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

Gallic charm: Sébastien Japrisot’s The Sleeping Car Murders, tr. Francis Price (France)

Sébastien Japrisot, The Sleeping Car Murders, tr. from the French by Francis Price, Gallic Books 2020 [1962]

First lines: This is the way it began. The train was coming in from Marseille.

If you need to tiptoe away from the world and its troubles, why not head to the Gare de Lyon in Paris on an October morning in the 1960s. There, a guard checking a newly arrived sleeper from the South of France has just discovered a corpse in Berth 222: a woman last seen alive that morning by those who shared her sleeping compartment, but who is now very definitely and mysteriously deceased.

Enter Inspector Antoine Pierre Grazziano — or Grazzi — from police HQ at the Quai des Orfèvres. He and his team begin to investigate Georgette Thomas’s murder by tracking down the occupants of the other six berths, but soon find themselves stretched to the limit as the body count starts to rise.

There really is a lot to like about this inventive police procedural. Grazzi, the rather weary, harassed lead detective, is a sympathetic and quietly tenacious figure. The characterization throughout the novel – from the train guard to the other passengers to the perpetrator – is a rich delight. The style is sparky and wry, and there are some cracking plot twists, particularly towards the end.

Author Sébastien Japrisot (1931–2003) is the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossi (spot the anagram), who was a prolific crime writer, screenwriter and director. In 1965, The Sleeping Car Murders was turned into the film Compartiment tueurs, starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret; it was also the first film directed by Costa-Gavras. Here’s a brilliantly mad trailer.

I’m looking forward to reading more by this author – somewhere on the dial between Georges Simenon and Pascal Garnier?!

Sins of Omission: Damon Galgut’s The Promise (South Africa)

Damon Galgut’s The Promise, Chatto & Windus 2021

First line: The moment the metal box speaks her name, Amor knows it’s happened.

What’s this, you cry? A hefty Booker Prize winner infiltrating the pages of an international crime fiction blog? You betcha! Because even if The Promise is literary with a capital ‘L’ and requires a tiny bit of readerly patience at the start, it’s packed to the gills with crime and will soon have you hooked.

The novel opens in 1986 South Africa with a death and a promise. Just before dying of cancer at the family farm outside Pretoria, Rachel Swart makes her husband promise that Salome, the Black woman who has worked faithfully for the Swarts her entire life, will be gifted the house she lives in. Manie agrees, then conveniently ‘forgets’ he ever did such a thing. But youngest daughter Amor overheard the promise being made, and that act of witnessing sets off a chain of events down the years – in four novel parts spaced roughly a decade apart.

Set against the backdrop of South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy, the entire novel is laced with crime: the crime of apartheid itself and of those who collude in it, the crime of breaking a deathbed promise that might right some of its wrongs, and the criminality that springs up in societies riven with inequality. Oh yes, and there are two murders, which mirror one another in their terrible casualness.

And then there is the writing, sweeping and luminous, that takes us into the minds of the whole family and the complex community around them.

He did promise. I heard him.
He promised Ma he would give Salome her house.

Her little face is lit from within by its sureness.

Amor, he says gently.

What?

Salome can't own the house.
Even if Pa wanted to, he can't give it to her.

Why not? she says, puzzled.

Because, he says. It's against the law.

The law? Why?

You are not serious. 
But then he looks at her and sees how serious she is.
Oh, dear me, he says. 
Do you have no idea what country you're living in?

So run, don’t walk – get yourself a copy of this incredible novel. There’s further info and an audio extract from The Promise over at the Booker Prize website.

Crime leads: Walter Presents + V&Q books + 2022 crime fiction in translation

Introducing Mrs Peabody’s ‘crime leads’: an occasional feature rounding up the best of international crime fiction news.

I’m not sure how many crime fans realise that Walter Presents which made its name by bringing a curated selection of TV dramas to our screens — has forged a partnership with Pushkin Press. I certainly hadn’t…

At the moment there are four crime novels in the ‘Walter Presents’ series, by Flemish, French and Italian authors, and if they’re anything as good as the crime dramas dear Walter picks out (such as the superlative Deutschland ’83) then we’re in for a major treat. The one that’s particularly caught my eye is Roberto Perroni’s The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, with this lovely noir cover.

Here’s the blurb: “Annibale Canessa was a legend: the most notorious cop during Italy’s brutal Years of Lead, he hunted down terrorist suspects with unmatched ferocity. But then the fighting stopped, and suddenly Canessa was a soldier without a war.

30 years later and he’s settled into a life of calm by the sea – until some shattering news pulls him back in. His estranged brother has been found dead; lying beside him, the body of an ex-terrorist, a man Canessa himself caught.”

The Bookseller reports that V&Q Books — headed by translator-publisher Katy Derbyshire — has bought the rights to Sally McGrane’s thriller Odessa at Dawn. The book follows ex-CIA man Max Rushmore on a trip to Odessa that veers badly off course… His journey leads him to dubious businessmen, corrupt officials, catacomb dwellers, scientists, pastry-chefs, poets, archivists, cops – and killers. Described as a ‘surreal contemporary spin on the classic spy novel’ that pays tribute to past Odessa residents like Babel, Gogol, Pushkin and Chekhov, it’s also an ode to the city itself. Sounds mighty intriguing – and highly topical given the current situation in Ukraine.

As it happens, I’m just reading a comic novel/mystery caper from the eclectic V&Q list: Isabel Bogdan’s The Peacock, deftly translated from the German by Annie Rutherford. It’s set a long way from Odessa – in the Scottish Highlands no less – and features a hilarious ensemble cast including the eponymous, rather cross peacock. Think Monarch of the Glen sprinkled with P. G. Wodehouse and Hamish Macbeth – a wonderful balm if you’re feeling a bit frazzled with the world.

And finally, if you’re one of those crime buffs who likes to look ahead and possibly even compile spreadsheets of your reading for the year, then here are two very useful lists:

Fiction from Afar: ‘Unmissable Crime Fiction in Translation due in 2022’

Euro Crime: ‘Releases in 2022’

Because we obviously don’t have enough crime novels already 🙂

Love and Friendship: Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes, tr. John Cullen (Argentina)

Eduardo Sacheri, The Secret in Their Eyes, tr. from the Spanish by John Cullen,(Other Press, 2011 [2005])

First line: Benjamin Miguel Chaparro stops short and decides he’s not going.

I don’t often re-read crime novels. This is largely because crime is so plot-driven: once you know the ‘solution’, you’ve got less reason to return. But naturally there are exceptions – crime novels which tell their story in such a way that you’re drawn to them repeatedly, perhaps because you love the company of the characters or the setting, or because the book tells you something new each time you read it.

Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in Their Eyes is one such novel. I’ve read it three times now and I’m sure there’ll be a fourth. It’s been on my mind lately because it celebrates love and friendship in adversity, and so feels timely in spite of its setting – Argentina in the second half of the twentieth century.

Benjamin Chaparro is freshly retired from his position as Deputy Clerk of an investigative court in Buenos Aires. Now a man of leisure, he decides to write a book about a case that’s haunted him since 1968 – the murder of a young woman, Liliana Colotto, at home one summer’s day. Oscillating between the past and the present, and spanning twenty-five years, the narrative tells the story of the murder and its repercussions for those left behind: grieving husband Ricardo Morales, investigator Benjamin – and the murderer.

While undoubtedly crime fiction, The Secret in Their Eyes is also a historical novel, exploring the time before, during and after Argentina’s Guerra Sucia or Dirty War (1976-1983). This period saw a state-sponsored campaign of violence against ‘politically subversive’ citizens, resulting in the ‘disappearance’ of 10,000 to 30,000 Argentinians. Both of the novel’s strands – the criminal and the historical – focus on the nature of justice and on the impact of a justice that is delayed or denied.

But the novel is also a love story – that of a husband and wife (Ricardo and Liliana), and of long-time co-workers (Benjamin and his boss, Irene) – as well as the moving chronicle of a friendship (Benjamin and his colleague Sandoval). Beautifully written, with complex and often endearing characters, the novel is a rich, satisfying read – a multilayered narrative of genuine humanity and warmth.

I first read The Secret in Their Eyes after seeing Juan José Campanella’s film adaptation, El secreto de sus ojos, which won the 2010 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. What a fabulous adaptation this is, especially in its use of the visual to bring out key themes: close-ups of eyes and gazes, for example, and the symbolism of the colour red – look out in particular for Irene’s roses. The acting is superb, and the wittiness of the script really captures the dynamics of Benjamin, Irene and Sandoval’s relationships.

But there are also some modifications to the plot: Irene is much more present in the film than in the novel (which I liked), and there were a couple of other changes towards the end designed to provide some extra drama (which I wasn’t so keen on). However, the latter certainly aren’t deal-breakers. It’s rare that a novel and film adaptation complement each other so well, and I hearily recommend both.

Don’t bother with the later Hollywood adaptation starring Julia Roberts et al. It got a 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – ’nuff said.

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 🙂

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.

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.

Sound of the 70s: Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Velvet was the Night (Mexico)

Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Velvet was the Night, Jo Fletcher Books 2021

First line: He didn’t like beating people.

Mexican-Canadian writer Silvia Moreno-Garcia is one of those ridiculously talented authors who can turn her hand to any genre. She’s probably best known for her novel Mexican Gothic (it does what it says on the tin), but describes her latest novel as ‘noir/pulp fiction’, albeit with an unusual historical twist.

Velvet was the Night is set in 1970s Mexico during the ‘Guerra sucia’ or Dirty War, which saw the right-wing government abduct, imprison and often murder those viewed as a threat to its ideology and power – especially left-wing students and working-class activists. Audaciously, one of the novel’s main characters is a member of Los Halcones – the Hawks – a shadowy group of heavies trained by the government (with the covert backing of the CIA) to disrupt student demos and worse. The codename of the young man in question is El Elvis, after his musical idol, and it is through his eyes that we observe both the internal workings of the group and the psychology of an individual who’s got himself into a serious fix.

Velvet‘s other key figure is Maite Jaramillo, a secretary terrified of spinsterhood, who escapes the everyday grind and turbulent politics around her through a love of music and Secret Romance magazines. She also harbours a grubby secret of her own: she likes to steal small items from her neighbours’ apartments while pet-sitting for them. It’s when beautiful, bohemian student Leonora disappears –  and thus fails to reclaim her cat – that Maite’s humdrum world gets turned upside down.

Along with the characterisation, a key strength of Velvet was the Night is its tightly plotted narrative. Its ending feels satisfying and complete, but could also serve as an intriguing beginning to a whole other story. Another very nice touch is the playlist at the back of the novel, which showcases the songs woven into the text – a clever nod to the subversive status of certain kinds of music in 1970s Mexico. You can find it on Spotify here.

True crime tidbit: many who work in the world of publishing, like my good self, have been following a bizarre, long-running case involving fake identities and a phishing scam whose aim was getting hold of valuable manuscripts prior to publication. News comes this morning that the FBI has made an arrest… Innocent until proven guilty, of course, but it’s quite a breakthrough in what’s an absolutely fascinating case for bookish types – not least in relation to the question of motivation. It’ll make a great podcast.