoyable and perfect for lounging in the park on a warm summer’s day.

There’s another set of short stories out on 18 August from Baskerville: Punishment by German defence-lawyer-turned-writer Ferdinand von Schirach. The translator is my good self (as readers of this blog may know, I left academia in 2016, and have worked as a professional translator and editor since then). I can’t wait for Punishment to be out in the big wide world, and will tell you lots more about this unforgettable book on publication day. In the meantime, you can find out more here.

Wishing you all lovely summer days and happy reading!

From Napoli to Nottinghamshire: Italian crime novel The Bastards of Pizzofalcone & BBC crime drama Sherwood

Maurizio de Giovanni, The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, tr. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar (Europa Editions 2015) 

First line: Giuseppe Lojacono was sitting in the squad car, in the passenger seat, back straight, hands motionless on his thighs.

It’s been a while since I read some Italian crime fiction, so Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone was a perfect fit: the first in a series about a ragtag group of police officers who are thrown together after being transferred to the troubled Pizzofalcone police precinct in Naples.

The precinct’s former, corrupt officers have been packed off in disgrace, so it’s up to the new guys to rescue its reputation. There’s Giuseppe Lojacono, a Sicilian with fine investigative instincts and a chequered past; Marco Aragona, a suntanned rich kid who acts like he’s a film star; Ottavia Calabrese, a computer genius with an oppressive home life, Francesco Romano, a terse chap with anger management issues; Giorgio Pisanelli, an old-timer obsessed with a set of suicides he thinks are murders; Allesandra Di Nardo, a firearms whizz stifled by her family’s conformity, and the ever steady Commissario Luigi Palma, better known as Gigi. Together, they are the Bastards of Pizzofalcone.

The novel is billed as ‘noir’, but I’m not sure that’s totally accurate. The emphasis is very much on character and on the mechanics of investigating various cases: the murder of a wealthy notary’s wife, a suspected kidnapping, the alleged suicides. The acknowledgements reveal that the author is a fan of Ed McBain, and I think that offers us a great way to see this novel – as the first in a modern, Neapolitan ’87th Precinct’ series. There’s also a TV adaptation – here’s a nice introductory snippet with subtitles…

Chain of evidence: from Napoli to Nottinghamshire

Reading The Bastards of Pizzofalcone made me think about other Italian crime novels I’ve loved. This led me to my earlier post on Roberto Costantini’s The Deliverance of Evil (Quercus), which is the first in a trilogy. The post contains an extensive list of crime trilogies and quartets, such as David Peace’s astonishing ‘Red Riding Quartet’ (Serpent’s Tail), set in Yorkshire. Peace also wrote a novel called GB84 about the 1984 miners’ strikes. And that brings us to the BBC crime drama Sherwood, set in Nottinghamshire around 2014, in a community fractured by the strikes thirty years before…

This six-part series has just concluded, and I can highly recommend it for its wonderfully rich storylines, its historical and social insights, and its absolutely stellar cast, including David Morrissey, Robert Glenister and Lesley Manville. Writer James Graham grew up in the area, and fuses a genuine case (the murder of a man with a crossbow) with the history of the miners’ strikes and the ‘spycops’ scandals (an early example of how seeding discord into a community can ‘divide and conquer’ it for decades). It’s fast-paced, hard-hitting, twisty, and genuinely moving at times. Loved it.

Kalmann, Northern Spy and Edith! – crime from Iceland, Northern Ireland & the USA (with bonus bit on the 2022 CWA Daggers)

Joachim B. Schmidt, Kalmann, tr. by Jamie Lee Searle, Bitter Lemon Press 2022

First lines: If only grandfather had been with me. He always knew what to do.

I hugely enjoyed this Icelandic mystery by Swiss author Joachim Schmidt (who lives in Iceland), splendidly translated by Jamie Lee Searle from the original German.

Our narrator is Kalmann, a neurodivergent young man who is the self-appointed Sheriff of Raufarhöfn, a tiny village in the north-east of the country – right up by the Arctic Circle – also home to the striking Arctic Henge.

Image by Mercator1512

It’s here that Kalmann is shaken by the sight of a pool of blood and faint footsteps leading off into the snow. When local entrepreneur Róbert is found to have disappeared, the police become extremely interested in what Kalmann saw and has to say…

Schmidt deftly sidesteps any kind of Forrest Gump sentimentality, allowing Kalmann’s highly original worldview to draw readers in. He reminded me a little of a grown-up Christopher from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but with a very Icelandic twist: he’s a crack hunter of Arctic foxes and gigantic Greenland sharks, and an expert at making the fermented delicacy hákarl – which I’m reliably told is an acquired taste… We also get to know Kalmann’s family and his community, which is grappling with a number of economic challenges and social changes. I particularly liked the depiction of Kalmann’s relationship with his beloved grandfather, and how he has to work out how to handle this very tricky situation without the latter’s guidance.

Flynn Berry, Northern Spy, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2021

First lines: We are born with a startle reflex. Apparently it’s caused by the sensation of falling.

Tessa, a producer at the Belfast bureau of the BBC, is at work one day when she sees a news clip on screen. As the anchor appeals for witnesses to an armed robbery at a petrol station, Tessa’s sister Marian appears in the footage, pulling a black ski mask over her face.

Two decades have passed since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that secured peace in Northern Ireland. But some IRA splinter groups are still active, and now Tessa must face the possibility that Marian has been living a double life that endangers her and her family. It’s the start of a journey in which Tessa must balance her loyalty to her sister, her young son, and the community she lives in, while navigating the most complex situation of her life. It’s a thoroughly engrossing and illuminating read.

Some reviewers have compared this novel with le Carré’s work and I think that’s justified. Berry is very good on how individuals find themselves getting pulled into complex intelligence situations, and how powerful organizations lure people in, but then use them and spit them out. That’s something we very much see in le Carré as well (e.g. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; The Looking Glass War). But the angle here is a new one: events as viewed by a young mother for whom there is a huge amount at stake — and this gives Northern Spy original depth.

As an aside — Tessa and Marian’s relationship had strong echoes for me of Juliane and Marianne’s relationship in Margarethe von Trotta’s 1981 film Die bleierne Zeit (Leaden Times), about two sisters in 1968-era Germany who take very different political paths. A possible inspiration?

Edith! A scripted podcast from Crooked Media

I stumbled on this ‘scripted podcast’ (aka serialised drama) on Spotify while I was browsing the other day. It turned out to be a bit of a gem – a very witty exploration of a curious bit of American history between 1919 and 1921: the cover-up of President Woodrow Wilson’s stroke by his wife Edith, and the very real possibility that the First Lady misled elected officials and assumed the presidential mantle of power herself — which of course would have been both unconstitutional and a federal crime. Rosamund Pike (of Gone Girl fame) is excellent in the role of Edith, and is backed by an great cast, especially Esther Povitsky as the unforgettable Trudie Grayson.

And finally…

The CWA 2022 Daggers were announced on Wednesday at a glittering ceremony in London. You can see all the winners here on the Waterstones / Daggers site.

I was delighted to see wonderful German crime writer Simone Buchholz win the CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger for Hotel Cartagena (Orenda Books). It’s the fourth in the ‘Chas Riley’ series to be published in English, all translated by Rachel Ward, who captures the noirish P.I. cadence of the novels perfectly.

Simone appeared on one of the Krimi panels I chaired at CrimeFest a few years ago and was great! You can read a wide-ranging Mrs P interview with her here.

Hotel Cartagena - Chastity Riley 4 (Paperback)

The Handmaid’s Tale: a superlative dystopian crime drama for our time

In the light of yesterday’s news — that the US Supreme Court has eliminated the 50-year-old constitutional right of American women to access abortion services — I’m re-posting my 2018 piece about landmark TV drama The Handmaid’s Tale.  

*****

I’ve been catching up on Series 2 of the astonishing, riveting Handmaid’s TaleYes, I know it’s a dystopian series based on Margaret Atwood’s literary vision of a totalitarian, theocratic future American state. But, given my own leanings towards crime, it won’t surprise you to hear that I’ve been looking at it through a particularly criminal lens. And once you start looking, it turns out the series has an awful lot to say about criminality, and in particular, crimes committed by the state.

The Republic of Gilead is a criminal state masquerading as a godly utopia. Here’s a flavour of the ‘everyday’ crimes committed in Gilead’s name: state-sanctioned murder and mutilation; rape; forced pregnancy; separating children from their mothers and families; slavery; exposing individuals to toxic chemicals; denial of basic individual agency, autonomy and free movement.

As Atwood has famously noted, nothing in her 1985 novel is invented: “when I wrote it I was making sure I wasn’t putting anything into it that human beings had not already done somewhere at some time.” In particular, she draws on the repressive society of seventeenth-century Puritan America, and twentieth-century regimes such as Nazi Germany and Ceaușescu’s Romania.

What she, and now the TV series, pull off so brilliantly is a feat of defamiliarization. We’re used to hearing about ‘stuff like this’ happening in countries far, far away, but seeing it enacted in a familiar universe – one where people get takeaway macchiatos and watch Friends just like us – is a jolt for the viewer. The series makes highly effective use of flashbacks from ‘before’ to keep reminding us how close pre-Gilead society is to our average western society today.

Those flashbacks, and their depictions of June’s once happy life, with all of its messy liberal freedoms, also call to mind a famous photo taken of some young female students hanging out in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Have a guess which country it’s from.

Answer: Iran, before the establishment of a repressive theocratic regime in 1979.

As is the case in all totalitarian states, women’s lives in Gilead are particularly controlled. Offred (meaning Of/Fred; belonging to Fred) is a ‘Handmaid’, a fertile woman assigned to Commander Fred Waterford and his wife Serena Joy for the purpose of bearing them a child in an increasingly underpopulated world. But Offred is also June Osborne, who once had a career in publishing, the mother of Hannah and the wife of Luke, neither of whom she has seen since the family’s attempt to cross the border went catastrophically wrong. She and the other Handmaids (often highly educated career women, like university professor Emily), have been pushed from the public into the private sphere, and have had their identity and all of their rights stolen from them.

Offred/June and the other Handmaids are our crime victims; the state and its representatives are our perpetrators. It’s what the series does with that basic configuration that makes it so outstanding.

The visuals in The Handmaid’s Tale are stunning. Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu

Here are a few of the things The Handmaid’s Tale does so well. It:

  • provides an in-depth examination of what it’s like to live in a state where your political and social outlook, or your sexuality are deemed to be criminal and could easily get you killed.
  • is brutally honest about the realities of resistance in a repressive state. On the upside, no state control is ever completely monolithic, and there are opportunities to resist and oppose the regime. The downside is the risk of heavy punishment, either to you or to others close to you (which is sometimes a thousand times worse). And resistance might involve doing things that are extremely unpleasant and/or morally compromising.
  • gives a daringly nuanced depiction of victims and perpetrators. The series does not shy away from showing how Gilead sometimes forces its victims to become part of the oppressive state machine (for example, by being made to mete out punishments to other citizens who are ‘criminal’). It also shows a spectrum of perpetrator motives and attitudes, from hardliners who sanction and commit crimes in the name of the state’s ideology and religion, to those who aren’t necessarily true believers, but serve the state for some other kind of gain — security, status, power — and who *may* sometimes help women to resist. Such figures (like Nick) exhibit behaviour that is ‘grey on grey’ (as historian Detlev Peukert once wrote of the complex moral actions of citizens living under National Socialism).
  • shows the leading role that women (like Serena and Aunt Lydia) play in aggressively policing other women. Serena is particularly fascinating; one of the chief architects of Gilead has now been sidelined because of her gender. The penny is slowly dropping that the glorious society she has helped create is one in which she is almost completely disenfranchised herself (could get interesting).

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski, right), with the other commanders’ wives

  • It also shows the sheer grind of surviving in a highly restrictive and hostile criminal state. And this is where the second series really comes into its own. Unlike a film that lasts two hours, or a single series with a neat conclusion, the second series shows us characters who are in it for the long haul. We see yet more struggles, more resistance, more heartbreaking reversals and terrible fates. And it’s exhausting. As viewers, we are given the tiniest of glimpses into an oppressive reality that could quite easily last for years if not decades, leaving individuals hugely damaged and traumatized – if indeed they ever manage to escape.

It feels particularly fitting, for obvious reasons, that The Handmaid’s Tale is an American series (made by Hulu), and features a number of top American actors, such as the outstanding Elisabeth Moss. It’s impossible to watch it at the moment without reflecting on the preciousness of democracy, personal freedoms and civil rights. It also feels very much like watching a warning. A recent episode showed June looking at newspaper reports from before Gilead’s rise and saying wonderingly ‘it turns out it was there all along’.

So: aside from being superlative TV drama, The Handmaid’s Tale is a crime story for our time – the story of the rise of a criminal state and the multiple crimes it perpetrates against its citizens – and the story of a battered, grim, imperfect resistance. An absolute must-see.

Nolite te bastardes carborundorum…

About time: Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility (Canada / the future / space)

Emily St. John Mandel, Sea of Tranquility, Picador 2022

First line: Edwin St. John St. Andrew, eighteen years old, hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic by steamship, eyes narrowed against the wind on the upper deck: he holds the railing with gloved hands, impatient for a glimpse of the unknown, trying to discern something — anything! — beyond sea and sky, but all he sees are shades of endless grey.

I was going to wait for Sea of Tranquility to come out in paperback, but cracked just ahead of the ‘Platy Jubes’ weekend. By the time the Queen had given her final wave from the Buckingham Palace balcony, I’d read it twice: the first time romping through, the second time savouring the writing, story and sheer inventiveness of it all.

In 1912, disgraced minor aristocrat Edwin St. Andrew experiences what he thinks is a hallucination. For a split second, in a remote forest on Vancouver Island, he’s plunged into darkness, then senses a cavernous space and the sound of a violin. In 2203, a novel by Moon Colony Two dweller Olive Llewellyn includes a passage in which a man plays the violin in an airship terminal while trees rise around him. And in 2401, an era when time travel is a crime, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts is sent to investigate a space-time anomaly caught on film in 1994 — which features notes from a violin. It’s the start of his sleuthing at various moments in time…

This genre-bending fusion of crime and science fiction — cri-sci-fi? — is pulled off with tremendous style. The first scene-setting chapters build steadily, and around a third of the way through the novel really catches fire. The resolution to the mystery is like a finely crafted Chinese puzzle and well worth the wait.

And because this is Emily St. John Mandel, author of the highly acclaimed Station Eleven, there’s much more besides: very human, likeable characters; visions of a future world and what it means to survive a pandemic; questions about the nature of reality and what truly matters in life; and an exploration of institutional power and the price of taking it on. But there’s also plenty of wry humour, including a laugh-out-loud bit  featuring Marvin the cat.

If you too have a weakness for cri-sci-fi, then put Sea of Tranquility on your reading list right away. And if you’re looking for other science fiction novels with strong elements of crime, check out my past reviews below:

Welcome to the silo: Hugh Howey’s Wool

Dazzlingly original: Adam Roberts’ The Real-Town Murders

Smörgåsbord: Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon

Crime from the International Booker, Netflix & Cannes (Argentina, South Korea, USA)

Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows, tr. from Argentinian Spanish by Frances Riddle, Charco Press 2021 [2007]

First lines: The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. 

Elena Knows, by the wonderful Argentinian writer Claudia Piñeiro, packs an unbelievable amount into its 173 pages. Its elderly heroine-detective is Elena, a widow with Parkinson’s whose daughter was recently found dead in the belfry of their church. Elena knows with absolute certainty that Rita, a devout Catholic, wouldn’t have committed suicide, and so embarks on a dogged attempt to investigate the crime. However, her physical limitations keep getting in the way, and when she tries to enlist help from others — Rita’s boyfriend, one of the policemen on the case, a mysterious woman called Isabel — things don’t always go smoothly.

In the course of the novel we accompany Elena on a laborious journey across Buenos Aires, wholly dependent on the levodopa medication that enables her to move. We also observe the journey she takes in her head, which involves discomforting revelations about mother-daughter relationships, female autonomy — especially in relation to the body — and the hypocrisies of Catholicism. Hovering over it all is the question: how much does Elena really know? And what will she find out when she reaches her destination?

Claudia Piñeiro

Claudia Piñeiro is one of Argentina’s top writers, but is best known to English-language readers as a crime author (Betty Boo, A Crack in the Wall). Fiona Mackintosh’s illuminating afterword argues that ‘for Piñeiro, the solving of an individual crime is only half the story; a single crime often metonymically presents corruption at the core of society. As she put it on accepting the Pepe Carvalho Prize, “crime fiction came into being to denounce injustice”, and she claims that nowadays it is impossible to write a crime novel without also writing about the society in which the crime takes place.’

Elena Knows is a book that’s stayed with me for a long time. It’s rightly won a number of prizes and was most recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (whose winner on Thursday was Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell).

Our Father, dir. Lucie Jourdan, Netflix 2022

Recently, I watched a documentary called Our Father on Netflix. It overlaps with Elena Knows to a certain extent, because it too explores issues of bodily autonomy and consent in larger religious contexts.

Our Father begins with a chance discovery by a woman called Jacoba Ballard. Following a DNA test, she finds out that she has seven hitherto unknown siblings living close to her in Indiana. She knows immediately that something is wrong, and after considerable detective work establishes that her mother’s fertility doctor, Donald Cline, had used his own sperm to impregnate his patients. And that’s just for starters…

I really liked how the documentary placed Cline’s victims front and centre (especially the children and their mothers), and how it explored the horrific emotional fallout that just one man with a God complex can cause. Jacoba’s grit and courage really shine through: she’s determined to ensure that Cline’s crimes are revealed to the community and that legal changes are made so this can never happen again. Utterly gripping from beginning to end.

The Cannes Film Festival is in full swing at the moment and one of my favourite reviewers, Peter Bradshaw, has been raving about South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s latest offering, the ‘black-widow noir’ Decision to Leave (헤어질 결심) starring Park Hae-il and Tang Wei.

Somewhat unhappily married police detective Hae-Joon is called to investigate a death in the mountains near Busan. There’s something suspicious about the victim’s Chinese wife, Seo-rae, but Hae-joon’s growing fascination with her is such that it starts to interfere with his professionalism and the investigation.

Bradshaw was impressed by the acting of the leads and how freshly this fairly common crime-genre scenario is handled. It gets a coveted 5 stars from him — and is up for the prestigious Palme d’Or. See his full review here.

Other well-reviewed crime films / thrillers at Cannes 2022 include:

Australian true-crime thriller The Stranger (crimson.com review)

Egyptian spy thriller Boy from Heaven (Guardian review)

French crime-comedy-romance The Innocent (Screen Daily review)

Italian gangster drama Nostalgia (Guardian review)

Have you watched any good crime dramas or films lately?

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!