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!

An odd case of Zen-o-phobia as BBC decides not to recommission TV series

I’ve just seen a post on the It’s a Crime (or a Mystery) blog reporting that the BBC has decided not to recommission the Aurelio Zen TV series. This really does seem to be a short-sighted move given its evident popularity. It seemed to grow on people over time as well – a slow burner that had the potential to turn into something significantly bigger. There’s still a chance that another channel will want to pick it up, but what a missed opportunity for the BBC, which has been showing such excellent taste lately with The Killing.  

How could anyone not want to recommission this stylish police investigator?!

For further details and links, see the post on It’s a Crime (or a Mystery). Lots of comments are being left there to encourage the BBC to reconsider. Do add your own if you feel moved to do so.

Ratking: Dibdin’s Zen vs BBC4’s TV adaptation

I’ve just finished reading the first of the Aurelio Zen novels by Michael Dibdin – Ratking – which was published in 1988. Like many new Zen readers, I bought the book after enjoying the BBC adaptations, but was also interested to see how the two compared, having heard that the TV episodes diverged somewhat from their source material.

I’d say that the TV adaptation of Ratking is loosely faithful to the novel, in the sense that both the reader and the viewer see Zen operating as a Venetian ‘outsider’ in a corrupt Italian policing system, and are aware of the dangers he faces should he make the wrong investigative/political move. But the Zen of the book is not the sharp-suited Italian of TV’s Rufus Sewell; nor is he shown negotiating with representatives from the higher echelons of government (he’s far too unimportant). And while the framework Ratking’s plot is taken up to some extent in the TV version, some aspects were significantly altered, like (ahem) the identity of the murderer.

I did, however, enjoy the novel exceedingly. Zen is nicely characterised, and the novel provides an intriguing insight into Italian society at the end of ‘the years of lead’ (a period of terrorism and kidnappings that lasted from the 1960s to the 1980s). It also provides a sharp critique of the power wielded by rich Italian families, and their immunity from the normal rules and regulations of society: sophisticated and cultured on the outside, but decadent and corrupt within. Well-written and entertaining, the novel only dipped slightly for me at the end, when the plot became a touch melodramatic. But it’s certainly worth a read, and I’m looking forward to sampling others from the series.

It’s interesting to compare the packaging of Ratking editions past and present: on the left, moody Italian cobbles, shadows and trilby-wearing detective; on the right, the star power of Rufus Sewell as Zen. With thanks to Peabody Jnr for technical assistance with the images.

BBC1’s Zen

I caught up yesterday on the first episode of BBC 1’s Zen, adapted from the Aurelio Zen crime novels of Michael Dibdin. I haven’t read the novels, and wasn’t particularly taken with the trailer for the programme, so had dragged my feet a bit, but when I finally tuned in, I was pleasantly surprised.

The first episode, ‘Vendetta’, immediately grabbed my attention with its sassy styling. The production seems to be channelling sleek 60s films like The Thomas Crown Affair through its camerawork, music and sharp-suited look.  Dark shades were much in evidence. The feel was very Italian, with lovely vistas of Rome and olive groves in the countryside, and a bleached Mediterranean light (or was that just my telly?). But it was all done with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour and was tremendously fun.

ZEN (high res)

Rufus Sewell was excellent as Zen. From the comments I’m seeing elsewhere, his Aurelio is a little sleeker and more of a heartthrob than the one in the books, but the characterisation certainly played well with this 40ish female viewer. He’s a genuinely accomplished actor, and his chisled profile was shown off to good effect during his encounters with the alluring Tania (a hint of Michaelangelo’s David there?). There was a strong supporting cast too.

One interesting point: British and Italian actors mingle throughout, and it seems that everyone has been instructed to deliver their lines in their own accents (so we had Queen’s English, northern English, Italian and possibly Irish accents bundled in together). It was a bit odd at first, but somehow seemed to work OK. Better than everyone trying to fake an Italian delivery and getting it tragically wrong.

I watched Zen with my 15-year-old son, who said he would walk after 10 minutes if it was no good. He stayed for the duration, which is a compliment indeed. We both liked the multi-layered plot (until the end, when we got a trifle confused due to the long, drawn-out meaningful looks and cryptic exchanges between the characters, which were undoubtedly significant, but not always intelligible to us). 

We’ll be watching the second episode, ‘Cabal’, tonight  – so the makers of Zen are doing something very right. In particular, I look forward to seeing how Zen’s character navigates the increasingly tricky role of ‘honest cop’ in an Italian police force portrayed as inherently corrupt.

Both episodes of Zen are still available on iplayer.

If watching Zen has made you want to read Dibdin’s series, or other crime novels set in Italy, there’s a good list and overview here, on the Italian Mysteries blog.

Update: Just watched the third episode, ‘Ratking’, which I think was the best yet, especially in terms of snappy one liners:

Man: ‘I hear you’ve found a body?’

Zen: ‘Yes, they think it’s my career.’

All nicely set up for a series now: please BBC, we’d love to see more.