What next for Mrs. Peabody Investigates?

Happy New Year to you all! I hope you had a relaxing break and managed to squirrel yourself away for some of it with a good crime novel or two.

As is customary at this time of year, I’ve been doing a bit of a stocktake, particularly in relation to this blog. It’s been a sobering experience:

  1. It turns out I wrote a paltry five blog posts in 2021. FIVE! These consisted of one literary obituary, two Petrona Award posts, one set of summer reviews, and Mrs P’s Christmas recommendations. Spot what was missing: any semblance of regular crime reviewing. Hmmm.
  2. I managed to miss the 10th anniversary of Mrs. Peabody Investigates!!! I started blogging in January 2011, but that wonderful milestone just passed me by…

All of which tells me I can’t outrun the laws of time and space.

I won’t bore you with the details – just imagine a classic pandemic brew of extra work and family pressures. However, one thing is clear: something needs to change.

Option 1 is to say ‘it’s been a good run’ and let Mrs. Peabody bow out gracefully.

Option 2 is to say ‘must do better this year’, knowing that the end result is likely to be much the same.

Option 3 is to try a little experiment… And that’s what I’ve decided to do.

You’ll see there’s a jazzy new ‘donate’ button on the main menu bar at the top of the blog.

The idea is this: for those blog readers who can and wish to, there’s the option of donating a little something to help ‘power’ the blog. What this means in practice is that any donations will go towards buying me time to write reviews. Or to put it another way: as a freelancer with finite resources, they’ll allow me to liberate some precious hours to review and post more regularly.

BUT – and this is very important – there will never be any expectation on my part that readers should donate. The blog will always remain accessible and ‘free at the point of delivery’. No paywall for Mrs P! And you have my word that I’ll remain independent. ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ will always review the best international crime fiction, TV and film without fear or favour.

As I say, all of this is an experiment and I’m very relaxed about the outcome. We’ll just see how things go…

So onwards and upwards, starting tomorrow with a review of Kwon Yeo-sun’s Korean crime novel Lemon!

The 2021 Petrona Award Winner!

We’re delighted to announce the winner of the 2021 Petrona Award for the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year

The winner is….*drumroll*


TO COOK A BEAR by Mikael Niemi, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner and published by MacLehose Press.

It is the first historical crime novel to win the Petrona Award.

Here’s what the judges had to say:

The judges adored TO COOK A BEAR, a historical crime novel set in northernmost Sweden in 1852, and were unanimous in our decision to select it as the Petrona Award winner for 2021. We were particularly impressed with the novel’s use of historical detail, its fascinating reimagining of a figure from history, the sense of location and atmosphere, the rumination on religion versus the natural world, and the depiction of early forensics. TO COOK A BEAR’s superb characterisation of the main protagonists Læstadius and Jussi, which is tinged with sadness yet hope, also allows the author to explore the issues of literacy and class with sensitivity and compassion. The beautiful translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner lets the novel shine for English-language readers around the world.

And here are reactions from the winning author, translator and publisher:

Mikael Niemi: I am very proud and happy to have received the Petrona Award and would like to thank my editor, Katharina Bielenberg, my translator Deborah Bragan-Turner, and my agency, Hedlund Literary Agency, who have made it possible for this novel to reach British readers. This happy news has brightened the growing winter darkness here in the very north of Scandinavia. I am sending my warmest thanks to all my British readers.

Deborah Bragan-TurnerI am absolutely thrilled and very honoured to receive the Petrona Award. It’s a great privilege to be in the company of such accomplished authors and translators on the shortlist. Many congratulations to you all. Thank you to MacLehose Press for your support and editorial advice, and to the panel of judges for your championing of and enthusiasm for Scandinavian fiction in translation. And of course thank you most of all, Mikael Niemi, for bringing the story of Jussi and the pastor to us in TO COOK A BEAR, an inspired novel and a joy to translate.

MacLehose Press: We are delighted that Mikael Niemi’s novel has been recognised with the Petrona Award. TO COOK A BEAR is immersive and transporting, historical crime fiction at its best, and it has been thrilling to watch it find its readers in English. Powerfully vivid and lush in its descriptions of Sweden’s very far north, and brilliant on literacy and the power of language, it has been beautifully and imaginatively rendered in Deborah Bragan-Turner’s translation. Congratulations to them both!

Huge congratulations to everyone! And heartfelt thanks to our sponsor, David Hicks, for his generous support of the 2021 Petrona Award.

And for all things Petrona, see http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

The 2021 Petrona shortlist is available here.

CrimeFest 2019: Crime Cymru, Nordic Noir & The Petrona Award winner!

The sun shone for almost all of CrimeFest this year, helping to smooth our transition to the convention’s new home at The Grand in Broad Street, Bristol.

As ever, the entire festival was wonderful – thank you Adrian and Donna! Here are a few of my highlights.

The Crime Cymru panel: ‘It’s not all Rugby, Sheep and Singing’

This was such a special panel – the very first dedicated to Welsh crime writing at CrimeFest. Authors Cathy Ace, Rosie Claverton, Alis Hawkins and John Lincoln were in discussion with G.B. Williams, and explored everything from how the Crime Cymru collective came about, to the richness of Welsh settings (gritty urban Cardiff; the rural Teifi Valley), and the Welsh concept of ‘hiraeth’ or ‘longing for home’ – which Swansea-born Cathy particularly relates to as a Crime Cymru writer based in Canada. The panellists have produced an impressively varied body of crime fiction between them – offbeat P.I. novels, cosy crime, historical crime, true crime, cold case investigations – demonstrating that Welsh crime fiction is in rude health.

The ‘Scandi is Dandy’ panel took the ‘dandy’ bit to heart – especially Jørn Lier Horst, who turned up in a truly arresting Norwegian jacket. He’s pictured here on the right, if you hadn’t guessed, with Finnish fellow panellist Antii Tuomainen (bedecked in paisley), and the more soberly attired Norwegian crime writer Gunnar Staalesen sandwiched in the middle (who like Jørn was shortlisted for the 2019 Petrona Award).

The ‘Nordic’ panels are always great, and moderator Kevin Wignall helped to bring out plenty of light and shade in the course of the discussion. Jørn revealed that the starting points for The Katharina Code were a cold case he’d worked on and the question ‘what’s it like to be a murderer trying to lead an ordinary life?’ Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Antii discussed how a desire to push themselves as writers had led to a change of series and subgenre respectively. They all had high praise for the talented translators who made it possible for their works to be read in the English-speaking world: Anne Bruce (Jørn), Vicky Cribb (Yrsa) and David Hackston, whose musicality Antii felt helped hone his deft translations.

As a Petrona judge, a clear highlight for me was the announcement of the seventh Petrona Award winner at the Gala Dinner – Jørn Lier Horst for The Katharina Code, translated by Anne Bruce (Michael Joseph). Jørn is the first writer to have won the award twice (+ The Caveman in 2016).

Here’s what we judges had to say about the winning novel: 

THE KATHARINA CODE is a twenty-year-old mystery and failure of justice that haunts its investigator. From the code’s intriguing introduction in the novel’s opening pages to the duel of wits at its end, Jørn Lier Horst has crafted an outstanding and thrilling police procedural. The judges were particularly impressed with how the author takes established tropes – the ‘cold case’, the longstanding suspect, the dogged nature of police work – and combines them in ways that are innovative and fresh. THE KATHARINA CODE is the seventh novel in Horst’s ‘William Wisting’ series to be superbly translated by Anne Bruce from Norwegian into English, and is a highly worthy winner of the 2019 Petrona Award.

You can read more over at the Petrona website – and see the entire shortlist of six novels from Norway, Denmark and Iceland: http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

Jorn with the Petrona Award team and Kristin from the Norwegian Embassy.

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I have to confess that I attended less panels this year than I normally do. This was partly because I only managed to get to CrimeFest on Friday afternoon, and partly because I really wanted to catch up with people I hadn’t seen in ages. So often you cross paths with someone as you’re going in or out of a panel and say, ‘let’s meet up later’… and then somehow it doesn’t happen. This year I caught up properly with some dear crime buddies including Anya Lipska, Quentin Bates, Louise Mangos, Marina Sofia, Jackie Collins, Ewa Sherman, Tana Collins, Ayo Onatade, Ali Karim, Sarah Ward, Karen Meek, Raven (that G&T was *really* good), and someone I hadn’t seen in over 30 years – it’s a small world Mick Finlay!

Criminally good friendships – what more could we want?

Eurotour Stop 1. Hamburg, Germany: “Nowhere does the summer fade more splendidly”

Guten Tag from Hamburg! Our first extract comes from…

John le Carré, Smiley’s People (Sceptre, 2011 [1979], pp. 29-30). 

The extract is set at the height of the Cold War.

The second of the two events that brought George Smiley from his retirement occurred a few weeks after the first, in the early autumn of the same year: not in Paris at all, but in the once ancient, free, and Hanseatic city of Hamburg, now almost pounded to death by the thunder of its own prosperity; yet it remains true that nowhere does the summer fade more splendidly than along the gold and orange banks of the Alster, which nobody has yet drained or filled with concrete. George Smiley, needless to say, had seen nothing of its languorous autumn splendour. Smiley, on the day in question, was toiling obliviously, with whatever conviction he could muster, at his habitual desk in the London Library in St. James’s Square, with two spindly trees to look at through the sash-window of the reading room. The only link to Hamburg he might have pleaded – if he had afterwards attempted the connection, which he did not – was in the Parnassian field of German baroque poetry, for at the time he was composing a monograph on the bard Opitz, and trying loyally to distinguish true passion from the tiresome literary convention of the period.

The time in Hamburg was a few moments after eleven in the morning, and the footpath leading to the jetty was speckled with sunlight and dead leaves. A candescent haze hung over the flat water of the Aussenalster, and through it the spires of the Eastern bank were like green stains dabbed on the wet horizon. Along the shore, red squirrels scurried, foraging for the winter. But the slight and somewhat anarchistic-looking man standing on the jetty wearing a tracksuit and running shoes had neither eyes nor mind for them. His red-rimmed gaze was locked tensely upon the approaching steamer, his hollow face darkened by a two-day stubble. He carried a Hamburg newspaper under his left arm, and an eye as perceptive as George Smiley’s would have noticed at once that it was yesterday’s edition, not today’s.

Klaxon! le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies is out on 7 September. After 25 years, George Smiley is back! 

Hamburg Gallery

We’ve had a wonderful couple of days in Hamburg, seeing family, friends and lots of sights. It really is a most beautiful place. A few highlights below…

View across the Aussenalster (Outer Alster), which is mentioned in the passage above and lies right in the middle of the city:

Here’s the kind of boat our young man was waiting for – these chug around the Alster like genteel water-taxis:

Here’s the front of the Rathaus or City Hall. We noticed that it was flying the Hamburg flag and the European flag, but not a German one. The city’s Hanseatic Free City status is one it is very proud of and likes to stress:

Here’s the back of the Rathaus. Rather splendid:

Pavement graffiti – ‘be free’:

A local delicacy from this seafaring city – matjes (herring) with Bratkartoffel (fried potatoes). Delicious!

The German election is coming up later in September, so election posters are everywhere. Behind to the left, the offices of Die Zeit, the influential weekly broadsheet.

The Elbphilharmonie, a swish new concert hall and architectural wonder, has just opened. This is the way in (*hums stairway to heaven*). Hamburg locals have already nicknamed the building ‘Elphie’:

Lastly, the best souvenirs ever: an iconic Tatort key-ring and a book-bag (Lesestoff = reading matter).

Click here for an overview of Mrs. Peabody’s Eurotour

 

Crime fiction prologues – love them or hate them?

Sometimes when you read lots of crime novels in quick succession, particular trends start to emerge. For me recently, it’s been the increasing use of prologues that are action-dominated and gruesomely violent. Perhaps I’ve had a bad run, but in the space of ten books I’ve encountered the following ‘gritty prologues’ (from male and female authors of different nationalities):

  • A man wakes to find himself bound to a table. He is tortured to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A woman arrives home in the dark, is attacked from behind and almost strangled to death. Told from the victim’s point of view.
  • A father drops his son off at a friend’s house, only to discover that the family has been brutally murdered. Told from the father’s point of view.
  • A father tries and fails to stop his daughter seeing a grisly corpse he has just uncovered in a peat bog. Told from the daughter’s point of view.
  • A stray dog scavenging for food finds three fresh corpses that will make a nice supper. Told from the dog’s point of view (!).
  • A woman is suffocated in her bed with a pillow. Told from the murderer’s point of view.

Truly. I kid you not.

A number of questions arise:

  1. What’s the aim of this kind of prologue? To grab the reader’s attention in a competitive market place? To demonstrate the crime writer’s ‘chops’ when describing extreme violence? To sell more books?
  2. Why does the violence have to be dialled up to 11, described in minute detail, and told from the victim/murderer POV? Is there some kind of grim inflation going on, with authors competing to describe ever more violent/sadistic acts? And is this really what authors/editors/publishers think readers want?
  3. Are these kinds of prologues new? A quick scout of my bookshelves tells me they’re not. Henning Mankell uses prologues in Sidetracked (1995), The Fifth Woman (2000) and other Wallander novels. So does Hakan Nesser in Borkmann’s Point (1994), George Pelecanos in The Big Blowdown (1996) and Jan Costin Wagner in Silence (2007).
  4. Do prologues feature regularly in crime before the 1990s? I’m not sure. I couldn’t find any, but haven’t done an exhaustive search by any means. It would be interesting to know when crime fiction prologues became an established feature.
  5. Has the nature of the crime fiction prologue changed? On the basis of an admittedly tiny sample, it seems to me that they have. The older prologues listed under 3. include the story of a family in the Dominican Republic, a woman reading a letter informing her of her mother’s death, and an encounter between two friends in an ambulance en route to hospital. Rather than depicting acts of violence, they give information that helps readers to make sense of acts of violence later in the narrative. The other two do portray graphic violence, but the first is leavened with black humour, and the second is vital to understanding the psychology and roles of two characters in relation to the crime. Neither are told from the POV of the victim or murderer. By contrast, the more recent prologues feel much more gratuitous, and could easily be left out without disturbing the narrative.
  6. Does a terrible prologue = a terrible crime novel? Not necessarily. In fact, there’s sometimes an odd shift in tone between the prologue and the main narrative, which suggests that the prologue could have been tacked on.
  7. Whose idea are these prologues? Do authors come under pressure to add gritty prologues from their editors or publishers or readers? Is the driving force a commercial one, and if so, is there actual proof that such prologues ‘work’ in terms of getting readers to buy books?

The Tempest, Act II, Scene I

But all is not lost. Just this morning I picked up a new crime novel by a certain Norwegian author. Its prologue shows a policeman receiving a letter that will help him to solve an open case from 33 years ago. Hooray!

What’s your view as a reader? Take part in the mini-polls below if you fancy, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If any authors, editors, publishers or translators would like to add to the discussion they’d be most welcome 🙂 ***The polls are now closed*** 

Thanks to everyone who took part in the prologue polls. The results are now visible below.

Some thoughts on the results: In each poll, the highest-scoring response (between 47% and 53% of respondents) was a neutral one. So around half of those who took the polls didn’t have strong views about prologues or their usefulness, and didn’t feel that their buying decisions were influenced by them one way or the other. Notably, however, the second-highest response in each poll was negative. In the first poll, 29% said they disliked prologues, in the second poll, 29% felt that they were largely unnecessary, and in the third, 24.5% said that a prologue had put them off buying a book. So at least a quarter of readers don’t seem to like prologues very much or consider them largely necessary. The third-highest responses in the first two polls were more positive: 10% said they liked prologues in poll one, and 17% felt that prologues often had a useful function in poll two. In the third poll, which looked at buying decisions, almost 18% said that the prologue had influenced them in both directions (to buy and not to buy). Only 5% said that a prologue had led them to buy a book. That last finding might surprise some editors and publishers (though the percentage would go up a bit if one added more points from the ‘both’ response).

Obviously, the sample size here is small, but the results are thought-provoking nonetheless.

Treats galore: Crime Time’s Top 100 Books of 2016

Using a fiendish algorithm, the good people at Crime Time have converted nominations from a selection of criminal experts into a wonderfully rich list of the year’s top 100 crime novels.

So if you’re lying beached on the sofa after Christmas dinner, or need a tiny break from your loved ones over the festive season, you could dip in here:

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The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: Day 1 – #100 To 51

The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: Part Deux – #50 To #21

The Crime Time Top 100 Books Of 2016: It doesn’t get any bigger than this! – #20 To Numero Uno

I haven’t yet checked how the list breaks down by sub-genre/gender/nation, but am looking forward to taking a closer look, as well as adding some more crime to my TBR pile. Laura Lippman’s Wilde Lake has already found its way onto my bookshelf.

The panel: Barry Forshaw (Financial Times), Andre Paine (Crime Scene), Marcel Berlins (The Times), Steph Broadribb (Crime Thriller Girl), Jon Coates (Daily Express), Jake Kerridge (The Telegraph), Sarah Ward (Crime Pieces), Karen Robinson (The Sunday Times), Maxim Jakubowski (Lovereading), Kat Hall (Mrs. Peabody Investigates), Russell Mclean (russeldmcleanbooks.com), Doug Johnstone (dougjohnstone.com) and Woody Haut (woodyhaut.blogspot.co.uk)

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Merry Christmas / Happy Hanukkah / Happy Holidays to you all!

Holiday reading and Price’s Other Paths to Glory

One advantage of an enormous TBR pile is that it provides you with plenty of fodder for holiday reading. We’re off in the VW shortly, and I’m in the process of creating a miniature crime library to take on the road.

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Mwnt in Wales – one of our stops in the VW last year. A very nice spot for a cuppa and a good book.

The following have already made the cut:

K.T. Medina’s White Crocodile (Faber & Faber, 2014). Cover text: ‘When emotionally damaged mine-clearer Tess Hardy arrives in Cambodia to investigate the truth behind her ex-husband’s death, she finds that local girls are going missing. Caught in a web of lies that stretches from Cambodia to England, Tess must unravel the truth, and quickly – before she becomes the next victim’. The novel has received some really glowing reviews and has been on my list to read for ages.

white-crocodile-jacket

Roberto Costantini’s The Root of All Evil (translated from Italian by N.S. Thompson, Quercus, 2014 [2012]). This is the second novel in the ‘Commissario Balistreri’ trilogy, which moves back in time from Italy of the 1980s/modern day to Libya in the late 1960s. I loved Deliverance of Evil (review here), and am looking forward entering this author’s complex world again. At 676 pages, The Root of All Evil is also handy insurance against rainy days when holidaying in the north of England.

Costantini

Eva Dolan’s Tell No Tales (Vintage, 2015). I expect the second in Dolan’s ‘DI Zigic and DS Ferreira’ series to be a particularly resonant and disturbing post-Brexit read. Cover text: ‘Two men are kicked to death in brutal attacks. Caught on CCTV, the murderer hides his face – but raises a Nazi salute. In a town riddled with racial tension, Detectives Zigic and Ferreira from the Hate Crimes Unit are under pressure to find the killer. Riots break out, the leader of right-wing party steps into the spotlight, and Zigic and Ferreira must act fast before more violence erupts’. I reviewed Long Way Home, the first in the series, here.

Dolan

When catching up with the lovely Ms Adler in Cardiff last week, I picked up Anthony Price’s Other Paths to Glory in Oxfam Books. Because it was part of the ‘crime masterworks’ series – one of my favourites – I didn’t even bother to read the back cover, but soon realised it was going to be very topical given the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July.

The novel was the winner of the CWA Gold Dagger Award in 1974, and shows World War One historian Paul Mitchell being pulled into undercover work for the MoD following the murder of a colleague. A map fragment from the Battle of Hameau Ridge on the Somme in 1916 appears to be the cause, but why?

Other Paths to Glory was an absorbing read that provided sobering insights into the history of World War One and the experiences of ordinary soldiers, many of whom died senseless deaths at a tragically young age. Part of the plot explores the mystery of regiments that simply disappeared from the battlefield, and the novel offers an ingenious and plausible solution to that enigma.

There’s a lovely review of Price’s The Labyrinth Makers over at CrimeFictionLover, which also gives some background on this very interesting author and his works.

Anthony Price

Somme

Graves at the Somme

London calling: Forensics, European crime fiction…and cake

I’m just back from a couple of crime-filled days in London. The main reason for my visit was to speak at a symposium on European crime fiction and data visualisation (of which more later), but I travelled up a day early in order to see the Forensics exhibition at The Wellcome Trust.

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The Wellcome Trust is by Euston Square station. Get there early, as it’s a popular exhibition

I’ve already written about the Forensics exhibition in a previous post, so here’s a summary of the parts I particularly liked.

  • Its focus, as one would expect, is scientific, but it also incorporates photography and artwork reflecting on violence, murder and its aftermath, which provide some genuinely thought-provoking perspectives.
  • Frances Glessner Lee’s ‘Nutshell Study of Unexplained Death’ – a crime scene recreated in a dollhouse for police training purposes in the 1940s – was fascinating for its miniature juxtaposition of detailed handcrafts and gruesome homicide.
  • Room 4, which explores how forensic archaeologists have gathered evidence of political and war crimes in Chile, Rwanda and Yugoslavia, was highly moving in its emphasis on bearing witness and justice.
  • The vast array of exhibits yielded wildly diverse treasures such as exquisite drawings of deadly plants, a porcelain Royal Doulton morgue table and Sir Bernhard Spilsbury’s hand-written autopsy cards (although I did wonder how the poor victims would have felt about having their personal details on public display…).
  • I took some great new definitions and phrases away with me: the word ‘autopsy’ means ‘to see with one’s own eyes’ and constitutes ‘the last chance to question the dead’; Eduard Locard, head of the first police crime lab in Lyon, introduced ‘the exchange principle’, based on the theory that ‘every contact leaves a trace’ (perpetrator on victim and victim on perpetrator), and Erle Stanley Gardener asserted that medical experts giving evidence at trials ‘must serve but one client, and that client should be truth’.

A note of warning: the exhibition is not for faint-hearted, as some of the images and commentary it contains are extremely graphic. I was grateful for a strong and steadying cup of coffee in the Wellcome Cafe afterwards. But I would highly recommend a visit – see the exhibition website for more details here.

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Drawing breath in the Wellcome cafe…

Friday was spent at the British Library, taking part in the symposium ‘Towards a Digital Atlas of European Crime Fiction?’ – part of an AHRC project run by Dominique Jeannerod and Federico Pagello of Queen’s University Belfast. The project is evidence of how rapidly the ‘digital humanities’ – which explore the contribution of ‘big data’, technology and data visualisation to humanities research – are expanding, and was of course particularly interesting as it considered these areas in relation to European crime.

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Eduardo Paolozzi’s statue of Isaac Newton at the British Library

The morning was spent hearing the project contributors’ findings. What I liked about this section was the chance to see some data visualisations, to discuss the metho-dological and technical challenges involved in their creation (e.g. getting from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean data’), and to get an idea of the kinds of case studies involved (French, Hungarian and European crime). I had expected the speakers to be evangelical about digital research, but they discussed its advantages and disadvantages in very even-handed and thoughtful ways – such as the capacity of ‘distant reading’ to make trends visible against the time that inputting and cleaning data can take. The project is designed to have an exploratory function and as someone considering increased use of digital methods in my research, I found these reflections very useful indeed.

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Federico Pagello (Queens), discussing ‘dirty’ vs ‘clean data’

The afternoon saw presentations from researchers on diverse digital tools and analysis in research on Czech, French, New Zealand and German crime (the latter from yours truly, on my Nazi-themed crime fiction database and this blog), as well as a talk from Samuel Schwiegelhofer of the Paris Bibliothèque des littératures policières (BiLiPo – a library dedicated to crime fiction!). That was followed by a marvellous keynote from Ian Sansom (crime author and academic), which ranged from the work of theorist Franco Moretti to the horse’s head in The Godfather and Ian’s garden shed.

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Professor Ian Sansom with his shed. Photo by Federico Pagello

All in all, the symposium was a rich and valuable experience, not least because it provided the chance to meet like-minded researchers from around the world, and has made me think deeply about my own research and its digital possibilities. Many thanks to the organisers for making it such a successful event.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the project, then take a look at the International Crime Fiction Research Group blog or follow the group on Twitter – @crimefictionrg. A website with lots of useful resources is on its way.

Last but not least, the trip provided a great opportunity to meet friends and co-conspirators from the crime blogosphere, including Jacky Collins, Andy Lawrence, Ewa Sherman and Sarah Ward. There were pilgrimages to The Scandinavian Kitchen and Maison Bertaux (the latter, London’s oldest patisserie, was a great find courtesy of Andy).

Large amounts of cake may have been consumed.

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Serial: the crime podcast phenomenon

Last Friday, to pass some time while ill in bed, I started listening to the podcast SERIAL, which explores a real and very complex murder case from 1999. I don’t consider myself to be a fan of true crime, which is all too often voyeuristic and salacious, and so wasn’t expecting to get drawn in. But I found myself hooked from the opening of the very first episode, and by the end of the day had listened eight (EIGHT!) episodes.

SERIAL is a podcast phenomenon. Since it started in October it has become the fastest podcast on iTunes to be downloaded or streamed 5 million times, and is one of reddit’s most discussed topics. The series first crossed my radar when writer Linda Grant wrote about her fascination with it and I’m glad to have finally caught up, because it’s genuinely brilliant.

SERIAL is an offshoot of This American Life (a weekly radio show by Chicago Public Media), and is presented by journalist Sarah Koenig. This is how SERIAL’s website describes what the podcast is about:

>> On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A few weeks later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

Sarah Koenig first learned about this case more than a year ago. In the months since, she’s been sorting through box after box (after box) of legal documents and investigators’ notes, listening to trial testimony and police interrogations, and talking to everyone she can find who remembers what happened between Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee fifteen years ago. What she realized is that the trial covered up a far more complicated story, which neither the jury nor the public got to hear. The high school scene, the shifting statements to police, the prejudices, the sketchy alibis, the scant forensic evidence – all of it leads back to the most basic questions: How can you know a person’s character? How can you tell what they’re capable of? In Season One of Serial, she looks for answers. <<

So the podcast is a 360 degree examination of a murder case, one that Sarah carries out with great intelligence, care and respect for all the individuals involved. Although the hope is to get to the bottom of the case’s contradictions by looking at the evidence with fresh eyes, Koenig pledges to ‘follow the story where it takes us’, even if that means failing to achieve closure. It’s this willingness to accept all outcomes that is one of the series’ chief strengths; in many respects it is a thoughtful meditation on the difficulty of finding the truth.

Eleven episodes of SERIAL are currently available. The 12th and final episode airs this coming Thursday. If you haven’t yet listened, you might want to leave this post and head over to episode 1. If you’ve already caught up, you might be interested in reading on below…

What I’m not going to discuss is the (admittedly fascinating) question of Adnan’s guilt or innocence, because it’s being dissected exhaustively elsewhere, and to an extent that makes me feel uneasy. Arguably, one of the few pitfalls of the podcast is that it’s been treated by some as a fictional crime whodunit, losing sight of the fact that the story is about real people. I’m more interested in the insights Sarah Koenig (SK) has offered listeners into the impact of murder, the minutiae of police investigations and the complexities of the trial process. These are meta-observations that have made me think really, really hard about the justice system in a way that I haven’t done before.

Memory. The first episode of SERIAL opens with an observation about how hard it can be to remember past events. Can you remember exactly what you were doing the whole of last Wednesday? Now, how about a Wednesday six weeks ago, which turns out to have been the day of a murder, in which you are a suspect? What happens if you genuinely can’t remember? Or if you think you can, but then realise you’ve got it wrong? Or if you can, but no one can corroborate what you say? Any of these could be the beginning of a road to wrongful conviction. Unless of course you’re lying, which is when things get even trickier.

A piece of evidence can appear utterly damning when viewed in one context, and completely innocent in another. It all depends on how you build it into a larger narrative or how you spin it. SK demonstrates this by discussing specific bits of evidence with those who think Adnan is guilty and those who don’t. The same applies in the courtroom: building a convincing narrative is key for the prosecution and defence. They are telling competing stories to the jury and are fighting for their own to be believed.

The power of narrative is also illustrated by the podcast itself (something that SK does not explicitly acknowledge). Episodes are constructed in such a way as to consider one side of the argument, then the other, and inevitably sway the listener back and forth as well (ooh, he’s guilty/nooo, he can’t be). There’s a cliff-hanger element built into the episodes, with previews of ‘next time’ promising new evidence that will keep us hooked. Very successfully.

On a moral level, we listeners are gripped by questions of guilt or innocence. But in a legal context, guilt or innocence may never be definitively proved. The more important question then becomes ‘is there reasonable doubt’?

Murder investigations are HUGELY complex. We all know this, but listening to over ten hours of detail about one case makes you appreciate that fact all the more. It instills a respect for police investigators, who have to process mountains of potential evidence and decide what it relevant and what is not. It also makes you realise how easily the truth can be lost if the wrong leads are followed, or if prejudices start to cloud investigators’ judgments.

The police are not necessarily looking for the truth. Rather, they are trying to build a case against someone. This means that there may be ‘verification bias’ present in the investigation – the disregarding of so-called ‘bad evidence’ that does not fit the detectives’ theories of what happened. Scary stuff, and this is why it’s so important for justice systems to have a robust element of defence and cross-examination, so that lots of difficult questions can be asked.

SK’s own investigations show us a range of different perspectives and voices: we hear sound clips of police interviews and court proceedings, readings from Hae’s teenage diary, SK’s interviews with family, friends and witnesses (all of whom were deeply affected by the murder), and her phone conversations with Adnan in prison. These are augmented by her own commentary on the difficulties she is encountering as she tries to figure out this ‘Rubik’s cube of a case’.

‘Cops assume that everyone is lying all the time’. A pragmatic, logical approach or a breach of the presumption of innocence? They will ‘offer the suspect a theme’ – meaning that they will discuss the subject of the crime in a way that suggests understanding to encourage a confession (e.g. ‘I can understand why you hit that man. After all he provoked you’).

‘How easy it is to stir stereotypes in with facts, all of which then gets baked into a story’. SK does a great job of exploring the possible bias of the judicial system (for example, the use of certain types of vocabulary in reports or in court). This quote is also a wonderful example of how SK sums up ideas in an accessible and interesting way.

Serial host Sarah Koenig and producer Dana Chivvis examine some evidence. Photo by Elise Bergerson.

I never quite realised how many factors can feed into the outcome of a trial: the quality of the prosecution or defence lawyers, cultural biases, the composition of the jury, alibis or the lack of alibis, the presence or absence of forensic evidence, the efficiency or inefficiency of the investigators (did they ask for that crucial item to be checked for DNA?), the willingness or refusal of witnesses to testify, the credibility of witnesses, etc. etc. etc.

If you are innocent, and continue to maintain your innocence following conviction, then your chances of parole are low, because the parole board is looking for evidence of remorse. So you can lie and get out, or be honest and stay in. Hmmmm.

SK and her listeners may be playing the role of the detective, but that does not remotely guarantee the discovery of a ‘solution’, because this is real life. Will the final episode offer listeners the closure they crave? At the simplest level, Adnan’s guilt/innocence may only be known to three people: murder victim Hae Lee, Adnan himself and his friend Jay. Of these last two, one has to be lying. I’m doubtful that SERIAL can reveal who’s telling the truth, but it certainly succeeds in showing us plenty of others.

Hinterland on BBC4 … and other crime news

For those in the UK who’ve not yet seen Welsh crime drama Hinterland, now is your chance. Episode One will air again on BBC4 on Monday 28 April at 9.00pm. Further details are available from The Radio Times and an earlier blog post of mine, which contains a spoiler-free review.

And for viewers beyond our shores, the good news is that Hinterland has been picked by Netflix, so crime fans in Canada and the US will shortly be able to enjoy its delights too. Cymru Crime is on its way!

In other news:

The good people at Penguin are still sending me a Simenon a month from their freshly translated Inspector Maigret series, and I’ve had a lovely time working my way through the latest three, The Yellow DogNight at the Crossroads and A Crime in Holland (all originally published in 1931). The latter involves a French lecturer suspected of murder and is therefore right up my street (although I hasten to add that all the French lecturers I know are model citizens). I’ve updated the Maigret page – we’re now up to a total of seven novels.

Holding on to the Dutch theme… I’ve just received a copy of Lonely Graves (Mulholland Books/Hodder), which is set in Amsterdam, and authored by ‘Britta Bolt’, the pseudonym of German Britta Böhler and South African Rodney Bolt. Böhler is a former lawyer in international law, while Bolt has a background in travel writing – an ideal pairing for a crime novel set in foreign climes. Their ‘detective’ is municipal government employee Pieter Posthumus, who arranges so-called ‘lonely funerals’ for those dying without family or means, and who decides to investigate when a young Moroccan is found drowned. I’m a few chapters in, and am enjoying the unusual scenario and Amsterdam setting. The novel is the first in ‘The Posthumus Trilogy’ – looks promising.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been exploring Turkish German novels for the Crime Fiction in German volume, including Jakob Arjouni’s Kayankaya series and Akif Pirinçci’s ‘Felidae’ series (in which Francis the cat detective can be said to represent a migrant perspective). The opening novel has been made into a rather good animated film, but be warned that it’s not suitable for children, as it explores some rather adult themes. Both series are available in English translation and have met with considerable success.

There are also some interesting recent developments, such as Su Turhan’s ‘Kommissar Pascha’ series, featuring Munich Turkish-German police inspector Zeki Demirbilek (not yet translated). My Swansea University colleague Tom Cheesman’s book, Novels of Turkish German Settlement (Camden 2007) has also been very helpful in terms of understanding wider issues relating to migrant experience and identity in Germany, and pointing the way to some crime fiction gems.