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

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…)

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.

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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

The 2017 Crime Writers’ Association Daggers – a golden year!

It’s one of the biggest crime events of the year. And 2017 has been a particularly golden year for the CWA Daggers, with a number of awards going to outstanding and pleasingly varied works.

No less than three CWA winners – set in Australia, India and Sweden – have been championed on Mrs. Peabody Investigates:

Huge congratulations also to Ann Cleeves and Mari Hannah on their richly deserved awards!

If you’re looking for new crime reads or present ideas, then I would thoroughly recommend having a browse on the individual Dagger webpages, each of which lists the winning, shortlisted and longlisted titles. Here’s a link to the Historical Dagger page so you can see – it’s quite a treasure trove. Links to the other Daggers are on the left-hand side.

Bad case of Weltschmerz? Try Indian elephants, Icelandic chills and Series 2 of The Code

Tearing your hair out over Brexit? Anxious about the US election results? Worried about the bees and climate change? If so, you may be suffering from a German malady called Weltschmerz – a sense of frustration, pain and despair at the state of the world (Welt = world; Schmerz = pain, ache, sorrow).

When Weltschmerz strikes crime fans, certain reading difficulties may arise. You may not feel in quite the right mood to tackle a social crime novel revealing further grim realities about the world, or noir crime devoid of the faintest glimmer of happiness or hope. You may instead find yourself drawn to crime that provides a refreshing antidote or escape, also known as Respite Crime.

Option 1. Comedy crime involving baby elephants

chopra-book-pile

Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation (Mulholland Books/Hodder, 2015)

Any crime novel that’s been called ‘utterly charming’ (The Guardian) or ‘endearing’ (The Sunday Times), would normally make me run for the hills. The same goes for crime series that use excessive whimsy (‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, I’m looking at you). While The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra strays into such territory occasionally, there’s enough grit about modern-day Indian life in Mumbai to give this novel plenty of interest and depth.

The opening shows Inspector Ashwin Chopra, who’s about to retire from the police, discovering that he’s inherited an Indian elephant from his uncle Bansi. A cute, baby elephant. When Chopra investigates one last case – the suspicious death of a young man found on some waste ground – policeman and elephant form an unlikely investigative team. It’s a well-written, entertaining and satisfying read, and a funny, life-affirming antidote to Weltschmerz.

Did I mention the baby elephant? He’s really cute.

Option 2. Scare yourself witless with terrifying Icelandic crime

yrsa-s-why-did-you-lie

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Why Did You Lie?, trans by Victoria Cribb (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016 [2013]; a 2017 Petrona Award submission).

Or you could go completely the other way and immerse yourself in a chilling world where hapless individuals are being killed off one by one for telling lies. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves three narratives: that of a young policewoman whose journalist husband has recently committed suicide, a work group stranded on the Þrídrangar lighthouse as hostile Icelandic weather closes in, and a family who return after a house-swap to find their American guests are missing. The author has an impressively fertile imagination and expertly ratchets up the suspense. It’s perhaps not one to read too late at night, but is brilliant at keeping Weltschmerz at bay. You’ll simply be too terrified to think about anything else.

Þrídrangar

The Þrídrangar lighthouse

Option 3. Lose yourself in some top-quality crime drama set on the other side of the world

By happy coincidence, the second series of outstanding Australian political thriller The Code starts on BBC4 this Saturday 22 October at 9.00pm. Series 1 aired back in 2014 – you can read my post on it here.

code

Opening episode: After the events of series 1, journalist Ned Banks and his computer hacker brother Jesse face the prospect of being extradited to the US to face criminal charges. Fortunately for them, Australian National Security has an explosive case it can’t crack, and Jesse may be the man to do it. The brothers also encounter black-market king Jan Roth, and risk being drawn into his shady world. 

If those options fail, treat yourself to this lovely clip of Mike, aka the ‘Hamster of Serenity’. Here he is eating a carrot. If you turn the volume up you can hear him munching.

Author interview with Abir Mukherjee about Calcutta crime novel A Rising Man

Wishing a very happy publication day to Abir Mukherjee! Abir is the winner of the 2014 ‘Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing’ competition. A Rising Man, his highly accomplished debut crime novel, is set in Calcutta in 1919 and marks the start of the ‘Captain Wyndham’ series. He joins me below for a fascinating interview about the novel, his historical research, and the writers who inspire him.

A RISING MAN

Opening lines: ‘At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.’

Cover text: Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard Detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

Abir Mukherjee c. Nick Tucker MAIN PHOTO

Abir Mukherjee (photo by Nick Tucker)

Mrs. Peabody: Abir, thanks very much for joining me. A Rising Man is set in the India of 1919, just after the end of the First World War. Why did you choose that particular historical moment for the start of your series?

Abir: My parents came to Britain as immigrants from India in the sixties, and my life has always been shaped by both cultures. As such I’ve always been interested in the period of British Rule in India. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and to modern Britain, but it’s a period that’s been largely forgotten or mischaracterised, either romanticised or brushed under the carpet.

I’ve always been rather surprised by this and wanted to look at it from the point of view of an outsider who’s new to it all. One of the things that’s always fascinated me is that, in an era when totalitarian regimes were rampant in Europe, regularly murdering anyone who showed any dissent, in India, this largely peaceful freedom struggle was playing out between Indians and their British overlords. At the time, there was no parallel to this anywhere in the world, and I think it says a lot about the people of both nations that such a struggle could be played out in an comparatively civilised way.

Huntley and Palmer Raj

A thoroughly British depiction of the Indian Raj

Abir: I also wanted to explore the effect of empire on both the rulers and the ruled. In particular I wanted to understand what happens when a democratic nation subjugates another, both in terms of the impact on the subjugated peoples, but just as importantly, on the psyche of the people doing the oppressing. I think the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system were immense and in something that’s been relatively unexamined.

I wanted to write a series exploring the relationships between these two different, but in many ways very similar cultures, but from the viewpoint of someone new to it all and 1919 just felt like the right place to start. To me, it was the start of the modern age. The Great War had just ended, it had destroyed a lot of the old certainties and left a lot of people disillusioned and no longer willing to simply accept what they were told by their betters. Sam, the protagonist, is a product of that time and I think he is one of the first modern men.

Calcutta map

Kolkata/Calcutta lies in the east of India on the Bay of Bengal

Mrs. Peabody: How did you go about recreating the Calcutta of the time? What kind of research did you carry out?

Abir: In the period that the book is set, Calcutta was still the premier city in Asia and was as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. At the same time, it was a city undergoing immense change and was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. It seemed the natural choice for the series I wanted to write. Of course, it helped that my parents are both from Calcutta and I’d spent a quite a bit of time there over the years. I even speak the language, though with a Scottish accent.

In terms of recreating the Calcutta of the period, it’s amazing how much of that history is still around in the Calcutta (or Kolkata) of today. Calcuttans have a great sense of the history of their city, possibly because the city was at its zenith during that period, and so many people were more than willing to answer the many questions I had.

During one visit, I was lucky enough to be granted access to the Calcutta Police Museum where a lot of the police documents from the period are on exhibit. That was fascinating as the Kolkata Police today has a rather ambivalent view of its own history during that time. In terms of research though, most of that was done sitting at home in front of the computer and trawling the internet.

Mrs. Peabody: Tell us a bit about your leading investigator, Captain Sam Wyndham, and the perspective he offers us of India.

Abir: Sam’s a rather strange fish. He’s an ex-Scotland Yard detective who’s basically spent his whole life struggling against the tide. Life’s not exactly been kind to him. He gets packed off to boarding school at a young age and some of his best years were spent sitting in a trench in France getting shot at by Germans. He survives the war, though only to find that his wife has died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Scarred by his wartime experiences and burdened by survivor’s guilt, he comes to India mainly because he has no better alternative.

At the point in his life where he arrives in Calcutta, he’s a pretty jaded soul with a bit of an alcohol and chemical dependency, though he’d tell you he used them for medicinal purposes. He’s been disillusioned by the war and I think he’s more open to seeing India with his own eyes than swallowing everything he’s told. He’s happy to point out hypocrisy where he sees it, whether it be from the whites or the natives.

Mrs Peabody: The novel does a wonderful job of dissecting the political, racial and social tensions of life under the British Raj. Do you think that crime fiction offers particular opportunities in this respect?

Abir: Definitely. I think most authors have something to say beyond the telling of a good story and I think crime fiction is a wonderful vehicle for exploring deeper societal issues, because it allows you to look at all of society from the top to the bottom.

As Ian Rankin said in an interview earlier this year, “the crime novel is a good way of raising this stuff because … a detective has an access all areas pass to the entire city, to its riches and deprivations.”

In terms of India in 1919, as a white policeman, Sam has is exposed to all sections of Calcutta society, from the politicians and businessmen right down to the rickshaw-wallahs and brothel keepers. He’s part of the whole fabric, but at the same time separate from it and able to see it objectively.

Kolkata flower market

Kolkata flower market. Image Courtesy of Parasarathi Mukherjee, Walks in Kolkata

Mrs Peabody: Which authors/works have inspired you as a writer?

Abir: There are so many.

There are the books which have left the greatest impression on me and which I’ve read quite a few times. At the top of that list would come George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian views of the future and this is, in my opinion, the finest dystopian novel. I’ve read this book more times than I can remember and it’s a joy every time. The characterization of Winston and Julia’s relationship, set against the backdrop of this all-powerful totalitarian society is just fantastic.

Lahiri

Abir: Other works that have left an impression include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a story about the travails of a Bengali couple who immigrate from Calcutta to Boston and raise a family. My wife first introduced me to this book and I was just bowled over by it. The writing is sublime and I could relate to it in a way I haven’t to many other books.

Then there are others which are pretty special, like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a tale of love lost set in the world of string quartets, Kafka’s The Trial – the only book I’ve read that made me feel claustrophobic, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls with its amazing use of language.

In terms of crime and thrillers, there are a number of authors whose work I look out for and will buy as soon as it hits the shelf. Top of this list has to be Ian Rankin – I’m a huge Rebus fan, but also love the standalone novels too. Then there’s Philip Kerr, Martin Cruz Smith and Robert Harris, all three of whom produce novels shot through with wit and an intelligence, something which I love.

Finally, and in a special category, there’s William McIlvanney, whose Glasgow Detective, Laidlaw is a fantastic creation. I think McIlvanney was a true genius. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.

Mrs P: Many thanks, Abir!

A Rising Man is published by Harvill Secker on 5 May 2016 (priced £12.99) 

#47 Anita Nair’s A Cut-like Wound (India)

Anita Nair, A Cut-like Wound (London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]). Set in Bangalore, this crime novel introduces readers to Inspector Borei Gowda and provides a rare insight into the world of the hijra. 3.5 stars

Nair Wound

Opening lines: It wasn’t the first time. But it always felt like the first time as he stood in front of the mirror, uncertain, undecided, on the brink of something monumental. On the bare marble counter was a make-up kit.

There’s been so much wonderful TV crime drama to report on that I’m a bit behind on my book reviews. So it’s time to explore a crime novel by Anita Nair, an extremely versatile Indian writer known for her novels, essays, children’s fiction, poetry and travelogues. A Cut-like Wound, published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2014, two years after its original publication, is her first foray into crime.

A Cut-like Wound is set in present-day Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru) in India’s southern Karnataka state, and skilfully evokes the heat and dust of this crowded city. Inspector Borei Gowda, the novel’s main investigator, is an engaging creation: in the throes of a mid-life crisis, with a stalling career and a lacklustre marriage, we see him pondering his future in the face of temptation from old flame Urmila, who’s just resurfaced in his life. His struggles with workplace power dynamics as he tries to solve a series of brutal murders are also well drawn.

Like all good international crime fiction, A Cut-Like Wound provides readers with the opportunity to learn about a different culture and society. The novel provides a rounded picture of Bangalore and depicts the lives of citizens from a range of social and economic backgrounds. There’s also an intriguing insight into the city’s minority community of hijra (transgender individuals and eunuchs), who occupy an ambiguous space in Indian society: often depicted in comic supporting roles in Indian cinema, they’re also frequently the victims of real life prejudice and violence. In 2014, in a major group victory, the Indian supreme court awarded hijra the right to select a ‘third gender’ category on official documents, giving them legal visibility at last.  

FHI BANGLADESH

A group of Hijra in Bangladesh. Credit: USAID Bangladesh

Less convincing for me was the depiction of the murderer within the novel. The motivation for the killings didn’t ring completely true, even though I could see the psychological rationale the author was trying to employ. This weakness and a slight unevenness in narrative tone leads me to give A Cut-like Wound a rating of 3.5 stars. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about Indian crime fiction, take a look at the following:

And on its way in 2016: the winner of the 2014 Harvill Secker Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel is set in 1919 Calcutta and shows British policeman Captain Sam Wyndham investigating the politically sensitive murder of a senior government official against the backdrop of the ‘quit India’ movement. I’ve had an advance copy, and am enjoying this hugely assured debut very much. The Wyndham series and its author are definitely ones to watch.  

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Globetrotting crime: Auckland, Bangalore, Barcelona, Havana

Family Peabody is off on holiday in a cunning attempt to extend summer a little longer. As ever, my first priority has been choosing which books to take along. And by books, I mean actual books to read while lying by the pool/sipping a drink on the balcony/ enjoying a coffee in a cafe. Time to savour a break from the electronic world and wind down in seventies style.

reading

Here are four novels that have made the cut. All happen to be published by Bitter Lemon Press, which champions top quality crime fiction from all over the world. I made my choices on the basis of the cover blurb (see below), the setting, and that tingly feeling that makes you think you’ll enjoy a book. As a result, some are from the middle or even the end of a series, but that’s fine…

AUCKLAND/NEW ZEALAND: Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press 2013 [2012])

Death on demand

Maori cop Tito Ihaka – ‘unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane’ – is a cop unable to play the police politics necessary for promotion, but a man who has a way with women, and he’s a stubborn investigator with an uncanny instinct for the truth. Ihaka is in the wilderness, having fallen foul of the new regime at Auckland Central. Called back to follow up a strange twist in the unsolved case that got him into trouble in the first place, Ihaka finds himself hunting a shadowy hitman who could have several notches on his belt. His enemies want him off the case, but the bodies are piling up. Ihaka embarks on a quest to establish whether police corruption was behind the shooting of an undercover cop and – to complicate matters – he becomes involved with an enigmatic female suspect who could hold the key to everything.

An extract from Death on Demand is available on the Bitter Lemon website.

BANGALORE/INDIA: A Cut-like Wound by Anita Nair (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]

cut

It’s the first day of Ramadan in heat-soaked Bangalore. A young man begins to dress: makeup, a sari and expensive pearl earrings. Before the mirror he is transformed into Bhuvana. She is a hijra, a transgender seeking love in the bazaars of the city. What Bhuvana wants, she nearly gets: a passing man is attracted to this elusive young woman. But someone points out that Bhuvana is no woman. For that, the interloper’s throat is cut. A case for Inspector Borei Gowda, going to seed and at odds with those around him including his wife, his colleagues, even the informers he must deal with. More corpses and Urmila, Gowda’s ex-flame, are added to this spicy concoction of a mystery novel.

Read an extract from A Cut-like Wound here.

BARCELONA/SPAIN: A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2011 [2007)

a-shortcut-to-paradise_1024x1024 (1)

The shady, accident-prone private detective twins Eduard Martinez and Borja ‘Pep’ Masdeu are back. Another murder beckons, and this time the victim is one of Barcelona’s literary glitterati.

Marina Dolç, media figure and writer of best-sellers, is murdered in the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona on the night she wins an important literary prize. The killer has battered her to death with the trophy she has just won, an end identical to that of the heroine in her prize-winning novel. The same night the Catalan police arrest their chief suspect, Amadeu Cabestany, runner-up for the prize. Borja and Eduard are hired to prove his innocence. The unlikely duo is plunged into the murky waters of the Barcelona publishing scene and need all their wit and skills of improvisation to solve this case of truncated literary lives.

Read an extract from A Shortcut to Paradise here.

HAVANA/CUBA: Leonardo Padura, Havana Fever (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2009 [2005]

havana

Havana, 2003, fourteen years since Mario Conde retired from the police force and much has changed in Cuba. He now makes a living trading in antique books bought from families selling off their libraries in order to survive. In the house of Alcides de Montes de Oca, a rich Cuban who fled after the fall of Batista, Conde discovers an extraordinary book collection and, buried therein, a newspaper article about Violeta del Rio, a beautiful bolero singer of the 1950s, who disappeared mysteriously. Conde’s intuition sets him off on an investigation that leads him into a darker Cuba, now flooded with dollars, populated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and other hunters of the night. But this novel also allows Padura to evoke the Havana of Batista, the city of a hundred night clubs where Marlon Brando and Josephine Baker listened to boleros, mambos and jazz. Probably Padura’s best book, Havana Fever is many things: a suspenseful crime novel, a cruel family saga and an ode to literature and his beloved, ravaged island.

An extract from Havana Fever is available here.

Happy reading! Mrs. Peabody will be back in a couple of weeks. 

Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects (India)

Vikas Swarup, Six Suspects (London: Black Swan 2008). The crime novel as vehicle for a darkly humorous and highly critical portrait of modern India. 

 Opening sentence: Not all deaths are equal. There’s a caste system even in murder.

For the first time this blog travels to India, as part of a concerted effort to broaden its transnational criminal horizons.

Six Suspects is the second literary offering of Vikas Swarup, who hit the international jackpot when his highly-praised first novel, Q&A, was adapted for film as the phenomenally successful Slumdog Millionaire (eight Oscars and numerous other accolades). Not bad for a book that was written in a mere two months.

Six Suspects is a rather unusual crime novel. While drawing heavily on the conventions of classic detective fiction (there’s a murder, a drawing room of sorts, and the eponymous set of suspects), Swarup uses the genre primarily for satirical purposes, providing the reader with a darkly humorous and often scathing critique of modern India.

The suspects – a bureaucrat, a Bollywood actress, a thief, a politician, an American tourist and a tribesman from the Andaman Islands – are selected for the spectrum of perspectives they offer on contemporary Indian society, and allow Swarup to explore his key themes of political corruption, power and class in an uncompromising fashion (pretty daring given his day job as a member of the Indian civil service; currently Consul-General of India in Osaka-Kobe, Japan).

Much of the novel is taken up with tracing the life stories of the suspects and the motives that they might have had for killing Vivek ‘Vicky’ Rai, a disreputable thirty-two-year-old businessman and playboy, who also happens to be the son of the powerful Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, relatively little emphasis is placed upon the process of investigation: the role of detective is played in part by Arun Advani, a journalist renowned for exposing corruption and injustice, but he only features significantly at the beginning and the end of this chunky 557-page text.

I found Six Suspects very enjoyable in a number of respects. As someone who has visited India in the past, the novel’s evocative descriptions of the sights and sounds of everyday life, and the huge disjunction between rich and poor rang very true. The novel also travels widely around India, beginning and ending in Delhi, but taking in other locations such as Srinagar, Jaisalmer, Varanasi, Kolkata and the Andaman Islands on the way (the latter are a remote and very beautiful group of islands in the Bay of Bengal that ‘belong’ politically to India, and which are home to ethnic tribes such as the Onges and Jarawa). The novel thus takes readers on a wide-ranging geographical and cultural journey which will be highly rewarding for those with an interest in India.

Another hugely enjoyable aspect of the novel is its biting satirical humour, and its witty nod to Salman Rushdie and magical realism (I particularly liked the possession of a grumpy, philandering ex-politician by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi).

On the minus side, I felt the novel was a bit overlong and that its depiction of some characters and incidents was too exaggerated to be effective in the larger context of Swarup’s satire. As a result, the narrative felt rather uneven at times, and while I remained admiring of the author’s ambitious use of the crime genre to create a satirical portrait of India, I wasn’t sure that he’d completely succeeded in his aim when I closed the book for the final time.

I discovered Six Suspects at our city library, which has a superlative collection of crime fiction. If you’d like to read an extract from the novel, you can do so here on the author’s website.