January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

Lugging Books Home from Romania

I brought 14 books back from Romania (had to leave about 5 behind), which is not bad going for merely a week away and not too much time spent in bookshops. Here is a picture of what I managed to squeeze into my luggage. All of them are in Romanian, of course, and I don’t think any of them have been translated (yet).

So here’s a little more information about the book haul.

I brought back four books by Bogdan Teodorescu, a sociologist and journalist, who has been involved in political campaigning and opinion polls, but is above all a storyteller. He has published many novels of the noirish or political thriller variety, one of which, Spada, has been translated into French and has been well received there. I’m involved in a little conspiracy to bring more Romanian literature to the English-speaking world, and Bogdan Teodorescu is probably going to be one of our first authors, so I’m trying to make up my mind which book would be most suitable as a ‘starter for ten’. The books I have are: two political thrillers Spada and Nearly Good Boys, a domestic noir unlike any you’ll have read in recent years, Liberty, and his latest, We’ll All Perish in Pain, a story that is both thriller and social commentary, featuring an investor, a tourist and a refugee in a country not unlike present-day Romania.

I also got crime fiction by three more authors to investigate for possible future translation. Lucian Dragos Bogdan’s Spiderweb is a police procedural about people being killed off at a crime festival in the Romanian Carpathians. Daniel Timariu’s PI investigates crimes in a city that exists on two planes: the human world and the underworld, a bit like The City and the City by China Mieville. Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu was a classic crime writer from before the fall of Communism.

Last but not least, I also got two books of crime stories: a collection of stories all set in Bucharest, Bucharest Noir, and a series of linked stories written by six different authors Domino 2.

In addition to all that crime fiction, I got some literary fiction: Mircea Cartarescu’s Solenoid, a massive tome of surrealist and semi-autobiographical writing. You can read an excellent detailed review of the book (in Spanish translation) on the much-missed The Untranslated blog. Since I am slightly obsessed with Mihail Sebastian, I bought a 630 page novel written by Gelu Diaconu about Sebastian’s life in the 1930s, which somehow has dual timeline with post-Communist 1990s Romania. The Innocents by Ioana Parvulescu is the history of a house in Brasov, the story of a young girl and a woman remembering the past, as well as the history of a country that has had way too much history to digest.

Last but not least, two non-fiction books. The same Ioana Parvulescu has published a book about everyday life in Bucharest between the two world wars, a period often viewed (probably mistakenly) as ‘golden’ in the history of Romania. The last one is even more interesting: the memoirs of Elena Ceausescu’s personal interpreter, Violeta Nastasescu, a rather lovely lady whom I met personally because she tested my English just before my university entrance exam.

Swiss in October: Whiter than White

Turning from actual bank robbers to those who rob under the cover of banks…

Ah, the rule-bound, neutral, beautifully clean Confederation at the heart of Europe! Switzerland often presents itself as whiter than white, but there have been critics (both abroad and within the country itself) who are all too eager to point out some of the unethical practices that certain revered Swiss institutions engage in. The banks are notorious in this regard, but have come under close scrutiny in the past decade or so. The novel Le Nom du père (The Name of the Father) by Sébastien Meier, however, focuses on Swiss corporations and the international commodities market.

It is the second in a trilogy of novels about Swiss corruption, featuring Paul Bréguet, a former policeman in his fifties, and prosecutor Emilie Rosetti. In the first in the series, we discover the gradual descent into punitive madness, as Paul commits murder to avenge the death of his young lover, Romain Baptiste. At the start of the second book he has just been released from prison after two years on a lesser charge. He tries to reconnect with his mother, now widowed and in the early stages of dementia. But the past just won’t go away.

An industrialist called Beat Flückiger puts the pressure on him to investigate not the death of his nephew (he has proof that Paul killed him), but to recover any documents his nephew might have found about dubious business practices in his company. To his dismay, Paul finds that both Romain and his father were implicated in a nefarious money-laundering operation involving criminal networks, prostitution and unethical transactions on the Nigerian oil market. He teams up with Emilie Rosetti, but they both need to operate with utmost caution, as too many people in the higher echelons of business and government have too much to lose.

To be honest, I got a bit lost in the painstaking investigation into financial transactions, although if you enjoyed TV series like the Danish Follow the Money or McMafia, you will probably enjoy all of this. There were perhaps a few too many of those details, which made a couple of chapters sound more like journalism rather than fiction. All of the really exciting action seems to come at the very end, in the last few chapters, which is quite a long wait if you are a thriller fan. But what I did enjoy were those side-swipes at the cynical and arrogant super-rich of Switzerland. Apologies in advance for the inelegant translations (all mistakes are my own):

In canton Vaud, you pamper the rich man, mistrust his power and adore his wealth.

The reason we’ve embarked upon this crusade, even though we have no concrete evidence, is because we have to make up for all those who’ve becoming champions in closing their eyes or looking studiously elsewhere in this country.

… the sudden late discovery of a conscience in Swiss banking…

Lest this all becomes too idealistic, we also hear the point of view of the capitalists, who believe Switzerland would collapse if it were unable to pursue its international trade unhindered.

It’s not profit that drives me, it’s necessity… Commerce lies at the very heart of our system. It’s our only weapon in Switzerland – we don’t have any other resources. We are tiny, surrounded by European sharks. Who do you think you are? Switzerland is part of the global economy. She plays that game, that’s all, neither more nor less than any of the others. It’s a disgusting game, but if you want to continue to have the same standard of living, you’ve got to let me get on with my business.

I also liked the casual way in which the bisexuality of its main protagonist was introduced (probably not easy in the traditionalist society he seems to be moving in). Another strength of the book was the way it made its backdrop (mainly Lausanne, but also Geneva and the surrounding area) come to life. Fancy art exhibitions and hipster cafés jostle alongside sleazy bars and camouflaged poverty. I also realised the power of the familiar names of streets and being able to follow the routes of someone being stalked, for example, through the Flon quarter of Lausanne. (This might be of less interest to someone unfamiliar with the town, I do realise.) Every now and then, you become aware of the breathtaking beauty of the natural surroundings, which makes it contrast even more with the dirty and dangerous business being conducted there.

The train rattled on the hillside, between the Lavaux vineyards and the immensity of the Lake Leman with its intense, deep blue. Behind the Jura mountains, the sun was setting scarlet. Two Belle Epoque ships were gracefully slicing through the calm waters. An intercity with all its windows alight was passing on the Lausanne-Vevey track by the lakeside. She had the impression she was observing a miniature model of Switzerland.

Which brings us full circle to the achingly beautiful landscapes described by Ramuz, which also served as the perfect staging for human error and tragedy. Could it be that what Swiss writers are trying to say is that humans are not at the level of the natural beauty they’ve been gifted with?

Crime Fiction and #Orentober

You’ll have seen from previous posts that I think Karen Sullivan is a pretty special person and that she has created a wonderful family of authors, readers and reviewers with Orenda Books. So I was keen to take part in the #Orentober celebrations, although without the deadlines and hoopla of participating in a blog tour.

I read the most recent books by two of my favourite Orenda authors (which is a bit unfair to all the others, who are each brilliant in their own way, but I suppose these two most correspond to my very noir taste in crime fiction).

Antti Tuomainen: Little Siberia

Put simply, Tuomainen is one of the most versatile and interesting crime fiction writers currently at work. He can do dark and melancholy exceptionally well, but he is also one of the funniest authors out there. I really admire the way he blends the absurd or ridiculous with the violence, despair and sadness and would love to be able to replicate in my own work.

The plotline sounds like something taken out of a Russian novel deliberately designed to be fantastical or surreal in order to escape censorship. A suicidal racing driver is determined to wreck himself and his car on the snowy, deserted roads of Northern Finland. But then a meteorite crashes into his lap (practically). This rare and valuable artefact is carted off to the local museum, where it is guarded against potential thiefs for a few days, before it can be sent to London to be examined in a laboratory. One of the volunteer guards is Joel, a priest who is about to lose his faith – both in God and in his wife, who announces she is pregnant, although he knows for a fact that he is sterile.

Soon, everyone in the little town of Hurmevaara seems to be chasing the meteorite and what it represents: an easy way to get rich quickly and escape all of their problems. Joel himself is not immune to temptation, although he fends off the repeated attempts at burglary. He also suspects that among the would-be burglars there might lurk the father of his wife’s baby.

This has all the frenezy and farcical set-ups of a Mozart opera, all the cases of mistaken identity, dissimulation, not being able to trust anyone… Just like in Mozart, the often absurd situations are rescued by wonderful music (in this case, writing), which singes your heart while avoiding bathos. And you will see why I compare it particularly with ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, as (I hope I am not revealing too much) both have a beautiful scene of forgiveness.

Will Carver: Nothing Important Happened Today

Will Carver is a more recent discovery – I read his toe-curling, mind-bending Good Samaritans only back in May this year (by the way, I mean those adjectives in the best possible way). This new book is just as good at making the reader feel uncomfortable; it will throw up all sorts of questions about how we live our lives today. It’s eerie, unsettling and, in a very good way, political.

Nine strangers meet up on Chelsea Bridge one evening, with a coil of rope in their bags, which they calmly tie around their necks and then leap off to their deaths, all at the same time. It turns out that they are all unwitting members of a mysterious suicide cult called The People of Choice. Soon, the movement is attracting likes on social media and imitators all around the globe. How can you stop such a movement when there doesn’t seem to be any clear leader, when followers are not even aware they are being targeted, and where there is no clear ideology?

It is a very unconventional crime thriller, for, although it features a police detective, he doesn’t actually do all that much detecting for most of the book. In a way, you could claim that no crime has been committed, for all the victims freely chose their own death. It is in fact a pretty forensic examination of how brainwashing works, whether it be a religious or political group.

The key to building a successful cult is to fill it with real people. Take absolutely anybody. Find some common ground. Use it as your starting point. Listen. Don’t do too much talking. Pwer comes from hearing what others have to say. Now tell them what they really need. Believe that what you are saying to them is true. Now you can manipulate them to do what you want… Because everybody wants to feel like they are part of somethings. Something bigger than themsleves. Give them something they can belong to.

‘Cult’ is a disaparaging term, so I hesitate to use it, but I did study ‘new religious movements’ for my Ph.D. and I used to joke that I had the blueprint for creating my own movement. The frightening truth is that it is reasonably easy to manipulate huge swathes of people, and social media has expanded the reach of these ‘mind merchants’. At times, it feels like Will Carver is simply dissecting our contemporary society and showing all its ills. You might even be tempted to agree with certain passages, until you realise that they are actually written from the point of view of the master manipulator him or herself.

Anybody can feel like a nobody. Like the thing they are doing doesn’t matter. Like they wouldn’t be missed by anyoone if they were gone. And it’s not just the recent batch of entitled millenials, who want everything and want it now and for no effort. .. It’s their parents, too… And their own parents, who can’t keep up with the pace of technology and feel that the youth of today have no concept for what they have lived through…

Starting a cult is easier than ever.

Because people want a way out of their lives; they want it to be simple. A tablet that will melt all the fat so they don’t have to work hard at the gym or quit bacon.

Neither of these two books are the cosiest, most escapist of crime novels, but they are both excellent and pushing the boundaries of any crime fiction formula you might be expecting.

Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Criminally Good Parallel Reads

No matter how engaged you might be with your current read, when it comes to a complex doorstopper like The Debacle, you need some alternative reads to keep you sane. Happy to report I’ve found, courtesy of Newcastle Noir and CrimeFest, just the remedy with the following crime fiction novels. These may be teeny-mini-reviews, but all the books are worth a look.

Zoe says they are verrrry good reads too.

The first three (incidentally, all Orenda books – I promise I’m not on commission, though!) were the ones that most tugged at my heartstrings, so I suggest you be in a good place emotionally when you read them. They are not entirely depressing – there is hope and humour in each of them – but they are about as gritty as it is possible to get without turning into a sandpit on an abandoned building site. The remaining four are more conventional police procedurals, although there is nothing bland or boring about any of them.

Will Carver: Good Samaritans

Winner of the Description of the Most Dysfunctional Marriage Award, the sorry tale of insomniac Seth and his bored wife Maeve will stay with you. Fiercely funny as well as unbearably sad to read about their inability to communicate with each other, as well as about all the other lonely people out there and their desperate urge for connection, looking for it in all the wrong places. It will leave you reeling, uncomfortable, and wondering about your own life.

Helen FitzGerald: Worst Case Scenario

Another book with deeper messages rippling out as you read it, leaving indelible marks in your psyche. Beneath the humour and the refreshing ‘don’t-give-a-damn’ rebellion of the disillusioned and menopausal probation officer Mary Shields, there is a lot of social critique and an uncompromising portrayal of life at the margins of society, the kind of things we would rather not know about.

Doug Johnstone: Breakers

And, since we are on the subject of heartbreak, let’s move from the mean streets of Glasgow to one of the most deprived areas of Edinburgh, where 17 year old Tyler is trying to somehow hold together his precarious life and profoundly dysfunctional family. Filled to the gills with brutal scenes and characters that no child should have to deal with, it also has moments of tenderness involving puppies, bedtime stories and home cooking that nevertheless manage to steer clear of clichés and sentimentality.

G.D. Abson: Motherland

If you are equally fascinated and repulsed by Putin’s new (same old) Russia, then this is the book for you. Plenty of local colour and an all too believable backdrop of suspicion, corruption and cover-ups, with an engaging and tough heroine who is just trying to make her way as honestly as possible in a society that seems determined to thwart her at every turn. The start of a series that I will definitely be keeping an eye on.

Mari Hannah: The Scandal

I’ve been a huge Mari Hannah fan from her very first series (and still my favourite), the Kate Daniels one, although she has moved on to two other series since then. As a former probation officer, like Helen FitzGerald, she too injects a voice of authenticity and social concern in her writing, most obvious in this book in her description of the lives of those sleeping rough on the streets of Newcastle.

Mick Herron: London Rules

So many people had been recommending the Slough House series by Mick Herron to me, that I could no longer resist and jumped in at the deep end with one of his most recent. This did mean that perhaps the descriptions of some of the characters and their motivations were opaque to me, but I can see the appeal of this satirical, almost absurdist take on spy thrillers. The clumsy, incompetent and woefully mismatched ‘intelligence’ team led by the undiplomatic and uncharismatic Jackson Lamb (who reminds me slightly of Dalziel) are a joy to behold.

Vaseem Khan: Murder at the Grand Raj Palace

The much longed-for relief in a bunch of rather dark crime novels, this is a charming and quirky story about the rather earnest Inspector Chopra, his sweet-tempered and playful baby elephant, his practical wife Poppy… oh, and a murder at a luxury hotel. The author does a great job of balancing light and dark, without it ever descending into an unbearably cosy and unbelievable situation, and there are references to darker elements of Indian history and society.

Crimefest Bristol 2019 (Day One)

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!

Broad Street, where the Grand Hotel is situated and the CrimeFest took place. The building in the foreground is the Guildhall and the one in the background is St John the Baptist Church and what must have been one of the city gates.

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.

GD Abson, Stuart Field and Valentina Giambanco.

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.

Quentin Bates explaining to Vanda Symon (the shaky picture is entirely my fault) why he might turn to Morocco next.

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.

Sarah Armstrong moderated 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.

Sunshine Noir Panel: Stanley Trollip, Barbara Nadel, Paul Hardisty, Robert Wilson and Jeff Siger.

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.

Feast your eyes on these dandy Scands: Antti Tuomainen, Gunnar Staalesen and Jørn Lier Horst. Picture courtesy of Ewa Sherman.

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.