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.
I never thought I would complain about the excessive heat in the UK, but I am. Partly because it’s humid and muggy, while the heat in Greece and Romania is much drier, so I sweat just by breathing. Partly because my house is not designed to cope with either heat or cold (and yes, I tried additional insulation in the loft and double-glazed windows – houses built in the 1980s in Britain are a bit rubbish).
So this is a long introduction to just say: I cannot be bothered to write a proper thoughtful review of my final #20BooksofSummer read, Teffi’s wonderful Subtly Worded. If it cools down by the end of the week, you might get a review then. Instead, I’d like to share with you some of the things that have been keeping me entertained this past fortnight or so. Books and films, what else?
In addition to #WomeninTranslation, I have also been reading some relaxing crime fiction (well, it’s relaxing for me, at any rate).
Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secrets was a read for the Virtual Crime Club run by crime author Rebecca Bradley – a solid police procedural, involving a killer duo where the woman is the manipulator rather than the man. I have read many books in the Tom Thorne series before, but annoyingly not the previous one to this – and there were a lot of references to it in this book, which whetted my appetite. Best of all, Rebecca invited Mark to answer some questions at the start of the session and we were stunned to discover that he doesn’t plot his novels at all – or even the longer-term story arcs and character development for Tom and his team. He likes to keep himself surprised, even at the risk that he sometimes finds himself painted into a corner (and has to rewrite things extensively). You can hear a recording of the session on Rebecca’s site. (But be warned there are plenty of spoilers, if you haven’t read the book yet!)
Susie Steiner’s Remain Silent is the third in the Manon Bradshaw series, and I simply can’t get enough of the lovable, very real middle-aged female detective trying to navigate police work with a not quite fairytale marriage, a toddler, a teenager, an potentially terminally ill husband. Her acerbic comments on modern life are a real delight. The story of (perfectly legal) immigrants lured by the thought of forging a good future for themselves and their families back home, and instead being exploited for grim work in unsavoury conditions is hugely topical, of course, but does occasionally feel a little telegraphed in, what with the short chapters and moving rapidly from one point of view to the next. I know the author has had serious health problems lately, and I sincerely hope she proves doctors wrong and recovers very soon and gets to write many more in the series (or whatever else she wants).
I can’t remember the last time I watched anything live on telly, but police anti-corruption investigation series Line of Duty is back on, so I am catching up with Series 1, which I never got to see. It’s like watching a prequel to something very familiar, so of course you can’t help exclaiming ‘how young they were!’ but also noticing how some of the character tics (of Superintendent Hastings, for instance) became emphasised in later series, probably as a result of audience reactions and amusement.
I’ve watched far fewer films than I expected while the boys were away – perhaps because I really cannot bear to spend any more time in the study in the evening in front of my desktop, where I sit and work all day (I cannot use Mubi or NowTV or anything like that on my work laptop). However, I did watch two Italian ones from very different periods and yet another French one, and I am continuing my love affair with women directors too.
Fellini’s 8 1/2 is a sly portrayal of midlife crisis and creative block. Marcello Mastroianni is of course a charmer and we might think Fellini sympathises with the dilemma of creative burnout, but it soon dawns on us that the film director he portrays is behaving like a real mascalzone (to quote the film). The dream harem sequence in particular really pokes fun at him. When he banishes the women over a certain age upstairs (out of his sight), they start rebelling: ‘Are we lemons to be squeezed and thrown away?’ and ‘Down with Bluebeard!’ and he has to take out the whip. Completely outrageous and over the top, but does he get his comeuppance?
Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders is set in the Tuscan countryside and there’s a strange timeless quality about it. It’s an unromantic view of subsistence agriculture, beekeeping and small-scale production of honey, seen through the eyes of a somewhat naive 12 year old (very sensitive and mature performance by the 13 year old Maria Alexandra Lungu, who I’m proud to say is of Romanian origin). Yet it also mourns the loss of a way of life as the farming community succumbs to gentrification and becomes a tourist attraction thanks to a rather ridiculous TV show. There is a surreal Fellini-like moment when the children catch a glimpse of Monica Bellucci resplendent in a silver dress and with long white locks in the middle of an Etruscan necropolis.
Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is based on the novel about a heart transplant by Maylis de Kerangal which I loved back in 2016. In the novel, the boy whose organs are donated (after initial shock and reluctance by the parents) is 20, but in the film he is 17, the same age as my older son. Additionally, the person waiting for a heart transplant is a single mother of two sons, one of them more dutiful, the other more wayward. So, with all of this too uncomfortably close to my own biographical details, you can imagine that I pretty much cried all the way through – a new record for me! However, what was impressive was how earnest, respectful and gentle the medical staff were throughout with the patients and their families, regardless of their own personal circumstances. The moment of ‘closure’ before they take out the heart – I defy anyone not to have tears in their eyes at that scene.
Phew, so maybe not quite so escapist after all, this entertainment malarkey!
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.
Here are two crime novels which have recently helped me regain some joy and focus in my reading. I’m not sure that ‘crime’ is the best way to describe either of them, although crimes do take place (arson, robbery and murder, to name but a few). Neither of them follow the standard crime fiction formula – yet they couldn’t be more different from each other if they tried.
One was written in 1934 while the other has only just come out. One is set at a country house in Surrey, while the other is in a small town in the US. In both we pretty soon get to know ‘whodunit’, but in one the focus is on ‘how will they get out of it?’ and in the other the focus is on the characters. One is light and funny, somewhat throwaway and escapist, while the other is rather grim and gruelling, though beautifully written.
I am talking, of course, of Alan Melville’s Weekend at Thrackley (in the British Library classic crime series) and Chris Whitaker’s We Begin at the End, respectively.
In the former, we have the typical Golden Age mystery novel set-up. Jim Henderson is a remarkably cheerful and stoic good chap, who has returned from war with all his limbs intact but without much work experience, and therefore struggles to find a job and make ends meet. To his great surprise, this underdog is invited to a country house weekend by someone who claims to have known his father, but whom he personally cannot remember at all. He goes there despite his misgivings, because his old school friend is also invited, and discovers a gloomy old house with an odd assortment of guests and a peculiar host obsessed by extravagant jewellery.
Most of the characters are paper thin, and the plot is rather obvious, but it’s all about derring-do and cute ironic observations, in that slightly bemused, self-deprecating style that was so common in the 1920s and 30s. I might argue that Jim and his friend Freddie, both public school boys, do somewhat fall into that cliche of ‘the nice, bumbling but well-intentioned and really quite bright underneath it all chaps’ which has done so much harm in class distinctions in Britain. However, it is encouraging that the hero of the story is the resourceful Jim rather than spoilt Freddie, i.e. the one who was raised by a single mother and who does not have easy access to a family fortune.
By way of contrast, Chris Whitaker’s characters are anything but spoilt. Thirteen year old Duchess Day Radley has to put up with things that no child should have to experience, as she struggles to protect her little brother and veers between pity and resentment at her perpetually depressed and drunk mother. This is life on the breadline, pretty much, and with no hope or escape in sight. Duchess is so used to being ignored, bullied, menaced, tricked, that she no longer can trust anyone or anything. She calls herself an outlaw and refuses to let anyone into her heart. She only half understands what is going on when the man who killed her aunt thirty years ago is released from prison and comes back to their home town, but she gets tragically caught up in the events that follow.
I’ve loved Chris Whitaker’s previous books, which described the same kind of milieu in small-town America, but this one is a shade darker, with far less black humour and fewer quirky characters to lighten the mood. I was afraid at times that the book was laying it too thick with all of the misfortunes that come the children’s way (almost like a Mexican soap), but it manages to avoid bathos. Crimes are just the pretext here for examining morality, how good intentions can lead you astray, how flawed every human being is and why standing idly by is sometimes as unforgivable as jumping in and making mistakes. A book I will not forget easily, although I’d have preferred to read it at a cheerier time. Just as well that I chased it down with the more puerile but easy-going BL classic!
Today I was going to read and review a third book by an author I met at Quais du Polar, but I simply ran out of time. The author was Craig Johnson, and the book is one in his popular Longmire series (and features a dinosaur, which made it absolutely irresistible). In 2016, Craig Johnson was also part of what some people called the ‘dream panel’, also including Sara Gran, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo and Deon Meyer, as well as a French author who was only just starting out back then, Olivier Norek.
So instead I will link back to some of my favourite write-ups about this event from other years.
I first went to the Quais du Polar in 2013 together with my family. And, while they did the murder mystery treasure hunt all over the city and gorged on the food at the Bocuse brasseries, I instantly fell in love with the festival atmosphere, the beautiful venues, the authors and the bookshops. That first year I was quite restrained in my purchases and spoke mainly to French authors – and to the lovely chronicler of Greek society Petros Markaris. This was also the year that I got to see the wonderful late P.D. James, who was presented with the Medal of Honour of the City of Lyon, I got to interview David Khara and Sylvie Granotier, and I reported on the whole event for Crime Fiction Lover.
2015 was a fantastic year – I met Emma for the first time at Quais du Polar (we then attended it together twice more) and I had my portrait drawn by Max Cabanes. The panels (and perhaps I myself) got more political and my niece, who was studying in Annecy at the time, joined me for the festival, we stayed at a superb little boutique hotel on the Quais, ate at all the boucherons we could find and went to a crime festival ball.
2016 was tinged with sadness, for I knew that I would be leaving France soon and that it might be my last Quais du Polar, so I bought a LOT of books, my biggest haul ever. I got to meet some strong, bubbly, fun-loving women writers that year (and one whose book I did not like – and who seemed to live up to the expectations I had of her after reading her book).
Luckily, although I had returned to the UK by the time Quais du Polar 2017 rolled along, I found that it was still cheaper flying there and staying at a hotel than going to Harrogate. I got to meet Romanian author and publisher Bogdan Hrib there (who has now become my business partner) and heard Bogdan Teodorescu talk about his novel Sword (Spada), which had just been translated into French. I got to watch the first episode of Spiral (Engrenages) Series 6 before its release and see the actors in the flesh (they look much more glamorous in real life). Plus I attended panels on German crime fiction and got to meet and hear Ron Rash (whose novel Serena I will be reading and reviewing shortly).
After five years of faithful attendance, I had to stop going there for financial and other reasons. But I make the firm promise right here and now: next year, by hook or by crook, I’ll be there!
I’ve seen Deon Meyer at Quais du Polar a couple of times and he is a larger than life teddy bear of a man, so it’s quite surprising to see how hard-hitting and suspenseful his thrillers are. He once said that he regretted making his detective Benny Griessel an alcoholic loner, as he sometimes felt trapped by this portrayal. However, in this book, first published in English in 2014, Benny works very closely with his whole team, ‘a splendid representation of the Rainbow Nation’, as one of the characters remarks at one point. And he is almost completely happy with the new love of his life, singer/songwriter Alexa. That’s probably as good as it gets.
But not for long. Benny and his team soon get into hot water and have to use subterfuge to conduct their investigations. A British citizen goes missing from a top secret, luxury guesthouse on a wine farm not far from Cape Town. His bodyguards are shot dead. But was Paul Morris an innocent victim: his passport is brand new, as are his suitcase and clothes. The shell casings at the murder scene have a spitting cobra engraved on them – could that be the sign of an elite international assassin? And why are so many foreign intelligence agencies interested in this possible kidnapping?
At the lower end of the crime spectrum, Tyrone is a young pickpocket who is trying to fund his younger sister’s medical studies. It’s a typical case of the wrong place (or picking the wrong pocket) at the wrong time and soon Tyrone finds himself on the run, fearing for his sister’s life. The story culminates in a nerve-wracking chase on the metrorail between Cape Town and Bellville.
What I really like about Deon Meyer’s books is that they are always exciting, not at all preachy, but all the while providing an ample picture of life in post-apartheid South Africa, warts and all. Among all the breathless action, Benny is given to meditating about the place of law and order in society, and his own career in the police force during a time of tumultuous changes
…when you worked at Murder & Robbery, your role was spelled with a capital letter. What you did mattered. Part of his smugness was because he had started to run with the big dogs then. The living legends, the guys whose investigations, breakthroughs, interrogation techniques, and witticisms were passed on in seminars, tearooms and bars, with an awed shake of the head… But the longer he worked with them… the more he realised they had feet of clay.
It was a depressing process. He had tried to fight against it, rationalise it and suppress it. Later he realised that it was partly out of fear of the greater, inevitable disillusionment: if they were fallible, so was he. And so was the system.
Deon Meyer writes in Afrikaans (although he speaks English fluently) and the translation has a lot of Afrikaans expressions, including Cape Flats vernacular. So much so that there is a glossary at the back. (Fortunately, if you speak English and German – or Dutch, many of the expressions will sound familiar and you can deduce them from the context)
In fact, I should be grateful, because for me it hasn’t been too bad. I am not one of the brave and dedicated frontline key workers that I so much admire and whom we all depend on for what semblance of a normal life we still have: medical staff, pharmacists, supermarket workers, delivery drivers, public transport, utilities providers and of course teachers.
All I had to worry about, for the three weeks until the actual lockdown was my children still going to school (one of them on the train), and me bringing the disease back into the house, with my commute to London and having my office in a very public building which only closed down on the 20th of March. Of course, I also worry about my parents right at the other end of Europe, stuck in the capital city rather than in their house in the countryside (on the other hand, the hospitals are closer and better equipped in Bucharest), both with underlying health conditions and both approaching 80 very soon. Like any recently divorced parent with a very acrimonious financial settlement that is still hugely resented by the ex, I do worry about the possible practical consequences of me falling seriously ill. I may need to get in touch with a solicitor friend of mine and make a will.
Other than that: I’m used to food shortages, to curtailment of liberties, to being essentially under house arrest… it brings back memories of my childhood. Not fond ones, no: I have no ‘stiff upper lip and carry on’ nostalgia. But I know that we survived those times (some less gloriously than others), so I’m hopeful we can survive this. My boys are fortunately old enough to keep themselves occupied whether the school assigns a lot of work or not. We have adopted a new feline member of the family, sweet, elderly Barney, and we are busy trying to get our ‘only child’ Zoe to accept him.
However, my reading and writing have both dwindled considerably. Not only because I am extremely busy with work during the week and feel exhausted all the time. Not only because of the bouts of insomnia which continue to plague me (and probably everybody else at the moment). Almost certainly because I am scrolling helplessly and fruitlessly on my phone for far too long, but also because I find it difficult to concentrate on anything for longer than half an hour. Add to that the fact that WordPress has decided now is the right time to make changes to their writing and formatting of blog posts and a general sense of feeling ‘what’s the point’, and you can understand why I’ve not even updated my blog regularly.
If I look back at March, however, there have been some lovely moments which seem to be as far away now as if we were seeing them through the wrong end of a telescope. On the 1st of March, I was fortunate enough to see the kimono exhibition at the V&A and on the 11th of March the exhibition on the portrayal of pregnancy in art at the Foundling Museum. I also attended an immersive adaptation of The Time Machine on the beautiful premises of the London Library and reviewed the show just a week or so before it shut down. I’d probably have delayed going to see all of these if I hadn’t been jolted by others. Moral of the story: never put off things you enjoy doing because you ‘don’t have time right now’.
The London Book Fair was cancelled, but I had a meeting on the 11th with my fellow Corylus Books founders and we discussed plans for publishing and promoting books this year and the next. It is possibly the worst time to launch a new publishing house and bring out books in translation by authors that nobody has heard of (yet). We also have problems with the actual printing and distribution of physical copies. So, much as I hate having to link to Amazon, this is the only way to find the two books we already have out now. Perhaps later in the year we will be able to attend all those crime festivals and organise all those book launches that we had planned.
Last but not least, I did read eleven books, and most of them have been of the lighter, more escapist variety, with quite a bit of armchair travelling.
Will Dean: Black RiverTuva Moodyson is back in forlorn Gavrik in the north of Sweden at the height of Midsommar madness to try and find her missing friend. With a full cast of dodgy characters, including snakes, the author proves that the Swedish forests can be creepy regardless of the season.
Graeme Macrae Burnet: The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau Set in a sleepy provincial town on the Franco-Swiss border, not far from Strasbourg, this too is a creepy tale of loners, outsiders and personal obsessions.
David Young: Stasi 77 A series that I’ve really enjoyed, but somehow missed reading this particular book. The links to the end of the Second World War and hidden Nazis operating within the East German state were particularly harrowing (and historically accurate, although I wasn’t previously aware of it). Perhaps my favourite of the series thus far.
Murder in Midsummer A collection of stories set in holiday locations (not always in summer, despite the title). Mostly famous authors, with lesser known stories. As always with such a collection, some of the stories are better than others, but overall a fun book to dip into.
Rebecca Bradley: A Deeper Song DI Hannah Roberts is back with a bang and a sharp squeal of the brakes. Preoccupied by family problems, she nearly runs over a young man who darts out in front of her car. He is covered in someone else’s blood but cannot tell them anything, as the accident has provoked a temporary (?) amnesia. Soon Hannah herself is in danger and her team need to gather all of their wits and collaborative skills to find her.
Margot Kinberg: A Matter of Motive A start of a new series by American author Margot Kinberg, featuring rookie murder investigator Patricia Stanley. A man is slumped over the steering wheel of his car, apparently the victim of a heart attack. Or was it? Both family and co-workers seem to have plenty of things to hide, although they keep emphasising what a nice guy Ron Clemons was.
Debbie Harry: Face It She does not mince her words, does she? The beautiful, rebellious, cool as anything singer reveals as much as she damn well pleases in this memoir, including her vulnerabilities. Still an icon.
Malorie Blackman: Knife Edge Second book in the Noughts and Crosses series, which I read to coincide with the TV adaptation. Such an interesting concept, although I did find the writing aimed at a younger audience than me.
Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust I was smitten with the original trilogy but only got a chance to read this prequel now. An exciting story, even if we know the final outcome (that baby Lyra did end up safely at Jordan College). Above all, I like the rich descriptive, yet never dull style, which offers something for both adults and younger readers.
Tiffany Tsao: The MajestiesThe story of a rich Indonesian family of Chinese descent, with a mass murder from the outset and a smidgen of science-fiction added into the mix. A wonderful book – about families, the lies we tell each other and tell ourselves, the differences between perceptions of the Chinese in the east and in the west… and about insects.
David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick An unexpectedly light and humorous offering by Foenkinos, satirizing the pretentiousness of the Parisian literary society. Could a pizza maker who never was seen reading a book truly have written an almost perfect novel? Erudite, charming, delightful.
Meanwhile, if you find my reading concentration anywhere, do let me know, won’t you? As you can see, I have a whole pile of books planned for April!
The Quais du Polar in Lyon was the highlight of my year back when I was living in France (and even afterwards). However, everything is different this year and of course it been cancelled, as have so many other excellent literary festivals. So Emma and I, who spent many a pleasant moment there together, have decided to post a crime fiction review on each day when the festival would have taken place – the 3rd, 4th and 5th of April 2020.
We aim to include either books by authors who would have been present at the current edition of the festival or else books that we bought – and got signed – at that festival (you may remember I splurged quite a lot back in those days).
It would be lovely if you decided to join us reading and reviewing crime fiction books by authors with links to Quais du Polar on those days. A virtual celebration of the wonderful city of Lyon, its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage. You can find a full list of authors (in English) who’ve attended the festival in the past on this page. And you can even listen to recordings of panels from previous years.
You may have noticed that I’ve been far less present online since the start of this year. There are several reasons for that: some boring, and some very pleasant indeed.
In this latter category, I am proud to be part of a very exciting initiative. I am one of four friends and literary addicts who have decided (probably against any common sense) to set up a publishing venture to bring more translated fiction to the English-speaking world. Our baby is called Corylus Books, we are planning to launch at the London Book Fair and we are still in the process of setting up our website. But we do have a Twitter handle @CorylusB and a couple of books all ready to go.
Who Are We?
We are passionate readers of crime fiction and literature in translation. We have close connections to several countries, chief among them Romania, Iceland and the UK, of course. We are eager to build bridges between different cultures… and one of the best ways to do that is via literature. The four of us are writers, translators, academics, bloggers, festival organisers, reviewers and publishers, so we have a broad and complementary set of skills. We are starting with crime fiction, because that is a genre we know and love, but we are open to any interesting stories that are well told. We always like a slice of social commentary with our fiction as well.
Corylus is the Latin name for the hazel tree which produces hazelnuts. According to the Celts, hazelnuts confer wisdom and inspiration. In German fairytales, the hazel branch offers the greatest protection from snakes and other dangerous creatures. Last but not least, the Romanian name for hazel is ‘alun’ and the song ‘Alunelu’, alunelu’, hai la joc!’ is one of our best-known folk dances. Plus, like all good deciduous shrubs, it grows profusely in the right climate. All splendid metaphors for our venture.
We all have full-time jobs in addition to this passion project – which is where the madness comes in. So, whilst we are ambitious, we will start small and grow gradually. Nevertheless, we have some some exciting works in the pipeline.
Anamaria Ionescu: Zodiac
Four murders in four different locations, each body showing a strange mark (possibly a zodiac sign?). The only thing the victims seem to have in common is that they were all born in the little spa town of Voineasa in the Romanian sub-Carpathian region. The fast-paced narrative switches between the streets of Bucharest and the wooded hills of Voineasa. Sergiu Manta has been forced to work in the shadowy world of state-supported asassins, but he knows it’s not him who’s been carrying out these murders. In the course of the investigation, he locks horns with the local police inspector determined to crack the case. The novel cleverly blends well-worn serial killer tropes with an inside look at a secretive special-ops team.
Teodora Matei: Living Candles
If you enjoy travelling the world virtually through your crime fiction, then Living Candles is the perfect book to convey the atmosphere of the Romanian urban environment. Or at least the murkier side of it: the blocks of flats where the neighbours all know each other’s business, the pensioners gossiping on the bench outside the entrances, the machismo impregnating the atmosphere so thickly, you could cut it with a knife.
These two will be out very soon and ARCs should be available for a blog tour by end of March. So let me know in the comments if you think you might want to take part, and I can give you more details.
Bogdan Teodorescu: Sword
The third book is a political thriller which I have only just finished translating (and still need to edit). It’s called Spada in the original Romanian (Sword in English) and it is by political analyst and professor of election campaigning Bogdan Teodorescu. It was translated into French a few years ago and did quite well there, with Le Monde and other publications reviewing it positively. Among our blogger friends, Emma from Book Around read and reviewed it, called it a ‘stunning political thriller’ and said what a shame it wasn’t translated into English. We are once more in serial killer territory, but the focus here is not at all on the investigation, but instead on how the crimes become a pretext for politics. It is unnervingly, chillingly accurate of the political situation not just in Romania but in many other countries at the present time. So I am delighted that we will finally be able to share it with you! Here is my attempt at a blurb.
A petty criminal is found dead in the streets of Bucharest,killed with a single stab to the throat. Initially, the police believe it’s a fight between gangs, but when two more deaths follow in quick succession, all with the same MO, it becomes clear that Romania’s capital city is facing one of its first recorded instances of a serial killer. The press are eager to run sensationalist reports and give the killer the nickname Sword, after the weapon used. But there is an added complication: all the victims are from the Roma (gypsy) minority, and all of them have a police record. While the police struggle to find any leads, politicians have no qualms about using the case to score points against their opponents. Is this some misguided vigilante – and will the majority population start seeing Sword as a saviour rather than a criminal? The race is on to find the killer before interethnic clashes engulf the country, but a series of blunders at all levels leads to an escalation of conflict. Originally published in 2008, the novel is remarkably candid and prescient about racism, the rise of fake news, manipulation of the truth and political corruption. This astute political thriller will remind readers of TV shows like Borgen or West Wing.
Sólveig Pálsdóttir: The Fox
Icelandic author Sólveig Pálsdóttir has only been writing for seven years, but she is a rising star in her native country. She’s been translated into German and we hope to introduce her to an English-speaking audience in late summer/early autumn.
A young woman, one of Iceland’s immigrant community, vanishes without trace soon after arriving in the village of Höfn, so suddenly that there are doubts that the vulnerable young woman had even been there at all. Her disappearance, some suspicious events in the town and an isolated farm spark the interest of Reykjavík police officer Guðgeir, who is spending time working as a security guard in Höfn while he recovers from trauma in both his professional and his private life.
Finally, if you are attending the London Book Fair on the 10th of March, come and speak to us at the Romanian pavilion/stand. We will be talking about our new venture, our books and our future plans in an event organised by the Romanian Cultural Institute that day. Also, if you are coming to Newcastle Noir on 1-3 May 2020, you will have the opportunity to hear the author of Sword speak and get your hands on drippingly new (ink barely dried) copies of the English translation of the book.
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.