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!

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