When translators go rogue: Hannelore Cayre’s The Godmother, tr. Stephanie Smee (France)

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. from the French by Stephanie Smee, Old Street Publishing 2020

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

I re-read this smart, blackly comic French crime novel while holidaying in Weston-super-Mare — a setting about as far removed from Paris as Jupiter (think chips on the beach, donkey rides etc.) And I’ve found myself thinking increasingly about the central figure of ‘The Godmother’ over the last few days, probably due to the news coverage of this Sunday’s French elections.

Meet Madame Patience Portefeux, a respectable 53-year-old French-Arabic translator and interpreter whom life has dealt a series of blows. After years of freelancing and struggling to pay her mother’s care home fees, she realises that all she can expect is a poverty-stricken, pension-less old age. When fate hands her the opportunity to get rich, thanks to her work translating police phone-taps of drug gang conversations, she takes it, fashioning a new identity for herself as The Godmother, drug dealer extraordinaire.

Patience relates her story with wit and verve – all credit to Stephanie Smee here for her assured and sparky translation. And it really is a hugely funny, outrageous tale featuring an eccentric cast of characters, such as DNA the ex-drug-detection-dog. But reading the novel for a second time, I definitely appreciated its satirical dimensions more. The author has some serious things to say about middle-aged women who endlessly prop up their offspring and parents, the financial traps that poorly paid freelancers can fall into, and the way in which French racism and the collapse of the ‘social contract’ (work-hard-and-you’ll-be-rewarded) can lead individuals to a life of crime.

The latter applies to her own parents – Patience is the daughter of a French-Tunisian father and Austrian-Jewish mother – as well as to young men from immigrant communities in the banlieues outside Paris. And it’s notable that this outwardly respectable and very ‘French’ woman is careful not to reveal her own complex heritage to others: it’s vital that she’s perceived as someone who belongs, not a ‘vulgar foreigner or outsider’ — unless she’s posing as a Moroccan drug dealer, that is….

The Godmother won the 2019 European Crime Fiction Prize, the 2019 Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, and the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger Award. It was recently made into a warmly received film entitled La daronne / Mama Weed (2020/2021), starring none other than the fabulous Isabelle Huppert.

On boggy ground: Tana French’s The Searcher (Ireland)

Tana French, The Searcher, Penguin 2020

First line: When Cal comes out of the house, the rooks have got hold of something. 

I loved this crime novel’s premise: a Chicago police detective takes early retirement after twenty-five years of service and a tricky divorce, and starts over in rural west Ireland. While fixing up his dilapidated house, he’s approached by a local teenager whose older brother has gone missing. Will he help?

Characterisation and location are at the heart of this novel, so everything unfolds at a leisurely pace. We come to know ex-cop Cal Hooper, teenager Trey and the inhabitants of Ardnaskelty, and get a feel for the dynamics of village life. While Cal really doesn’t want to get involved, Trey’s invisibility as the child of a poor family disliked by the community bothers him. Before he knows it, he’s started to investigate – and to stir things up.

Something about Cal reminded me of an old-fashioned sheriff in Westerns like High Noon. He has moral codes and a strong sense of right and wrong, but soon realises that things are more complex than he could ever have dreamed. Choices will have to be made, and the ground he walks on as an outsider is extremely boggy in parts – literally and metaphorically.

The Searcher is a thoughtful and satisfying crime novel with a particularly keen sense of place – conveyed both though its descriptions of nature and brilliant dialogue. Tourist Board Ireland this ain’t, but it’ll have a grip on you by the end.

Reading The Searcher reminded me of two other excellent (literary) crime novels.

In Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone (2006), teenager Ree searches for her missing father amid the grinding rural poverty of the American Ozarks. Trey’s brittle toughness and determination put me in mind of Ree, and the novel’s sense of place and dialogue are equally evocative. Jennifer Lawrence starred in the much-lauded film.

And then we have Jess Kidd’s Himself (2016), which is one of my all-time favourite crime novels. Like The Searcher, it’s set in a remote Irish village with an eccentric cast of characters, and traces a young man’s search for Orla, his vanished mother. It’s a freewheeling, psychedelic, wholly original portrait of 1970s rural Ireland, and although it’s tonally quite different to The Searcher, it also explores the secrecy and darkness that outwardly respectable communities hide.

Wishing you all a wonderful Easter break filled with bunnies, chocolate and plenty of crime! 

The Perfect Crime: Around the World in 22 Murders

The Perfect Crime: Around the World in 22 Murders, ed. by Vaseem Khan & Maxim Jakubowski, HarperCollins 2022

This hefty volume of crime stories is an absolute treat for all crime fans, but especially for fans of international crime. With twenty-two gripping tales that range from cosy to chilling to historical to noir, it takes us on a journey through a number of diverse cultures and satisfyingly murderous scenarios.

The volume is ground-breaking in one extremely important respect. As Maxim Jakubowski points out in the introduction, it gathers ‘for the very first time […] authors from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including African-American, Asian, First Nation, Aboriginal, Latinx, Chinese-American, Singaporean and Nigerian’. And as Vaseem Khan rightly asserts: ‘The case for diversity is overwhelming […] Fiction — especially crime fiction — provides a lens onto society […and] when we underrepresent minority backgrounds, we run the risk of aiding divisiveness rather than helping to correct it’.

Khan also highlights the important role readers play in terms of ‘being willing to take a chance on books featuring diverse characters’. Well, this reader is very enthusiastically raising her hand, and I know many others will be too (not least anyone who’s enjoyed Bridgerton, which has done more to break down racial barriers via another popular genre — historical romance — than many a more earnest endeavour. Seriously, it’s genius).

And of course the volume is a great resource: in addition to featuring stories by well-known names such as Walter Mosley, Abir Mukherjee and Oyinkan Braithwaite, it gives tasters of other authors you might not yet know, but will definitely be keen to check out. The biographical notes at the back provide very helpful overviews of the authors’ profiles and works – such as David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut novel Winter Counts, which had a wonderful reception last year and is now firmly on my TBR list. Riches indeed!

The authors showcased are: Oyinkan Braithwaite, Abir Mukherjee, S.A. Cosby, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, J.P. Pomare, Sheena Kamal, Vaseem Khan, Sulari Gentill, Nelson George, Rachel Howzell Hall, John Vercher, Sanjida Kay, Amer Anwar, Henry Chang, Nadine Matheson, Mike Phillips, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Felicia Yap, Thomas King, Imran Mahmood, David Heska Wanbli Weiden and Walter Mosley.

Many thanks to Vaseem Khan and HarperCollins for sending me a review copy of the very handsome hardback (which incidentally would make a really fabulous gift…)

The dutiful policeman: Seicho Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. Beth Cary (Japan)

Seicho Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, tr. from the Japanese by Beth Cary, Soho Press, 2003 [1961].

Opening: The first train on the Keihin-Tohoku Line was scheduled to leave Kamata Station at 4:08 A.M.

First published in 1961, Inspector Imanishi Investigates is often viewed as a police procedural. But although it begins with a police investigation into the murder of a man found beneath a train, it soon turns into the story of Inspector Imanishi’s own quest to solve the case (as the title helpfully suggests). When the investigation is wound down due to lack of evidence, Inspector Imanishi simply refuses to give up: he painstakingly gathers clues until the full picture of the victim’s story, and that of his murderer, emerges.

One big difference between Japanese and Western police cultures becomes apparent in the process. Imanishi’s solo sleuthing isn’t viewed as a flouting of orders by his superiors, but rather as a laudable attempt to honour the victim and do a good job as a policeman, even if that means using his own time and resources. And when he uncovers vital clues, he reports back to his superiors as a matter of course, and the two continue working harmoniously together. The Western maverick police detective (think Serpico or Sarah Lund), in conflict with his/her superiors and the system, is conspicuously absent.

The pace of the investigation is leisurely with a number of dead ends. Like other police procedurals of the time, such as Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s ‘Beck’ series (1965-75), the novel conveys the often tortuously slow progress of police work, and the grit and determination required to solve a case. Some readers might find the pace a little slow, but there’s plenty to sustain interest: clues that involve regional dialects, theories of linguistic migration, bus timetables and postcards, as well as one of the most inventive murder weapons that’s ever appeared in a crime novel.

Along the way, there’s also intriguing detail about everyday Japanese life, customs, culture and food (circa 1961, at least). The conversations between individuals are always impeccably courteous, measured and polite – even between the police and the criminals they’re arresting.

The only aspect of the novel that grated was the uniformly subservient characterisation of women. I’d be interested to know if this portrayal stemmed from the author’s own attitudes or was simply a reflection of women’s social status and role in Japanese society at the time. If the latter, then I sincerely hope things have moved along in the sixty years since then.

Two other little tidbits: in 1974, the novel was turned into a film, Suna no Utsuwa, directed by Yoshitaro Nomura, which is regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. The novel’s original title was also Suna no Utsuwa, meaning Castle of Sand.

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.