Author interview with Abir Mukherjee about Calcutta crime novel A Rising Man

Wishing a very happy publication day to Abir Mukherjee! Abir is the winner of the 2014 ‘Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing’ competition. A Rising Man, his highly accomplished debut crime novel, is set in Calcutta in 1919 and marks the start of the ‘Captain Wyndham’ series. He joins me below for a fascinating interview about the novel, his historical research, and the writers who inspire him.


Opening lines: ‘At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.’

Cover text: Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard Detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

Abir Mukherjee c. Nick Tucker MAIN PHOTO

Abir Mukherjee (photo by Nick Tucker)

Mrs. Peabody: Abir, thanks very much for joining me. A Rising Man is set in the India of 1919, just after the end of the First World War. Why did you choose that particular historical moment for the start of your series?

Abir: My parents came to Britain as immigrants from India in the sixties, and my life has always been shaped by both cultures. As such I’ve always been interested in the period of British Rule in India. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and to modern Britain, but it’s a period that’s been largely forgotten or mischaracterised, either romanticised or brushed under the carpet.

I’ve always been rather surprised by this and wanted to look at it from the point of view of an outsider who’s new to it all. One of the things that’s always fascinated me is that, in an era when totalitarian regimes were rampant in Europe, regularly murdering anyone who showed any dissent, in India, this largely peaceful freedom struggle was playing out between Indians and their British overlords. At the time, there was no parallel to this anywhere in the world, and I think it says a lot about the people of both nations that such a struggle could be played out in an comparatively civilised way.

Huntley and Palmer Raj

A thoroughly British depiction of the Indian Raj

Abir: I also wanted to explore the effect of empire on both the rulers and the ruled. In particular I wanted to understand what happens when a democratic nation subjugates another, both in terms of the impact on the subjugated peoples, but just as importantly, on the psyche of the people doing the oppressing. I think the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system were immense and in something that’s been relatively unexamined.

I wanted to write a series exploring the relationships between these two different, but in many ways very similar cultures, but from the viewpoint of someone new to it all and 1919 just felt like the right place to start. To me, it was the start of the modern age. The Great War had just ended, it had destroyed a lot of the old certainties and left a lot of people disillusioned and no longer willing to simply accept what they were told by their betters. Sam, the protagonist, is a product of that time and I think he is one of the first modern men.

Calcutta map

Kolkata/Calcutta lies in the east of India on the Bay of Bengal

Mrs. Peabody: How did you go about recreating the Calcutta of the time? What kind of research did you carry out?

Abir: In the period that the book is set, Calcutta was still the premier city in Asia and was as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. At the same time, it was a city undergoing immense change and was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. It seemed the natural choice for the series I wanted to write. Of course, it helped that my parents are both from Calcutta and I’d spent a quite a bit of time there over the years. I even speak the language, though with a Scottish accent.

In terms of recreating the Calcutta of the period, it’s amazing how much of that history is still around in the Calcutta (or Kolkata) of today. Calcuttans have a great sense of the history of their city, possibly because the city was at its zenith during that period, and so many people were more than willing to answer the many questions I had.

During one visit, I was lucky enough to be granted access to the Calcutta Police Museum where a lot of the police documents from the period are on exhibit. That was fascinating as the Kolkata Police today has a rather ambivalent view of its own history during that time. In terms of research though, most of that was done sitting at home in front of the computer and trawling the internet.

Mrs. Peabody: Tell us a bit about your leading investigator, Captain Sam Wyndham, and the perspective he offers us of India.

Abir: Sam’s a rather strange fish. He’s an ex-Scotland Yard detective who’s basically spent his whole life struggling against the tide. Life’s not exactly been kind to him. He gets packed off to boarding school at a young age and some of his best years were spent sitting in a trench in France getting shot at by Germans. He survives the war, though only to find that his wife has died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Scarred by his wartime experiences and burdened by survivor’s guilt, he comes to India mainly because he has no better alternative.

At the point in his life where he arrives in Calcutta, he’s a pretty jaded soul with a bit of an alcohol and chemical dependency, though he’d tell you he used them for medicinal purposes. He’s been disillusioned by the war and I think he’s more open to seeing India with his own eyes than swallowing everything he’s told. He’s happy to point out hypocrisy where he sees it, whether it be from the whites or the natives.

Mrs Peabody: The novel does a wonderful job of dissecting the political, racial and social tensions of life under the British Raj. Do you think that crime fiction offers particular opportunities in this respect?

Abir: Definitely. I think most authors have something to say beyond the telling of a good story and I think crime fiction is a wonderful vehicle for exploring deeper societal issues, because it allows you to look at all of society from the top to the bottom.

As Ian Rankin said in an interview earlier this year, “the crime novel is a good way of raising this stuff because … a detective has an access all areas pass to the entire city, to its riches and deprivations.”

In terms of India in 1919, as a white policeman, Sam has is exposed to all sections of Calcutta society, from the politicians and businessmen right down to the rickshaw-wallahs and brothel keepers. He’s part of the whole fabric, but at the same time separate from it and able to see it objectively.

Kolkata flower market

Kolkata flower market. Image Courtesy of Parasarathi Mukherjee, Walks in Kolkata

Mrs Peabody: Which authors/works have inspired you as a writer?

Abir: There are so many.

There are the books which have left the greatest impression on me and which I’ve read quite a few times. At the top of that list would come George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian views of the future and this is, in my opinion, the finest dystopian novel. I’ve read this book more times than I can remember and it’s a joy every time. The characterization of Winston and Julia’s relationship, set against the backdrop of this all-powerful totalitarian society is just fantastic.


Abir: Other works that have left an impression include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a story about the travails of a Bengali couple who immigrate from Calcutta to Boston and raise a family. My wife first introduced me to this book and I was just bowled over by it. The writing is sublime and I could relate to it in a way I haven’t to many other books.

Then there are others which are pretty special, like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a tale of love lost set in the world of string quartets, Kafka’s The Trial – the only book I’ve read that made me feel claustrophobic, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls with its amazing use of language.

In terms of crime and thrillers, there are a number of authors whose work I look out for and will buy as soon as it hits the shelf. Top of this list has to be Ian Rankin – I’m a huge Rebus fan, but also love the standalone novels too. Then there’s Philip Kerr, Martin Cruz Smith and Robert Harris, all three of whom produce novels shot through with wit and an intelligence, something which I love.

Finally, and in a special category, there’s William McIlvanney, whose Glasgow Detective, Laidlaw is a fantastic creation. I think McIlvanney was a true genius. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.

Mrs P: Many thanks, Abir!

A Rising Man is published by Harvill Secker on 5 May 2016 (priced £12.99) 

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home, the Kappe historical ‘Kettenroman’ (chain novel) and some other tasty bits

What do you do when your TBR pile is so vast it defies all hope of control? Answer: give up and read what you want.


In that spirit, I picked up Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home (Vintage, 2014). Lots of people had told me about this debut and as soon as I started reading, I could see that the praise for the novel was justified: it’s a beautifully written police procedural, which explores migrant experiences in the UK in a realistic and very sobering way. Its main investigative protagonists, Detectives Zigic and Ferreira of the Peterborough Hate Crimes Unit – with Serbian and Portuguese heritage respectively – are both extremely well drawn, and the story, which starts with the discovery of a body in a burned-out garden shed, is gripping and believable. It’s a hugely accomplished first novel, and I’m already looking forward to the second in the series, Tell No Tales.

While researching my article on post-war justice in crime fiction this week, I came across the German crime novel Auge um Auge (Eye for an Eye), which explores how doctors involved in medical crimes under National Socialism often went unpunished.

kappe auge

Auge um Auge is part of a remarkable historical crime series called ‘Es geschah in Berlin’ (‘It happened in Berlin’), which uses the cases of policeman Hermann Kappe to trace German history from 1910, before the collapse of the German empire, through to the Cold War era. To date, there are 26 novels set at two-year intervals from 1910 to 1960 (nephew Otto Kappe takes over the investigative reins in 1956):

kappe collection jaron

The image above shows how the novels are packaged, with the series title and year highlighted on the cover, together with a striking abstract design. It also shows that the novels – rather unusually – are written by a collective of authors. Horst Bosetzky, a well known German crime author since the 1960s, conceived the series in 2007 with publishing house Jaron, and the other writers work under his overall guidance.

The series has also been called a Kettenroman or ‘chain novel’, which is a neat term. At the moment, ‘Es geschah in Berlin’ is the most ambitious use I’ve seen of a crime series to ‘investigate’ twentieth-century German history and I’ll definitely be checking out the other novels. Hopefully they’ll make their way into translation too.

In other news:

I’ve been flying the flag for German crime in the Times Literary Supplement, with a review of a fascinating volume called TATORT GERMANYThe Curious Case of German-Language Crime Fiction (Camden House), which is edited by Lynn M. Kutch and Todd Herzog. Unfortunately the review’s behind a paywall, but I bought a copy of the TLS yesterday, and was delighted to see a whole page dedicated to German literature.

tatort germany

Most interesting find of the week: a 2015 Penguin Special by Erich Schlosser called Gods of Metal, an essay exploring America’s nuclear capacity and the frightening ease with which a high-security weapons complex in Tennessee was breached in 2012. Schlosser meets members of the Plowshares movement, who break into nuclear facilities as a form of civil protest, and are subsequently branded as criminals by the state. Thought-provoking stuff, timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima.

gods of metal

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.

A week in Berlin: Krimis, Krimis and yet more Krimis

I was lucky enough to spend the whole of last week on a research trip in snowy Berlin, and was sure to squeeze every last drop from the marvellous opportunities this world city has to offer.

Section of the former Berlin Wall

The main reason for my trip was to see the 5500 crime novels or Krimis (Krimi = ‘Kriminalroman’) in the Kuczynsky Collection at the Berlin Central Library for my  research into East German crime fiction.

Jürgen Kuczynsky (1904-1997), a prominent GDR academic and political adviser to Honecker, was a keen crime fan, and according to the archivists had a regular cigar-for-crime-novel exchange agreement with the famous dramatist Bertolt Brecht. I was very kindly given access to this as yet uncatalogued collection, and in the course of my visit unearthed a number of extremely interesting texts, such as Gerhard Scherfling’s fascinating East German crime novel Die Zeitungsnotiz (The Newpaper Item, 1973), in which a historian is revealed as the murderer and as a former Nazi (one for my database…). I was able to peruse these on a tatty yet comfortable sofa, which was bequeathed to the library along with Kuczynski’s books, and sits in the corner of the vast storage room where the collection is currently housed. I imagine that Jürgen and Bert had some lovely chats about crime fiction while parked there.

I was also fortunate enough to be able to visit all of Berlin’s crime bookshops. Berlin is an absolute mecca for Krimi fans, as it has not one, not two, but three wonderful bookshops packed to the rafters with crime. Finding them took me all over the city, from Prenzlauer Berg in the north-east, where the Krimibuchhandlung todsicher (‘dead certain’) is located, to Charlottenburg and the Miss Marple bookshop in the west, and finally to Schöneberg and the Hammett bookshop in the south-east, near the old Tempelhof airport.

The very helpful lady in todsicher presented me with an absolute treasure trove: a whole box of GDR crime fiction from the DIE series (a witty acronym that stands for Delikte Indizien Ermittlungen / crimes, clues, investigations).

While the other two didn’t carry GDR crime (according to the owner of Hammett, the continued existence of a ‘literary wall’ means there’s little demand for works from East German publishing houses), they did have stacks of contemporary crime fiction set in Berlin, which I was also keen to see. Notably, there appears to be a mini-explosion of twentieth-century historical series by German authors at the moment, which are being strongly promoted in mainstream bookshops as well as more specialist outlets. The following caught my eye:

Volker Kutscher’s ‘Gereon Rath’ series (2007-): three novels set in 1930s Berlin (Der nasse Fisch, Der stumme Tod, Goldstein; English descriptions and sample translations available here).

Uwe Klausner’s ‘Tom Sydow’ series (2009-): four novels set in Berlin between 1942 and 1961 (Walhalla-Code, Odessa-Komplott, Bernstein-Connection, Kennedy-Syndrom).

The ‘es geschah in Berlin Kettenroman’ (the ‘it happened in Berlin chain-novel’; 2007-): currently fourteen novels set in Berlin between 1910 and 1936, featuring investigator Hermann Kappes. This series was conceived by the famous German crime writer Horst Bosetzky, but – very intriguingly – is written by a number of different authors. It’s apparently achieved cult status in Germany.

I also picked up a standalone crime novel by Mechtild Borrmann entitled Wer das Schweigen bricht (The One who Breaks the Silence, Pendragon 2011), which won the Deutscher Krimi Preis in 2012. It’s a crime novel that engages with the legacy of the National Socialism through the story of a son researching his industrialist father’s wartime past.

None of these have been translated into English as yet, although the rights to Kutscher’s novels have been snapped up in a number of other countries, including Japan.

And as if all of that wasn’t enough…I got to hang out in Berlin the same week as the Berlinale film festival and the resignation of the German President due to a corruption scandal. No visit to Berlin is ever dull. I first visited in 1988, a year before the Wall came down, and every time I go back, I continue to be amazed at the dramatic changes taking place there – best appreciated visually from the top of the space-age Fernsehturm by the Alexanderplatz.

Fernsehturm as seen from the Alex

Most striking this time round was the disappearance of the Palast der Republik (Palace of the Republic), the East German 1970s parliamentary building on Unter den Linden, which was demolished in 2008 due to its high asbestos content. The city now has ambitious plans to rebuild the Berliner Stadtschloss (Berlin City Palace), which originally stood on the site between the 1750s and 1950 … the year in which the war-damaged building was torn down by the GDR regime! Berlin is full of these sorts of mind-blowing twists and turns, with buildings, streets and even whole districts being dramatically reshaped by historical events and the rise and fall of different regimes. On discovering that one street had undergone six name changes between 1907 and 1990, I had to retreat for a calming Bier.*

All in all, it was a highly profitable and enjoyable week, and I’m already looking forward to returning to Berlin soon. Lots of reading to keep me going until then though – my return luggage contained a ridiculous number of new Krimis, which I only just managed to lug home.

*Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz: was Babelsberger Platz (1907-10), Bülowplatz (1910-33), Horst-Wessel-Platz (1933-45), Liebknechtplatz (1945-47) and Luxemburgplatz (1947-69) before taking its current name in 1969.

#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).

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#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.

#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.

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.

Belfast, Bateman and Bora

I thoroughly enjoyed my recent visit to Belfast in Northern Ireland. Highlights included:

The Belfast ‘States of Crime’ Conference…

which was held 17-18 June and featured 60 academics from over 14 countries speaking on a wide range of international crime fiction. The focus of the conference was ‘the state’ and papers explored crime’s treatment of this topic from a number of angles, such as: state authority, state violence, the state and social exclusion, the criminal state, state memories and counter-memories, the welfare state, complicity with the state and resistance to the state. My paper was on the ‘The Nazi Detective and the State’, and examined the depiction of this controversial figure in three texts: Philip Kerr’s The Pale Criminal, Robert Harris’s Fatherland, and the German crime novel Wer übrig bleibt, hat recht by Richard Birkefeld and Göran Hachmeister [published the journal Comparative Literature Studies in 2013].

Other crime writers under discussion included Ian Rankin, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, James Ellroy, Ross MacDonald, Massimo Carlotto, David Peace, Dominique Manotti, Stieg Larsson, Chester Himes and Didier Daeninckx.

There’s a real buzz about crime fiction as an area of academic research at the moment. In the past there’s been some snobbery in academic circles about the value of studying popular culture, and many academics from previous generations felt they had to research crime fiction ‘on the side’ as a kind of guilty pleasure. There’s a significant shift now, with younger academics already writing doctorates on crime fiction rather than waiting until later when they’ve established an academic reputation. It’s a very welcome development, especially given that crime fiction is read by such huge audiences, and has an important cultural influence that merits analysis.

The Belfast Book Festival…

was running at the same time as the conference. Delegates and crime fans joined together for a roundtable with David Peace and Eoin McNamee on Friday evening. Both authors were very eloquent about their work and the kinds of problems raised when writing about real life crimes (the Yorkshire Ripper murders and the Patricia Curran murder respectively). Both also felt strongly that depicting the victims’ stories, so often overlooked in crime fiction, was of paramount importance to their own projects.

Each of the authors read from their works. Peace’s selection of GB84 was especially resonant given the the current economic climate.

The No Alibis Bookstore

on Botanic Avenue, just around the corner from the university, is a treasure trove of crime fiction from all four corners of the world. But it also has a literary claim to fame, as it’s the same bookshop that’s featured in Belfast crime writer Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man: Murder, Mayhem and Damn Sexy TrousersI had an illuminating discussion with the owner about what it was like to see your shop, and in large measure yourself, depicted in a work of fiction…

Aside from the fabulous selection of crime fiction, I’d recommend a visit for the following lovely touch: all customers are offered a cup of tea as they browse the bookshelves or read on the highly comfy sofas. What’s not to love?!

A greatly enlarged TBR pile for my own research project on Nazi-themed crime has resulted from those four days away. New reading includes: Dominique Manotti’s Affairs of State, Andreas Pittler’s Bronstein series (largely set in Austria before and during Nazi Occupation and featuring a Jewish policeman, but not yet translated, alas), Camilla Lackberg’s The Hidden Child, and Ben Pastor’s Lumen. The latter, which I’ve just started, is the first in the Martin Bora series, set in Nazi-occupied Cracow in 1939. It’ll be very interesting to compare it to other historical crime fiction set in the same period such as Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series.