Another quick review of Gunnar Staalesen’s Wolves in the Dark set in Norway, Mary Anna Barbey’s Swiss Trafic set in Switzerland, and Leila Aboulela’s The Translator set in Aberdeen and Sudan. Common themes: human trafficking, dark underside of apparently very civilised societies and an outsider’s gaze at mainstream culture in a particular country.
As I started jotting down all the crime fiction novels which I enjoyed reading in 2017, I realised the list was growing too long, so I had to divide it into translated and English-language fiction. So this is the second part of that post, crime fiction written in English. regardless of the origin of the writer or the setting. You might spot a preference among crime authors for a London setting, yet each of these was different.
Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal – London – coming out in January 2018
Political and legal thriller meets domestic drama – a cynical but all too realistic view of politicians and husbands, just right for these times full of sexual harassment cases
Stav Sherez: The Intrusions – London
Another extremely topical police procedural, about online stalking, hacking and spying. There was also something about the transient backpacker population all converging onto London which tugged at my heartstrings.
Eva Dolan: This Is How It Ends – London – coming out in January 2018
Dolan is the queen of weaving in a thrilling story to explore her anger about social injustice. Here it’s property developers vs. ordinary people, political campaigners vs. the police, and betrayals among those you believe to be on your side.
Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks – US
I read both of Chris Whitaker’s novels this year and this one won by a cat’s whisker (I’m trying to only mention one book per author): that mix of humour, insight and depth of feeling which is quite rare.
Susie Steiner: Missing, Presumed – Cambridge and London
Same thing with Susie Steiner: I read both of her novels featuring the delightful Manon, but the first one in the series just had an additional edge to my mind. Police procedural with characters that you want to get to know better.
Aga Lesiewicz: Exposure – London
Sometimes you just need a high-paced urban thriller set in a Shoreditch which has all the trappings of Manhattan, including spyware, trendy lofts and media types. The glamour of the lifestyle was just so different from my experience that all my voyeuristic tendencies came to the fore: call it my version of ‘Hello’ magazine!
Emma Flint: Little Deaths – New York City
For a change of pace, a meticulous recreation of a period and place (Queens, 1960s) and an alternative interpretation of a notorious true crime. I didn’t read it so much for the plot, however, but for the way it portrays society’s indictment of mothers and women who don’t behave according to general expectations.
Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery – Canada, Quebec
Reading a Louise Penny mystery is always a treat, and this one has echoes of another old favourite The Name of the Rose, with its monastic location and thorough examination of human propensity for both good and evil.
Adrian Magson: Rocco and the Nightingale – Picardie, France
Another recreation of time and place, this time one that is close to my heart: France in the 1960s and a detective that I have a bit of a soft spot for: Lucas Rocco. This time an assassin seems to be after Rocco, but of course he doesn’t have the luxury to just go away and hide.
As I finished compiling the list above, I realised that I have personally met (in person or online) six of the nine authors featured, and they are all very charming. But although that might make me eager to read their work, it does not influence my final selection into the ‘best of’ literary canon.
There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…
Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.
Michael Stanley: Dying to Live
I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?
Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home
Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…
Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.
Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal
The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.
Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.
G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box
Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.
Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.
This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.
Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)
Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?
Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)
This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.
Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.
Women in Translation Month
Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!
Thanks to fellow blogger and online friend Elena (whom some of you may know as @ms_adler on Twitter), I heard about the Captivating Criminality Network at Bath Spa University (in collaboration with Gdansk University in Poland. When I heard about the 2017 conference taking place on 29th June to 1st July, I was determined to attend for at least half a day. So I drove to the chi-chi Wiltshire village of Corsham on Saturday 1st July and entered the dreamy grounds of Corsham Court, where the conference was taking place. At first, I was expecting Darcy to emerge from the local pond…
But once I found my way inside The Barn, I attended some fantastic talks. I won’t give an in-depth account, but it is so refreshing to see academia engaging seriously (but not pretentiously) with crime fiction from so many different countries. These were scholars (and audiences) who really enjoyed their reading and analysis, and were experimenting with new ideas and interpretations.
You can find the full programme of the conference here.
The first panel I attended was on Newer Developments in Hard-Boiled Fiction. Arco van Ieperen from the University of Elblag in Poland compared Robert Parker’s Spenser and Harlan Coben’s Myron Bolitar, and how both of these authors changed and adapted the Chandleresque hard-boiled detective series. Both of them, for instance, evolve violent sidekicks who leave the hero free to have emotions and face ethical dilemmas. Both Spenser and Bolitar are much more respectful of women and have a grudging acceptance of political correctness. Ilse Schrynemakers from City University of New York gave a fascinating paper demonstrating how Ross Macdonald’s dysfunctional families mirrored the fears of a world living in the shadow of nuclear war. She argued convincingly how the obsessive insistence on ‘truth’ and ‘confession’ in the McCarthy era is reflected in Macdonald’s novels, albeit with a darker current. Uncovering the truth and getting the criminal to confess does not lead to remorse or redemption, but is indeed a journey from darkness to darkness.
The second panel was on one of my favourite topics: crime fiction in different geographical locations. We took a trip through Ireland, France, China and Mexico. Jennifer Schnabel from Ohio State University talked about undercover cops in Tana French’s novels, while Eoin McCarney from Dublin City University made a very powerful comparison between Ireland and Mexico, between bog bodies and bodies dumped in the desert. Both bogs and deserts exist outside the law, outside space and time almost. Finally, Annemarie Lopez from Macquarie University in Australia used psychogeography and Jules Dassin’s Naked City to discuss urban noir. She mentioned two of my favourite authors and the rapidly changing cities they depict: Jean-Claude Izzo and Marseille, Qiu Xiaolong and Shanghai.
The last talk I was able to attend was Professor Mary Evans from LSE (whose work on gender had been required reading on my anthropology course many years ago). In calm, measured tones, she talked about our eternal fear of loners, of people who seem to be content to be alone, and those who are desperate to belong, to fit in. She based her examples on the Stockholm trilogy by Jens Lapidus, so I found myself adding yet again to my TBR list. Being alone is an essential feature of both criminals and the detectives chasing them, yet there is a crucial difference between being alone and loneliness.
I was reminded once more how fun it is to debate ideas, methodologies and interpretations, and how much I miss these kinds of passionate academic discussions which probably sound over-specialised to others (although crime fiction festivals are a good substitute). I came away brimming with new names, new recommended titles and, above all, new ways of thinking about things. Learning as long as you live, being open to questions, trying out new things: isn’t that what life is all about?
May seems to have sped by like a runaway train, and I can’t believe that I’m already doing another monthly reading summary. This month seems to have been all about what is somewhat annoyingly described as ‘self-care’, which brings to mind a candle-lit bath and a warm cocoon of a towel. In my case, however, it means reading books in which I can lose myself, preferably without crying.
A rather productive reading month, 15 books read (one of them a re-read), only one turkey, and quite a few winners. 9 books by women writers, 6 by men, 5 in translation.
Funny, humane, instantly recognisable and imaginative. Reminded me in parts of The Man Who Fell to Earth, except it shows more love for humans in spite of all of our flaws. Some moments had me laughing out loud, while others are almost in danger of descending into sentimentality. But, as the author says,
‘Sentimentality is another human flaw. A distortion. Another twisted by-product of love, serving no rational purpose. And yet, there was a force behind it as authentic as any other.’ Perfect mood-boosting book for all who have felt a little out of step with life and the others.
Muriel Spark: A Far Cry from Kensington
Rereading this zany look into the world of publishing, with all of Spark’s trademark humour, precise wording, wit, and just a tinge of cruelty.
Vivienne Tufnell: Away with the Fairies
Pantheistic approach to nature, life, creation and love.
Jane Gardam: The Stories
Elegant, witty yet very empathetic account of marginalised, ignored, insignificant little people. Some may be annoying, some inspire pity or sadness, but all are presented with a lot of heart.
Searched for this at the library after reading Sarah Perry’s loving tribute to the Cazalet series in the Foxed Quarterly. I knew I had read one or two of the books, out of order, but couldn’t remember which ones or much else, so I started at the beginning. Perfect comfort reading for these turbulent times, although it actually depicts a Britain with odd similarities to the present-day, just before WW2, considerable uncertainty and fear, conflicting attitudes towards war and Hitler. All the little details of life are here, with recognisable concerns and characters, even though the main characters are all rich and privileged, have servants and seemingly endless baths and meals.
Andrée Michaud: Boundary
Susie Steiner: Persons Unknown
Tina Seskis: The Honeymoon
Matt Wesolowski: Six Stories
Perfectly captures the chilly beauty and sinister quality of the Finnish winter. This book pushes the boundaries of a conventional thriller – yes, we have a hitman and quite a few murders along the way, we have a conspiracy about a mining project which has gone wrong, but it is really about family, having principles and values, feeling conflicted between finding out the truth and protecting your loved ones. Fully realised characters and an unobtrusive, limpid, muscular storytelling style (without ever being garishly macho, like in most action thrillers).
Clever Observation in Prime Location
Delia Ephron: Siracusa
All the pretentiousness of rich Americans and Brooklynites abroad mercilessly exposed in this tale of marital break-down, selfish adults and abundant self-delusions. Review to appear shortly on Shiny New Books.
Sarah Stovell: Exquisite
Not so much a psychological thriller, as a carefully orchestrated duet and a welcome respite from the relentless insistence on implausible twists for the sake of twists in recent books. From my review on Crime Fiction Lover:
‘The fun of the book lies in the inevitable downward spiral into obsession, jealousy and revenge. You might be tempted to read Exquisite quickly, breathlessly, but I would advise you to take your time and savour the journey. The author is completely in control of pace and characters, like a fine piano tuner able to make the most minute adjustments to the tension in each string, each chapter, each interaction. Allow yourself to be played. Enjoy the music.’
Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag
Wolfgang Herrndorf: Sand
When I heard that this was about a serial killer targeting criminals of gypsy origins in Romania, I expected it to be a police procedural with some political echoes. In fact, it is an unusual political thriller which examines how inflammatory rhetoric, extremist discourse and racial hatred are peddled by politicians for their own purposes and the devastating consequences it can have. Highly relevant for our times, not just in Romania.
I have recently read three very different crime novels, which left me intrigued, delighted and frustrated (in that order). They also made me wonder if the publisher’s pressure to produce a book a year forces writers to compromise on quality at times. Because I would rather wait two-three years if it means a more thoughtful, original piece of work is produced, rather than a cut and paste job with stock situations, cardboard characters and clichés ahoy.
This refers of course to the book which disappointed me, which used all the possible tricks to turn a rather ordinary, overdone story into something suspenseful: an unnecessary dual timeline solely designed to increase suspense, but feeling unnatural and irritating; withholding of vital information to create plot twists; an utterly pointless final twist with little bearing on the story; an annoying, whining main character whose behaviour is exaggerated and lacks credibility. Yet there were certain sharp observations throughout the book which made me think the author had talent, but had hurriedly scribbled down a half-baked domestic noir story to satisfy the current appetite for that sub-genre and the publisher’s demands.
The book which intrigued me was Andrée A. Michaud’s Bondrée (Boundary, in English, translated by Donald Winkler). Michaud is Québécois and this novel is very precisely set in time and place: a summer community on the US/Canadian border of Lake Boundary during the summer of 1967. Life seems idyllic: barbecues sizzling, children playing on the beach, families relaxing at weekends, even if the men have to go back to the city to work during the week. Radios are playing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ and ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’, and two teenage girls are flaunting their gorgeous tanned bodies and long curls to confuse and delight the male population of the little holiday enclave. Zaza Mulligan and Sissy Morgan are precocious and slightly too forward. In a year or two they would be destined to become bitches, so the gossip goes, but this is their summer of glory, with a third girl Frenchie Lamar trying to keep up with them, but not quite succeeding to emulate their charisma. Meanwhile, twelve-year old French speaker Andrée is entranced by these American teenagers, the sweets they share with her because they think she is cute. She tries to repeat the words they say ‘Littoldolle’ or ‘chiz’ or ‘foc’ (which her mother tries to avoid explaining to her by discussing seals – in French ‘phoques’ – instead). She is the main narrator, but it is not really a child’s voice, but a scene remembered from the distant past. We also catch glimpses of the story from other points of view.
Then Zaza is found dead, her limbs torn apart in an old bear trap overgrown with vegetation. An unfortunate accident, so everyone thinks, and the holiday-makers band together to search for all remaining animal traps which a strange old hermit called Pierre Landry had set up around the area before he died. But when Sissy suffers a similar fate and her beautiful red hair is cut off, the community has to acknowledge the horrible truth:
A killer was on the loose in the shadow of our cottages, one who had made a zombie out of Bob, and etched into my father’s face lines that hadn’t been there before, outward signs of a kind of stupor, as if he’d received a blow from a baseball bat on the back of his head. And that’s exactly what had happened in the clearing, where a dozen men, along with him, had been blindsided by a mysterious weapon.
Stan Michaud is the American policeman who has to investigate the case, helped by Brian Larue, a bilingual single dad vacationing there, who helps with the translating. The story is very slow-moving, perhaps too much so for avid mystery fans, but it is also a subtle coming-of-age story and a description of an Anglo-French community on the cusp of modernity yet stuck in a primeval forest full of ghosts. I was fully caught up in the utterly believable atmosphere, full of nuances and poetic language. The translation did occasionally feel clunky, so I may well look out for this in French. It won the Prix des lecteurs (Readers’ Prize) at the Quais du polar in Lyon this year.
Finally, the book which delighted me is the follow-up to Susie Steiner’s debut, which I reviewed recently. In Persons Unknown, Manon is back in Cambridgeshire, together with her unconventional family: her adopted son Fly, her sister Ellie and her young nephew Solly. She is sidelined somewhat, working on cold cases, but she hopes it gives Fly the opportunity to grow up in a more peaceful environment, where he won’t be treated as a criminal simply because of his race.
But then a man is stabbed to death outside a park near the railway station and the identity of the victim makes it impossible for Manon to ignore the case. Things go from bad to worse and she has to prove that her nearest and dearest cannot possibly have anything to do with this horror. Or could they? This seamless blend of personal and professional is Steiner’s great strength, the way in which she makes us question all of our easy assumptions about family, motherhood and love. Each character seems well-rounded, with real depth, especially Manon, who feels like a frazzled yet slightly more energetic version of ourselves. The target audience for this is the reader who enjoyed the more realistic portrayal of women detectives such as Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series (although I like this one more) or the feisty Sarah Lancashire character in Happy Valley.
Now you may say I am contradicting myself, since Persons Unknown has followed very swiftly on the tail of Missing, Presumed. However, it feels to me like this was a single, complex story that the author had already envisaged, and which she brought out in two installments. It all fits together very well, and there are hints that the third novel also builds on this story. For the sake of letting stories breathe and develop organically, however, I would ask publishers to ease the calendar pressure and allow authors to take as long as they need to make their novels as good as they can.
Writing about crime in the US even if you do not hail from there is a popular pastime. We have all been brought up in American films and TV cop shows, and we can probably repeat the Miranda warning word for word even if we are less aware of the equivalent in our own countries.
In the past, French authors Boris Vian and Georges Simenon set some of their novels in the US. In the last couple of years I’ve reviewed Emma Flint’s Little Deaths and Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead on this blog, and thought Joel Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair was overrated. But just how easy is it to get the balance right between making the American landscapes come alive and cramming in too much detail?
E.O. Chirovici: The Book of Mirrors
Chirovici deliberately set out to conquer the English-speaking market. After writing several novels in his native Romania (all well-received), he wrote this one in English, set the whole story in the US and found himself an agent and publisher in the UK (with a little bit of luck, which makes for an amusing story of the road to publication). The novel sparked a frenzy of publisher auctions and was sold to 30 countries before it even appeared in English, somewhat similar to Joel Dicker’s debut. With all the buzz around the publication, it’s not the author’s fault that I was expecting something along the lines of The Name of the Rose or Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Alas, it is neither the ‘heart in your mouth’, pulse-racing, twisty thriller you want to finish in one night, nor is it the clever, off-beat, startlingly original and thought-provoking novel that you want to examine again and again. Nevertheless, it is perfectly competent and a pleasant way to while away a few hours.
The story within a story framework and the multiple narrators with hidden interests give a touch of the literary to what is in essence a relatively straightforward story of thwarted love, jealousy, manipulation and murder. The author says he is fascinated by the unreliability of memory, how we can create false memories to support our current interpretation of facts. That is indeed an intriguing subject, but the narrators sounded a little too bland and similar. I loved the idea of an unfinished manuscript hinting at a murder: the set up is similar to The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz but far less tongue-in-cheek. In fact, I think this is the downfall of this novel: it takes itself a little bit too seriously, but is not noir or menacing enough to cause a significant chill down my spine.
So what about the American setting: mostly a campus in a small university town? Although there are a lot of extraneous details in the book about the relationships between people and academic life, there are actually remarkably few eloquent details to place the story in time and place. It did not quite have that authentic zing for me: it could have been any campus in any country and reminded me of my college days in the UK and Germany. However, this is an above-average book, clearly written by an experienced author, who is to be highly commended for writing in his second (or third or fourth) language.
Chris Whitaker: Tall Oaks
By contrast, I felt the small-town setting in Tall Oaks was utterly convincing. There is a bit more bluster and strong opinions going on in American rural areas than in the UK, and this comes through loud and clear in this wonderful dissection of the social scene. It is eccentric, dark and funny, a combination which is very hard to get right, but Chris Whitaker succeeds perfectly. This is most certainly not a book which takes itself too seriously, and yet it left a more lasting impression of the loneliness of most of its main characters.
A small boy goes missing in the small town of Tall Oaks and we get to meet all of the neighbours, supposedly all eager to help, but also all having something to hide. So a strange collection of believable but also quite extreme characters parade in front of us. Jess is the grief-stricken mother, who has been abandoned by the boy’s father and now has to face life completely alone. Jim the policeman who is obsessed with the case and the mother’s despair. Big, lumbering Jerry, who works at the photo store, is considered dim-witted by most of the town, and still lives with his manipulative mother. And of course that wonderful creation, the teenager Manny, who so badly wants to become a cool gangster that he is prepared to have wounds on his forehead by wearing hats that are too tight for him. Manny’s mother and her new admirer, the car salesman Jared, much scorned by Manny and who seems to be on the run from something. Expat Roger who feels emasculated by his wealthy wife Henrietta. But just listing all these peculiar characters does not really do justice to the complex interplay between them, and how much of an insight we get into their rich inner lives with just a few strokes of the pen.
A blurb on the back of the book describes this as Fargo and indeed the book resembles the film and series with its wacky humour, as well as plot twists, rich character descriptions and witty dialogue. However, you care more deeply about Manny and his friends, about poor downtrodden Jerry and the others, than you ever do about the anti-heroes in the TV series. If Fargo is about the baseness of human nature, and how we can all go off the rails, Tall Oaks is about an innate belief in kindness and humanity. And it doesn’t come across as naive, because there is a lot of warmth, humour and compassion.
This was such a delight to read! By turns tender, laugh-out-loud funny and sad, sometimes within the space of a single chapter or paragraph. I can’t wait to see what Chris Whitaker writes next. It is bound to be entertaining and unpredictable, with just enough detail to make the background come alive.