All at sea: Emma Stonex’s The Lamplighters

Emma Stonex, The Lamplighters (Picador 2022)

First line: When Jory opens the curtains, the day is light and grey, the radio playing a half-known song.

Author Emma Stonex was inspired to write The Lamplighters by an unsolved mystery from 1900: the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from a remote rock light on the island of Eilean Mòr in the Outer Hebrides.

The Lamplighters transposes this event to the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, fifteen miles southwest of Land’s End, on 31 December 1971. When the boat bearing the relief keeper arrives at the lighthouse after a delay of several days, it’s found to be completely empty. The door is barred from the inside and the table is set for a meal, but there’s no trace of Principal Keeper Arthur Black, Assistant Keeper Bill Walker or Supernumerary Assistant Keeper Vince Bourne.

I loved this novel. Stonex brings a keen intelligence to bear on the possible solutions to the mystery and explores these skilfully via two interlinked timelines. The first is set in 1971/1972, in which the reader is shown the events prior to and immediately following the disappearances from multiple characters’ perspectives. The second takes place in 1992 and examines the unsettling effects on the still unsolved mystery on those left behind, particularly Helen and Jenny, Arthur and Bill’s wives, and Vince’s girlfriend Michelle.

Cutaway of the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Scotland, built by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The Lamplighters draws on different genres with aplomb. It’s most definitely a mystery novel, but also a ghost novel of sorts, and a novel about the complexity of human relationships (the characterisation is wonderful). It also offers fascinating insights into the lost world of lightkeeping and the realities of living in a very confined space with two other people for weeks on end — something that will resonate with those who’ve been through pandemic lockdowns. And then there’s the vast, beautiful, treacherous sea, which is really a character in its own right, and influences the action in a number of ways.

I hoovered up this novel in the course of just two evenings. It’s a wonderfully absorbing page-turner, with revelation after revelation forcing you to recalibrate your ideas about what the truth of the mystery might be.

Do we find out what happened in the end?
You’ll have to read it yourself to see…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courage & resilience: Naomi Hirahara’s Clark and Division (USA/Japan)

Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division, Soho Crime 2021

First line: Rose was always there, even when I was being born.

I’ve had my eye on this crime novel for a while, because it uses the mystery genre to explore an under-represented part of American history: the internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour, and the long-lasting impact this had on their communities and lives.

The novel is narrated by Aki Ito, born in the States to Japanese first-generation immigrants — the ‘Issei’. She and her charismatic sister Rose are of the ‘Nisei’, the ‘second generation’, and are raised in reasonably stable and prosperous circumstances in California. Until Pearl Harbour, that is, when they are interned in the Manzanar camp and then relocated to Chicago, where they settle in the Japanese district.

Rose was allowed to move to the city before the rest of the family, and when Aki and her parents arrive they’re given terrible news: Rose has been killed by a train at the Clark & Division subway station. The family’s grief takes different forms – in Aki’s case, it means talking to those who knew Rose best in order to figure out what actually happened – was it suicide, an accident, or murder?

Clark and Division is a well-crafted and absorbing standalone with a great sense of place, and I really liked the insights it gave into Japanese culture and the lives of Japanese-Americans at a turbulent moment in history. The author, Naomi Hirahara, has written non-fiction books on the subject, so she really knows her stuff — and for the most part manages to integrate it well. The novel is also a life-affirming coming-of-age story, as we follow Aki from childhood through to adulthood, learning to shoulder extra responsibilities in the wake of her sister’s death, but also to find her own path.

Separator

I hope you’re all as OK as you can be given the current political situation. Reading can be a real boon in times like these, so here’s a link to my earlier post on ‘Respite Crime’. Look after yourselves!

Crime Fiction: 7 Kinds of Respite Reading

Gallic charm: Sébastien Japrisot’s The Sleeping Car Murders, tr. Francis Price (France)

Sébastien Japrisot, The Sleeping Car Murders, tr. from the French by Francis Price, Gallic Books 2020 [1962]

First lines: This is the way it began. The train was coming in from Marseille.

If you need to tiptoe away from the world and its troubles, why not head to the Gare de Lyon in Paris on an October morning in the 1960s. There, a guard checking a newly arrived sleeper from the South of France has just discovered a corpse in Berth 222: a woman last seen alive that morning by those who shared her sleeping compartment, but who is now very definitely and mysteriously deceased.

Enter Inspector Antoine Pierre Grazziano — or Grazzi — from police HQ at the Quai des Orfèvres. He and his team begin to investigate Georgette Thomas’s murder by tracking down the occupants of the other six berths, but soon find themselves stretched to the limit as the body count starts to rise.

There really is a lot to like about this inventive police procedural. Grazzi, the rather weary, harassed lead detective, is a sympathetic and quietly tenacious figure. The characterization throughout the novel – from the train guard to the other passengers to the perpetrator – is a rich delight. The style is sparky and wry, and there are some cracking plot twists, particularly towards the end.

Author Sébastien Japrisot (1931–2003) is the pseudonym of Jean-Baptiste Rossi (spot the anagram), who was a prolific crime writer, screenwriter and director. In 1965, The Sleeping Car Murders was turned into the film Compartiment tueurs, starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret; it was also the first film directed by Costa-Gavras. Here’s a brilliantly mad trailer.

I’m looking forward to reading more by this author – somewhere on the dial between Georges Simenon and Pascal Garnier?!

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.

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.

Jingle Bells! Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations

Well, it’s been quite a year. My ‘crime time’ has been severely dented by all the upheaval, but here are some of my reading and viewing gems.

Treat others! Treat yourself!

And if you’re in the UK, please consider using https://uk.bookshop.org/, which is a brilliant way to support local booksellers while keeping yourself and others safe.

Mrs. Peabody’s 2020 Christmas crime recommendations!

Knives Out, directed by Rian Johnson, 2019 (USA)

Wealthy mystery novelist Harlan Thrombey celebrates his 85th birthday at his mansion surrounded by his loving family. The next morning he is found dead; his throat has been cut. Enter the police and investigator Benoit Blanc, who begin to discover clues…and some unsavoury secrets within the family.

My son recommended this film to me with the words ‘you’ll love this’ and he was absolutely right. Knives Out is huge fun from start to finish, as well as a razor sharp commentary on race and class in the USA. Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas is fantastic as Marta Cabrera, Harlan’s beleaguered carer, who finds herself placed in a very tricky situation. And the all-star cast — including Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Christopher Plummer — have a high old time hamming their way through this clever take on the Golden Age country house mystery. Perfect Christmas viewing for those who like their crime martinis both shaken and stirred.

Hannelore Cayre, The Godmother, tr. Samantha Smee, Pushkin Press 2019 (France)

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

This prize-winning novel was recommended to me by crime writer Angela Savage a while ago, and it’s a cracker. As a translator myself, I was hugely tickled by the idea of a police interpreter inadvertently falling into a life of crime. And Madame Patience Portefeux, a 53-year-old widow with some tough times behind her, relates her story with wit, verve and plenty of caustic insight into French society. There’s an excellent review of the novel by RoughJustice over at Crime Fiction Lover (minor spoilers) – a very entertaining festive read! Winner of the 2020 CWA Crime Fiction in Translation Dagger.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962] (USA)

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

This cult Gothic (crime) novel was one of those ‘how-have-I-never-read-this-before’ books. Mary Katherine — or Merricat — lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future.

I was instantly hooked by Merricat’s highly original voice and the novel’s creepy Gothic atmosphere. It also has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Antti Tuomainen, Little Siberia, tr. David Hackston, Orenda Books (Finland)

Opening line: ‘And how do you know what happens then?’

Our 2020 Petrona Award winner, by one of crime fiction’s most inventive and versatile writers – what’s not to like?!

Little Siberia, set in an icy northern Finland, opens with a bang when a meteorite unexpectedly lands on a speeding car. Transferred to the local museum for safe keeping, the valuable object is guarded from thieves by local priest Joel, who is grappling with both a marital crisis and a crisis of faith. Absurdist black humour is expertly combined with a warm, perceptive exploration of what it means to be human. A celebration of resilience, fortitude and simply muddling through, this is a novel for our times.

Giri/Haji, BBC 2020 (Japan/UK; now on Netflix)

Giri/Haji [Duty/Shame] is billed as a ‘soulful thriller set in Tokyo and London, exploring the butterfly effect of a single murder across two cities — a dark, witty, and daring examination of morality and redemption’. And that’s pretty much spot on.

I was addicted from the first episode, which sees frazzled Japanese police detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) sent to London to find his wayward brother and stop a Yakuza war. The characterization of the main players is fantastic – including Kelly MacDonald as Detective Sarah Weitzmann and Will Sharpe as Rodney, a rent boy whose dad is from Kyoto and whose mum is from Peckham… There’s also some beautifully inventive use of film techniques and genres, including a number of sequences that draw on manga. I can’t find this on DVD, and it’s gone from iPlayer, but it *is* on UK Netflix. Sneak off from Christmas duties, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and get stuck in.

And finally… Ragnar Jonasson’s ‘Hulda’ or ‘Hidden Iceland’ trilogy (Penguin), which is told in reverse, with each novel set prior to the last (when Hulda is aged 64, 50 and 40).

The first novel, The Darkness (tr. Victoria Cribb) introduces us to taciturn Reykjavik Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdóttir. She’s about to be shoved into retirement, but is grudgingly offered the chance to look into one last cold case before she goes – that of Elena, a young Russian woman whose body was found on the Icelandic coast. This is an intriguing, multilayered novel, whose true power only becomes evident right at the end. Jónasson dares to follow through in a way that few crime writers do, and the final result is very thought-provoking indeed. The second in the series is just as powerful, and I’m looking forward to reading the third. I have a theory about how things will go. Let’s see if I’m right!

Happy reading, stay safe, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Let it snow! Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations

Here are Mrs. Peabody’s 2019 Christmas crime fiction recommendations! Each is one of my top reads of the year, and will fit snugly into the Xmas stockings of all who’ve been good. Don’t forget to treat yourself, too!

Available from a wonderful local bookshop near you…

Jane Harper, The Lost Man, Abacus (Australia)

This novel was one of my most satisfying reads of the year. An in-depth character study of a family and their community, it’s also a page-turner that will keep you completely riveted for hours.

Cameron Bright is found dead in a remote part of his cattle station by the so-called ‘Stockman’s Grave’. The mystery of how and why he got there, and why his car is so far away become the subject of a police investigation. Cameron’s older brother Nathan, who owns the adjacent property, and his younger brother Bub both had complicated relationships with him, and further complexities and secrets soon start to be revealed. This is the third of Harper’s novels, and has a neat link back to her first, The Dry but no prior reading or knowledge is required. If you’re feeling generous, leave both for your lucky reader under the tree.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders, tr. Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2019 (Japan)

I’ve just read The Honjin Murders, and immediately knew I had to add it to this list, because it’s the perfect gift for any fan of classic crime fiction or locked room mysteries. As an added bonus, it’s set in Japan! Plus: it’s the first in master crime writer Seishi Yokomizo’s acclaimed ‘Konsuke Kindaichi’ series, and the first to be translated (beautifully) into English.

It’s 1937, and the grand Ichiyanagi family is celebrating a family wedding. But that night, the family is woken by a terrible scream, followed by the sound of eerie music. Death has come to Okamura, leaving no trace but a bloody samurai sword, thrust into the pristine snow outside the house. It’s an impossible puzzle, but eccentric amateur detective Kosuke Kindaichi is determined to figure it out.

George Pelecanos, The Man Who Came Uptown, Orion (USA)

This quietly powerful crime novel interweaves the stories of three individuals. Anna Byrne is a prison librarian, who tries to better the lives of inmates through reading, and to broaden their horizons through regular book-group discussions. One of her readers is Michael Hudson, a bright young man who has gone off the rails, but is keen to go straight. When he’s suddenly released ahead of his trial, he’s relieved but can’t quite understand why. The answer lies with Phil Ornazian, a private investigator who regularly flirts with danger when making money illicitly on the side. Pelecanos was a scriptwriter for The Wire, and his characterisation of each of these figures is superb. The novel is also a wonderful homage to the life-changing power of reading.

Oyinkan Braithwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer, Doubleday 2018 (Nigeria)

I gobbled up this wholly original Nigerian crime novel in one sitting. Korede is a plain, respectable nurse, who leads a neat and ordered life. Or rather, she would do if it weren’t for her volatile, beautiful younger sister, whose boyfriends seem to have a habit of winding up dead, and who expects big sis to sort everything out. I won’t give anything else away, but suffice to say that this is an arresting read, which deploys the darkest of humour to tell its story. The question at the heart of the novel is: how far would you go to protect a family member whose actions you know are criminal? It’s all very nicely done and a lot of fun.

John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field, Viking 2019 (UK)

It’s such a pleasure to step back into le Carré’s world and to meet a fresh cast of beautifully observed, but very human spies. Shown weaving their way through the complexities of modern politics as best they can, they soon learn that they need to keep a sharp eye on their own superiors as much as their adversaries elsewhere. Our guide to all this is Nat, an agent runner at the end of his career who’s asked to take over The Haven, a lowly substation of London General. He and a colleague begin to plan an operation targeting a Ukrainian oligarch, but then something strange happens… Light relief takes the form of regular badminton games with young Ed, an affable but somewhat mysterious figure who may be more than he seems. A completely convincing and gripping depiction of murky espionage shenanigans.

M.T. Edvardsson, A Nearly Normal Family, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles, Macmillan 2019 (Sweden)

This accomplished novel tracks the fallout from a murder via the perspectives of three members of one family: a mother, a father, and a daughter who’s been accused of killing a well-connected, rich young man. An ostensibly ‘normal’ and respectable middle-class family – dad is a pastor, mum is a lawyer, and daughter Stella is unruly but bright – they are pushed to the limits by the stress of Stella’s arrest, detention and trial. The three points of view and family dynamics are beautifully handled, and there are plenty of surprises in store for the reader, even after the end of the trial. The novel is one of the submissions for the 2020 Petrona Award.

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room, Vintage 2018 (USA)

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes next. Romy Hall is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we’re shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to provide for her son Jackson. The novel explores the circumstances that shape Romy as an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as the justice system) shape her destiny. Beautifully written – and shortlisted for the 2018 Booker Prize.

Jørn Lier Horst, The Katharina Code, tr. by Anne Bruce, Penguin 2018 (Norway)

The 2019 Petrona Award winner! The Katharina Code is one of my favourite things – a really gripping cold case. Every year, Chief Inspector William Wisting gets out his notes on the disappearance of Katharina Haugen, who vanished from her home twenty-four years earlier, leaving only a mysterious ‘code’ on the kitchen table, ‘a series of numbers arranged along three vertical lines’. This particular year, however, a development in another investigation finally moves the case on… An outstanding police procedural that 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.

Jess Kidd, Himself, Canongate 2017 (Ireland)

Himself takes us back to the good old, bad old days. It’s Ireland in 1976, and Mahony, a young man brought up by nuns in a Dublin orphanage, returns to Mulderrig, a tiny rural village he recently found out was his birthplace. He is the son of Orla Sweeney, who scandalised the village with her wild behaviour as a young woman, and who disappeared in 1950. With the help of the eccentric Mrs. Cauley and a host of benign spirits who waft through walls, he starts uncovering the hypocrisies, secrets and malign power dynamics of the village. Utterly original, beautifully written and often wickedly funny, this is a crime novel to savour.

Happy reading, and wishing you all a wonderful and very merry Christmas!

Smörgåsbord: Harper’s Force of Nature (Australia), Morgan’s Altered Carbon (UK/US) and Kushner’s The Mars Room (US)

Hooray! Getting back into the reading groove with these lovelies!

Jane Harper, Force of Nature, Abacus 2017

First line: Later, the four remaining women could fully agree on only two things.

Jane Harper has been the breakout star of Australian crime fiction in the last couple of years. Her debut, The Dry, completely blew me away (review here), and this follow up, the second in the ‘Aaron Falk’ series, was an immensely satisfying read.

Five women from the Melbourne company BaileyTennants set off on a corporate team-building exercise – a three-day hike in the remote Giralang Ranges. Only four return. The fifth, Alice Russell, is missing – a particular concern to Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk, as she’s a whistleblower in his current case. Together with colleague Carmen Cooper, he heads to Giralang to figure out how much the other women – from the company chairwoman to a lowly data-inputting assistant – know about Alice and her disappearance.

The scenario outlined above wouldn’t normally pull me in as a reader, but I was so impressed by The Dry that I wanted to read more of Harper’s work. And I’m glad I did. In Force of Nature she builds a gripping narrative using alternating timelines – the investigation in the present, and the experiences of the women on the hike in the past. The two strands are skilfully interwoven, and the characters and power dynamics within the group are extremely well drawn. If you haven’t yet found your way to Harper’s work, then you have a treat in store – she really is an extremely good, intelligent writer, and I love the sense of place her novels evoke.

Richard Morgan, Altered Carbon, Orion 2008 (2002)

First line: Two hours before dawn I sat in the peeling kitchen and smoked one of Sarah’s cigarettes, listening to the maelstrom and waiting.

If Force of Nature is immensely satisfying, then Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon is utterly mind-bending. It can perhaps most accurately be described as a neo-noir sci-fi detective novel – or as a gritty PI tale set in a dystopian but impressively believable future.

Four hundred years from now, mankind lives in colonies scattered on a number of far-flung planets. Technology has all but eliminated death: human consciousness is now stored in ‘stacks’ (implants at the base of the skull), which can be transferred into new bodies or ‘sleeves’ when necessary. So if you’re fatally shot, as former elite soldier and convict Takeshi Kovacs is at the start of this novel, it’s the beginning rather than the end. Kovacs wakes up on Earth, a long way from his home planet, in a new body – originally belonging to a nicotine-addicted ex-policeman – and discovers he’s been brought there by a billionaire to investigate a murder, a job he can’t afford to refuse.

And that’s just the starting point. The entire novel is brimming with great ideas and SF scenarios: convicts placed into storage during prison sentences who are met by their grandchildren on their release; husbands who open the front door to find that the stranger before them is actually their wife in a new ‘sleeve’; the mega-rich who live for hundreds of years and keep multiple new-and-improved bodies in storage…

The crime element is often a bit overshadowed in SF crime novels, but Altered Carbon can rightly claim to be a PI novel – its investigation is strongly foregrounded throughout. Kovacs is a flawed but likeable figure, whose wise-cracking, tough-guy persona will appeal to fans of traditional noir. But be warned, this is a hard-hitting work that contains truly eye-watering levels of violence. Think Tarantino in space on speed.

All in all, then, an amazing debut novel – one which has been followed by two further novels, a graphic novel and a Netflix adaptation (though the latter apparently plays fairly freely with its source).

Rachel Kushner, The Mars Room (Vintage 2018)

First line: Chain Night happens once a week on Thursdays.

This isn’t a conventional crime novel, but rather a novel about a crime and what comes after. Its central character, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility after killing the man who was stalking her. Through her eyes, we are shown the reality and bleakness of American prison life, and through her recollections, we trace her early years in San Francisco and the events leading up to the killing. At the centre of it all stands ‘The Mars Room’, the strip club where Romy worked to pay her way and to provide for her son Jackson.

This is a novel about the circumstances that shape an individual, the choices she makes, and how larger forces outside her control (such as a substandard justice system) shape her destiny. It’s also the story of a prison community – including Romy’s fellow inmates Laura Lipp, Conan, Betty, Sammy and Teardrop – and is extremely moving, although moments of lightness and humour are allowed to peep through. A searing novel, beautifully written, and one you won’t easily forget.

The Mars Room was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.