Rucksacks at the ready! Time for a Eurotour of criminal goodness

It’s September and there’s European adventure in the air…


Mr. P and I will shortly be donning our ancient rucksacks and heading over the Channel.

  • Destination: northern and eastern Europe.
  • Duration: one month.
  • Transport: train, ferry, bus, car, llama (well you never know).

Our Eurotour – aka the ‘Bollux to Brexit’ tour – will take us to a number of wonderful European cities (see image caption above).

When we reach certain cities, I’ll be posting a short extract from a crime novel or thriller focused on the place in question, giving an insight into the city’s geography, architecture, history, politics, food…

The featured cities are as follows:

  1. Hamburg, Germany
  2. Copenhagen, Denmark
  3. Stockholm, Sweden
  4. Helsinki, Finland
  5. Tallinn, Estonia
  6. Riga, Latvia
  7. Olsztyn, Poland
  8. Berlin, Germany

Each extract will be accompanied by a few photos I’ve taken while out and about (I suspect there will be a bit of an emphasis on food…and beer…).

I won’t give away which crime novels I’ve picked out, but here’s a little teaser for you…

Our first extract, for the Hanseatic city of Hamburg, contains the following sentence: 

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. 

Just for fun: Who is the author? And in which novel does this elegant sentence appear?

And if you’d like some reading ideas for European crime fiction, then head here:

35 European crime novels

CrimeFest 2015: The Petrona, CWA International Dagger and EuroNoir

I can’t believe it’s already a week since the end of CrimeFest 2015. Time for my second post on this marvellous event, and some key highlights:

The Petrona Award: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Silence of the Sea, translated by Victoria Cribb, won the 2015 Petrona Award for the best Scandinavian crime novel of the year in translation. The award was presented by CrimeFest’s guest of honour Maj Sjöwall, which was very special for all concerned.

Petrona group

The Petrona judging team with Yrsa and Maj (centre). Photo: Andy Lawrence

The Petrona shortlist this year was wonderfully strong, with novels by Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland), Jørn Lier Horst (Norway), Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland), Hans Olav Lahlum (Norway) and Leif G W Persson (Sweden). Fuller information about the shortlisted novels is available here and further details can also be found at the Petrona Award website.

The CWA’s 2015 International Dagger shortlist was announced at CrimeFest on the Friday night. The six shortlisted novels are:

  • Lief G.W. Persson, Falling Freely, as in a Dream (trans. Paul Norlen/Transworld/ SWEDEN)
  • Pierre LeMaitre, Camille (trans. Frank Wynne/Maclehose Press/FRANCE)
  • Deon Meyer, Cobra (trans. K.L.Seegers/Hodder and Stoughton/SOUTH AFRICA)
  • Karim Miské, Arab Jazz (trans. Sam Gordon/MacLehose Press/FRANCE)
  • Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Garden (trans. Isabelle Kaufeler/HarperCollins/ SPAIN)
  • Andreas Norman, Into a Raging Blaze (trans. Ian Giles/Quercus/SWEDEN)

Further details can be found on the CWA website, with the award being presented at the end of June. I’ve read a grand total of two, so need to do some catching up.

Euro Noir

Euro Noir panel with Barry Forshaw, Roberto Costantini, Gunnar Staalesen, Michael Ridpath and Jørn Lier Horst

Two CrimeFest panels I particularly enjoyed were the Nordic Noir and Euro Noir panels, moderated by Quentin Bates and Barry Forshaw respectively, and featuring Kati Hiekkapelto (Finland), Gunnar Staalesen (Norway), Clare Carson (UK/Orkney), Craig Robertson (UK/Faroes), Roberto Costantini (Italy), Michael Ridpath (UK/Iceland) and Jørn Lier Horst (Norway). Interesting observations abounded:

HummingbirdHiekkapelto’s The Hummingbird is set in fictional, northern Finnish town. It shows a darker side of Finland: alcoholism, loneliness and some poverty. She tries to write about Finland with the eyes of an outsider, like her investigator Anna Fekete, and sees Finland as being not very welcoming of immigrants. She’s rare in choosing to write about migration issues.

Staalesen describes the Norwegian town of Bergen as very film noir – it rains 250 days a year and so is an excellent setting for crime (the latest in his famous ‘Varg Veum’ P.I. series, We Shall Inherit the Wind, is about to be published by Orenda Press). For him, crime fiction is a way of telling stories about society and how we live our lives today. In contrast to many other countries, the status of crime fiction in Norway is high: it’s viewed as respectable literature due to its quality and its use as a form of social critique (e.g. Karin Fossum).

In her novel Orkney Twilight, Carson writes about Orkney from memories of childhood, which is apt because novel is about memory. Carson’s father was an undercover cop, and she’s drawn on the experience of being a young woman figuring out her father’s secret life. Orkney is a mysterious place with continuous light in summer; Carsen weaves Norse mythology throughout the narrative, which fits with the idea of undercover police/spies as master storytellers. She feels folklore is a way of talking about things that can’t be solved in life and that crime fiction is a modern version of that form, in that it gets to grips with unresolvable issues like death.

Ironically, given amount of murders committed in Nordic novels, Scandinavia and the Faroe Islands are probably safest places in world. There were no murders in Faroes for 26 years … until Robertson started writing his novel The Last Refuge. He feels a bit guilty about that.


Lier Horst used to get up at 5am every day to write while still working as a policeman. You have to set goal and put in the work – ‘it’s a hard job’. His first novel was based on a real murder. He saw the crime scene on the first day of his job and it stayed with him (the murderer was never caught). Writing about murders has ‘taught me a little about death, but a lot about life’, especially people’s emotions.

Barry Forshaw has coined the term ‘Scandi Brit’ for Brits like Michael Ridpath and Quentin Bates who set their novels in northern climes. Ridpath says it’s a challenge to write about other countries, but invigorating one. He regularly consults Icelanders on points of accuracy, which is a big help.


Costantini uses his engineering background to construct his plots. His acclaimed ‘Commissario Balistreri’ trilogy explores thirty years of Italian history from the 1960s to the 1990s, as well as developments in the Middle East. (I have bought the first and am looking forward to reading it.) He created a policeman with a compromised right-wing past as a deliberate challenge to readers.

There was praise for translators and their huge contribution to international crime fiction. Staalesen and Lier Horst are grateful to have the services of top translators Don Bartlett and Anne Bruce. Both are excellent, managing the most difficult of tasks like translating humour effectively.

Other highlights during CrimeFest included seeing Ragnar Jónasson hit the top of the Kindle bestseller list with his debut novel Snowblind late on Saturday night, chatting to authors like William Ryan and remembering how much good crime fiction I still need to read (e.g. the rest of his Captain Korolev series), and meeting friends old and new, like the lovely Elena Avanzas (@ms_adler, who blogs at Murder, she read), Maura and Karen from the Swansea Sleuths bookgroup, and Anya Lipska, who’s part of the newly formed and utterly marvellous Killer Women organisation. So much murderous creativity in one place and time! Roll on next year.

Crime in the summertime

I’m still busy writing, editing and researching, but am allowing myself the odd foray into international crime fiction as the summer sun works its magic. Here are some gems:

Happiness Is Easy

Happiness is Easy (published 17 July 2014 by Doubleday) is the second novel by Brazilian author Edney Silvestre. Its story is deceptively simple – the kidnapping of the wrong child from a rich man’s chauffeur-driven car – but is told with elegant brilliance, moving from past to present in such a way that we gain in-depth portraits of the characters involved while following the fall-out from the crime. Silvestre, who’s also a journalist, uses the genre to critique the corruption of Brazilian politics, the gulf between rich and poor, and the booming kidnap ‘industry’. It’s a bleak read in places, although not without hope. Nick Caistor does a great job translating from Brazilian Portuguese, and I’m now keen to read more from the country hosting the Football World Cup.

Jørn Lier Horst’s The Hunting Dogs (trans. by Anne Bruce, Sandstone Press, 2014) comes to us already garlanded with prizes – it won the 2012 Riverton/Golden Revolver Prize and the 2013 Scandinavian Glass Key. I’m not remotely surprised, as this eighth novel in the William Wisting series (the third to be published in English) is one of the best Scandinavian crime novels I’ve read. Much has been made of Horst’s extensive policing experience, but for me, it’s the fantastic writing, plotting and characterisation that stand out in this novel, which sees Wisting suspended due to irregularities in a past case. Forced to re-investigate the murder of Cecilia Linde from the outside, he is helped by journalist daughter Line to uncover the truth. A top-notch summer read.

American author Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones was published in 2002, but it’s one that I go back to every now and then, because it’s such an original crime novel. Set in the summer of 1973, it’s narrated by Susie Salmon, who’s murdered by a neighbour at the age of fourteen and witnesses the aftermath of the crime from her ‘heaven’. You’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds horribly mawkish, but the concept is brilliantly pulled off for the most part, and offers a sensitive portrayal of the effects of a murder on the family and friends of the victim. Be warned: when I first read the novel one summer holiday I found it *highly* addictive. It was subsequently made into a film by Peter Jackson (2009), which received mixed reviews.

Meanwhile, on the research front…

I’m about to start a 1968 crime novel by French-Jewish writer Romain Gary, entitled The Dance of Genghis Cohn. I came across it by chance when reading a piece on German film* and was immediately intrigued. It tells the story of a post-war murder investigation led by a Bavarian police chief (so far, so conventional), who is haunted by a Jewish comedian he murdered while an SS officer under National Socialism. Quite a starting point, isn’t it? Blackly humorous, it’s also an uncompromising critique of post-war West Germany’s reluctance to engage with the Nazi past. Intriguingly, it was adapted for television by the BBC in 1994 (starring Anthony Sher and Robert Lindsay) – something to follow up after reading the book.

*Frank Stern, ‘Film in the 1950s: Passing Images of Guilt and Responsibility’, in Hanna Schissler (ed.), The Miracle Years: A Cultural History of West Germany 1949-1968, (Princeton University Press, 2001), pp. 266-80.

She’s Got the Look: BBC4’s Forbrydelsen / The Killing Series 2

The first two episodes of Forbrydelsen / The Killing Series 2 have finally aired on BBC4. Anticipation had been building over the past week (Sarah Lund on the cover of The Radio Times!), and as I took up my position on the sofa at 8.58pm (complete with patterned Lund tribute jumper), I was practically beside myself with excitement.

Oh! What a wonderfully tense opening! Ah! The dulcet tones of that Neptun soundtrack! Ooh! It’s so good to see you, Sarah, and to hear your funky Danish again!

Series 2 opens a couple of years after the end of the traumatic Nanna Birk Larsen case. Lund has been demoted to an administrative job checking papers in the back of beyond -a mind-numbing exile that makes no use of her exceptional investigative skills. But following the bizarre murder of lawyer Anne Dragsholm, she is recalled to Copenhagen by former boss Lennart Brix, swaps her unflattering POLITI uniform for her traditional chunky-knit jumper, and resumes her rightful role as a police detective (‘this is what I do best’). 

In keeping with The Killing’s status as a police procedural, there’s a continued focus on Lund’s interaction (or non-interaction) with the rest of the investigative team. The wonderfully-monikered Ulrik Strange appears to be the new Meyer (I’m still devastated by the way that partnership turned out), and then there’s Lund’s granite-faced boss Brix, who played a rather ambiguous role in Series 1 (and who is one of the few characters apart from Sarah’s family returning for Series 2). We’re also re-entering the murky world of Danish politics. The (rather endearing) new Justice Minister Thomas Buch is in the midst of complex cross-party negotiations on the introduction of new anti-terrorism laws, and in another plot strand, we see Raben, a former soldier, hoping to be reunited with his wife and young son following his discharge from a psychiatric unit. The connections between the murder and the worlds of high politics and the military are soon, of course, to become the subject of Lund’s sustained investigative interest. 

Sarah Lund and Ulrik Strange (has anyone told him about Meyer?)

What I  particularly enjoyed in these opening episodes was seeing Lund back in her natural habitat – the crime scene. Initially unsure of herself and her abilities following her enforced absence, we see her gradually grow in confidence and take ownership of the investigation. And what’s striking throughout the two episodes is the repeated close-up shots of Lund simply looking, her gaze sweeping across a crime scene, suspect’s house or military office, and continually processing and storing information. As I noted in an earlier post, The Killing frequently references a trope associated with hard-boiled crime fiction – the ‘power of the investigative eye’. It’s all about ‘the look’: looking / seeing / thinking / making links and arriving at an understanding of the complex truth of the crime. Lund looks for and sees things in a way no one else does (be it a bit of cellophane, an ornament, items of furniture, a corpse or a photograph). I absolutely love this focus on the process of detection and on Lund’s intelligence. As ever, it’s a pleasure to see a supremely skilled policewoman on our screens.

So that’s it – the sofa’s now booked every Saturday at 9.00 for the next few weeks (with apologies to the footballing fans in the family). Can’t wait to see more!

Further links

The first two episodes are available on BBC iPlayer for a limited time.

Vicky Frost’s excellent episode-by-episode blog of The Killing returns. Her posts discuss each installment in minute detail and so inevitably contain spoilers. You have been warned!

Guardian Q&A with Sophie Gråbøl.

A short Radio Times piece on translating and subtitling The Killing 2 – with a focus on the particular difficulties presented by expletives. I do hope they haven’t toned down the language too much, given the progamme’s gritty style.

Radio Times: knit your own Sarah Lund jumper.

Radio Times: TV’s top women cops

#15 Valerio Varesi / River of Shadows

Valerio Varesi, River of Shadows (Il fiume delle nebbie), translated from the Italian by Joseph Farrell (London: Maclehose Press 2011 [2003]). An atmospheric crime novel set against the backdrop of flooding in the Po Valley, and introducing Commissario Soneri  3.5 stars

 Opening sentence:  A steady downpour descended from the skies.

Given that Italy is currently in the headlines courtesy of Berlusconi’s imminent resignation, it seems fitting to review an Italian crime novel (I also happened upon an Inspector Zen novel in a charity shop today, so this week has become a bit of an Italian affair).

Valerio Varesi’s River of Shadows was shortlisted for the 2011 CWA International Dagger, and in most respects, is an enjoyable, quality read. The novel is set in the Po Valley of northern Italy, and offers a fascinating insight into the boatmen’s communities that work the Po river (if your knowledge of geography is as scanty as mine see here for further context; there’s also a helpful little map at the front of the book).

The novel has a tremendous sense of place, as its evocative cover suggests. The opening chapter describes the drama of the river’s rising floodwaters after four days of rain, and the strange disappearance of an experienced, but unpopular boatman named Anteo Tonna. When another man with the same surname falls from a window of the local hospital, Commissario Soneri is determined to establish a connection between the two, and the motivation for what he believes is a double murder. However, he soon comes up against the silence of the tightknit community of boatmen, led by the communist Barigazzi, who are unwilling to discuss their complex relationship with the missing man, one compromised by the murky politics of the fascist past.

I loved the atmospheric feel of this novel, the detail provided about life on the water, and the way the symbolism of the river was woven into the crime narrative (the rising floodwaters coincide with the violent deaths of the Tonnas, while the falling waters help to reveal the truth behind the case). Commissario Soneri is an astute and engaging investigative figure, and his interviews with various intriguing river dwellers, such as ‘Maria of the sands’, are nicely portrayed.

But there was one element of the novel I found highly irritating, namely the characterisation of Soneri’s girlfriend Angela, a one-dimensional, sex-mad fantasy figure who is averse to any kind of conventional commitment. Aside from being laughable, her presence undercuts the depiction of the otherwise professional Commissario. For example, I find it hard to believe that a policeman so committed to solving the case would consent to using a crime scene for an erotic rendevouz!

Readers of my previous posts will know that I’ve taken exception to the depiction of women in Italian crime fiction before (see my comments on Ingrid in Camilleri’s The Terracotta Dog). There does seem to be a pattern emerging, and I can’t help but wonder if these kinds of highly stereotyped representations of women are characteristic of Italian crime fiction in a way that they are not, say, for most Scandinavian crime novels. My impression is that male Italian crime writers tend to write for a male audience that expects its crime fiction to have an erotic dimension. However, in my view the latter doesn’t do the central crime narrative any favours (and I say this not out of primness, but because it’s so badly done!).

I will reserve judgement until I have read some further examples of Italian crime, and am actively on the lookout for a novel that proves my theory wrong. If anyone can point me in its direction I would be very grateful…

Mrs. Peabody awards River of Shadows an atmospheric 3.5 stars (one star deducted for its tedious representation of women).

Creative Commons License

#14 Christian von Ditfurth / A Paragon of Virtue

Christian von Ditfurth, A Paragon of Virtue (Mann ohne Makel), translated from the German by Helen Atkins (London: The Toby Press 2008 [2002]). An intriguing crime novel which sees historian turn detective to help solve a murder with links to the Nazi past  4 stars

A Paragon of Virtue

Opening sentence:  The pain shot into his left knee.

Christian von Ditfurth is a German historian turned crime writer, whose debut novel, A Paragon of Virtue, was a best-seller in Germany and forms the first of the successful ‘Stachelmann series’ (currently six novels).

Part police procedural and part PI mystery, the novel divides its investigative duties between Ossi Winter, a detective with the Hamburg police, and his old friend Josef Maria Stachelmann, a historian at Hamburg University whose area of expertise is the Third Reich. It’s ultimately Stachelmann’s archival research that will prove decisive in solving the murders of a property dealer’s wife and two children, whose deaths have taken place at yearly intervals since 1999 – he’s both a detective of history, piecing together a forgotten past through archival clues, and a detective who uses those clues to solve a present-day crime. In the process, Stachelmann becomes the historical guide of a post-war Hamburg police force with scant knowledge of its Nazi past. As he educates Ossi and his colleagues about police complicity in Jewish deportations and the seizure of Jewish assets, the reader is given a sobering insight into the criminal activities of the Nazi state.

This is a highly interesting novel, set at the turn of the new millennium when a reunited Germany was (once again) examining its relation to the Nazi past. Stachelmann’s position on this issue is made very clear: we’re told he’s the author of a study entitled Forgetting and Repressing, which is critical of post-war Germany’s lack of engagement with National Socialist history. Unsurprisingly, the big theme of the novel is justice for the crimes of the past, and it’s one that’s problematised throughout the narrative: what form should post-war justice take; to what extent, if at all, has justice been done in the decades since the war; can any form of justice ever truly be considered adequate? These questions are most fully explored in the sections told from the murderer’s perspective: to a significant degree, the novel evolves into a ‘whydunit’, with the murderer’s motivation increasingly at the forefront of the narrative.

The narrative zips along at a good pace and deploys its two contrasting detective figures well. My only reservation is the characterisation of Stachelmann, who was rather irritating at times: his regular bouts of self-pity and neurotic tendencies are rather overplayed, and would have benefited from some judicious editing. On the other hand, the author’s integration of complex historical material into the crime narrative deserves praise: the information given about the operations of the Nazi state is illuminating but never feels too much like a history lesson.

I’m very interested by the fact that von Ditfurth, as a historian, has chosen to disseminate information about the Nazi era in his capacity as crime author. It would be easy to be cynical and suspect purely monetary motives (it’s still very much the case that ‘Nazis sell’), but I do think that such writers also have a genuine educative aim, and see the crime narrative as an ideal vehicle for the discussion of the criminal activities of the Nazi regime or other repressive states (Tim Rob Smith’s Child 44 also springs to mind here). The original German novel has been reprinted seventeen times, and will therefore almost certainly have had more readers than academic studies on the period, which are far less accessible (in both senses of the word) than popular fiction.

The translation into English was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut, which suggests that the text is seen as having historical and cultural value. The author’s website (in German) is available here. A short excerpt in English is available here.

Two other Stachelmann novels engage with the legacy of the German past, but have yet to be translated into English. They are Lüge eines Lebens (Lifelong Lie, 2008) and Labyrinth des Zorns (Labyrinth of Rage, 2009), the fourth and fifth novels in the series.

Mrs. Peabody awards A Paragon of Virtue a slightly wobbly, but very interesting 4 stars.

#11 Henning Mankell / The Troubled Man

Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson (London: Harvill Secker 2011 [2009]). Wallander’s final case, in which he faces his biggest challenge yet 5 stars

Opening sentence: The year Kurt Wallander celebrated his fifty-fifth birthday, he fulfilled a long-held dream.

While at the airport bookshop before going on holiday, I spotted Henning Mankell’s The Troubled Man, a novel I’ve been looking forward to reading for a good year. After a few moments I decided rather regretfully to resist, as I wasn’t sure the Very Last Wallander would make for a cheery holiday read. Later that day, while exploring the hotel, I came across the usual bookshelf of novels left by other holidaymakers. There, but of course, was another copy of The Troubled Man, at which point I gave in, put aside the carefully selected crime novels I’d brought with me and, armed with a hanky, started to read.

Before saying any more I should confess that I am a thoroughly biased reviewer when it comes to this Swedish writer and series. I have loved all the Wallander novels, and it would have taken a complete car-crash of a book for me to rate it anything other than five stars. So a five it is – and in some senses this is a rating for the entire series, which is referenced numerous times in various ways throughout the book.

Troubled Men

The first troubled man of the title is Hakan von Enke, a retired Swedish naval official and the father of Linda Wallander’s partner Hans, who disappears into thin air one day while out on his regular walk. Shortly before he vanishes, Hakan voices some concerns to Wallander about an unsettling naval incident that took place in 1982 involving a Russian submarine. Not long afterwards, Hakan’s wife Louise also disappears. To help a distraught Linda and Hans, Wallander begins an unofficial investigation, and uncovers an espionage story that reaches back into the complex history of the Cold War. This forms the central case within the novel, and is an absorbing and well-constructed read (albeit with the odd loose end that’s rather too casually tied up at the end). As ever, Mankell challenges us to question our assumptions, in this case about the dominant historical narrative of the Cold War years – there are a number of enjoyable and unexpected twists that force us to see key events in a whole new light.

The second troubled man, of course, is Kurt Wallander himself, whose personal and working life is overshadowed by a growing anxiety, in spite of the joy that becoming a grandfather brings. Now at the age of sixty, when most people start reflecting on their lives and the choices they have made, Wallander becomes a vehicle for Mankell to explore some very large themes: the value of family ties, the passing of time, the individual’s fear of losing his or her identity and, of course, death. There’s very much a feeling of closing the circle, with a number of references to Rydberg (Wallander’s mentor early in the series), Wallander’s late father (whose relationship with his son was often fraught), Baiba Leipa (his one-time love from The Dogs of Riga), and individuals from past cases (such as the husband of the victim in The White Lioness). For anyone who has travelled with Wallander down the long and winding road of this ten book series, it can’t help but be an absorbing, poignant and moving read.

One final word: if you’ve not yet read the earlier Wallander books, or if there are any in the series that you need to catch up on, I would strongly recommend doing so before embarking on The Troubled Man, which should be read at the end of the sequence as the author intends.

Mrs. Peabody awards The Troubled Man a slightly mournful, but deeply satisfying 5 stars.

Other Mankell/Wallander links you may enjoy

Henning Mankell’s official website

In the Footsteps of Wallander – a PDF guide to the locations featured in the books, films and TV series.

Scandinavian Crime Fiction – a blog that does what it says on the tin.

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.

The case of the missing translation: Konop’s No Kaddish for Sylberstein

A fellow crime researcher and friend recently read a cracking little French crime novel called Pas de kaddish pour Sylberstein and recommended it to me as one I would enjoy. I duly trotted off to find the translation but came up against a sizeable problem: it’s not available in English.

The novel, by journalist Guy Konopnicky (aka ‘Konop’), was first published in France in 1994,  and went down extremely well with the critics at the time. It was also adapted for film as ‘K’ in 1997 – as I found out courtesy of the Swedish Film Database. And yet not a sniff of it in the UK or States.

However, I then discovered that the novel was available in a German translation entitled Kein Kaddisch fur Sylberstein (btb, 2004). This was a lucky break for me, as I read German a lot better than I do French, and so I was able to sample its delights after all.

Kein Kaddisch für Sylberstein.

This meandering little journey got me musing on the logic (or simply luck) that results in some texts being translated while others are not. There are a couple of good reasons I can think of that would explain why Sylberstein was translated into German. Firstly, some of it is set in Berlin and explores 20th century German history. Secondly, Germans have an insatiable appetite for both homegrown and international crime fiction (another crime researcher colleague of mine was telling me in all seriousness the other day that Swedish crime fiction sometimes appears in German before it has even been published back in Sweden). So there’s an extraordinarily huge market for crime in Germany, as this article on the Deutsche Welle website explains (in English :)).

Here in the UK, fewer translations make it through to the English-language dominated market, although there is of course a very healthy international crime fiction scene now, thanks to visionaries such as Christopher MacLehose at MacLehose Press – not to mention the good folk at Bitter Lemon Press and Arcadia.

It looks like my Konop novel slipped through the net, but perhaps (ahem) one of the above might be interested in picking up this little gem? Here’s a taster from the blurb on the inside cover of the German btb translation:

‘Paris, 20th district. Jewish antiques dealer Simon Sylberstein shoots and kills a German tourist, whom he recognises as his old tormentor. He then hands himself into the police and dies of natural causes shortly afterwards. But Police Inspector Samuel Benamou, originally from Algeria and also Jewish, can’t let go of the case: he travels to the newly reunified Berlin to continue the investigation himself. Once there, Benamou quickly realises that he’s not the only one interested in Sylberstein and his story…’

All in all, I found No Kaddish for Sylberstein an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. Darkly humorous and entertainingly over-the-top at times, it also succeeds in addressing the serious theme of post-war justice (and its lack) following the Second World War and the Holocaust. If you’re lucky enough to speak French or German, it’s available online for a reasonable price.

Summer’s here! Mrs Peabody’s holiday crime fiction recommendations

Now that it’s July, my thoughts are turning to the serious business of holiday reading.

Choosing reading matter to take on holiday is something I take extremely seriously: an afternoon of peaceful reading with ice-cubes tinkling in a cool drink by my side is one of my chief holiday pleasures, and the quality, quantity and variety of the crime fiction in my suitcase needs to be just right. Major disasters in the past have included being caught short in Spain, resulting in an exhaustive hunt for an English-language bookshop, and paying well over the odds for some crime fiction in New Zealand, where book prices are incredibly high. As a result, I now always carry a small library with me abroad (Kindle, of course, is another option, although I like to take second-hand paperbacks I can leave for other holiday-makers, which I then cunningly replace in my luggage with souvenirs).

The following are some random holiday crime fiction recommendations – all books that I’ve read and enjoyed, albeit for varying reasons. If you feel like posting suggestions in return I’d be very pleased to see them.

  • Light and frothy, with an emphasis on entertainment. Perfect for lounging by the pool or whiling away a few hours in a café with a cappuccino.

Fred Vargas’ Detective Commissaire Adamsberg series: a quirky and erudite collection of crime novels, mostly set in Paris. It’s not essential to read them in order, in my view, but Have Mercy on Us All is a good place to start. You may or may not know, but Fred is actually a female author, and an archaeologist by trade.

Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man: Murder, Mayhem and Damn Sexy Trousers (2009). It’s rare for writers to pull off a successful comic crime novel. This one made me laugh out loud, in spite of its ultimately rather serious subject matter – the legacy of the Nazi past and the weighty theme of post-war justice. A deft juggling act.

Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series (televised earlier this year). Written quite a while ago now, but they’ve held up well, with a nicely rounded investigative figure. A wry look at Italian policing, politics and life. An earlier Mrs P. post on Ratking is available here.

  • Stronger stuff – more intense and challenging crime. The sort of novel you might not normally get round to, and which isn’t necessarily the easiest of reads in terms of its content or style.

Andrew Taylor’s Roth Trilogy. Brilliant and somewhat underrated, this trilogy excavates the history of a sociopathic killer, moving backwards in time from the present day to the 1970s and the 1950s. Best read in order for cumulative effect.

George P. Pelecanos, The Big Blowdown. First in the Washington Quartet by an author also famous for his contribution to The Wire. Grim and gritty depiction of D.C. just after the Second World War. Breathtakingly good.

Jussi Adler Olsen’s Mercy – a recent Danish sensation, which is brilliantly written, but very hard-hitting. First in the Department Q series, featuring detective Carl Mørck. A Mrs P. review of Mercy is available here.

Happy holidays and enjoy!