What Got You Hooked on Crime, Mrs Peabody?

It’s been a while since I last had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favourite book bloggers about their criminally good reading habits. So it’s doubly delightful to welcome the very well-read and thoughtful Mrs. Peabody to my blog today. Mrs. Peabody is the pseudonym of British academic Katharina Hall, Associate Professor of German at Swansea University and fellow international crime fiction lover. Her blog is a constant source of information and delight. She has also been featured on the Radio 4 series on European fictional detectives ‘Foreign Bodies’ (a series I keep referring to all the time).

Marina Sofia interview photo (1)How did you get hooked on crime fiction?

Like many fans of the genre, I discovered crime fiction as a teenager through family copies of Agatha Christie novels. I remember loving the clever solutions to The Murder of Dr. AckroydMurder on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, and still have a soft spot for her work. Those were followed by an encounter with John D. MacDonald’s macho ‘Travis McGee’ novels, whose more worldly content was an eye-opener, although their gender stereotyping annoyed me even then.

After that, there was a bit of a gap. I studied English and German at university, and spent the first decade of my academic career focusing on ‘high’ literature – although I can see with hindsight that I was often drawn to authors who played with crime conventions, such as Thomas Pynchon and Günter Grass. My friend and former colleague Barbara takes the credit for my full conversion to crime. A few years ago she found a German crime novel at the back of a store cupboard at work, and passed it on to me. It was Self’s Punishment by Bernhard Schlink, author of the international best-seller The Reader, and featured a detective who was a former Nazi. That’s when I started thinking about representations of National Socialism and its post-war legacies in crime fiction, and became properly hooked. I’ve been reading and researching international crime fiction ever since, and set up the ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ blog in 2011.

Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?

I love all kinds of crime, from cosies through to historical crime fiction and noir, but will always favour quality, intelligent crime fiction that’s free from gratuitous/misogynist violence. I have a particular weakness for the following:
a) Scandinavian police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden), Jan Costin Wagner (Germany/Finland), Henning Mankell (Sweden), Håkan Nesser (Norway), Leif G.W. Persson (Sweden) and ArnaldurIndriðason (Iceland). And of course TV police dramas such as The Killing. These intelligent, socially-engaged crime narratives have finely drawn protagonists and absorbing plots. I adore them!
b) Off-the-wall hybrid novels that fuse crime genre conventions with those of sci-fi or apocalypse literature, or with literary forms such as satire. Examples include Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw (Greece), Hugh Howey’s Wool (USA)Ingrid Noll’s The Pharmacist (Germany), Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman (USA) and Simon Urban’s Plan D (Germany)I love these kinds of crime narratives because they’re hugely original, thought-provoking and enjoyable. They push the boundaries of crime fiction in highly creative ways and show just how flexible the genre can be.  
c) Crime narratives featuring strong, interesting female protagonists, such as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (USA), Elly Griffiths’ ‘Ruth Galloway’ series, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Denmark), Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (Sweden), M.J. McGrath’s ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series (UK/Arctic) and Daniel Woodrill’s Winter’s Bone (USA), as well as the TV dramas Cagney and Lacey (USA), The Killing (Norway), Top of the Lake (New Zealand) and Happy Valley (UK). They show women fighting the good fight in an unequal world and celebrate their abilities, courage and determination. What’s not to like?
d) Crime trilogies or quartets, by which I mean a set of three or four novels that create a mind-bogglingly intricate literary universe through their characters, settings and themes (as distinct from longer, more diverse series). I’m thinking here of David Peace’s ‘Yorkshire Noir’ quartet (UK), Leif G.W. Persson’s Decline of the Welfare State’ trilogy (Sweden) and Andrew Taylor’s ‘Roth Trilogy’ (UK). I admire these authors for taking crime fiction to a new level and for providing us with an utterly engrossing reading experience.
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, the impressive debut novel of a young Australian author who spent time in Iceland as an exchange student: she describes it as her ‘dark love letter’ to the country. Set in northern Iceland in 1829, it explores the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed there for murder. The figure of ‘the murderess’ tells us a lot about the gender, class and power relations of the time, and the picture the author paints of every-day, rural Icelandic life is fascinating. The story, setting and their links to the Icelandic sagas have stayed with me since I finished it a few days ago.

If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?

Such a difficult choice! At the moment, I think it would be Leif G.W. Persson’s ‘Decline of the Welfare State’ trilogy: Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (2002), Another Time, Another Life (2003) and Free Falling, as in a Dream (2007; about to be published in the UK). Collectively, these explore Sweden’s big, unsolved crime – the 1986 assassination of prime minister Olof Palme – against the backdrop of twentieth-century Swedish, European and Cold War history, with a cast of beautifully complex characters and highly compelling narratives. They have a wonderful streak of black humour too, which I suspect I’ll need on a deserted island… When I start talking to myself, I can adopt Johansson’s ironic catch-phrase ‘I’m listening…’. Crucially, they’re extremely long and are the kind of novel you could read repeatedly without tiring of them.

What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?

Here’s a small selection of the books I’m keen to read: D.A. Mishani’s Possibility of Violence (the second in the Israeli Avraham series), Natsuo Kirino’s Out (and more Japanese crime fiction by women in general), Jaume Cabré’s Confessions (a Catalan bestseller with elements of crime), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (New Zealand Booker winner drawing on crime conventions), and Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person (a 1970s crime novel by the French 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner). I’ve made peace with the fact that there are too many crime novels out there for me to possibly get through. I’ll simply plod on as best I can and enjoy the one I have in front of me in the here and now.

The-Spirit-LevelOutside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
At the moment, it’s Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s meticulously researched and highly readable The Spirit Level, which uses data from studies all around the world to show how social equality creates a better society for everyone, using indicators such as health, life expectancy, educational performance, teenage pregnancies and crime. The sections on crime are particularly fascinating: the authors describe social inequality as a form of ‘structural violence’ which in turn breeds actual violence – data shows that homicide rates are consistently higher in unequal countries. The book is hugely pertinent for us all, and should be a compulsory read for every politician!
What an intriguing list of authors, some well-loved by me and some completely new to me (that’s what I love about doing this series – it opens up worlds)! What do you think of Mrs Peabody’s recommendations – which of them have you read and what did you think of them?

For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!

34 thoughts on “What Got You Hooked on Crime, Mrs Peabody?”

    1. I’d also recommend Stiglitz’ ‘The Price of Inequality’ which, although aimed at a predominantly American audience with zero knowledge of economics, makes some equally valid points.

  1. I love a lot of these books. I particularly loved Burial Rites. Completely haunting. And I adore the Elly Griffiths and McGrath series. Another great interview. Thank you both!

    1. You’re welcome, Rebecca. There’s some really fantastic crime fiction out there by and about women at the moment. Great to see, isn’t it?

  2. Marina Sofia – Delighted to see Mrs. P. here!!

    Mrs. P – How interesting to read about your journey to crime fiction. I think Agatha Christie has a way of hooking people on the genre… And I couldn’t possibly agree more about stories that are free of gratuitous and misogynist violence. I really like the variety of books and types of books you enjoy – such a broad spectrum! Oh, and I’m with Rebecca; the Elly Griffiths series is fabulous!

    1. I agree, Mrs P seems to be an omnivorous (but discerning) reader. The only downside to having such lovely people to interview is that my TBR list just increases and increases, but to quote my interviewee: ‘I’ve made peace with the fact that there are just too many crime novels out there for me to ever read them all’ (at least, on my good days).

    2. I always wonder how many people Agatha Christie brought to the genre. I reckon she deserves a vote of thanks!

      It was really great to do the interview, as it provided a good snapshot in time of the scope of my reading. I did consciously feed more female representation in for balance (authors and/or investigators) – too often underrepresented in reviews and features, as far as I’m concerned.

      I think I’m going to get ‘omnivorous (but discerning) reader’ printed up on a T-shirt 🙂

      And no, I’m not going to obsess over the size of my TBR pile any more. Life’s too short to add in unnecessary worries.

  3. It makes me feel less guilty reading crime fiction when someone with such illustrious qualifications reads it too; the only problem is Mrs P has pretty much doubled my TBR pile! Agree with you Margot, Agatha Christie is guilty of turning us all to a life of crime! I especially love David Peace, he’s fantastic. And Andrew Taylor’s such a skilled writer. The Spirit Level sounds fascinating. Must get back to Burial Rites – I was in the middle of it when I moved house and made a mental note to pack it in an easy to find place, along with a Jane Casey I was reading. Of course, it’s nowhere to be found….! Right, pen and paper, getting that list started…Thanks, Mrs P and Marina Sofia.

    1. Hope you manage to locate the missing books – isn’t that just too frustrating when it happens? I invariably end up finding them just when I’ve bought a new one or – in the case of a library book – just after I’ve paid the fine for losing it and had to replace it.

    2. You’re welcome, crimeworm.

      There are quite a few academics researching crime fiction these days, but you honestly don’t need us to tell you that reading crime fiction is OK 🙂

      Hope you find Burial Rites (trying and failing to resist the pun about it being buried under something…).

  4. This is great, I am big fan of Mrs P and so great to hear about what got her hooked on crime fiction. I too started on Agatha Christie and my son read And Then There Were None last year. Thanks to Mrs P I have discovered lots of fab crime fiction. I am also really pleased to have found your blog.

        1. I’d have to read them to tell you! But it sounds like you could be on to something here. Which works are you thinking of? A chance to add some whoppers to my TBR pile, perchance?

        2. Well, BLACK DAHLIA in a fictional re-imagining of the notorious 1940s killing – it led to three further books to form the LA Quartet (including LA CONFIDENTIAL and my favourite, THE BIG NOWHERE) but left history mostly behind. His most overtly historical trilogy is made up “American Tabloid” (1995), “The Cold Six Thousand” (2001) and “Blood’s a Rover” (2009) and is et between 1958 and 1972, traversing JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations and leading into the Watergate scandal. The style can be very hard to take (Julian Symons hated it) but it’s fascinating – and huge!

        3. Ooh, thanks Cavershamragu. I’ve read Black Dahlia and have seen the film of L.A. Confidential – need to catch up with The Big Nowhere. The historical trilogy sounds extremely interesting and I’ll definitely give it a go. Will be very interesting to compare to the Persson. Thanks again!

  5. Well, if this does not persuade to reconsider my position, belief about crime fiction…nothing will! I loved this review/ interview, the book suggestions and added Mrs Peabody Investigates to my blogrol. It is important to diversy and expand my reading interests. I focus on French books/literature because I want to learn the language, yet I must not become too ‘bogged down’ in one genre.

    1. Besides, the French have some very interesting crime fiction… with an unexpected twist outside the genre (they also have very American-type thrillers, but that’s another story). I find Simenon is excellent for learning the language – and not just his Maigret novels – he has a very clear style.

      1. I read Alex by Lemaitre in French….it was very good! As many others I read the Stieg Larsson triology….but want to try one you suggested: Swedish criminologist and novelist Leif Persson.

  6. Simenon does have an unique style. His favorite ‘literary tool” is a question mark (?) and ending his sentences with [ …] ! Looking for a crime book to read…..

    1. I really like Sylvie Granotier – The Paris Lawyer is partly set in Paris (and partly in the Creuse region, which is pejoratively known as the back of beyond in France).

      1. …sounds like where I live in The Netherlands, farms cows, sheep, dikes and the sea…for as far as the eye can see! But I like it here! thanks so much for the book suggestion, I will investigate”” it now,…

  7. I love Mrs. Peabody so much! This interview has been a pleasure to read. What I love the most about her is… her politics as her non-crime fiction reading shows. Let’s hope we meet soon 🙂

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