Sisterly devotion: Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon, tr. Janet Hong (South Korea)

Kwon Yeo-sun, Lemon, tr. Janet Hong, Head of Zeus 2021 [2019]

First line: I imagine what happened inside one police interrogation room so many years ago.

This opening line is narrated by a young woman called Da-on, as she reflects on her beautiful older sister’s murder in Seoul on 1 July 2002.

There are two prime suspects, both of whom attended the same high school as victim Hae-on: Shin Jeongjun, the privileged son of wealthy parents, and Han Manu, the son of an impoverished single mum. But while the mystery of what happened to the nineteen-year-old girl is a powerful component in the narrative, its main focus is the impact of Hae-on’s death on those closest to her – her sister, her mother, her classmate. We are shown events unfolding largely through female eyes, in eight pithily titled chapters spanning from 2002 (‘Shorts’) to 2019 (‘Dusk’).

Here’s Da-on, for example, on the early trauma of her sister’s death:

Since both Mother and I were falling at a very slow speed,
I didn't realise we were falling at first.

The women’s grief and their struggle to fill the gap left by the dead girl are very finely drawn. Da-on embarks on two highly original strategies in this respect, each of which ultimately comes with a price – both to her and others – in the seventeen long years following Hae-on’s death.

Interwoven with all this is the theme of class, which is front and centre in other recent examples of crime-inflected South Korean culture, from the Oscar-winning film Parasite to Netflix hits Squid Game and Signal. We’re shown a justice system that’s stacked against those from less well-off backgrounds, and how the rich have more options due to their connections and wealth.

Lemon is a beguiling, unsettling, worthwhile read, which also offers some fascinating glimpses into South Korean culture thanks to Janet Hong’s sensitive and attentive translation.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Kwon Yeo-sun’s work, there’s an interesting interview with her over at Korean Literature Now.

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

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

Treat others! Treat yourself!

Please support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

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

First line: The key was under the mat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until then, wishing you all a very Merry Christmas!