I have so many annual round-ups and best of lists to share with you, that I’m planning to divide them up by subject matter and bore you to death with posts from now until the New Year! The first topic is Crime Fiction. I have read probably somewhat less crime than in previous years: only 40 of the 127 books I read this year were crime fiction, so somewhat less than a third, while in previous years it would have been more like half. The following titles were particularly appealing and/or memorable.
Simone Buchholz: Mexico Street: Romeo and Juliet against the backdrop of immigrant communities and hardnosed port towns like Hamburg and Bremen, with Buchholz’s unmistakable witty yet also lyrical style.
Elizabeth George: A Banquet of Consequences– I was utterly absorbed by the book while reading it, but can no longer remember a single thing about it now. Don’t know if that says things about how long this year has felt (I read it in February), or about my memory, or about the book itself. I am giving George the benefit of the doubt in memory of the good old days when I adored her work.
Chris Whitaker: We Begin at the End – very intense and moving, more of a character study (and description of a location and a way of life) than a standard procedural. Duchess is firmly in my heart, a truly memorable creation.
Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours – one of our Virtual Crime Book Club reads, this was a heart-stopping, heart-racing race against the clock set against a backdrop of a school shooting.
Barbara Nadel:Incorruptible– a reunion with my old friends Ikmen and Suleyman, and an interesting story of Catholic vs. Muslim heritage in an increasingly totalitarian Turkish state
Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils – another ecstatic reunion with one my favourite recent crime authors and her uncompromising look at contemporary British society
Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – an excellent incursion into historical fiction, learning so much about the British Empire in India, another Virtual Crime Club read
Riku Onda: The Aosawa Murders – unusual, puzzling, thought-provoking, my favourite Japanese crime novel of the year
John Vercher: Three Fifths – more of a psychological thriller and moral dilemma, an indictment of perception of race in the US, in equal measure poignant and infuriating
If I was really pushed to give a gold medal to any of the above for this year, I’d say The Aosawa Murders, and here is the Japanese cover of it (in the original, the title is Eugenia).
Above all, I want to thank Rebecca Bradley and her Virtual Crime Book Club for getting me to read sub-genres and books that I might not normally have discovered on my own.
You know I enjoy my crime fiction books, and in these plague-ridden, uncertain times they provide me with more comfort than ever before. Especially the two authors who feature for No. 12 and No. 13 within my #20BooksofSummer. I’m also sneaking in a third book by a new-to-me author, which I read (and greatly enjoyed) for the Virtual Crime Book Club this month. So, I could entitle this post:
A Longterm Love, a Newer Love and a Brand-New Love (let’s see if you can figure out which is which?!)
Barbara Nadel: Incorruptible
I discovered Barbara Nadel’s crime series set in Istanbul about 12 years ago, when a friend who knows me well said that I might enjoy it, given my own passion for intercultural issues. I’ve always kept an eye out for them since, but in the past few years, as my reviewing duties went into overdrive and I started reading fewer books for pleasure, I had missed the last couple of books that came out in the Ikmen and Suleyman series (I am slightly less keen on the London-set crime series by the same author). So I ordered the latest one but started with an older one that I had on my bookshelf, which came out in 2018.
A young woman torn between her Catholic and Muslim mixed background is found brutally murdered, eviscerated. Before her death, she had been tearing apart public opinion with her claim of being miraculously cured of cancer and her visions of the Virgin Mary. Does her murder have a religious motive in a country that is increasingly separated into hostile camps based on faith? Or could the reason be closer to home, with a family equally torn apart by conflicting ideologies?
It was good to catch up with Ikmen as he nears retirement, but is wiser and more empathetic than ever, while I’ve always had a soft spot for the charismatic womaniser that is Mehmet Suleyman (who once again faces women trouble in this book). Meanwhile, their female boss is struggling to keep her police unit independent, free of government interference – and it was this description of descent into nationalism and dictatorship which I found particularly unsettling. The series has become darker and more thoughtful as time goes on, perhaps reflecting what is going on in Turkey currently. I know the author has been having trouble returning there for her research (she used to spend a great deal of the year in Turkey).
Eva Dolan: Between Two Evils
It has been far too long since the last Zigic and Ferreira novel set in Peterborough (although Dolan has written a standalone crime novel in the meantime). The Hate Crime Unit has been disbanded and they are now working with their colleagues in the general murder squad. The action is set in 2018 and both investigators (and the people they are investigating) are starting to feel the hostile post-Brexit environment.
A young doctor who works at the local female detention centre for illegal immigrants is found dead. Is this because he was a whistleblower or because he was one of the participants in the abuse of inmates in the centre (which is more or less like a prison and usually ends up with the inmates being deported).
As the title indicates, this book too shows a clash between two opposing forces and points of view. There is no sugarcoating, no representation of either side as being completely blameless – the protesters against the detention centre come off quite badly, despite their ‘progressive’ views. I like this subtletly in Dolan’s work, this refusal to over-simplify when the situation is so complex and messy. Another great entry in the series and I’m hopeful there will be more.
Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man
This is the additional title, which was not on my 20 Books of Summer list, but which I read for the Virtual Crime Book Club run by crime writer (and reader) Rebecca Bradley. I’d been meaning to get started on this series, since I know next to nothing about India during that period (1920 onwards), other than that it was a troubled time, so I was delighted that it was the book club choice for July. This book too shows two opposing factions – the behemoth of the British Empire versus the Indian rebels, and once again the author manages to pull off the tricky feat of not resorting to stereotypes or presenting them as unified block.
Sam Wyndham is new to India: he survived the trenches of WW1 only to have his wife dies of the Spanish flu, so he has become world-weary, cynical and slightly addicted to opium. He also feels like an outsider in India – he is not really integrated yet into the colonial community, has a strong sense of fairness and feels uncomfortable with British imperialist attitude. But he is realistically of his time: more progressive than most, but nevertheless not overly modern (what one might call ‘woke’ nowadays). Two other outsiders join him (and will likely play key roles in the next books in the series): the Anglo-Indian secretary Annie Grant and his well-educated, wealthy ‘native’ sergeant nicknamed Surrender-not (which sounds offensive to me, but is accepted by the man in question with weary resignation).
The setting was one of the high points of the book for me, educating me while never becoming too didactic. As with all first books in a series, there is quite a bit of set-up and throat-clearing in this book, but there are sufficient hints of character development to keep me intrigued. I’m looking forward to reading more by this author.
I can heartily recommend cavorting at crime festivals when you have got all sorts of worries at home – it really does take your mind of things, and you get to meet some wonderful people. I was at Newcastle Noir the previous weekend and just returned from Bristol’s Crimefest last night, my only two crime festival outings this year (it is an expensive business). Both very good, though very different!
I managed to take a day off work to be at CrimeFest from Friday until Sunday (it runs Thursday to Sunday, so I did miss some good panels on the first day). Although I didn’t stay at the Conference hotel, my Premier Inn was only a short walk away over the bridge and I had a wonderfully spacious room with a chaiselongue on which I could drape myself artistically to read all the many, many books I acquired.
Not that there was much time for reading. CrimeFest is much bigger than Newcastle Noir, so runs parallel sessions all day. Which means that there were, inevitably, clashes of panels I wanted to attend. The crime fiction represented in Bristol is also much broader – not just noir, but also cosies, historical crime fiction, true crime – a little bit of everything. This means that some of the panels didn’t feel that organically put together, with one or the other of the authors (usually my favourite one of the panel) sticking out like a – not a sore thumb, but a seriously glamorous and sparky thumb!
For example, the first panel I attended was the Humour in Crime Fiction panel, featuring Mike Ripley, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Bernadette Strachan from the MB Vincent writing duo and Helen FitzGerald. While the first three write cosyish or satirical crime fiction, the subjects that Helen writes about are incredibly dark; the humour is very black indeed and stems mainly from the characters trying to lighten up a desperate situation. Some general points were made about reality becoming so crazy nowadays that it’s becoming hard to satirise things any longer, which is probably true, but Helen’s work proves almost the opposite: that you can be compassionate, funny and yet still say something profound about the society we live in. I also rather took exception to the assertion of some panel members that humour doesn’t translate well, which sounded to me more like a complaint that their own books haven’t necessarily achieved high overseas sales. I can think of many exceptions to that: Antti Tuomainen, Andrea Camilleri, the Auntie Poldi series and Jakob Arjouni. Fred Vargas’ team has really quite hilarious eccentricities, although the books themselves are not funny. Dare I suggest that maybe the esteemed panel simply does not read enough in translation?
With my love for international settings, the next panel on Worldwide Police Procedurals was just my cup of tea, especially since it was moderated with grace and wit by Vanda Symon, a fantastic crime writer from New Zealand. The best panels for me are the ones where I am familiar and supportive of half of the panel (in this case, Quentin Bates and GD Abson) but also discover two new writers (in this case, Stuart Field and VM Giambanco). Quentin sets his books in Iceland, where he lived for a long time and went completely native. Garry Abson has not lived in St Petersburg but has a policeman friend there, and studied Russian politics at university. His books plug a much-needed gap in terms of international crime fiction, namely contemporary Russia under Putin. Stuart Field is the pseudonym of a former soldier turned writer and he drops his British detective into a New York City setting in his John Steel action thriller series. Last but not least, Valentina Giambanco is Italian but has lived in London for many years. Her setting is Seattle and the wilderness of Washington state, although she initially tried to set her book in London and Scotland.
The authors all had three things in common: strong female protagonists, being Brits writing about foreign locations and a feeling of freedom when setting their stories elsewhere. While they make every effort to do their research and get the details correct, they said that if they were writing a UK police procedural, they would feel too limited by the actual facts, while this way they can let their imaginations run riot a bit more and write a sort of ‘unprocedural’. I asked them if they ever had a hankering for another location – and sure enough, some of them have already embarked upon books set in a different place. Stuart has set his latest novel in Malta, while Valentina is currently writing a standalone set on her very own doorstep in London. Garry admitted he was attracted to dark places and alternative universes scenarios, for example a fascist Britain full of Tommy Robinson types (perhaps too uncomfortably close to possible futures for some). Meanwhile, Quentin is attracted by the possibilities of doing research in a place with a warmer climate and better food than Iceland: e.g. Morocco.
This perhaps leads me to the question why we prefer to hear from British writers setting their stories abroad rather than from those countries themselves (not the case with the countries represented on this panel, but fitting it well with what I heard elsewhere this weekend)? Readers seem avid for new, exotic locations, so why are publishers encouraging writers to set yet another cosy crime novel in the Cotswolds as opposed to even Wales? I suppose they want to find a successful formula and then stick to it, but as a reader I find it very boring.
Speaking of Wales, I really wanted to go to the Crime Cymru panel, not only because I love Wales, but also to support Cathy Ace, whom I’ve reviewed from her very first novel. Unfortunately, it clashed with the Historical Fiction panel.
Although I don’t read much historical fiction, I really wanted to support Estonian author Indrek Hargla, whose medieval apothecary series I mentioned a few posts ago – and whom I’d previously met in Lyon. He writes across multiple genres, and if you can read French, the entire series has been translated into French. It appears there are more good Estonian-French translators than there are Estonian-English ones, as well as more French publishers interested in trying something from that part of the world. The other panellists were all new to me but sounded quite interesting. David Penny writes a series set at the end of the 15th century, the chaotic period when Moorish Spain is disappearing and Spain becomes a great naval power instead. L.C. Tyler’s novels are set in the late 17th century, that very disreputable era when they finally got Cromwell out of the way. John Lawton sticks to the 20th century, from the laste 1930s to the late 1960s, because he hated the post-hippy world. Great quote: ‘I was looking the other way when the 1970s happened’.
The final panel I attended on the first day was Sunshine Noir – again, this clashed with the Scandi is Dandy panel that I also wanted to attend (and where I missed the best-dressed Norwegian and Finnish authors convention, see below). I think the authors on the Sunshine Noir panel felt a little competitive about it, since they kept mentioning the Scandis, but to my mind, there is no need to set the two against each other, as they are both equally interesting and readable.
However, some of the comparisons made were interesting. Scandinavia is culturally closer to the UK, and there is something inherently cuddly about that sensation of being wrapped up warm and safe and reading about a relentless cold and dangerous climate out there. Meanwhile, the hotter settings offer noise, chaos, insects, heat and sweat, which makes people more irritable. Additionally, these countries do not operate by rules we generally believe in and value in the Western world. Things don’t work out in Africa in the way you want them to, nothing adheres to the organised template that you expect. You have to let go of your expectations and embrace life as it is there, with the good and the bad.
Moderated by Stanley Trollip of Michael Stanley fame, the panel featured Jeffrey Siger’s Mykonos, Paul Hardisty’s Africa (and other dangerous places), Barbara Nadel’s Turkey and Robert Wilson (who has series set in Spain and London as well, but in this case was here for his series set in Benin). Although each of the authors were dismayed by the corruption and political turmoil they saw in their ‘host’ countries, they all displayed a deep affection for the land and its people. They all agreed that the higher up you go, the less nice people become, but the everyday people you meet are wonderful and welcoming, despite their sometimes horrific personal circumstances.
The longlist for the CWA Daggers were announced that evening and added yet more to my TBR pile, but I managed to escape with only four book purchases on my first day: the Sunshine Noir anthology; Inccoruptible, the latest Inspector Ikmen by Barbara Nadel, although a new one is coming out in 2019; Indrek Hargla’s second book in the series (I have the first one in French); and a new author to try out, V.B.Giambanco’s first in the series The Gift of Darkness.
Buckle up, though, because the second day got even busier (and more expensive)! So much so, that I will dedicate a second post to it.
You know how you see an award or a question on someone else’s blog and you think: ‘That is so lovely, so exciting! I wish someone would nominate or tag me for that!’ ? Well, this ‘Next Big Thing’ one seems to have been circulating for a while now among all of the writers’ blogs which I enjoy reading. But, sadly, it hasn’t reached me yet (cue haunting violins and moonlight glistening on my tears). It’s not all ego, however. I need an excuse to write about my WIP because it requires quite a bit of clarification in my own head. And I think best when I think out loud!
So I am taking matters into my own hands and jumping at Lisa Ahn’s wonderful suggestion that she is nominating anyone who is up for it.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
Beyond the Woods – because it is almost an exact translation of Transylvania, which is where quite a bit of the action takes place.
2) Where did the idea come from for the book?
The idea came to me in the summer of 1997, before mobile phones and the Internet were so ubiquitous. I was spending my holidays back home in Romania with my parents, when news of Princess Diana’s death broke. I had a boyfriend in the UK at the time about which my parents knew nothing and it was a real challenge to get in touch with each other, as direct dial international calls were not possible from most telephones in Romania at the time. It occurred to me then how easy it would be to lose touch with someone in just two weeks, even someone you cared deeply about.
3) What genre does your book fall under?
4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
I wouldn’t go for big names. I have a very specific picture in my head of what the characters look and sound like. Besides, it would be a great opportunity to do most of the casting (and filming) in Romania. The main male protagonist, Matt, would have to be a slightly geeky-looking, tall English actor. Yes, OK, I admit that Benedict Cumberbatch would probably be my first choice…
5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
When Matt’s girlfriend Cristina dies in a car crash while trying to secure a divorce from her estranged husband in Romania, he reluctantly joins forces with Cristina’s best friend Eli to try to find out what really happened.
6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
I’m so far behind on my edits, but I hope to get some feedback from agents first and then decide. I’m open to all options!
7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Far too long! Perhaps 4 years in total, although most of that time was spent NOT writing the novel.
8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I love crime fiction set in exotic locations (‘exotic’ for this purpose meaning anywhere outside the US or UK), but written by non-natives of those countries, with a strong sense of atmosphere, like Michael Dibdin or Donna Leon’s Venice and Barbara Nadel’s Istanbul. The outsider looking in is a wonderful perspective, and I hope to achieve that through the eyes of Englishman Matt.
9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
This will sound really odd, but my first husband (a Romanian) was the initial inspiration, although he is nothing like Cristina’s husband in the book. I hasten to add that it is not autobiographical in any way, but just a way to ponder: ‘What if he had been a different kind of person? What if I had got involved in other things?’ All those possibilities that never were probabilities.
10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
I set the action in 1995 because of a real-life event that took place that summer (which fits in very well with the story). It’s amazing, however, how much I have forgotten about that period and how careful I have to be not to introduce anachronistic details into the story.
My turn to tag. You know what’s coming, don’t you? Because I felt like a child who had not been invited to a birthday party, I will not nominate just a handful of blogger friends. Instead, I will just invite all of you who haven’t shared your story-in-progress yet to do just that. If you wish to, of course! I love finding out what people are up to and I promise to read each and every one of your blog posts.