Crime from the International Booker, Netflix & Cannes (Argentina, South Korea, USA)

Claudia Piñeiro, Elena Knows, tr. from Argentinian Spanish by Frances Riddle, Charco Press 2021 [2007]

First lines: The trick is to lift up the right foot, just a few centimetres off the floor, move it forward through the air, just enough to get past the left foot, and when it gets as far as it can go, lower it. That’s all it is, Elena thinks. 

Elena Knows, by the wonderful Argentinian writer Claudia Piñeiro, packs an unbelievable amount into its 173 pages. Its elderly heroine-detective is Elena, a widow with Parkinson’s whose daughter was recently found dead in the belfry of their church. Elena knows with absolute certainty that Rita, a devout Catholic, wouldn’t have committed suicide, and so embarks on a dogged attempt to investigate the crime. However, her physical limitations keep getting in the way, and when she tries to enlist help from others — Rita’s boyfriend, one of the policemen on the case, a mysterious woman called Isabel — things don’t always go smoothly.

In the course of the novel we accompany Elena on a laborious journey across Buenos Aires, wholly dependent on the levodopa medication that enables her to move. We also observe the journey she takes in her head, which involves discomforting revelations about mother-daughter relationships, female autonomy — especially in relation to the body — and the hypocrisies of Catholicism. Hovering over it all is the question: how much does Elena really know? And what will she find out when she reaches her destination?

Claudia Piñeiro

Claudia Piñeiro is one of Argentina’s top writers, but is best known to English-language readers as a crime author (Betty Boo, A Crack in the Wall). Fiona Mackintosh’s illuminating afterword argues that ‘for Piñeiro, the solving of an individual crime is only half the story; a single crime often metonymically presents corruption at the core of society. As she put it on accepting the Pepe Carvalho Prize, “crime fiction came into being to denounce injustice”, and she claims that nowadays it is impossible to write a crime novel without also writing about the society in which the crime takes place.’

Elena Knows is a book that’s stayed with me for a long time. It’s rightly won a number of prizes and was most recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (whose winner on Thursday was Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell).

Our Father, dir. Lucie Jourdan, Netflix 2022

Recently, I watched a documentary called Our Father on Netflix. It overlaps with Elena Knows to a certain extent, because it too explores issues of bodily autonomy and consent in larger religious contexts.

Our Father begins with a chance discovery by a woman called Jacoba Ballard. Following a DNA test, she finds out that she has seven hitherto unknown siblings living close to her in Indiana. She knows immediately that something is wrong, and after considerable detective work establishes that her mother’s fertility doctor, Donald Cline, had used his own sperm to impregnate his patients. And that’s just for starters…

I really liked how the documentary placed Cline’s victims front and centre (especially the children and their mothers), and how it explored the horrific emotional fallout that just one man with a God complex can cause. Jacoba’s grit and courage really shine through: she’s determined to ensure that Cline’s crimes are revealed to the community and that legal changes are made so this can never happen again. Utterly gripping from beginning to end.

The Cannes Film Festival is in full swing at the moment and one of my favourite reviewers, Peter Bradshaw, has been raving about South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s latest offering, the ‘black-widow noir’ Decision to Leave (헤어질 결심) starring Park Hae-il and Tang Wei.

Somewhat unhappily married police detective Hae-Joon is called to investigate a death in the mountains near Busan. There’s something suspicious about the victim’s Chinese wife, Seo-rae, but Hae-joon’s growing fascination with her is such that it starts to interfere with his professionalism and the investigation.

Bradshaw was impressed by the acting of the leads and how freshly this fairly common crime-genre scenario is handled. It gets a coveted 5 stars from him — and is up for the prestigious Palme d’Or. See his full review here.

Other well-reviewed crime films / thrillers at Cannes 2022 include:

Australian true-crime thriller The Stranger ( review)

Egyptian spy thriller Boy from Heaven (Guardian review)

French crime-comedy-romance The Innocent (Screen Daily review)

Italian gangster drama Nostalgia (Guardian review)

Have you watched any good crime dramas or films lately?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#12 Ernesto Mallo / Needle in a Haystack

Ernesto Mallo, Needle in a Haystack [La aguja en el pajar], translated from the Spanish by Jethro Soutar (London: Bitter Lemon Press 2010 [2006]). This crime novel paints a searing portrait of 1970s Argentina under military rule  5 stars

Opening sentence: Some days the side of the bed is like the edge of an enormous abyss.

This is a hard-hitting crime novel, set against the backdrop of Junta-controlled Argentina in the late 1970s, where power lies primarily in the hands of the military, and ‘disappearances’ of young political activists – supposed ‘subversives’ – are common. Such extra-judicial detentions and executions are typically not questioned by the police (the very body that should be protecting the nation’s citizenry), as doing so is perceived as a pointless exercise that would have extremely negative consequences for the individual.

Superintendent Lascano is a recently bereaved detective (see also Kimmo Joentaa), struggling to maintain his integrity in this morally bankrupt society. In the opening chapter, we see him leaving the house at the beginning of the day, trying to ignore the presumably common sights of bus passengers being searched, and a boy and a girl being driven away in a convoy of military trucks. The girl makes desperate eye-contact with Lascano ‘and then she is swallowed up by the fog’ (8). When Lascano is directed to investigate a report of two bodies dumped by the riverside, he finds that there are now three dead lying there. Unable to investigate the first two, who are clearly the victims of the death squads, he is drawn into investigating the third, and soon finds himself in danger as he treads on some highly-placed military toes.

In the process of following Lascano’s investigations, the reader is presented with a finely-drawn portrait of a corrupt Argentina and its ‘Dirty War’. The narrative is told from a number of viewpoints, giving us multiple perspectives of life under the regime, from a member of a guerrilla cell opposing the Junta (Eva), to the honest cop (Lascano and his friend Fuseli the pathologist), the decadent Argentinian (Amancio, Lara and Horacio), the Jewish businessman (Biterman), the right-wing major (Giribaldi) and the major’s wife (Maisabe). Maisabe is procured a baby by her husband – the newborn son of a young ‘subversive’, who has almost certainly been killed by the regime. The focus is very much on the enormous human price that the younger generation – ‘the kids’ – paid for trying to oppose the regime. The author, who is himself a former member of the anti-Junta movement, would have been the same age as these characters in the 1970s, and it’s hard not to see the novel as a lament for his lost contemporaries and their suffering.

One element I found very interesting was the way that members of the Junta were styled as National Socialists in the novel. For example, we’re told how shortly after a couple have been arrested, the military return to their flat to cart off their possessions: ‘Various conscripts come in and out carrying furniture … and they put everything in the back of a truck, supervised by an arrogant blond captain’ (113). For me, this scene immediately brought to mind the deportations of Jewish citizens in Germany, and the appropriation of their property by the Nazi state (signalled here by the presence of the ‘blond’ captain). Lascano is also Jewish, so there seems to be a fundamental opposition being posited in the novel between good versus evil along the fault-line of Jews:Nazis. The kind of right-wing equivalences being made here also reminded me of Imre Kertész’s 1977 novel Detective Story, which is set in an unspecified South American dictatorship and features a police-man whose interrogation methods are modelled on those of the Nazis. (Kertész is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, and the novel, which can loosely be viewed as a crime novel, is well worth a read – published in translation by Vintage in 2009).

It’s notable (and rather fascinating) that the English translation of Needle in a Haystack was funded by the ‘Sur Translation Support Program of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship of the Argentine Republic’. This suggests that the novel is viewed as part of a national project of engaging with the crimes committed in the Argentine past. The first two novels are also being adapted for film in Argentina, which will undoubtedly help them reach a wider audience.

Needle in a Haystack is a compelling, absorbing and unsettling read. I’d recommend Mallo to anyone who likes quality crime novels that address serious political issues and the legacies of difficult historical pasts. It’s the first of a trilogy and the second, Sweet Money, is already out with Bitter Lemon Press.

Mrs. Peabody awards Needle in a Haystack an outstanding 5 stars.

Update: for a recent article on the process of bringing former members of the junta to justice for the theft of babies from female political prisoners, see here.

Mrs Peabody’s suitcase of holiday crime 2011

So here’s a list of the holiday crime novels I’ve finally settled on this year. Something of an eclectic bunch, these have either been recommended by other bloggers and readers, or caught my eye while browsing in real and virtual bookshops.

Ernesto Mallo, Needle in a Haystack and Sweet Money (Bitter Lemon Press). Set in the Argentina of 1970s military rule and beyond – both come highly recommended by Petrona.

Ellis Peters omnibus of A Morbid Taste for Bones and One Corpse Too Many – the first of the Brother Cadfael mysteries (which I’ve actually never read before), waiting for me in the bargain bucket at The Works. Bones has a Welsh connection to remind me of home.

Best International Crime: 36 Stories by Boris Akunin, Jeffery Deaver, Jo Nesbo, Ian Rankin and many more, edited by Max Jakubowski. A veritable treasure trove of 40 short stories, going for a song on Amazon.

Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance and The League of Frightened Gentlemen (classic Nero Wolfe mysteries), as recommended by Kathy from the States. To my shame, I knew nothing of Stout until a short while ago – time to make amends.

Colin Bateman, Murphy’s Law: Sex, Psychos and a Grave Situation (off-beat, darkly humorous crime, picked up in Oxfam Books).

I’m looking forward to sampling all of these very much.

Mrs. Peabody Investigates will be taking a break for August. 

Wishing you all a very happy and restful summer.