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

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…)

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

Meet the Gang: Anna North’s Outlawed (USA)

Anna North, Outlawed, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2021 (USA)

First line: In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.

Anna North’s Outlawed treats us to a beautifully realised alternative America of 1894, where seventeen-year-old Ada lives with her sisters and midwife mum, Evelyn, in the Dakota town of Fairchild.

The town’s name is a clue to the novel’s subject: around 60 years earlier, the Great Flu swept through the land, decimating the population and creating what is effectively a religious cult of the child. Grief, trauma and the need to reproduce has made fertility and child-bearing an obsessive social focus, and young wives are watched like hawks in their first year of marriage to see if they can successfully conceive. If they can’t, they risk being deemed ‘barren’, and possibly, if things go badly, being branded a witch — with deadly consequences.

When Ada finds herself in this tightest of spots, her mother is able to get her to safety. But one thing leads to another, and soon she’s on the run with the intriguing Hole in the Wall Gang, whose charismatic leader, the Kid, has a utopian dream that’s going to need the heist of all heists to finance it.

So what we have here is a feminist Western that’s a rollicking read (bombs made of horse dung!), but that also explores complex themes: the social fallout of a pandemic; how ignorance and fear leads to catastrophic scapegoating; the paths taken by individuals who are criminalised through no fault of their own; the alternative communities and alliances that such individuals forge; the resilience and collective action that may occasionally win the day.

The characters – from Ada and Evelyn to the Kid, Texas, Elzy, Lark and Amity the Dappled Grey Mare – are plucky, complicated and engaging, and the descriptions of the American Wild West – all searing red rock and herds of buffalo – are sumptuous.

But it’s Ada who is the standout star. Her intelligence and determination to follow her own path reminded me of other spirited female narrators undergoing rites of passage, such as Mattie in Charles Portis’ True Grit and Ree in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. There are, of course, also shades of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale (but things thankfully never get quite as grim as they do in Gilead). Outlawed is a splendidly enjoyable and thought-provoking read.

In other news: I’ve now set up a Pinterest HQ for Mrs. Peabody Investigates, where I’ll pin reviews as they go live. This will hopefully give you all another, more visual way of dipping into or returning to reviews over the year. We’ll see how it goes! Feedback very welcome 🙂

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.

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?!

Jingle Bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations

Well, it’s been quite a year. My ‘crime time’ has been severely dented by all the upheaval, but here are some of my reading and viewing gems.

Treat others! Treat yourself!

And if you’re in the UK, please consider using https://uk.bookshop.org/, which is a brilliant way to support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations!

Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019 (USA)

Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey celebrates his 85th birthday at his mansion surrounded by his loving family. The next morning he is found dead; his throat has been cut. Enter the police and investigator Benoit Blanc, who begin to discover clues…and some unsavoury secrets within the family.

My son recommended this film to me with the words ‘you’ll love this’ and he was absolutely right. Knives Out is huge fun from start to finish, as well as a razor sharp commentary on race and class in the USA. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beleaguered carer, who finds herself placed in a very tricky situation. And the all-star cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer — have a high old time hamming their way through this clever take on the Golden Age country house mystery. Perfect Christmas viewing for those who like their crime martinis both shaken and stirred.

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. Samantha Smee, Pushkin Press 2019 (France)

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

This prize-winning novel was recommended to me by crime writer Angela Savage a while ago, and it’s a cracker. As a translator myself, I was hugely tickled by the idea of a police interpreter inadvertently falling into a life of crime. And Madame Patience Portefeux, a 53-year-old widow with some tough times behind her, relates her story with wit, verve and plenty of caustic insight into French society. There’s an excellent review of the novel by RoughJustice over at Crime Fiction Lover (minor spoilers) – a very entertaining festive read! Winner of the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962] (USA)

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

This cult Gothic (crime) novel was one of those ‘how-have-I-never-read-this-before’ books. Mary Katherine — or Merricat — lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future.

I was instantly hooked by Merricat’s highly original voice and the novel’s creepy Gothic atmosphere. It also has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Antti Tuomainen, Little Siberia, tr. David Hackston, Orenda Books (Finland)

Opening line: ‘And how do you know what happens then?’

Our 2020 Petrona Award winner, by one of crime fiction’s most inventive and versatile writers – what’s not to like?!

Little Siberia, set in an icy northern Finland, opens with a bang when a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car. Transferred to the local museum for safe keeping, the valuable object is guarded from thieves by local priest Joel, who is grappling with both a marital crisis and a crisis of faith. Absurdist black humour is expertly combined with a warm, perceptive exploration of what it means to be human. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, this is a novel for our times.

Giri/Haji, BBC 2020 (Japan/UK; now on Netflix)

Giri/Haji [Duty/Shame] is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities — a dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was addicted from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some beautifully inventive use of film techniques and genres, including a number of sequences that draw on manga. I can’t find this on DVD, and it’s gone from iPlayer, but it *is* on UK Netflix. Sneak off from Christmas duties, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and get stuck in.

And finally… Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Hulda’ or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy (Penguin), which is told in reverse, with each novel set prior to the last (when Hulda is aged 64, 50 and 40).

The first novel, The Darkness (tr. Victoria Cribb) introduces us to taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She’s about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at the end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. The second in the series is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading the third. I have a theory about how things will go. Let’s see if I’m right!

Happy reading, stay safe, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Turkey) and Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (USA)

Hello everyone – how *are* you? I very much hope that you’re weathering the current turbulence OK, and that reading is bringing you some solace and distraction.

Here are a couple of novels that have hit the mark for me recently – impressive examples of literary and American Gothic crime respectively.

Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking 2019)

Opening line: Her name was Leila.

I’ve had 10 Minutes on my reading pile ever since I saw it shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. I was drawn by its intriguing title and Istanbul setting, but was also somewhat nervous about whether the author could pull off ‘the concept’ – chronicling the final 10 minutes and 38 seconds of a woman’s ebbing consciousness *after* she has been murdered. It sounded both like a compelling narrative device and one that could easily go wrong.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Shafak was up to the task. Leila’s memories of her favourite tastes and smells, like cardamom coffee and spiced goat stew, trigger rich memories from her life, but never tip into mawkishness. We’re shown with sensitivity and compassion why Leila’s life took the course it did, and how she navigated its challenges with spirit and resilience. We also get to know her highly original friends, as well as the city they’ve chosen to make their home: the complex fusion of East and West that is Istanbul. The novel is above all a celebration of friendship and solidarity in an often intolerant, unequal world. It’s stayed with me a long time.

If you’d like to find out more about Elif Shafak, she’s given a TED talk on the politics of fiction in which she also speaks about her own background and writing.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962]

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

I found my way to this cult American Gothic novel in a very roundabout way. I’m a fan of the actress Elisabeth Moss, saw a clip of her playing the author Shirley Jackson in the film Shirley (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell), and decided I had to read something by her – because by all accounts she was an incredibly interesting woman and has had a huge influence on writers from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. My eyes lit up when I found Castle, because it has a *strong* element of crime.

Our young narrator – Mary Katherine or Merricat – lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian for company. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future. 

I was hooked within a couple of pages by Merricat’s highly original voice and the creepy Gothic atmosphere that pervades the novel. While you could happily classify Castle as Gothic crime, it’s also the kind of novel that ranges well beyond one genre, and has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m pretty certain I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Here’s an image of Moss playing (the fictionalized version of) Shirley Jackson

Shirley

Current reading: I’m making my way through the final Petrona 2020 submissions – Scandinavian crime in English translation – in preparation for our judges’ meeting. This has had to be pushed back due to the pandemic, but we’re looking forward to announcing our shortlist soon! There’ll be further updates on the award website: http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

I’m also halfway through Margot Kinberg’s latest novel A Matter of Motive, the first in the ‘Patricia Stanley’ series, which is proving to be a lovely distraction from the outside world. I’m particularly enjoying the depiction of Patricia’s learning curve as a young policewoman on her first case, and the intricacies of a rather puzzling murder. I have my theories, but suspect there’ll be a few plot twists yet… You can find out more at Margot’s blog, which also features short stories and posts on crime fiction (Margot has an encyclopedic knowledge of crime as some of you may already know). Highly recommended!