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.