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.


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.

Going south: Locke’s Bluebird Bluebird (USA), Bottini’s Zen and the Art of Murder (GER), Brynard’s Weeping Waters (South Africa)

Today I explore three interesting crime novels from different countries, which have a southern geographical setting in common — Texas in the American south, the Black Forest in south-west Germany, and a remote corner of South Africa.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird, Serpent’s Tail, 2017 

Opening line: Darren Mathews set his Stetson on the edge of the witness stand, brim down, like his uncles taught him.

I’d heard a number of good things about this novel set in East Texas, and found it a rich and absorbing read. Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger whose work takes him all across the state, often to isolated communities marked by racial tensions. After becoming too closely involved in a friend’s case, he’s sent to the small town of Lark, where the murders of a local white woman and a black man from Chicago are making waves. While his prestigious status as a Texas Ranger will offer him some protection from the racist forces in the town, he knows he’ll need to keep all his wits about him to stay in one piece.

Bluebird is a finely observed novel that shows us rural America from a range of black American perspectives. Mathews, our lead investigator, is particularly well drawn. Brought up in a highly educated middle-class family, he feels pulled between a safe career in law and his desire for a more hands-on law enforcement role. Deeply conflicted about Texas and the profound racism he encounters, he also has a deep love of the place and its people. His views are complemented by a range of other black voices, such as Geneva Sweet, the sixty-nine-year-old owner of Geneva Sweet’s Sweets, a cafe offering ‘the best fried pies in Shelby County’. Her family story is one that has probably played out hundreds of times in American history, and is deeply moving.

You can read an extract from the novel at the Serpent’s Tale website.

A brief extra observation: a recent discussion on Facebook explored the lack of black crime bloggers and readers at UK crime conventions and publishing events, and led to a wider discussion about black crime authors. There really aren’t that many big names (Walter Mosley most obviously springs to mind), and it is notable that recent crime novels exploring black American experience (such as Thomas Mullen’s excellent Darktown) are often written by white authors. All the more reason to be delighted that Attica Locke is such a crime writing success story.

Oliver Bottini, Zen and the Art of Murder, trans. from the German by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose Press, 2018 [2004]) 

Opening lines: Louise Boni hated snow. Her brother had died in the snow, her husband had left her in the snow and she had killed a man in the snow.

Zen and the Art of Murder is the first in Oliver Bottini’s ‘Louise Boni’ series, and is set in the Black Forest region of south-west Germany. It opens with a rather unusual sight: a Japanese monk, dressed only in a robe and sandals, is wandering through the snow. He is injured, but doesn’t seem to want official help, accepting only a cheese roll before trudging on through the snowy landscape. When Boni and her local police contacts follow him to find out what’s going on, the mystery suddenly takes a frightening and serious turn.

On one level, Zen is a police procedural that shows us the inner workings of a police investigation and the sometimes fraught dynamics of a police team investigating a stressful case. But the figures of the Zen monk and chief inspector Louise Boni – who is dealing with personal demons, traumatic memories from a previous case and borderline alcoholism – give the narrative a fascinating off-kilter feel. Much of the novel is seen from Boni’s embattled perspective, as she struggles to piece things together with unshakeable determination and undoubted investigative talent. The result is a highly unusual and beguiling police procedural, whose complex lead protagonist will stay with you for a long time to come.

Oliver Bottini is appearing on a special Krimi panel at this year’s CrimeFest – of which more soon!

Karin Brynard, Weeping Waters, trans. from Afrikaans by Maya Fowler and Isobel Dixon

Opening lines: The call came through just after two. He was at his desk at the police station, having his lunch of vetkoek and mince. 

Like Zen’s Louise Boni, Inspector Albertus Beeslaar is a traumatised cop. Haunted by the consequences of a case gone wrong, he has fled the big city of Johannesburg for a small town on the edge of the Kalahari desert. Already dealing with a spate of stock thefts in farms around the area, he now receives a call telling him that a local artist, Frederika Swarts, has been found murdered on her family farm, along with the four-year-old child she was planning to adopt. He embarks on the investigation with rookie policemen Ghaap and Pyl, while fighting off ever more frequent panic attacks.

While I found some parts of Weeping Waters a little uneven, there also was much to like. The characterisation of Beeslaar and of Freddie’s estranged sister Sara are excellent, and the latter’s struggle with guilt and grief is particularly well drawn. The novel also has a fantastic sense of place: the incredible heat and vastness of the desert landscape are brought vividly to life, as is the claustrophobic nature of small-town life. There’s also a good attempt to explore on-going racial tensions in post-Apartheid South Africa – for example how the murders of white farmers are exploited for political gain by right-wing factions. I also very much appreciated the translators’ approach to rendering the Afrikaans dialogue – the syntax and vocabulary are kept close to the original in such a way that you can really hear the characters’ voices and appreciate their local culture.

The novel is the winner of the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize, and is the first in a series.

Under African skies: Férey’s Zulu and Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy

By chance, I’ve read two novels set in Africa recently: Caryl Férey’s Zulu (translated by Howard Curtis, World Noir/Europa Editions 2010) and Vamba Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy (HopeRoad 2015). While different to one another in many respects, both are highly interesting, worthwhile reads that explore the key theme of power in African contexts.

Caryl Férey is an intriguing author. He’s French, but chooses to set his crime novels in countries far from home, such as New Zealand (Utu), South Africa (Zulu) and Argentina (Mapuche). What unites his work is a focus on ethnic/social minorities and power structures, which are explored in gritty, noir crime narratives.

Zulu, the winner of the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008, is a highly absorbing read, which features the talented but psychologically damaged head of the Cape Town homicide unit, Ali Neumann. He and his team investigate the brutal slaying of a young woman in a post-Apartheid South Africa fractured by racial tension, violence and drugs crimes. The novel provides both a fascinating insight into difficult aspects of the Apartheid past (such as the rivalry between the black ANC and Inkatha movements) and contemporary challenges such as AIDS.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of hard-hitting violence throughout, which makes for uncomfortable reading, but is (mostly) linked to the larger social and political contexts the novel explores. On the basis of Zulu, I’m keen to read Férey’s other two works soon.

Vamba Sherif is another intriguing and very well travelled author. He was born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973, moved to Kuwait in his early early teens, then settled in Syria and The Netherlands, where he read Law. His crime novel Bound to Secrecy is the first published by independent publisher HopeRoad, which aims to support literary voices neglected by the mainstream.

In contrast to Zulu, which is 400 pages in length, Bound to Secrecy is a compact read – more of a novella – focusing on the mysterious disappearance of paramount chief Tetese in the Liberian border town of Wologizi. In terms of its tone, the narrative also differs enormously to Férey’s work – it has an otherworldly, unsettling quality, partly due to the remoteness of Wologizi and partly due to the author’s subversion of crime conventions. Detective William Mawolo’s investigation is continually hampered by the silence of the townsfolk, the contradictory evidence he uncovers and a series of disturbing events that leave him and the reader in a state of confusion. The novel has echoes of Kafka, and the figure of Mawolo reminded me of Dürrenmatt’s compromised detectives, who seek clarity and resolution, but can’t always find them.

Unlike Zulu, Bound to Secrecy doesn’t provide detailed information about its country’s troubled history (the West African country of Liberia). Instead, it explores the central theme of power – both on those who wield it and those who are subject to it – in an elliptical, abstract way. The narrative also has some interesting things to say about gender roles and the power of women. Beautifully written, this compelling literary crime novel will draw me back for a second reading.

There’s a good interview here with Sherif, which also provides a bit of information about Liberian literature and culture.


On a sad note, we heard yesterday that crime writer Ruth Rendell has died. One of the most prominent and ground-breaking UK crime authors of the twentieth-century, she’ll be hugely missed. Her final novel, Dark Corners, will be published in October (and may we all still be writing at 85).

There have been some wonderful obituaries and pieces that explore Rendell’s legacy as a crime writer and as a Labour peer in the House of Lords. I’ve added a few links below:

Ruth Rendell

The Guardian obituary

Tribute by Val McDermid in The Guardian

Financial Times obituary by Barry Forshaw

Appreciation by Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist

New York Times obituary

A list of Rendell’s works via the British Council

Iceland Noir 2014: volcanoes, glaciers and crime

Having been extremely jealous of everyone at Iceland Noir last year, it was brilliant to make it this November, not least because Reykjavik has been on my wishlist of places to visit for a long, long time. The event was held at Nordic House, and was expertly organised by author Quentin Bates and the rest of the Icelandic Noir team, who put together a great programme over two days. Quite a few bloggers have already posted reports (see list below), so I’m going to focus on the panels/discussions that particularly interested me and say a little about my first impressions of Iceland … with plenty of photos!


Nordic Perspectives panel – and yes, it was early in the morning…

Nordic Perspectives. This panel featured David Hewson (UK), Hans Olav Lahlum (Norway), Lilja Sigurðardóttir (Iceland) and Michael Ridpath (UK), with Jake Kerridge moderating. It was interesting to see how these authors positioned themselves or their countries’ crime output in relation to ‘nordic crime’. Sigurðardóttir felt that Icelandic crime had affinities to Scandinavian crime through its focus on the complexity of the criminal (citing the work of Norwegian author Karin Fossum as an example). However Lahlum saw himself as a historical crime writer rather than a Nordic crime writer, while Ridpath’s Icelandic-American investigator is an insider-outsider figure who negotiates different cultural traditions.

This panel also included discussion of historical crime fiction and adaptation. Lahlum told us that Norwegian crime fiction often engages with historical events, especially the Second World War (as evidenced in his novel The Human Flies). Hewson discussed his adaptation of the Danish TV crime drama The Killing, which involved adding contextualising historical detail. For example, the beginning and end of The Killing II are set in Ryvangen Memorial Park, which was the site of partisan executions by the Nazis and points to the core theme of the series – the long-term impact of war on society. Hewson provided extra information about the memorial, as British readers would not be aware of its significance (interesting; now on my TBR pile).

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‘Translating crime across cultures’ panel

The ‘translating crime fiction across cultures’ panel featured Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson (Iceland), Mari Hannah (UK), Bogdan Hrib (Romania) and Vidar Sundstøl (Norway), with academic Jacky Collins moderating. I left this panel wanting to read Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy: the first installment, The Land of Dreams, won the prestigious Riverton Prize in 2008, and its exploration of Norwegian-American history and culture sounds right up my street. It was also interesting to hear Hrib discussing Romanian crime novels and his ongoing mission to see them more widely translated into English: there are currently just three, published by Profusion Press, which I’m now curious to read. Mari Hannah tantalised us by revealing that she’s written a novel partly set in Norway (a break from the Kate Daniels series, which we were reassured is also continuing). Icelandic author Ingólfsson currently has one novel translated into English – The Flatley Enigmawith others translated into German, which appears to be quite a common route for Icelandic writers (those Germans do love their nordic Krimis!).

A companion panel on the Saturday celebrated the inaugural Icepick Award for best crime novel translated into Icelandic, with Antii Tuomainen (Finnish author of The Healer) and Icelandic translators Ævar Örn Jósepsson, Bjarni Gunnarsson, Bjarni Jónsson and Sigadur Karlsson (Magnea Matthiasdóttir moderating).


Icepick Award panel – a sea of translators!

The panel gave a fascinating insight into the dialogue between writers and translators about linguistic and cultural issues during the process of translation, although Gunnarsson also illustrated the important role of technology today: when translating Nesbo, he used Google Earth to take a closer look at Oslo, a city he’s never visited but now feels he knows well. Tuomainnen made lifelong friends in the translation community with his heartfelt appreciation for the work of the translator; he also specifically thanked Sigurdur Karlsson for translating his work and for bringing it to the attention of Icelandic publishers in the first place, thereby highlighting the influential role translators play in identifying promising new work. The Icepick was awarded on the Saturday evening at the Iceland Noir dinner (for further details, see my previous post).

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The ‘settings’ panel

Tuomainnen popped up again on the settings panel with Ragnar Jónasson (Iceland), Johan Theorin (Sweden) and Vidar Sundstøl (Norway), moderated by Jacky Collins. The settings discussed included urban Finland, a village in northern Iceland, an isolated Swedish island and the American Midwest. In each case, the novel’s location plays a crucial role – sometimes even becoming a character in its own right – and is used to create unease or suspense (Theorin’s Öland novels), a sense of remoteness and isolation (Jonasson’s Dark Iceland series), or to explore themes such as migration (Sundstol’s Minnesota Trilogy) and climate change (Tuomainen’s The Healer).

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The ‘supernatural in crime fiction’ panel – a suitably shaky shot from the back…

One of my favourite panels was on supernatural crime, featuring James Oswald (Scotland), Johan Theorin (Sweden), Alexandra Sokoloff (US) and Michael Sears (South Africa) in discussion with Jake Kerridge. It was fascinating to hear the varying reasons why crime authors use supernatural elements in their work: as a means of exploring the clash between the rational and irrational (Oswald), illustrating evil (Sokoloff), exploring cultural beliefs (Sears) or taking genre in new direction (Theorin). Hearing the panelists talk about the extra dimensions the supernatural can add to a crime narrative reminded me why I like hybrid crime fiction so much: there’s a creativity at work here that pushes the boundaries of the genre and – when it works – can produce fantastic results. Sokoloff rather intriguingly described a magpie approach when writing – she has blended Jewish lore and witch-y elements into her novels to create particular effects. And it struck me that at least two other writers at the conference – Tuomainen and Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir – also write hybrid crime fiction (drawing on traditions of apocalyptic literature and horror). The days when crime publishers were reluctant to publish this type of fusion fiction thankfully appear to be over.

Other blog posts, articles and tweetery on Iceland Noir 2014:

  • Crime Fiction Lover – lots of coverage including the debut authors’ panel, featuring blogger and Petrona judge Sarah Ward, whose novel In Bitter Chill (Faber and Faber 2015) I’m greatly looking forward to reading
  • Crimepieces – Sarah Ward with three posts
  • The Reykjavik Grapevine on the author reading held at Solon on Thursday evening
  • Miriam Owen live-tweeted Iceland Noir via @NordicNoirBuzz

Do also check out the site for next year’s rather wonderful-looking Shetland Noir (Iceland Noir will be back in 2016).

I’m going to finish up with a few Reykjavik/Iceland photos to show those of you who haven’t yet visited what a great place this is!

1. An Eymundsson bookshop in Reyjkavik. This capital, which is around the size of my hometown Swansea, with a population of around 200,000, has at least five massive bookshops. Iceland is a nation of book lovers with a deep appreciation of culture (probably instilled by long winter nights and the reading aloud of Icelandic sagas). Fittingly, Reykjavik is a UNESCO City of Literature.


Booktastic Reykjavik

2. The bubbling, steaming landscape of Haukadalur. Wandering around on a crust of earth just above plentiful geothermal activity, with geysers going off at regular intervals, instils an added appreciation of our volatile, ever-changing planet. In a land not heavy on natural resources, Icelanders have made the most of their free geothermal energy to heat their homes, create outdoor thermal pools, grow tomatoes, process aluminium, keep their streets de-iced, and so on… Ingenious and admirable.


The land of fire and ice – a geothermal landscape here, but glaciers are not far away

3. Reykjavik is charming. Here are a few random photos.


Hallgrímskirkja, which looks a lot like a space rocket, guarded by the statue of Leifur Eiriksson


View over Reykjavik from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja – on the day the sun came out


Reykjavik Harbour, looking out to Faxafloi Bay and the mountains beyond

4. There’s a lot of Icelandic wool. Which gets turned into gorgeous mittens to feed my newly discovered mitten addiction.


Takk fyrir Icelandic sheep!

5. Friendly Vikings. I think this is my favourite Iceland Noir photo.


Miriam and Ewa – awesomely stylish Vikings

Huge thanks to the Iceland Noir organisers for making the event such a wonderful success!

The Pistorius trial, Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (2014) and Fritz Lang’s M (1931)

The international media is full of the news that South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of the culpable homicide of Reeva Steenkamp.

Without for an instant forgetting that real people rather than fictional characters are involved in this case, it’s been fascinating watching the trial unfold, and seeing how judge Thokozile Masipa has evaluated the arguments presented by the prosecution and defence, and key points of South African law – such as the distinctions between murder (planned/intending to kill), common-law murder (intending to kill, or knowing that your actions might kill, but without malice aforethought) and culpable homicide (not intending to kill, but guilty of negligent action; akin to the British concept of manslaughter). There’s now of course lots of debate about whether those distinctions have been applied correctly.

Interesting too, is that South African crime writers have been asked for their views on the case in press coverage from South Africa to the UK, Germany and the US, thereby taking up the role of social commentators. Two interesting pieces are Margie Orford’s on ‘the imaginary black stranger at the heart of the defence’ and Deon Meyer’s on how our fascination with the case is linked to our fear of death and a need to see justice done. Both are well worth a read. (I’ve just seen another excellent piece by Orford here: a reaction to the verdict in the larger contexts of male violence and South Africa’s macho culture.)

As is often the way, the extensive discussion of the Pistorius trial has intersected with two other crime narratives currently on my radar, both of which draw on real cases and feature trials. I’ve just finished reading Peter Murphy’s A Matter for the Jury (No Exit Press, 2014), an excellent courtroom drama that explores a murder trial in the era of capital punishment (which was abolished in Britain in 1965, a year after the narrative takes place).

Based loosely on the James Hanratty case, the novel is illuminating in three key respects: it shows the tremendous pressure defence barristers were under when their client faced the death penalty; it shows how evidence has to be marshalled into a convincing narrative for the jury, who deliver the final verdict in court (a contrast here to the Pistorius case, which in accordance with South African practice had no jury); and it shows the sometimes contradictory and inadequate nature of the law (for example, murder ‘in furtherance of theft’ is deemed a capital offence, whereas murder and rape is not). Like all the best crime novels, A Matter for the Jury raises difficult legal and moral questions that are not easily resolved: it’s a rich and absorbing read.

A classic crime film, freshly re-released, has also been in the papers: Fritz Lang’s 1931 Expressionist masterpiece Meine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (M – A City Searches for a Murderer), whose child killer, played by Peter Lorre, is modelled on the real figure of Peter Kürten.

I’m delighted to see this film back in the spotlight. Brilliantly made, it contains a fascinating depiction of a trial set up by Berlin’s network of criminals, who capture ‘M’ ahead of the police. This kangaroo court features criminal boss Schränker in the role of ‘judge’, who promptly prejudices proceedings by declaring that child murderers should forfeit any legal rights due to the nature of their crimes. The argument of the lone ‘defence lawyer’ – that M cannot control his actions due to a psychiatric disorder and needs treatment by doctors – is rejected by the criminals, who are only prevented from lynching the accused by the arrival of the police.

Critic Horst Lange* convincingly argues that this scene functions as a warning allegory about the rise of National Socialism: Schränker is shown wearing a Gestapo-like leather coat, using Nazi terminology, and sweeping aside legal conventions in order to secure the result that he wants. At the same time, the film leaves the question of appropriate justice open at the end of the film, closing with a shot of the grieving mothers whose loss can never be made good. If you’ve not yet had the chance, I highly recommend a viewing: it’s an extraordinary film that’s visually stunning and remains extremely thought-provoking. It’s rightly been given a 5 star rating by Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

* Horst Lange, ‘Nazis vs. the Rule of Law: Allegory and Narrative Structure in Fritz Lang’s M’, Monatshefte 101/2 (2009), 170–85.

Mrs. Peabody’s 2012 review

It’s been a busy year for Mrs. Peabody Investigates, with reviews of international crime fiction from Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. There were also a number of lively discussions on subjects including autopsy scenes; violence and women; Jewish detective figures; national image; strong female protagonists, and the crime writer as social commentator. Many thanks to everyone who joined in with their expertise and views! Last but not least, interviewing crime writers at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and contributing to Mark Lawson’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Radio 4 were definite highlights.

So to finish off the year, here’s a random round-up of the best – and worst – of Mrs Peabody’s 2012 (with thanks to apuffofjack for the idea).

Most Satisfying Read: Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (2010), a gripping examination of the repercussions of a murder, set in the American Deep South of the 1970s, 1980s, and the present day.

Most Disappointing Read: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Disgrace.Wooden characterisation was the real villain of this crime novel, but I’m still hoping for better from the next in the Department Q series.

Best Historical Crime Novel: Tie between Malla Nunn’s A Beautiful Place to Die (2010), which provides a fascinating insight into apartheid South Africa in the 1950s, and Stuart Neville’s The Twelve (2010) – hard-hitting Belfast noir exploring the legacy of The Troubles.

Crime Novel that Lingered Longest in the Mind: Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me (1952), which presents a chilling, but surprisingly nuanced portrait of murderer Lou Ford.

Best Female Detective: Tie between Edie Kiglatuk from M.J. McGrath’s White Heat (2011) and Emily Tempest from Adrian Hyland’s Diamond Dove (2006) (reviews pending). In many ways, these characters are twins: feisty, tough women who have complex insider / outsider roles in marginalised indiginous communities (the Inuit of the Arctic Circle and the Aboriginal people of the Australian outback).

Best Male Detective: Finnish-Jewish police inspector Ariel Kafka in Harri Nykänen’s Nights of Awe (2010): a highly original and witty investigator, whom I look forward to meeting again (albeit with a slightly less convoluted plot).  

Best Discovery: Leif G.W. Persson is well-known in his native country as a top criminologist and crime writer, but his razor-sharp dissections of Swedish society have only started to be translated relatively recently. I’ve just finished Another Time, Another Life (2012), which was a gem, and am keen to read more.

Last Policeman

Most Original Premise: Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman (2012) is a ‘pre-apocalypse police procedural’, in which Detective Hank Palace investigates a suspicious suicide six months before asteroid 2011GV1 is due to hit the earth. The first in a trilogy (review pending).

Best Re-read: Jakob Arjouni’s Turkish-German Kemal Kayankaya series (1985-2012). A ground-breaking detective who uses intelligence and wit to make his way in a largely racist society. The first in the series, Happy Birthday, Turk (1985), remains a cracker.

Best Use of Humour: Leif G.W. Persson uses satirical humour to great effect as he lifts the lid on the workings of Swedish society. Look out for the pathologist nicknamed ‘Esprit de Corpse’ in Another Time, Another Life.

Best crime TV series: The Killing III, in which Sarah Lund strode forth for the last time (still in denial that it’s over *sob*).

Best crime film: Tie between Romanzo Criminale (dir. Michele Placido, 2006), which traces the rise and fall of an Italian street gang, and Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011), which plays out over a dream-like night of a police investigation (reviews to follow).

Most Anticipated Reads for 2013: Stuart Neville’s Ratlines (2013), set in a 1960s Ireland whose government is keen to play down its links with former Nazis, and Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood (2011), a much-praised depiction of police corruption and betrayal set in Tasmania.

All best wishes for a healthy and happy New Year, filled with lots of  wonderful crime fiction.

Depictions of violence and women in crime fiction (with list of STRONG WOMEN IN CRIME)

A few days ago an extremely interesting discussion kicked off in the ‘about’ section of this blog on depictions of violence and women in crime fiction. I’m taking the slightly unusual step of reproducing the thread here (in a lightly edited form), as it would other-wise remain largely invisible. It closes with a fabulously affirmative list of ‘strong women in crime’, sourced via Twitter and the blog.

With thanks to the participants in the discussion – Susan, Cassandra, Maxine and Bernadette – and to everyone who put forward their favourites for the list!

The discussion began with a comment about Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna (1965).

Susan Wright: I recently discovered your blog thanks to Mark Lawson’s ‘Foreign Bodies’ series on Radio 4. I’m enjoying your reviews and I agree with many of your opinions, especially about the cliched representations of women in some crime fiction. Like you I thought Varesi’s River of Shadows was wonderfully atmospheric but marred by the sex scenes. I’m now reading the first Martin Beck novel; having been told it was a Marxist critique and had a left-wing perspective, I was surprised by the prurient description of the victim, particularly the interview of her boyfriend by the US cop which goes into graphic detail about her sex life. I know this was written before 70s feminism, but I was disappointed all the same. It seems cliches about women and female sexuality are not limited to Italian male crime authors.

Mrs P: What you’ve said about Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel, has really got me thinking. It’s a little while since I read it, but I understood the role of those sexual details in a slightly different way. I saw them as providing the reader with a portrait of Roseanna as a very independent, sexually-liberated person, and instead of indulging in the stereotypes one might find in literature of the time (that her sexuality was what ‘got her into trouble’), the authors give her full victim status. Beck, for example, never wavers in his quest to bring her murderer to justice. So in that respect the novel is arguably groundbreaking.

But I take your point, and think I may need to read the novel again, so that I can see that interview with the American cop in the context of the whole narrative!

Susan Wright: I agree it is a groundbreaking novel and the authors wanted to show Roseanna (and themselves) as modern and sexually liberated, but I found some of their approach quite disturbing, almost voyeuristic, although I suppose all fiction is voyeurism to some extent! As well as the American cop scene, at one point Beck asks a colleague to write a detailed description of the corpse which I also found a little prurient. I cannot ever recall reading a crime novel which described a male victim in that way. I’m only half way through the book but it is striking how few women there are and how marginal they seem, though I suppose this reflects how different women’s roles were in the 60s – so far there are no female police. I like Beck’s compassion, not just for Roseanna but for the woman Karin who worked on the cruise boat and has fled a violent man.

Cassandra Clark (author): I am disturbed by what Susan Wright says as it resonates so closely with my own feelings about the kind of obsessively detailed descriptions of violence against women in some crime novels. I don’t think it’s good enough to say it takes place in the 1960s so it’s OK. The same prurience is rarely directed towards male murderees. Maybe we should ask ourselves why not? I suppose until it is (though heaven protect us against what that will mean for our humanity) there will be no equality between men and women. This is just a thought. I have to deal with this problem every time I write because my series is set in the fourteenth century when things were a bit rough – and women had even less say than now.

Mrs. P: Depictions of violence against women in crime fiction (especially sadistic sexual violence) have bothered me as long as I’ve been reading in the genre, and I would agree with you that this is a topic that should be acknowledged and properly discussed. Every now and then I consider writing a blog post on the subject and then get cold feet, because in many ways it’s such a minefield. In any case – a few thoughts in response to your comment:

Time of publication: I agree that misogyny should not be excused if it appears in a book written in the 1960s, but it does provide at least a partial explanation that helps us understand its presence.

Authorial intent: some authors like Val McDermid have been criticised for writing eye-watering depictions of violence against women (usually by serial killers). I’ve heard McDermid argue that her intent is to highlight the shocking realities of misogyny and violence against women in our society, which are often ignored. However, the risk that a reader might get some kind of perverse kick out of those depictions remains, as the author can never completely steer the interpretation of his or her writing. Her later books have apparently toned down this element.

The same problem could be said to exist in relation to David Peace’s ‘Red Riding’ quartet (1974, 1977, 1980 and 1983), which explore the Ripper killings in some detail, and which I greatly admire. (This is where things get complicated for me – why do I view some depictions of violence against women as justifiable and some not? I need to think about this in more detail, but think it has to do with the purpose of those depictions / what the inclusion of those depictions achieves in the larger context of the narrative.)

Misogyny sells? One really depressing thought for me is that publishers / film studios are actively on the lookout for explicit depictions of violence against women (whether in crime fiction or other genres such as horror), because they know that these will sell. What that says about us as a society is pretty bleak.

Equality: funnily enough, I happen to be reading An Uncertain Place by the French crime novelist Fred Vargas at the moment, which features an unbelievably brutal murder of a man, with some pretty prurient features! Still undoubtedly an exception to the rule, and I agree with you that this isn’t the kind of equality for which we should aim!

There was a bit of a media storm in 2009, when Jessica Mann, an author and critic, declared that she was no longer willing to review some books due to their misogynist content. (Her original statement can be accessed here). Val McDermid then wrote a response (she felt that female authors were being unfairly targeted for criticism).

I’d be very interested to hear in a little more detail how you deal with all of these complexities as a writer yourself…

Maxine (Petrona blog): I am allergic to crime novels depicting violence (torture, serial killer, mentally unstable kidnappers, etc.) against women, children and other victims and I am afraid that the genre seems to be increasingly popular. I have failed to finish several “raved about” books on these grounds, and failed even to start others, e.g. Stuart MacBride’s latest whose plot blurb is horribly off-putting.

That having been said, I do not think the criticism of Roseanna by Sjowall/Wahloo is fair. I think this is a serious book, not prurient, and I feel that Beck’s sympathy for the victim drives him on to solve a crime that others would long since have forgotten. I think the S/W novels are as far from some of the poorly written, sensationalist rubbish that is written these days as it is possible to be!

Mrs. P: I feel the same way about Roseanna, but to be fair this was an impression gained from a partial reading of the book (am keen to see what Susan thinks on completion!).

Thanks also for the link (via Friendfeed) to the blog-post you wrote on the Mann discussion. Some extra links there that might be of interest to others…

bernadetteinoz (Reactions to Reading blog): This is a perennial topic and one I suspect will be with us for several generations yet. I do my best to avoid books in which the violence against women feels particularly prurient but, like you Mrs P, I might not always appear consistent as I do tend to take intent into account and, of course, it is usual that I have to infer intent from things outside the book in question (e.g. the author’s previous work). Somewhat perversely I absolutely do not think that we should be censoring our publications based on the fact that some perverted sicko somewhere might get some enjoyment or, heaven forbid, some ideas, from what he (and it will almost definitely be a he) reads. That way madness (and totalitarian dictatorships lie).

I think I do disagree with one point made earlier in this discussion, well half-disagree anyway. I think the reason we don’t see nearly as many graphic descriptions of torture and sexually motivated violence occurring to men in crime fiction is that the genre is after all in some ways a reflection of real life and that kind of violence does not happen as much to men in real life as it does to women. However, the kind of violence that men are often subject to – being shot or dying in violent person-to-person fighting – is depicted quite a lot. George Pelecanos’ books are full of it as are the books of many other authors I’m sure – but I can’t name heaps of them because I tend to avoid them just as I do the books in which violence against women for the sake of it appears to be a central point to the book’s existence.

Mrs P: I absolutely agree with you about the censorship issue, although one thing I’m interested in is the ‘self-censorship’ angle, by which I mean authors who may change their approach to depicting violence in a series, due to audience reactions or because they feel that they went a step too far in their early work. I’ve heard David Peace say (at a reading in Belfast a couple of years ago) that he would have written parts of his ‘Red Riding’ quartet differently today, particularly the detailed depictions of what was done to the female child victims in the novel. He saw this shift as being partly due to his own development as a writer; he now felt elements of those depictions were gratuitous. I’d be very interested to hear if other authors have modified their depictions of violence as their writing careers progressed (in either direction, in relation to either gender, and if so why).

‘Gendered’ types of violence as a reflection of real life: this is a really good point, and I think what Val McDermid was arguing when defending depictions of violence against women in her own books (as I heard her do at a Harrogate panel in 2006). I was barely able to read portions of The Last Temptation , but I could at least see what she was trying to achieve. It did put me off reading her works for a while though. George Pelecanos: another author I greatly admire, whose novel The Big Blowdown is on my list of all-time crime greats. His depictions of violence seem to me to be carefully contextualised in larger narratives of ethnic and class tensions, and work for that reason in my view.

Maxine: Agree with you both on the censorship aspects, and Bernadette makes a good point about the “macho” violence which is more commonly the way it is done to males in crime fiction, than the type of nastiness done to the weak (women, children). Reminds me of the way some comedians on TV are said to target the disabled.

Val McDermid seems to have toned down her torture-style books over the past few years, so she herself may be an example. Probably to do with appealing to a wider, non-crime-reading audience.

It is nice to me that some of the very best-selling and top (my view!) crime authors don’t depict unnecessary violence while still being hard-hitting, e.g. M. Connelly, D. Meyer, I. Rankin, R. Rendell, L. Marklund. I also like authors like Peter Temple who address tough issues such as abuse of children (in care homes), young women, etc. – making the topics harrowing and not airbrushing, but still not dwelling on them in unnecessarily “revelling in it” ways. Connelly, Marklund etc. do quite a bit of this, too.

Mrs P: I very much agree with your last paragraph, Maxine: a huge amount depends on the quality of the writer, and the skill with which he or she situates depictions of violence in the context of larger issues. That’s when the crime novel reaches its full potential as a vehicle for critiquing society, and highlighting crimes and injustices perpetrated within it.

Cassandra Clark: I do agree that context is important, but when people say it’s ok if well written this is to put aesthetics above ethics. Something to discuss there, I feel. I also question one of the contributors’ remarks about violence being mostly done to women and therefore it’s a true picture of society. (Novelists are not journalists.) I haven’t checked the statistics but I would imagine most murders are a result of street violence between young men. It’s the criticism of unbalance, also levelled at crime novels set in Iceland or Sweden – more corpses than inhabitants! – leading one to imagine the crime rate in these places is ten times higher than that in Chicago, tipping the balance towards blatant untruth and undermining the argument that they provide a true picture of society. What gets me down is the constant dwelling on women as victims. Yes, we know about misogyny but what do we know about how to fight back? If detailed descriptions of the nasty things people can do to other people is considered necessary to tell a good story then I want to see a few winning women in this literary-engendered battle. In fact, come to think of it, that’s how I deal with it in my own writing. Hildegard fights back. I hope she always will.

bernadetteinoz: I’ll respond to this as I was the one who made the original claim and I do think it stands up. If women are going to be subject to violence it is most likely to be domestic violence or sexual assault by someone she knows (and by knows I mean everything from is ‘married to’ to ‘has met briefly’) – that’s what the health stats say anyway (which I know about from my day job) – I think crime fiction reflects this, though of course it takes things to extremes (often for no good reason, sometimes to make a perfectly valid point) – of course there is also a whole load of serial killer fiction in which mostly women are tortured and whatnot, but most of these are cashing in on a trope that I think had its origins in something far less flashy and probably a lot more realistic (e.g. the guy meets girl and when she says no he decides she meant yes and rapes her scenario). That certainly appears to be what the early books depicting quite graphic violence from authors like Patricia Cornwell were doing (I think Cornwell lost track of this early theme, but that’s another story).

That said I think there is a whole load of crime fiction that does not treat women as victims – there are loads of strong female characters who fight the good fight either due to some trauma in their own past or their viewing of the realities of what has happened to other people they know. Certainly most of the crime fiction I read these days does not cast women as the perennial victim. But I rarely read any of the mainstream crime/thriller/ slasher stuff in which people are making things out of human skin or collecting women’s body parts or any of that kind of nonsense.

Cassandra Clark: Yes, I think I was generalising about mainstream i.e. best-seller paperbacks. What about a list of strong women novels then?

Mrs. P: Great idea – and a lovely way to wrap up this discussion.

Update, 5 December: Margot Kinberg has written a very thoughtful blog post over at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist about some of the more difficult questions raised in this discussion (such as why graphic depictions of violence sell). It’s well worth a read.

Update, 9 February: Thanks to author J.J. Marsh for alerting me to her excellent discussion with author Frances di Plino entitled ‘Feminists and crime fiction – an odd couple?’.


  • Lena Adams (Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, USA)
  • Adelia Aguilar (Ariana Franklin, ‘Mistress of the Art of Death’ series, UK)
  • Jo Beckett (Meg Gardiner’s Jo Beckett series, USA)
  • Annika Bengtzon (Liza Marklund’s Bengtzon series, Sweden)
  • Tempe Brennan (Kathy Reichs’ Tempe Brennan series, USA)
  • Siobhan Clarke (Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, UK)
  • Jenny Cooper (M. R. Hall’s Jenny Cooper series, UK)
  • Dr. Anya Crichton (Kathryn Fox’s Anya Crichton series, Australia)
  • DCI Kate Daniels (Mari Hannah’s Kate Daniels series, UK)
  • Evan Delaney (Meg Gardiner’s Delaney series, USA)
  • Marie Donovan (Alex Walter’s Marie Donovan series, UK)
  • Detective Elinborg (Arnadur Indridason, Outrage, Iceland)
  • Bell Elkins (Julia Keller, A Killing in the Hills, USA)
  • Erica Falck (Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka series, Sweden)
  • Amanda Fitton / Campion (Margery Allingham, Campion series, UK)
  • Charlie Fox (Zoë Sharp’s Charlie Fox series, UK)
  • Ruth Galloway (Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series, UK)
  • Bina Gelbfish (Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, USA)
  • Noria Ghozali (Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State, France)
  • Gunnhildur ‘Gunna’ Gísladóttir (Quentin Bates’ Gísladóttir series, UK; set in Iceland)
  • Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Thóra series, Iceland)
  • Mumtaz Hakim (Barbara Nadel’s Hakim and Arnold series, UK
  • Dr. Clare Hart (Margie Orford’s Clare Hart series, South Africa)
  • Barbara Havers (Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley series, USA; set in UK)
  • Hildegard of Meaux (Cassandra Clark’s Hildegard of Meaux series, UK)
  • Irene Huss (Helene Tursten’s Huss series, Sweden)
  • Smilla Jaspersen (Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, Denmark)
  • Lena Jones (Betty Webb’s Lena Jones series, USA)
  • Carol Jordan (Val McDermid’s Tony Hill series, UK).
  • Jayne Keeney (Angela Savage’s Keeney series, Australia)
  • Nhu ‘Ned’ Kelly (P.M. Newton, The Old School, Australia)
  • Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan (Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, UK)
  • Edie Kiglatuk (M.J. McGrath, White Heat, UK; set in the Arctic)
  • Sal Kilkenny (Cath Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny series, UK)
  • Simone Kirsch (Leigh Redhead’s Kirsch series, Australia)
  • Anni Koskinen (Barbara Fister’s Anni Koskinen series, USA)
  • Aimée Leduc (Cara Black’s Aimée Leduc series, USA; set in Paris)
  • DCI Janine Lewis (Blue Murder, UK; TV series created by Cath Staincliffe)
  • Karin Lietze (Pieke Biermann, Violetta, Germany)
  • Dr. Sara Linton (Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series, USA)
  • Sarah Lund (The Killing, Denmark; TV)
  • Rory Mackenzie (Meg Gardiner, Ransom River, USA)
  • Kathleen Mallory (Carol O’Connell’s Mallory series, USA)
  • Ella Marconi (Katherine Howell’s Marconi series, Australia)
  • Miss Marple (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, UK)
  • Rebecka Martinsson (Åsa Larsson’s Martinsson series, Sweden)
  • Sharon McCone (Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone series, USA)
  • Anna-Maria Mella (Åsa Larsson’s Martinsson series, Sweden)
  • Kinsey Millhone (Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, USA)
  • Alex Morrow (Denise Mina’s Morrow series, UK)
  • DS Rachel Narey (Craig Robertson, Cold Grave, UK)
  • Saga Norén (The Bridge; Denmark and Sweden; TV)
  • Maureen O’Donnell (Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, UK)
  • Anna Pigeon (Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series, USA)
  • Stephanie Plum (Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, USA)
  • Annie Raft (Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater, Sweden)
  • Agatha Raisin (M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, UK)
  • Annie Raymond (Penny Grubb’s Annie Raymond series, UK)
  • Detective Inspector Louise Rick (Sara Blaedel’s Louise Rick series, Denmark)
  • Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles (Tess Gerritsen’s Rizzoli and Isles series, USA)
  • Mattie Ross (Charles Portis, True Grit, USA)
  • DS Geraldine Steel (Leigh Russell’s Geraldine Steel series, UK)
  • Kay Scarpetta (Patricia Cornwell’s Scarpetta series, USA)
  • DC Janet Scott and DC Rachel Bailey (Scott and Bailey, UK; TV)
  • Lisbeth Salander (Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, Sweden)
  • Jill Shadow (T. J. Cooke, Kiss and Tell, UK)
  • Vera Stanhope (Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series, UK)
  • Clarice Starling (Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs, USA)
  • D.I. Roberta Steel (Stuart McBride’s Logan McRae series, UK)
  • Emily Tempest (Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest series, Australia)
  • Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect, UK; TV)
  • Elsie Thirkettle (L.C. Tyler’s Elsie and Ethelred series, UK)
  • Baroness Ida ‘Jack’ Troutbeck (Ruth Dudley Edwards’ Troutbeck series, UK)
  • Harriet Vane (Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane series, UK)
  • V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky’s Warshawski series, USA)
  • Merrily Watkins (Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins series, UK)
  • Hanne Wilhelmsen (Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen series, Norway)

The Theakston Files

I’m just back from four days at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival, which, as ever, was a wonderful mixture of interviews, panel discussions and a crime-writing knees-up.

Our first evening was very special: we saw Colin Dexter, creator of the Inspector Morse series, honoured with the Outstanding Contribution to Crime Fiction award, and ‘tartan noir’ writer Denise Mina win the Crime Novel of the Year Award for her ‘hugely atmospheric and haunting book’, The End of the Wasp Season.   

Scene of the crime: the ‘chalk outline’ and ‘blood splatter’ that greeted us on arrival at Harrogate Station

As ever, there were a bewildering number of fascinating and (in some cases controversial) sessions to attend over the following three days. Karen from Euro Crime was spotted quietly tapping away on her laptop in the audience, and her notes on a variety of events, including ‘America’s Got Talent’, ‘Writing for Your Life’, ‘Drawing the Line’, ‘Crime in Another Dimension’, and the John Connolly interview are available here. Many thanks, Karen!

This lucky blogger was given the chance to interview four outstanding crime writers –Arne Dahl (Sweden), Camilla Läckberg (Sweden), Stuart Neville (Northern Ireland) and Jason Webster (UK/Spain) – and also had interesting chats with authors Liza Marklund (Sweden), Margie Orford (South Africa) and Antonio Hill (Spain). Norwegian publishing sensation Jo Nesbø‘s wide-ranging discussion with Mark Lawson completed a very satisfying festival that showcased the best of international crime fiction.    

I’ll shortly be posting a series of ‘Theakston Files’ (a nod there to one of my favourite TV detectives), with interview transcripts and notes from the Nesbø session. Hope you enjoy!

Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival 2012

I’ll be setting off early tomorrow morning to the lovely spa-town of Harrogate for the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (19 – 22 July).

The programme is packed with all sorts of wonders, but I’ll be focusing in particular on the wealth of international crime writing talent taking part, including British writers who set their works beyond the UK.

These include the following (and many, many more…)

Harlan Coben (America)

Arne Dahl (Sweden)

Antonio Hill (Spain)

Ryan David Jahn (America)

Camilla Läckberg (Sweden)

Laura Lippman (America)

Liza Marklund (Sweden)

Deon Meyer (South Africa)

Stuart Neville (Northern Ireland)

Margie Orford (South Africa)

Jo Nesbø (Norway)

Jason Webster (England / Spain)

For those of you keen to hear news from the festival as it unfolds, I’ll be tweeting as @Mrs_Pea68, using the hashtag #TOPcrime2012

If you’re at the festival, perhaps see you in Betty’s or at the bar!

The Crime Writers’ Association Awards 2012

Last night, the CWA awards for 2012 were announced in London.

Two of the categories were of particular interest to me as a fan of international crime fiction. Firstly (and most obviously), the CWA International Dagger, whose shortlist included three novels from Italy, and one from Norway, Sweden and South Africa respectively. Secondly the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger, whose shortlist featured the Italian crime novel I Will Have Vengeance by Maurizio de Giovanni (Hersilia Press) and Philip Kerr’s Prague Fatale (Quercus), set in Nazi Germany.

The Historical Dagger shortlist was also interesting in terms of highlighting a shift away from  ‘historical crime fiction’ set in the distant historical past (such as Ellis Peters’ famous ‘Brother Cadfael’ series) to crime fiction engaging with twentieth-century history (all but two of the shortlisted novels are set following 1930).

And the winners are…..*drumroll*

CWA International Dagger: The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri               (trans. by Stephen Sartarelli and published by Mantle)

The judges said ‘Camilleri’s Montalbano novels show just how much can be achieved with familiar materials when a writer conveys the sense of life in a recognizable place. He combines characters, plots, and reflections on Italy’s particular social and political problems with wry—but never bitter—satire. In this novel the late-afternoon shadows lengthen; Montalbano is feeling his age.’

Further information about the winner and the other shortlisted novels can be found on the CWA website here.

CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger: Icelight by Aly Monroe                              (published by John Murray)

The judges were unanimous in their decision to award Icelight the Historical Dagger, commenting that “this tale of British post-war malaise, the third of Monroe’s Peter Cotton thrillers, is authentically downbeat yet absolutely gripping. Monroe has the young le Carré’s ability to conjure atmosphere and a poetic style worthy of Len Deighton.”

Further information about the winner and the other shortlisted novels can be found on the CWA website here.

Many congratulations to all the CWA winners and I hope everyone had a great night!