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…)

A Swiss gem: Hansjörg Schneider’s Silver Pebbles, tr. Mike Mitchell (Switzerland)

Hansjörg Schneider, Silver Pebbles, tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell, Bitter Lemon Press 2022 [1993]

First lines: The Frankfurt-Basel Intercity – a sleek, streamlined train – was crossing the Upper-Rhine plain. It was the middle of February, and there were fingers of snow along the bare branches of the vines going up the slope to the east.

I read Silver Pebbles at the end of last year, thanks to an advance copy from Bitter Lemon Press, and enthusiastically included it in my best-of-year round up. But I want to give the novel a bit more breathing space here in a post of its own, as it’s just out in the UK now and will be out in the US in February.

Although the Bitter Lemon website describes the novel as the second in the acclaimed ‘Inspector Peter Hunkeler’ series, it was actually the first of the novels to be published in the German-speaking world back in 1993. This makes it an especially good place to start if you’ve not yet read The Basel Killings, which came out last year.

Silver Pebbles introduces us to jaded Basel police inspector Peter Hunkeler, who’s nearing retirement, and treats us to a wonderfully absorbing case.

When elegantly attired Lebanese smuggler Guy Kayat flushes some diamonds down a station toilet to evade the police, he sets off a chain of bizarre events. The diamonds are found by Erdogan Civil, a sewage worker called in to clear a blockage, who immediately thinks his dream of opening a hotel back in Turkey is about to come true. But of course, life is infinitely more complicated than that, as Erdogan’s supermarket-cashier girlfriend Erika Waldis realises straight away…

This is a very human tale, told in a way that reminded me a bit of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series – the novel has a matter-of-fact style leavened with genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour, not to mention the odd Keystone Cops moment when the police tie themselves up in knots. But it’s Erika who is the slow-burning star of the show, with a perceptiveness and intellect to match the police inspector’s own.

Silver Pebbles still feels remarkably fresh today, probably because it has some universal truths to share with (middle-aged) readers. It’s no surprise to find that Schneider is a famous playwright and essayist back in Switzerland, or that his 10-novel crime series has won major awards such as the Friedrich Glauser Prize. And translator Mike Mitchell does a particularly lovely job of capturing the novel’s humour and Inspector Hunkeler’s grumpiness.

And speaking of Swiss crime fiction… if you haven’t yet read Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge (1958), then you’re in for a treat. It remains one of my all-time favourite crime novels, and has to be one of the cleverest Krimis ever written, especially in terms of subverting genre conventions. You can read my (updated) post on it here…

And finally, a topical crime oddity…

Many of you will know the British TV police series Line of Duty, which features the iconic AC-12 unit carrying out internal investigations into potentially corrupt members of the police.

Yesterday, the satirical campaign group Led by Donkeys released a spoof video that features AC-12 (Ted Hastings, Kate Fleming and Steve Arnott) interrogating Prime Minister Boris Johnson about the political scandal dubbed #PartyGate – as part of ‘Operation BYOB’!

Now, I’m a keen crime drama and politics watcher, but I’ve never seen anything like this before: a cult TV series that pulled in 12.8 million viewers for its last season finale being used to intervene directly in a political situation, and instrumentalising crime fiction conventions (in this case the classic ‘police interrogation scene’) in order to expose a politician’s ‘crimes’.

Leaving the politics of the matter aside, can anyone think of a similar kind of intervention in the past? A political statement made using a TV drama in ‘real time’, as opposed to being incorporated into an episode after the fact?

The video was posted yesterday and has had 7.2 million views on Twitter to date… You can read all about it here.

Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2021 Xmas crime recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2021 Christmas crime recommendations! 

Treat others! Treat yourself!

Please support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Belinda Bauer, Exit (Black Swan, 2021 – UK)

First line: The key was under the mat.

I adore pretty much everything Belinda Bauer has written – she seems capable of turning her hand to almost any kind of crime – and Exit is no exception. Mild-mannered pensioner Felix Pink is an ‘Exiteer’, one of a group of volunteers who keep the ill and infirm company when they decide they’ve had enough of life. But one day an assignment goes horribly wrong, and Felix finds himself needing to stay one step ahead of the police while frantically trying to work out what is going on. Exit tackles weighty issues of life and death with humanity, compassion and a lot of laughs. I’m not sure how Bauer pulls it off, but she emphatically does, and I don’t know anyone who hasn’t loved this impeccably constructed crime novel (including those who claim not to like crime).

Jane Harper, The Survivors (Little, Brown, 2020 – Tasmania)

First line: Kieran hoped the numbness would set in soon.

Two things drew me to this crime novel: its top-notch author and its setting – a little town on Tasmania’s wild coastline. Kieran Elliott is on a rare visit to Evelyn Bay where he grew up. His mother Verity is struggling to look after his father, who has dementia, and the absence of his dead brother Finn looms large both within the family and his wider circle of friends. When Bronte, a young artist working at a cafe, is found dead on the beach, unresolved questions from the past resurface, not least the disappearance of schoolgirl Gabby during the same big storm that claimed Finn’s life. The Survivors is a crime novel that delivers on a number of levels: superb characterization, an absorbing and gripping plot, and a sensitive examination of grief.

Jess Kidd, Things in Jars (Canongate, 2019 – England/Ireland)

First line: The raven levels off into a glide, flight feathers fanned.

Jess Kidd is one of the most original crime authors writing today, both in terms of her subject matter and her rich writing style. Things in Jars is her first ‘proper’ historical crime novel, set in and near London between 1841 and 1863. It features a number of formidable women, chief among them Bridie Devine, ‘the finest female detective of her age’, who begins investigating the kidnapping of a highly unusual child. Oh, and she can see ghosts – specifically, a heavily tattooed boxer (a ‘circus to the eye’) called Ruby Doyle, who claims to have known Bridie in life, and keeps her company through the ups and downs of the case. Filled to the brim with the eccentric, the otherworldly and the gothic, Things in Jars explores female oppression, survival, and how, with the help of allies, women can carve out a space for themselves in a hostile world.

John le Carré, Silverview (Penguin, 2021 – UK)

First line: At ten o’clock of a rainswept morning in London’s West End, a young woman in a baggy anorak, a woollen scarf pulled around her head, strode resolutely into the storm that was roaring down South Audley Street.

For le Carré fans, this is a poignant read – a final novel from the master of the spy genre. In many ways, this is a classic le Carré tale – a forensic deconstruction of one story among the many making up the intelligence world, and a scathing examination of the moral vacuum at the heart of foreign policy. We see events through the eyes of Julian Lawndsley, who has moved to a small seaside town in East Anglia to run a bookshop, and Stewart Proctor, senior intelligence troubleshooter, who gets word of a security breach in the very same spot. At the heart of it all: a mysterious Polish émigré living in ‘Silverview’, a grand manor house. It was a pleasure to be back in le Carré’s world and to spend time with his richly drawn characters. Happily, as with Agent Running in the Field, there are redemptive elements that temper the bleaker aspects of the novel.

Abir Mukherjee, Death in the East (Harvill Secker, 2020 – UK/India)

First line: I’d left Calcutta with a grim resolve, a suitcase full of kerdu gourd, and, in case of emergencies, a bullet-sized ball of opium resin hidden between the folds of my clothes. 

This is the fourth in Mukherjee’s ‘Wyndham and Banerjee’ series, and I think it’s my favourite so far: a rich historical crime novel that offers not just one, but several discrete murder mysteries, including two intriguing locked-room cases. The novel switches between 1922 Assam, where Captain Sam Wyndham is trying to conquer his opium addiction, and 1905 London, during the early days of his policing career. The link: a villain whose reappearance in Assam threatens Wyndham’s life. This is a beautifully plotted crime novel that offers atmospheric depictions of Assam on the one hand and London’s Jewish East End on the other. Gripping, entertaining, and with a nice line in Chandleresque humour, it also shows us the changing face of India – Sergeant Banerjee’s welcome appearance near the end of the novel marks an important shift in the relations between the two.

Hansjörg Schneider, Silver Pebbles, tr. from the German by Mike Mitchell (Bitter Lemon Press, January 2022 – Switzerland)

First line: The Frankfurt-Basel Intercity — a sleek, streamlined train — was crossing the Upper-Rhine plain.

Schneider’s Silver Pebbles was originally published in 1993, but feels remarkably fresh today. The first in the acclaimed ‘Inspector Peter Hunkeler’ series, it introduces us to the jaded Basel police detective and treats us to a wonderfully absorbing case. When Lebanese smuggler Guy Kayat flushes some diamonds down a station toilet to evade the police, he sets off a chain of bizarre events. The diamonds are found by Erdogan, a sewage worker called to clear a blockage, who thinks his dream of opening a hotel back in Turkey is about to come true. But of course, things get complicated… A very human tale, told in a way that reminded me of Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Martin Beck’ series – a matter-of-fact style leavened with genuine warmth and a dry sense of humour. Erika Waldis, Erdogan’s long-suffering girlfriend, is the slow-burning star of the show.

Signal, by Kim Eun-hee, dir. by Kim Won-seok (Netflix – South Korea)

This 2016 South Korean crime drama – with shades of Life on Mars – has stolen my heart. I’m about half way through and love the way it’s developing the ambitious idea of a criminal profiler in 2015 who’s able to talk to a police detective in 1989 via a chunky old walkie-talkie. As well as working on cold cases together, the mystery of the police detective’s own disappearance in 2000 increasingly moves centre stage. Unbeknownst to profiler Park Hae-young, his boss Detective Cha Soo-hyun is also searching for Detective Lee Jae-han – he was her mentor when she was a rookie back in 1989. Along with the police-procedural elements and occasional slapstick humour, it’s Signal‘s wonderfully human characterization that stands out for me.

And here’s a trio on my own Christmas wishlist.

Mick Herron’s Dolphin Junction, a collection of short stories featuring, among others, Jackson Lamb, and Zoë Boehm & Joe Silvermann (the stars of his ‘Slough House’ and ‘Oxford’ series respectively). Expect brilliant storytelling and acerbic wit.

Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, about an interpreter whose duties involve interpreting for a potential war criminal at the International Court in Hague.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s Winter Counts, a much-lauded debut that takes a hard-hitting, nuanced look at life on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation.

********

There are some big changes coming to Mrs. Peabody Investigates in 2022: keep your eyes peeled for those!

Until then, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!

Crime Fiction: 7 Kinds of Respite Reading

I hope you’re all safe and well in this strange and worrying time. For many of us (including me), reading has taken a back seat while we process the situation, and deal with its fallout for our families, working lives and communities.

Aside from the practical challenges we’re facing, many of us are feeling too stressed to read, or can’t find the ‘right book’ to settle down with.

If this is you, then here are some suggestions and strategies for Respite Reading.

Even if you manage just a chapter a day, you’ll hopefully feel the benefit. Reading has an amazing ability to ground us, distract us and provide solace – in short, to provide us with respite in these very tough times. A study by the University of Sussex found that a mere 6 minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68%! Sounds good to me.

7 kinds of Respite Reading: find the one that works for you!

1.   An old favourite. There’s no rule that says you have to read something new. Perhaps a novel you know and love is already on your bookshelf, waiting to wrap itself around you like a comforting blanket. For me, that’s John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Or Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, a novel I first read in 1988, which explores the fallout of a crime in The British Raj. Or your favourite Agatha Christie – hard to choose, I know… For me it’s a toss up between The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express.

2.   Travel to another time or place. If the present is too much for you right now, then take a break in another era with some historical crime and/or crime set in another country – like Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man (1919 India), Riku Onda’s The Aosawa Murders (1970s Japan), Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1327 Italy) or Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes (1970s and 1980s Argentina).

3.    Cosy, comforting crime. If you’re finding the gritty end of the crime fiction spectrum a bit much right now, then perhaps you’re in need of a cute baby elephant: yes, we’re talking Vaseem Khan’s The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector ChopraOr try out Peter Bartram’s comic ‘Crampton of the Chronicle’ series, which follows the adventures of a young journalist in 1960s Brighton. Or how about Ellis Peter’s classic ‘Brother Cadfael’ series, set in medieval times? Another personal favourite: Harry Kemelman’s ‘Rabbi Small’ series, which offers an affectionate portrait of 1960s small-town America, along with some pearls of wisdom.

4.   Crime with heart, whose characters you’ll love to spend time with – try Elly Griffiths’s ‘Ruth Galloway’ series (forensics in Norfolk) or Lesley Thomson’s ‘Detective’s Daughter’ series – both are marvellous. And if you’ve not yet met octogenarian Sheldon Horowitz, then it’s definitely time for Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian by Night. It’s still one of my top favourites.

5.   Criminally black humour. If your way of getting through involves grim laughter, then Mick Herron’s ‘Slough House’ spy novels are a wonderful read – start with Slow Horses. Or get to know Jo Ide’s IQ, the Long Beach Sherlock – a thoroughly engaging and original detective. And Leif GW Persson’s novels are always up there for me – Linda, as in the Linda Murder is a good opener, with moments that are wonderfully wry.

6.   Hair ‘o’ the dog apocalypse crime. Because one way to deal with our fears is to read about stuff that’s just that little bit worse. Louise Welsh’s A Lovely Way to Burn is excellent, and check out my earlier blog post on ‘Apocalyptic Crime Fiction from America and Finland’ for a few other suggestions. My top non-crime recommendation is Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Bleak, but strangely uplifting and hopeful.

7.   Still not sure… Just give me top-quality crime! No worries – have a browse through my Xmas recommendations over the years. These are effectively my annual best-of-the-best lists, so hopefully you’ll find something there that’ll hit the spot…

2014   2015   2016   2017   2018   2019

There’s also a list of trilogies here should you fancy a more ambitious reading project.

And if you’re looking for further ideas or inspiration, then I can heartily recommend the following indie publishers. They could all do with some love and support right now!

Bitter Lemon Press   No Exit Press   Orenda Books   Europa Editions

OK everyone – stay home – stay safe – save lives!

Please do add your own thoughts and recommendations below, or just drop by for a chat. It would be lovely to hear from you! Hugs and kisses xxx

Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations! Each is one of my top reads of the year, and will fit snugly into the Xmas stockings of all who’ve been good. Don’t forget to treat yourself, too!

Available from a wonderful local bookshop near you…

Jane Harper, The Lost Man, Abacus (Australia)

This novel was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. An in-depth character study of a family and their community, it’s also a page-turner that will keep you completely riveted for hours.

Cameron Bright is found dead in a remote part of his cattle station by the so-called ‘Stockman’s Grave’. The mystery of how and why he got there, and why his car is so far away become the subject of a police investigation. Cameron’s older brother Nathan, who owns the adjacent property, and his younger brother Bub both had complicated relationships with him, and further complexities and secrets soon start to be revealed. This is the third of Harper’s novels, and has a neat link back to her first, The Dry but no prior reading or knowledge is required. If you’re feeling generous, leave both for your lucky reader under the tree.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders, tr. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2019 (Japan)

I’ve just read The Honjin Murders, and immediately knew I had to add it to this list, because it’s the perfect gift for any fan of classic crime fiction or locked room mysteries. As an added bonus, it’s set in Japan! Plus: it’s the first in master crime writer Seishi Yokomizo’s acclaimed ‘Konsuke Kindaichi’ series, and the first to be translated (beautifully) into English.

It’s 1937, and the grand Ichiyanagi family is celebrating a family wedding. But that night, the family is woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. It’s an impossible puzzle, but eccentric amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to figure it out.

George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown, Orion (USA)

This quietly powerful crime novel interweaves the stories of three individuals. Anna Byrne is a prison librarian, who tries to better the lives of inmates through reading, and to broaden their horizons through regular book-group discussions. One of her readers is Michael Hudson, a bright young man who has gone off the rails, but is keen to go straight. When he’s suddenly released ahead of his trial, he’s relieved but can’t quite understand why. The answer lies with Phil Ornazian, a private investigator who regularly flirts with danger when making money illicitly on the side. Pelecanos was a scriptwriter for The Wire, and his characterisation of each of these figures is superb. The novel is also a wonderful homage to the life-changing power of reading.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer, Doubleday 2018 (Nigeria)

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a plain, respectable nurse, who leads a neat and ordered life. Or rather, she would do if it weren’t for her volatile, beautiful younger sister, whose boyfriends seem to have a habit of winding up dead, and who expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give anything else away, but suffice to say that this is an arresting read, which deploys the darkest of humour to tell its story. The question at the heart of the novel is: how far would you go to protect a family member whose actions you know are criminal? It’s all very nicely done and a lot of fun.

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field, Viking 2019 (UK)

It’s such a pleasure to step back into le Carré’s world and to meet a fresh cast of beautifully observed, but very human spies. Shown weaving their way through the complexities of modern politics as best they can, they soon learn that they need to keep a sharp eye on their own superiors as much as their adversaries elsewhere. Our guide to all this is Nat, an agent runner at the end of his career who’s asked to take over The Haven, a lowly substation of London General. He and a colleague begin to plan an operation targeting a Ukrainian oligarch, but then something strange happens… Light relief takes the form of regular badminton games with young Ed, an affable but somewhat mysterious figure who may be more than he seems. A completely convincing and gripping depiction of murky espionage shenanigans.

M.T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles, Macmillan 2019 (Sweden)

This accomplished novel tracks the fallout from a murder via the perspectives of three members of one family: a mother, a father, and a daughter who’s been accused of killing a well-connected, rich young man. An ostensibly ‘normal’ and respectable middle-class family – dad is a pastor, mum is a lawyer, and daughter Stella is unruly but bright – they are pushed to the limits by the stress of Stella’s arrest, detention and trial. The three points of view and family dynamics are beautifully handled, and there are plenty of surprises in store for the reader, even after the end of the trial. The novel is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room, Vintage 2018 (USA)

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes next. Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we’re shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to provide for her son Jackson. The novel explores the circumstances that shape Romy as an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as the justice system) shape her destiny. Beautifully written – and shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, tr. by Anne Bruce, Penguin 2018 (Norway)

The 2019 Petrona Award winner! The Katharina Code is one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Chief Inspector William Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her home twenty-four years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. This particular year, however, a development in another investigation finally moves the case on… An outstanding police procedural that takes established tropes – the cold case, the longstanding suspect, the dogged nature of police work – and combines them in ways that are innovative and fresh.

Jess Kidd, Himself, Canongate 2017 (Ireland)

Himself takes us back to the good old, bad old days. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny rural village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her wild behaviour as a young woman, and who disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

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

Top TV crime as the nights draw in: Giri/Haji (Japan/UK), Guilt (Scotland) & Unbelievable (USA)

There are some outstanding TV crime series on our screens at the moment – just perfect for those dark winter evenings when going out feels like too big an ask.

These three are the top of my heap at the moment.

Giri/Haji (Duty/Shame) – BBC 2 (Japan/UK) 

Giri/Haji 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 hooked 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 really inventive use of film techniques and genres, like sequences that draw on manga. Thanks to my friend Morgan for alerting me to this series – it’s a keeper!

Guilt, BBC 2 (Scotland)

Guilt is a four-part darkly comic crime caper set in Edinburgh.

On their way home from a wedding one night, brothers Max and Jake (Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives) accidentally run over a pensioner in the dark. Rather than call for an ambulance or the police, the duo carry the body back into the man’s house and settle it into an armchair before leaving. But of course, they make mistakes… And in trying to cover up those mistakes, they end up making more…

There’s a great oddball chemistry between the brothers: short-tempered, impatient lawyer Max, and the more laid-back Jake, who runs a failing record shop. Add in the dead man’s niece Angie, who’s over from America to sort out dearly departed Uncle Walter’s estate but smells a rat, and you have a recipe for plenty of criminally good fun.

Unbelievable (Netflix / USA)

Unbelievable completely blew me away. The story of a serial rape investigation in Colorado and neighbouring states, it places the female victims squarely at the heart of its narrative, along with the tenacious and meticulous police-work of two women – Detective Karen Duvall (Merritt Wever) and Detecive Grace Rasmussen (Toni Collette).

The story unfolds along two timelines: the first is 2008, when police are called to the apartment of 18-year-old Marie Adler (an outstanding performance by Kaitlyn Dever), who says she has just been attacked and raped. The second is 2011, when Duvall and Rasmussen spot similarities between the cases they’re investigating and start to work together. The series gives us a detailed insight into how police cultures and attitudes can shape rape investigations, for good and ill, and highlights the urgent need for police cooperation across county and state lines, to stop perpetrators who deliberately commit crimes over a wide area to evade justice.

Unbelievable is based on a true caseas you can read in detail here – although I would strongly advise you to watch the series first and read the piece afterwards. Compelling, illuminating and thought-provoking.

What are you watching right now? Any recommendations?

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (Japan) & the 2019 Booker Prize

The minute I saw this ravishing book cover, I wanted a copy. And – oh happy day – it’s turned out to be one of my most satisfying crime reads of the year.

Riku Onda, The Aosawa Murders (trans. from Japanese by Alison Watts, Bitter Lemon Press, out Jan 2020)

Opening line: What do you remember?

The Aosawa Murders is an fascinating exploration of a crime: the poisoning of seventeen people at a big family birthday party in 1970s Japan. The case was supposedly solved by the police, but as the novel immediately shows, a number of people have doubts that the truth was properly established – including the lead investigator. In particular, the enigmatic figure of Hisako, the blind daughter and sole family member to survive, is the focus of much scrutiny and speculation.

I loved this novel’s originality, intelligence and verve. Readers are invited to glean new clues about the murders from interviews carried out by an anonymous individual – a kind of Rashomon homage that sifts the memories of those close to the crime, such as local kids who visited the family home, the housekeeper’s daughter, the prime suspect’s neighbour, and the detective in charge of the case. One of these interviewees is Makiko Saiga, who wrote a bestselling book on the crime eleven years after it happened, and who reports on the interviews she carried out back then, creating a kind of Chinese-box narrative on three different time levels (1970s,1980s, 2000s). As we move through the novel, more and more details about what people knew are revealed, along with the toll the crime has taken on them personally. Beautifully written and translated, with great characterization and sense of place, I was hooked from the first to the last page.

Many thanks to Bitter Lemon Press for the preview copy.

Booker Prize news. As you’ve probably heard, the Booker Prize jury staged a ‘joyful mutiny’ and awarded the 2019 prize to two authorsBernadine Evaristo for Girl, Woman, Other, and Margaret Atwood for The Testaments.

I’ve yet to read Girl, Woman, Other, but can thoroughly recommend The Testaments, especially to fans of the Handmaid’s Tale and the excellent TV adaptation. It’s a surprisingly difficult novel to review without giving spoilers away, so I’ll resist detailed descriptions. Suffice to say that it’s a searing exploration of state-sanctioned crimes against women, and features one of the most complex and fascinating characters from the TV series, whose perspective provides fresh insights into the origins and workings of Gilead. It’s a book I’ll be reading at least twice…

Summertime crime (Australia, UK, Iceland)

I hope you’re all in a summery mood and finding time for some relaxing crime fiction – novels that whisk you away from humdrum everyday life and morale-sapping political shenanigans.

Here are three that have done the trick for me lately.

Chris Hammer, Scrublands (Wildfire, 2019)

This debut novel, set an isolated Australian town suffering from drought, has attracted some rave reviews. It opens with a puzzle: why would charismatic priest Byron Swift open fire on his own congregation from the church steps one Sunday morning, killing five men? A year on, burned-out journalist Martin Scarsden arrives in Riversend to write a feature on the impact of the tragedy on the community, and is struck by how what locals say doesn’t always fit into the accepted version of events.

I really enjoyed Scrublands, although things went a teensy bit bananas in the end. Big pluses for me included the intriguing puzzle of Swift’s actions, the depictions of troubled journalist Scarsden and the embattled Riversend community, and an utterly gripping section on the battle to contain a bushfire. The rather irritating characterization of the (stunningly beautiful) love interest and an increasingly overloaded plot were less beguiling. In the end, there were enough twists and turns to fill three crime novels, and the chunks of exposition needed to explain these felt a bit intrusive. But overall this was a worthwhile and entertaining read, and very well written in parts.

Lesley Thomson, The Dog Walker (Head of Zeus, 2017)

Lesley Thomson’s ‘The Detective’s Daughter’ series has become one of my favourites in recent years. I always enjoy the company of her quirky sleuthing duo, Stella Darnell (detective’s daughter and cleaner extraordinaire) and her sidekick Jack Harmon. In The Dog Walker, Stella and Jack investigate the 1987 disappearance of Helen Honeysett, a young wife who went for a run along the Thames towpath one evening and never came home. Suspicion immediately fell on one of her neighbours, but perhaps he was innocent after all? Thomson provides readers with an intriguing array of suspects living in a row of five riverside cottages (there’s a great little map at the front of the novel showing who lives where). The chapters set in the 1980s stand out for their narration of events from a child’s perspective – that of young Megan – and are extremely well observed.

If you’re new to this series, I’d recommend reading the series opener, The Detective’s Daughter, before you start this one.

Quentin Bates, Cold Breath, Constable 2018 

Another of my favourite investigators is Officer Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladdóttir, a no-nonsense middle-aged Icelandic policewoman. In this, the seventh novel in Quentin Bates’ absorbing series, Gunna is placed in the unusual position of acting as a police bodyguard to Osman, a high-profile foreign guest. What should be a straightforward assignment turns into something much more serious when there’s an attempt on Osman’s life. The novel tracks events from the perspectives of the would-be assassins, those unfortunate enough to inadvertently get in their way, and Gunna and Osman respectively. The larger mystery of Osman’s identity hangs over proceedings as well. A thrilling plot, strong characterization and plenty of wry humour all make for a great read – and the novel’s Icelandic settings are evocatively drawn.

What stand-out crime novels have you been reading this summer?

Post your recommendations below! 

‘I insist it’s Moscow Rules’: John le Carré’s Karla Trilogy and Sarah Armstrong’s The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt

My reading has veered off in a curious direction in the last couple of weeks. First, I found myself revisiting two novels in John le Carré’s Karla TrilogyTinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People – then reading Sarah Armstrong’s thought-provoking The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt, and then watching the 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor. I suspect the Alec Guinness TV series will be next.

All, of course, are set during the 1970s at the height of the Cold War.

Le Carré’s novels detail the epic battle between master spy George Smiley and KGB supremo ‘Karla’ for the soul of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

Tinker Tailor draws heavily on the jaw-dropping 1960s revelations that high-ranking British MI6 officers such as Kim Philby had for decades operated as Russian double agents. Pretty much all Smiley knows at the beginning of the novel is that there’s a mole at the top of ‘the Circus’, and his against-the-odds quest to unearth the spy remains a brilliant and exhilarating tale. I love the original cover with its creepy Russian dolls, which perfectly captures the novel’s mesmerising ‘stories within stories within stories’ structure.

Sarah Armstrong’s new novel The Wolves of Leninsky Prospekt (Sandstone Press) is a highly original Cold War thriller. Set in Soviet Russia in the mid-1970s, it traces the tensions and dangers of the period through the eyes of frustrated diplomatic wife Martha. She’s forged a marriage of convenience with childhood friend Kit: he needs to cover up the fact that he’s gay, and she needs an escape from her oppressive family and a dull English life. We follow Martha into the topsy-turvy world of Moscow, where she tries to make sense of the city and its inhabitants, and of a fraught political environment in which anyone can turn out to be a spy – sometimes even without knowing it themselves.

I loved this novel’s sense of place and the way it captures the Kafkaesque absurdities of Soviet life at the time (maps with areas left blank; demolished churches that are instantly ‘forgotten’ by Russian citizens). It also very deftly shows, like le Carré’s novels, that the lines between ‘them’ and ‘us’ are often very blurred.

So why this odd Russian turn? As with so many things these days, I’m going to have to blame Brexit, our very own murky, messy, political stew. There are still a number of unanswered questions about Russian interference in the 2016 EU Referendum, which I’m sure will one day make it to the big screen. And just as le Carré’s forty-year-old novels take on a new resonance in these turbulent political times, so they also provide some solace – particularly in their depiction of Smiley’s dogged pursuit of the truth, and his grit and determination when the chips are down.

*The quote in this post’s title comes from le Carré’s Smiley’s People. The termMoscow Rules’ signals the need to take utmost care on an operation, and is also specific set of rules – e.g. carry intel in a camouflaged fashion (such as in a pack of cigarettes), so you can discard it easily if needed.

Crime smörgåsbord: Jónasson’s The Darkness (Iceland), Kidd’s Himself (Ireland), Miller’s American By Day (US/Norway), Herron’s Slow Horses (UK)

A very belated Happy New Year to you all! Work’s been a bit manic for the last few weeks, and looks set to continue that way for a while, so please excuse the slightly *ahem* stretchy gaps between my posts. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible!

Happily, I’ve still been reading behind the scenes, even if I’ve not managed to post as much as I’d like. Here are some highlights…

Ragnar Jónasson, The Darkness, trans. Victoria Cribb (Penguin 2018, Iceland).

First line: ‘How did you find me?’ the woman asked.

Jónasson is best known in the UK for his ‘Ari Thór’ series, published by Orenda Books. The Darkness is the first in a trilogy called ‘Hidden Iceland’, featuring the rather taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. Hulda is 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 its end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. I’m looking forward to seeing where this trilogy will go next. The Darkness is one of this year’s Petrona Award contenders.

Jess Kidd, Himself (Canongate, 2017)

First line: ‘Mahony shoulders his rucksack, steps off the bus and stands in the dead centre of the village of Mulderrig’

Kidd’s The Hoarder was one of my top Christmas picks this year, and made me seek out her debut, Himself, as quickly as I could. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her behaviour and supposedly disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Derek B. Miller, American By Day (Penguin 2018, US/Norway).

First line: Sigrid Ødegård’s hands rest on the unopened blue folder as she stares out the window of her office.

Miller’s first novel, Norwegian By Night, is one of my favourite crime novels ever (see my rave review here), and this follow up novel features Sigrid Ødegård, the policewoman Sheldon met at the end of that first story. American By Day is a clever counterpart to its predecessor: while Norwegian By Night showed us an American recently transplanted to Norway, American By Day transplants a Norwegian to America, thereby opening the door to a wide-ranging comparison of the two countries’ values and policing cultures, especially in relation to race. Sigrid is a richly drawn, thoughtful character, unsettled by something she did in the course of her policing duties in Norway, and whose brother may have been involved in the death of his girlfriend, an American academic. With the help of US sheriff Irving Wylie and some Sheldon-esque chutzpah, she sets about getting to the bottom of the matter. Intelligent, accomplished and entertaining.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (Hodder & Stoughton 2010, UK)

First line: This is how River Cartwright slipped off the fast track and joined the slow horses.

I’m extremely late to the party as far as the ‘Jackson Lamb’ series goes, but who cares – I’m here now and I’m having fun. Far from the glamour of the Intelligence Services in Regent’s Park sits Slough House, home of the Slow Horses: agents who in some way or other have screwed up, but can’t quite be pushed out of the service completely as yet. Assigned to mundane tasks and managed by the uncouth Jackson Lamb, each hides painful secrets, while yearning to get back into the action somehow. That moment may have arrived when some kidnappers threaten to broadcast the execution of their hostage Hassan live on the internet. A fabulously entertaining introduction to the Slow Horses, which also has plenty to say about the callousness of ambition and power. Hints of le Carré, but presented in a breezy and darkly humorous way.