Crime Fiction in Holiday Locations

Everyone loves a little crime in holiday places – as long as we are reading about it and dreaming of a beach, rather than directly affected by it. This must be the reason why there are so many crime novels set in popular holiday destinations – or combining popular holiday activities, such as cruise ships. As it so happens, four of the books I’ve recently read take place in various parts of the Mediterranean. All four of them are what I would call ‘enjoyable holiday reads’, with a few disquieting elements to keep you on your toes, but not the kind that you will remember for years to come.

disappearanceAnnabel Kantaria: The Disappearance  – cruise ship

This barely qualifies as crime fiction, although it has a mystery and a missing person at its heart. It is really a book about family secrets and the dangers of allowing them to fester. It is also a loving recreation of India in the 1970s (where the main protagonist, Audrey, went to work after the death of her parent and met her husband) and Greece in the present day, where Audrey has invited her twin children on a cruise around the Greek islands to celebrate her 70th birthday. But then, on the night of her birthday, Audrey goes missing, suspected of falling overboard.

I first encountered the author online as a fellow expat writing about her experiences of living abroad, and there is plenty of flavour and colour to her descriptions of life as an expat in India. Despite some predictable moments, the book as a whole slid down the reading throat like a nice glass of Bailey’s or Amaretto: rich, indulgent, smooth. Perfect summer reading.

distresssignalsCatherine Ryan Howard : Distress Signals – cruise ship

Adam Dunne is a rather self-absorbed 30 year old who still dreams of becoming a great writer. He has said no to a regular job or a painful climb up a career ladder, a mortgage, a family and kids – so far – and has been encouraged and supported (often financially too) by his girlfriend Sarah. Then he finally manages to sell a script to Hollywood (pending some rewrites), but he has no time to celebrate, because his beloved Sarah – who had gone to Barcelona on a business trip – has vanished into thin air. Her phone is switched off, nobody seems to know about her whereabouts and the hotel she was staying at claims she only stayed there one night. Adam initially keeps trying to calm himself (and Sarah’s parents) down with plausible excuses, but becomes frantic when it becomes likely that she disappeared on board a cruise ship. The author knows the holiday industry pretty well and she has found the perfect fertile ground for crime on board a cruise ship. I had never thought about it before, but the murky borders of jurisdiction, the coming together of an international crowd for a short period of time, the sheer size of those ships making it quite easy to ‘disappear’ people… It has certainly made me more determined than ever to never go on a cruise!

ghostrunnerParker Bilal: Ghost Runner – Egypt

Makana is a former police inspector from Sudan, who has found refuge in Cairo. He lives on a rickety houseboat on the Nile and tries to forget the cruel death of his wife and young daughter back home. He makes a living as a private investigator and, as the story opens, he believes he is involved in a routine surveillance job to appease a jealous and suspicious wife. However, it turns out that the ‘errant’ husband is in fact visiting a badly injured girl in hospital, the victim of a horrific arson attack. This leads to a more wide-ranging and unpleasant investigation involving the girl’s father, who was associated with terrorism, and their home town of Siwa, an oasis in the Sahara Desert. Makana discovers the law means little in this frontier town on the edge of the great desert, nor can he count on the local police for help.

In this part of the world, the past is never quite buried, and has a way of rearing its nasty head and influencing the present. Not exactly a cheery holiday read, this novel blends topical events with a solid mystery and a noir atmosphere despite the relentless, blazing sun.

highsmithPatricia Highsmith: The Two Faces of January – Greece

January is not the name of a girl: it is the month in which the novel is set, but it is also an allusion to the two faces of Janus, and to the two main male characters, who in many ways represent two sides of the same coin. Chester MacFarlane is a con man, with many names and identities: he runs pyramid schemes, investment frauds, and disappears with his clients’ money. He is now on the run in Europe with his beautiful young wife Colette. Rydal Keener is a young American who quarreled with his father when he decided to come to Europe and stay there without doing anything much to build a career for himself. He seems to be drifting through life, but has a thirst for adventure which makes him somewhat foolishly rush in to help Chester when a Greek policeman catches up with the glamorous couple. After that fatal moment, they are fated to stay together, even as temptations abound and tempers fray.

This is not top-notch Highsmith, but even in her more average work, she remains the mistress of the innuendo, the slow psychological burn and strange love/hate competitive relationship between men. It’s not top-notch Highsmith, but it’s an interesting playing around with certain tropes and scenes, almost like a dress rehearsal for Ripley. I enjoyed the Greek setting and the unreliability of each one of the characters. Sometimes it’s completely opaque what motivates them – but isn’t real life like that too? Chester and Rydal are the two faces of the same coin, and you can’t quite decide which one of them is more despicable – and yet there is a ‘can’t live with or without each other’ aspect to their relationship which is deliciously subversive, smart, sinister story in its own right, well worth a read.

 

 

Reference Book to Treasure: Crime Fiction in German (Der Krimi)

crimeficgermanIf you have any interest at all in German literature or in crime fiction, you will enjoy leafing through this erudite and yet still very readable collection of articles. Or, if you are slightly obsessed like myself, you will read it from cover to cover and then start all over again. And I’m not just saying that because I was flattered to receive an electronic proof copy by the University of Wales Press. It is that rarest of creatures: an academic study which is also very enjoyable and could become a bestseller!

What is remarkable about the book is the breadth and depth of topics it covers. In terms of breadth, no stone is left unturned. The editor Katharina Hall (known to many crime fiction fans as Mrs. Peabody from her much-loved blog) and the other contributors cover not just the obvious subject areas (West German, East German, Austrian and Swiss crime fiction), but also lesser-known categories such as women’s crime writing, historical crime fiction, the place of Africa in German crime fiction and even television dramas. Furthermore, the definition of crime fiction itself is deliberately broad, and includes literary authors writing crime-infused experimental or social novels (Hans Fallada, Peter Handke, Elfriede Jelinek) as well as more traditional crime.

In terms of depth, you will find here not only comprehensive overviews of the development of crime fiction in each of the German-speaking countries, as you might expect from an academic tome, but also a focus on specific writers or books. Martin Rosenstock’s analysis of Dürrenmatt, for instance, is beautifully nuanced, pointing out how the Swiss author breaks all the classic formulas of the crime genre, whilst also poking fun at the self-aggrandising Swiss myths of neutrality, wealth and historical heritage.

Each chapter (or article) is followed not only by endnotes and a select bibliography of books (mostly those available in translation), but also recommendations for further secondary reading. Where no English translations are available for a work cited, there is a small extract in English at the end of the chapter as well, just enough to give you a flavour of the original and whet your appetite for more. This is also one of the stated aims of the book: ‘to provide readers with a springboard for further reading, viewing and research’. There is also an excellent table at the front with the chronology of crime fiction in German, including political, criminal and publishing milestones from 800 until the present day.

I will not attempt a blow-by-blow account of each topic, but allow me to highlight just a few.

Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn't resist smuggling in that photo.
Viennese tram. No relation to the book, but couldn’t resist smuggling in that photo.

I may be slightly prejudiced in favour of Austrian writers, but I certainly appreciate the article on the odd humour and often extreme experimentation by Austrian authors, written by Marieke Krajenbrink, and have already ordered several books from her list of recommendations.

Thanks to an article Katharina Hall agreed to write for Crime Fiction Lover, I had previously experienced her encyclopedic knowledge of crime fiction dealing with different aspects or periods in German history (mostly the Nazi period and the reunification of the country after the Cold War). It was a pleasure, however, to read a more thorough analysis of the topic, as well as a detailed discussion of two fantastic (and very different) novels: Fallada’s Alone in Berlin and Simon Urban’s Plan D.

Finally, I cannot forget the fascinating articles which open up an entirely new world to me: Julia Augart’s analysis of the so-called Afrika-Krimi and Faye Stewart’s research on the Frauenkrimi (women crime writers). I had never heard of the first as a subgenre, and never stopped to compare the themes and styles of male and female German crime novelists.

In conclusion, either this book is a great exception to the rule, or else academic books have evolved considerably since my time, because I find it very approachable indeed. It achieves that wonderful balance between ‘speaking to ordinary readers’ without ‘dumbing down’. I’ve learnt something new in every single chapter and yet, try as I might, I can’t find any pretentious or obscure references which so often plague literary criticism. I was hoping for some Lacan or Foucault or at least Wittgenstein to throw my arms up at, but no! It stays admirably grounded throughout.

Congratulations to all the contributors and editors involved in this project. There is nothing quite like it in the English language. I will certainly treasure it and return to it as a work of reference for many years to come.

Crime Fiction Reviews: Gendered Crime?

I don’t believe in gender stereotypes, but it did occur to me that the last few crime/thriller novels had a bit of a gender bias in terms of subject matter. Written by women = psychological thriller; family, parenting and social issues. Written by men: violence, attacks, conspiracies, shadowy enemy (or everyone is an enemy), political agendas. I enjoy both types of subject matter, don’t consider one ‘better’ or ‘worthier’ than the other, and that’s why I alternate authors, genders and genres. I’m greedy, I want everything!

1974David Peace: 1974

I loved it and I hated it. It is very thought-provoking, a real fresco of the time and place (although just seen through the eyes of one character, which the author will remedy in the rest of the quartet). It is undeniably powerful and grim, perhaps too much so;  unrelentingly dark, so noir that not even a glimmer of hope or light comes through. And I say this as a huge fan of noir! I also found the staccato prose and swearing starts to grate after a while, although initially it is just perfect and captures the inflexions and nuances of Yorkshire speech patterns. But it’s worth remembering that this was Peace’s first novel, and that he keeps getting better and better.

Eddie Dunford, the main protagonist, is trying to make his mark as a crime correspondent. A right little prick he is too – using women, ready to cheat and lie and do anything to get ahead. But he is a bit out of his league with all the corruption and craziness going on around him. The story is (deliberately, I think) convoluted and often hard to understand, yet I can see how David Peace can become addictive.

Other male writers recently read: Matt Johnson – The Wicked Game. That too seemed filled with testosterone, hatred, machismo (nothing wrong with that).

tasteslikefearSarah Hilary: Tastes Like Fear

Sarah Hilary is fast becoming one of the most promising of new crime fiction writers (alongside other recent favourites like Mari Hannah, Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez). This is her third and perhaps most accomplished book to date. Everything just seems to come together in this one: perfectly-pitched plotting with alternating storylines (a device which has recently become so commonplace that it almost jars, but in this case it worked perfectly), atmospheric descriptions of a corner of London full of social contrasts, great observational skills and social commentary, occasional glimpses into the personal life of Marnie and Noah, the two main investigators, plus well-rounded characters, none of whom conforms to stereotype. I love the way Sarah Hilary takes topical subjects and makes you question every assumption or preconception you might have had.

This time the topic is about runaway teenagers and homelessness, vulnerability and visibility, anger and the need to feel loved/protected. Plus, what a great backdrop Battersea Power Station makes! (Oh, and Noah’s migraine suffering? Spot on, thanks for trying to explain to the rest of the world just how debilitating such an attack can be!)

whenshewasbadTammy Cohen: When She Was Bad

Many years ago, Anne Cater, American child psychologist, had to assess the impact of neglect and abuse on two small children in a horrific and notorious case which proved the making of the career of two of her (male) colleagues. Anne refused to go along with the consensus view and it seems she is now proved right, as one of the children went on to commit a horrifying deed in the UK in the present day. Just what it is and who it is – well, Tammy Cohen is teases us with the two strands of the story until the very end. This is one of those cases when the alternating between the two stories felt a little manipulative and intrusive (although they are both cracking stories in themselves).

The second strand is set in a workplace that will sound familiar to many. Kudos to the author for portraying so faithfully a place where targets, egos, ambitions, rivalries all are ripe fodder for resentment and murderous intent. A new boss soon creates a toxic atmosphere in a team in a recruitment consultancy. As distrust rises and tempers flare, matters are not improved by off-site bonding events (ah, yes, those dreaded things!). I have always wondered why there aren’t more novels set in the workplace, where we spend most of our lives, after all. But then I realised that it felt almost too familiar, it made me cringe with recognition – so perhaps there is not enough of an escapist element there. One small criticism would be that I felt the team members were selected especially to cover all bases (which is not the case in many workplaces, where there is a bit of clone effect in hiring): the gay man, the young ambitious guy, the stressed mother, the middle-aged woman cruising to retirement etc.

The other female writer was C.L. Taylor: The Missing, which I will review on CFL. The subject is very clearly domestic: the impact of a teenager’s disappearance on his family.

Now, when I talk about gender differences, I am not saying that the last two writers are ‘just’ women or treat ‘smaller’ subjects, but they do seem to have a more personal, immediate approach. Or perhaps I respond differently to them because I am a woman myself. Marnie and Anne are crusaders for truth just as much as Eddie in 1974, but there is less self-serving career advancement in their quest for justice, much more genuine concern for other people.

Highlights from Quais du Polar 2016: Part 3

As promised, the final instalment of this year’s edition of the Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon will include some quotes and discussions from the panels I attended. This year, there is also a fabulous innovation: you can find podcasts of practically ALL the debates on this link. Most of them are in French or English or a mix of the two, but there will be occasional Spanish or Icelandic. So you too can listen to all these great events now! [Have I told you how much I love the organisers of this festival?]

  1. Cityscapes in Crime Fiction: Richard Price (NY), Michèle Rowe (Cape Town), Donato Carrisi (Rome), Carlos Zanón (Barcelona), Walter Lucius (Amsterdam)

 

Michele Rowe, author of What Hidden Lies, winner of the Debut Dagger Award in 2011.
Michele Rowe, author of What Hidden Lies, winner of the Debut Dagger Award in 2011.

MR: Cape Town is still a very wild place, dominated by nature and geography. It has seven microclimates from one end of the city to another, it is heavily dependent on weather, and I love describing how the politics of inclusion/exclusion has been partly created by its geography. For example, townships in beautiful areas were eradicated, handed over to the wealthy, and its inhabitants were dumped elsewhere. My husband calls the city ‘crime with a view’. But in fact, the whole country of South Africa is built on crime, looting, pillaging throughout history. Crime is perhaps the only possible narrative. And yet I meet fantastic people, living in very difficult circumstances with great courage and hope, despite the corrupt government, and that makes me dream that things will still work out in the end despite the odds.

Richard Price.
Richard Price.

RP: New York City is all about the violence of real estate. Like water, real estate rises to the top and people get washed away, and places like Harlem have succumbed to greed and are catering only to people who have money. The biggest crime fighter in the city is the crane, but gentrification is like sweeping with a broom but no dustpan. The town centre may be safer, but it just spreads crime and violence further afield. The crooks are not the pickpockets, but the developers in their $4000 suits.

CZ: My latest book ‘I Was Johnny Thunder’ is about a failed musician, who goes back home to live with his father, although he is middle-aged. But what I wanted to show is that the people around him, who played by the rules and believed in economic boom, haven’t really succeeded either. Your neighbourhood can become a prison, because it really marks your identity, but you also have the choice to leave. Sometimes.

From left to right: Donato Carrisi, interpreter, Carlos Zanon, Walter Lucius.
From left to right: Donato Carrisi, interpreter, Carlos Zanon, Walter Lucius.

WL: Amsterdam was a mess 30 years ago. It had a huge crime rate, red light district, junkies, but it also had a genuine sense of community and felt authentic. Now all that has disappeared, it has been sanitized and has become like an open-air museum for tourists. The real old Amsterdam doesn’t exist anymore. I write about immigrants in my books, because I feel that the Dutch don’t really accept that we have become a multicultural society.

DC: Although Rome houses the Vatican City, it is not a sacred city like Jerusalem or Mecca. Rome has multiple souls, including a wicked one. In fact, it is a world headquarters for Satanists – although they may be very different, much more subtle, than the clichés you may have about them. The world’s biggest criminal archives are in the Vatican, because it contains all the sins which people have confessed to their priests. The priests could not absolve them directly, so they sent them to Rome, where they were carefully catalogued. Today, there are profilers helping the police, based on their intimate knowledge of sins and what drives people to commit crimes.

2. Femmes fatalesPhilippe Jaenada (France), Jax Miller, Sara Gran (US), LS Hilton (UK), Dolores Redondo (Spain)

With the exception of L.S. Hilton, who tries to present the POV of a real femme fatale in her book ‘Maestra’, the other panelists were somewhat offended that they were asked to talk about this topic and that the panel was almost entirely female. However, they did their best to say something insightful about this.

From left to right: Gran, Hilton, Redondo struggling with the earphones and the subject.
From left to right: Gran, Hilton, Redondo struggling with the earphones and the subject.

SG: I just write about a female subject, rather than a female object. I write about a human being, so I don’t think at all about stereotypes. The femme fatale is the eternal object of desire, so she has to be distant, she can never be fully rounded.

LSH: I try to describe the POV of the object of desire. She plays around with the codes and deliberately turns herself into an object, but doesn’t end up getting punished. I get a little tired about being asked if I wanted to write a feminist heroine.

Jax Miller at the book signing.
Jax Miller at the book signing.

JM: My protagonist simply refuses to be a victim. She may be flawed, a killer, a drug addict, but she is above all a mother and doesn’t care about her appearance.

DR: I hate that women in noir seem to be reduced to one of three roles: victim, prostitute or traitor. I wanted to write about this very strong community of women I have known in the Baztan valley, who have taken over the household when their men went abroad to work, a real matriarchy.

PJ: I wrote about a real-life criminal, Pauline Dubuisson, who was accused in the 1953 of killing her unfaithful lover in cold blood. She was presented as a femme fatale, but in actual fact she was ‘fatalised’ by society, the last victim of patriarchy perhaps. She was always described as beautiful, but also a slut, but in fact she was just a normal-looking person, who wanted to finish her studies before getting married. She was judged by a jury composed almost entirely of men, and it was probably the one woman on the jury who saved her from the guillotine.

3. Recurring Heroes: British Classics : Sophie Hannah (Poirot), Anthony Horowitz (Bond and Sherlock Holmes), Michel Moatti (Jack the Ripper), Cecil & Brunschwig (Holmes in BD), John Lawton (Cold War spies, à la John Le Carré)

SH: I’ve loved Agatha Christie since I was 12 and always thought she was a genius, but was fully aware I wasn’t like her and couldn’t write like her. So I created the character Catchpool to explain why there would be a slightly different style of presenting Poirot. But I most certainly wanted to respect the rules of the universe I was writing in. The next Poirot novel is called ‘Closed Casket’ and will be out later this year.

HannahHorow
Sophie Hannah and Anthony Horowitz discussing Christie, Bond and Holmes.

AH: I was initially suspicious about accepting to continue the Sherlock Holmes cannon – was it all about the money? But of course it was also a childhood dream come true, because I received the complete Holmes as a birthday present when I was 17 and that’s what made me write crime fiction thereafter. I’d also dreamt of writing a Bond film, but kept getting turned down, which is why I had to invent Alex Rider. Of course, the attitudes of Bond – who hates women, gays and foreigners and kills all of the above – is not acceptable to us today, so I had to give it an ironic nudge.

JL: I came late to Christie, and still haven’t read any Sherlock Holmes, I have to admit. I did rather like Fleming, but also Sayers and Allingham, so I wanted to create the amateur cop but update him within the Cold War context, hence my creation of Frederick Troy.

Cecil: Our inspiration was Arsene Lupin, who has one volume dedicated to his arch-enemy, Herlock Sholmes. We like to stay within the Sherlock Holmes cannon, but exploit the gaps and push the envelope a bit, for instance, we suggest that Moriarty didn’t really exist, that he was just a figment of Holmes’ imagination (his tortured self, perhaps).

At this point I realise that this post is getting terribly long and I still have three debates to summarise, so I will leave the rest for tomorrow. Expect a Part 4 therefore!

 

Highlights of QDP 2016: Part 2

Totalachats2016

I think this picture speaks for itself: a whole coffee table full of new books. I’ve been on a terrible crime spree and my only excuse is that I will be moving soon from France, so it was my last chance to get French books and have things signed in Lyon. Actually, speaking of moving reminds me of one good reason why I should have been more moderate in my purchases…

Anyway, no time for regrets (not that I have any). In fact, I was planning to buy more, but the lack of availability of certain titles in English or certain authors who could sign the books meant that I had to scale down.

And, as I said on Twitter, at least it proves that as long as there are people like me in the world, crime writers will not starve!

From left to right, top to bottom, here we go:

  1. Jo Nesbø: Blood on Snow – I haven’t read the last few Nesbøs; he’s a bit hit and miss for me – I love some of his books, while others leave me cold. He was constantly mobbed by admirers, so I barely exchanged two words with him.
  2. Pascal Garnier: Comment va la douleur? – my favourite Garnier to date, I had the English translation at home but not the original in French
  3. Ayerdahl: Tendances – recommended by the hugely knowledgeable booksellers at the Quais when I asked about a novel set in Lyon, the author (French, despite his name) died in Sept. 2015.
  4. Manuel Vázquez Montalban: La Solitude du manager – Spanish classic crime; sadly, many of his books are not available in English (this was a 2nd hand purchase)
  5. Jake Adelstein: Tokyo Vice – had never heard of the author or the book, but we started chatting and of course someone who has lived 20 years as a journalist in Japan has got my full attention. The book was only available in French on the first day, but on the second day the attentive booksellers had got hold of a few English copies, so I couldn’t resist getting it. Doomo arigatoo!
  6. Rachid Santaki: La Légende du 9-3 – if you liked Jérémie Guez or Karim Miské’s portrayal of multicultural Paris, Rachid is in the same vein, 93 being one of the most troubled departements of France (outskirts of Paris).
  7. Sébastien Meier: Le Nom du père – rising star of Swiss crime fiction and practically a neighbour (he lives in Lausanne)
  8. Antonin Varenne: Battues – you never know what to expect with a Varenne book – he never writes twice about the same subject and his range is amazing. After the urban milieu of ‘Bed of Nails’ and historical fiction (19th century and war in Algeria), this is a rural Romeo and Juliet story.
  9. Hervé Le Corre: Après la Guerre – atmospheric story set in 1950s Bordeaux, this won the prize of Quais du Polar in 2014 and will soon be available in English from Maclehose Press.
  10. Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en forêt – the second in a series set in French Guyana, recommended to me by none other than my ‘partner in crime’, Emma from Book Around the Corner, who has reviewed the first in the series.
  11. Joseph Incardona: Permis C – I thought I was safe from buying anything by him, because I had his latest book, but I’ve met him at several festivals and he knows my by name. So when he produced a small pile of his very latest book, which has not yet come out in France, only in Switzerland, how could I resist?
  12. Janis Otsiemi: La Vie est un sale boulot – he was on my list of more diverse writers that I wanted to attempt – life in Libreville, Gabon sounds like it could be challenging and interesting! Besides, I loved his extensive collection of hats!
  13. Christophe Molmy: Les loups blessés – this was an unintentional purchase. I saw the author looking a bit lonely, sitting next to Deon Meyer, who had a huge queue of people to sign for. So I started chatting to him and discovered he still works as a policeman, in fact heads up the Anti-gang squad in Paris, so I asked him several questions pertaining to cross-border crime. After helping me with my novel, it would have been churlish not to buy his own, wouldn’t it?
  14. Naïri Nahapétian: Qui a tué l’ayatollah Kanumi? – another writer on my diversity list, this is an Iranian of Armenian origin who came to France as a child and worked as a journalist reporting on Iran for many years. I have many Iranian friends and want to find out more what lies beneath the easy clichés about that country.
  15. Jax Miller: Freedom’s Child – I’d heard rave reviews about this remarkable debut novel last year, but never got around to reading it. After meeting the larger-than-life Jax Miller at the conference, I was determined to follow her progress with every book (and I’m sure there will be plenty more).
  16. Craig Johnson: Dry Bones – I haven’t read a Walt Longmire book in a while, but I always enjoyed them, and the author of course is an utterly lovely person. I also plan to make some effort to catch the Longmire series on Netflix or somewhere – any ideas?
  17. Frédéric Lenormand: Le Diable s’habille en Voltaire – I saw Lenormand a year or two ago at the Quais, he wasn’t here this year; but a book with Voltaire as a detective, when I live a short walk from his chateau? You bet! (2nd hand purchase)
  18. James Oswald: The Damage Done – I never thought I liked supernatural mixed up with my crime, but James has convinced me it works. Besides, we had a lovely chat about farming and cows and sheep (I come from good old farming stock, it’s in my blood)
  19. Patrick Delperdange: Si tous les dieux nous abandonnent – Belgian writer who was recommended to me by a bookseller who heard me asking about Pascal Garnier books. ‘If you like Garnier, you will be struck by this book.’ Besides, he had the loveliest idea for signing books: ‘Give me a word and I’ll create a sentence for you.’
  20. Richard Price: The Whites – another outstanding noir author,with a searing (and bleak) vision of New York City, who was mortified when he spelt Sofia wrong in the dedication. As if I would be offended…
  21. Parker Bilal: The Ghost Runner – another cross-cultural adventure, Makana being a Sudanese ex-cop turned PI in Egypt, and giving us a picture of the Middle East in the aftermath of 9/11. Parker Bilal is the crime writing pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub, who writes literary fiction under his real name.
  22. Jean-Claude Izzo: Total Khéops – I adored the Marseille Trilogy by this author, but I borrowed it from the library and wanted to acquire my own copies. My favourite of the three books is Chourmo, but the bookseller couldn’t find it for me so he brought me the first one (2nd hand purchase).
  23. Deon Meyer: Cobra – I’ve only found 2-3 of Meyer’s books at the library here, so I bought one of the books I haven’t got around to reading. I like this ‘not at all breathless’ thriller style and deep characterisation.
  24. Raynal Pellicer/Titwane: Enquêtes générales – fascinating graphic book about real-life cases following a period of immersion with the anti-crime squad in Paris. Useful for my own research about French policing, as well as a work of art.

The pistol-shaped black notebook was a freebie from publishers Folio, containing best quotes from crime fiction. The other black notebook in the bottom right is a Moleskine-type notebook, which I used to scribble my impressions of each panel.

Even my cat is astounded by the amount of books I bought...
Even my cat is astounded by the amount of books I bought…

Right, now time to find some good hiding places for all these books, so that I don’t have to endure sharp criticism about money wasted, lack of space and removal terrors…

Other Quais du Polar 2016 numbers: 80 000 visitors (up 10% from last year), 130 authors of 22 nationalities, 200 events throughout town over this period and 35,000 books sold. (So not every visitor bought 24 books then!). Pretty good going though; I’d love to see the figures for Harrogate or Bloody Scotland.

Four Quick Crime Reads

I read the last four crime books at great speed – almost slurping them in (unlike the much slower reading of the meticulously detailed and long Six Four). Each of them was satisfying in very different ways. Yes, none of them are translations, which is a bit of a shame on a #translationthurs, but they take place in Scotland, Iceland, US and …erm… Hampstead. Does that count?

oswaldJames Oswald: The Damage Done

I normally steer well clear of crime fiction which contains supernatural elements, as I feel it ‘doesn’t play fair’ with the readers and solving the case. But in this case (and it was my first Oswald novel, so I wasn’t sure what to expect), I found it woven in so plausibly and to such chilling effect, that I was won over. My full review is over on Crime Fiction Lover and I’ll be seeing the author in Lyon in April.

frasersampsonGuy Fraser-Sampson: Death in Profile

A quick, easy read for lovers of Golden Age type puzzles, this one is quite openly an homage to Dorothy Sayers and her most famous creation Lord Peter Wimsey. Implausible and oddly ‘outside time’ though this tale is, there is a lot of entertainment value in the sheer audacity of its set-up and fun interaction between its witty (and on the whole very well-behaved) characters, reminiscent of an earlier age. One for puzzle fans, although the author doesn’t play entirely fair at one point. I do love the Hampstead/Belsize Park setting too!

thiniceQuentin Bates: Thin Ice

I think that Bates is developing a Nordic comic noir style all his own, almost lampooning at times the seriousness and gloom that we have started to associate with Scandinavian crime fiction. There are touches of Fargo about the set-up of this latest in this Officer Gunnhildur series, which not only has the delightfully down-to-earth, middle-aged Gunna as the main crimebuster (think an Icelandic equivalent to Catherine in ‘Happy Valley’), but also a motley bunch of rogues and their victims hiding out in a boarded-up hotel in the middle of nowhere. A really fun read – for my in-depth review see here.

Layout 1Joe Flanagan: Lesser Evils

Europa Editions is better known for its translated literature (some of it dark, but often simply literary), so this is a bit of a departure for them. Flanagan is an American speechwriter and freelance writer and I believe this is his debut novel. It’s a recreation of Cape Cod of the late 1950s and it’s got a great sense of time and place, as far as I can tell, having lived through neither. But this is a trope that is so familiar to us from film depictions of the US during that time that I could almost imagine Burt Lancaster, Glenn Ford or Charlton Heston brooding on by, under hats pulled low over their foreheads and perhaps laying aside their trench-coats for a minute because it’s summer after all.

The book shows us the darker side of the ‘golden years’ of America, with a detective, Bill Warren, who is well ahead of his time in terms of empathy, compassion, sensitivity and integrity. At times, it does feel a little hard to believe that everyone else in the book seems to be so rotten and corrupt, and that he is the single hero in search of justice and the truth. Too much Lone Ranger perhaps, and the undercurrent of Mafia influence and willingness to look away are overdone. Some readers will be repulsed by the child killings, although the scenes are never overly graphic. What kept me reading were the complex characterisations and motivations of many of the characters. All in all, an absorbing story, revealed in a way that felt fresh despite fitting well within the traditional noir canon.

 

 

Police Procedurals in Three Countries

Serial killers of some description or another appeared in each of these three books – a trope which I have slowly grown weary of, but it was handled intelligently in each of the novels below and brought something fresh to the subgenre. However, what I found far more interesting were the obvious differences in approach to investigating a crime, reporting on it and even finding a resolution in the three countries and societies described here. [My own translations unless otherwise marked.]

klausvaterKlaus Vater: Am Abgrund – Berlin 1934

The serial killers here are in power. Berlin after Hitler’s rise to power, during a murky period of German history, when the SS and the SA (both Nazi supporters) are fighting for power between themselves, and the police is losing authority daily and its right pursue criminals according to legislation. During the construction of a tunnel for the S-Bahn in Berlin, an explosion kills several of the construction workers. A ‘non-aryan’ carpenter Leiblein is accused of provoking the explosion and is arrested. Hermann Kappe is a Kommissar with a lot of heart and ethical principles, and he soon realises that Leiblein is being made a scapegoat for a matter which the various political factions would like to see buried. As the lines between right and wrong, truth and cover-up, become increasingly blurred, it becomes clear that the power of the fist (or weapons) triumph over the power of law. In fact, law itself is being subverted by a new political regime keen to rid itself of any opposition. Kappe has many moments when he fears for himself and his family. He learns to compromise, to find small loopholes in a society which is becoming ever more frightening and inhuman. No happy outcome is possible, only temporary relief and terrifying uncertainty.

Without looking at them, [Kappe’s boss] told them: ‘According to a report from the Reich’s Ministry of Transport, Director Dr. Erich Klausener shot himself in his office earlier today. There is no police confirmation of this. The news came to us via the security services… It’s hard for me to believe them. Gentlemen, it’s clear to me that there is an entirely different tune being played here. The Führer is clearing out anyone who stands in his way: Klausener, von Schlicher and his wife, … and many more. I don’t know what to do anymore.

They waited for him to say something more. But he didn’t. Then he told them: ‘You can go now.’

sixfourHideo Yokoyama: Six Four (translated by Jonathan Lloyd-Davies)

In Japan, the police seems to be as much of an administrative morass as the great corporates. Officers are rotated between departments every few years, and Superintendent Yoshinobu Mikami finds himself moved from Criminal Investigations (specifically: murder) to Press Director in the Administrative Affairs department. Even worse, when he tries to create a more collaborative relationship with journalists, his efforts are thwarted by his superiors and decisions about what to reveal and what to hide are made above his head for reasons which are not even explained to him. The amount of political manoeuvring and the social nuances which need to be taken into account make the Japanese police force seem labyrinthine in comparison to its Western counterparts. Everything seems to be about preserving the reputation of the police and getting promoted.

Captain Tsujiuchi is on his ‘tour of duty’ from Tokyo in the prefectural HQ where Mikami works, but he has no real power. He isolates himself in his office and is kept far from any real problems by Mikami’s fellow officers.

The Prefecture D Police had been diligent in their cultivation of the man’s near-divine status. They reported favourable information and insulated him from everything that wasn’t good news. They devoted themselves to ensuring that his time in the Prefectural HQ was spent in comfort. He was kept free from germs, sheltered from the troubles and worries of the local police, treated instead like a guest at a spa, and when he returned to Tokyo it would be with pockets full of expensive gifts from local companies. I enjoyed my time here, surrounded by the warmth of the local community and the officers serving it. They would feel relief as he recited the formulaic words during his departing speech, then, hardly leaving time for them to gather breath, they would begin to gather information on the personality and interests of the incoming captain.

tempsglacFred Vargas: Temps Glaciaires

And then we come to France, itself no stranger to the stranglehold of bureaucracy.  However, as in all countries with a Latin influence, rules are made to be broken or reinterpreted, and Comissaire Adamsberg pushes the boundaries of what is permissible more than most. At a certain point, he is in a rush to get to a certain place in the countryside and is pulled over by the traffic police. He tries to explain that it’s an emergency, but the two gendarmes (a different branch of the police than the detectives, and suffering a bit of a chip on their shoulder from being regarded as inferior) seem to take great pleasure in throwing the rule book at him:

‘I forgot to put my beacon on. I’ll come tomorrow and we’ll sort all that out…’
‘Ah, no, not tomorrow. First of all, because it’s Sunday, and secondly, because it will be too late.’
‘Too late for what?’
‘For testing your alcohol levels…’
‘I repeat: it was an emergency.’
‘Sorry, sir, your trajectory was a bit uncertain in the curves.’
‘I was just driving fast, that’s all. Emergency, how many more times do I need to say it?’
‘Blow here, Commissaire.’

In this book, Adamsberg relies so much on his legendary intuition and continues to pursue a line of enquiry regarded as tenuous by Danglard and some others in his team, that he is almost faced with a mutiny. When he insists on going to Iceland to pursue some leads, his team is divided between those sceptical but loyal to their boss, and those who openly disagree with him. Yet Adamsberg does not pull rank on them and punish the disbelievers: his is a democratic approach, even when he is at the receiving end of distrust. He can even forgive serious mistakes, as one team member discloses rather more than they should have to a suspect. But he does make sure that they realise their mistake and never repeat them.

I have to remind you all that no private information about any of our team members should be given out to a stranger. Not even if he has gone for a piss or to feed the cat. Not even if the stranger is sympathetic, cooperative or frightened.

So there we have it: three very different approaches to policing, one of them is set in a historical context, three insights into different cultures. The world of Scandinavian, British and American policing, which we are all so familiar with, suddenly seems very much easier, doesn’t it?