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)
Kate has another challenge for us in linking books starting from Lincoln in the Bardo this month in Six Degrees of Separation. I haven’t read the book by George Saunders yet, but I do have it lined up somewhere in the cloud waiting for my new Kindle to arrive. (Yes, I can’t find my previous one, so had to give in and order a new one)
The book famously deals with American president Abraham Lincoln and his grief at losing his son. Another American almost-president who lost a son is Alexander Hamilton and I’ve been relishing the book about the making of the stage show Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda. (Congratulations, Lin-Manuel on the birth of your second child a couple of days ago!)
The degree to which Hamilton is viewed with envy by Aaron Burr and the way the story is narrated reminded me very much of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, where Salieri also grumbles and can’t quite believe that God wasted all his gifts on such an unworthy recipient (to his mind), yet finally realises his own mediocrity.
There are plenty of books with musical connections, but one which particularly stuck with me in recent years was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, showing three key moments in the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovich, his fear of the Soviet regime and his giving in to it (but forever haunted by that).
Of course, the book about censorship and destruction of culture is Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which terrified me when I first read it as a child. Perhaps because I was living in conditions which reminded me a bit of those extremes. Ah, those photocopied forbidden books, and badly dubbed bootlegged copies of forbidden films!
Thirteen Hours by Deon Meyer also has a number in its title and is a tense thriller set in one of my favourite places on earth, Cape Town, and one of my favourite scruffy but reliable detectives, Benny Griessel. Not perhaps a glowing advertisement for visiting South Africa (as a young American tourist is hunted through the streets of the city), but a great sense of atmosphere.
For my final link, I will stick to another South African writer who I think deserves to be far, far better known, but whose downfall is perhaps that she writes across all genres. Lauren Beukes is one of the most creative minds in modern fiction and has achieved some recognition for The Shining Girls about a time-travelling serial killer (now that I’ve read Hawksmoor, it reminds me a little of that). But I would like to link here an earlier book of hers, Moxyland, a political thriller about race, discrimination and being controlled by technology.
So from 19th and 18th century America to Vienna to the Soviet Union and South Africa, as well as a couple of dystopian unnamed societies. Where will your bookish travels take you this month?
This is the second part of the summary of panel debates which I attended, and also the final part of the Quais du Polar 2016 posts. You will be relieved to hear that, no doubt, but I really have saved the best till last. You can also listen to all of the panel discussions (in French and English) via this link. You can also read some more scoops about all of these authors on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
Writing Series: Olivier Norek (winner of this year’s QdP prize with Victor Coste), Arnaldur Indridason (Inspector Erlendur), Jo Nesbo (Harry Hole), Sara Gran (Claire DeWitt), Deon Meyer (Benny Griessel), Craig Johnson.
This was in many ways billed as the ‘Dream Panel’, with all the star names of internatonal crime fiction, but in actual fact it was disappointing, because there were too many panellists, there was not enough time to go into any depth and it was a bit of a PR exercise for some of them. The panel was split between those who had always intended to write a series (Sara Gran, Olivier Norek) and those who had started out with just one book (Indridadur, Nesbo, Craig Johnson) or even with a different character (Deon Meyer). Here are the more amusing or memorable quotes:
JN: I chose the name Harry Hole because that was the person that my mother used to scare us with if we weren’t home by 8. Many years later, I did meet the Hole she was referring to, and he was scary even though he was very old by then. As I shook hands with him, I kept saying: ‘But it’s not 8 o’clock yet.’
CJ: I created this overweight, overage, overdepressed character – just like all of us here – well, except for those skinny ones at the other end. He’s not an alcoholic – yes, he drinks a lot of beer, but it’s such bad beer that you can’t get drunk on it, you just get fat. And the way I keep him from aging too quickly is that each book is set in a different season of the same year, so he ages four times as slowly as me…
AI: Erlendur is a bit of a strange name in Iceland, and that was deliberate, because I wanted him to feel foreign, alien, out of time and place. There is an advantage to having Iceland as a background – we have long, dark winters and short, cold summers, and a murder every two years, so I had to get Erlendur to reopen a lot of cold cases. Of course he is depressed and haunted – happy people have no history, it would be the end of the story for writers.
DM: I was adamant I did not want a series with the same guy being put through hell in every book, but Benny just insinuated himself back into the story. So sure was I he was only going to appear in one chapter, that I made him drunk in the first book and then had to work with that cliche. But I don’t want to take him too much out of Cape Town – he shares all my passion for that most beautiful city in the world.
SG: I wish I could claim great foresight and cleverness in choosing Claire DeWitt’s name, but it only occurred to me much later that Clarity and Wit or Wisdom are the paths she seeks in life and detection.
ON: Victor is the name of my younger brother, and my character is morose because he is like a sponge absorbing all the dark atmosphere of his experience with criminals. I was exactly like that when I was a police officer, working in Dept. 93, which is the most notorious in France, with twenty times the crime rates of other places. Yet at the same time it’s a lab of creativity – the birthplace of French rap, streetdance and graffiti art.
An Hour with David Peace
This was the best session I attended: perhaps because it gave us the opportunity to explore things in more depth, but no doubt also because he is such a thoughtful and modest author, focusing far more on the work itself than on his own person. Here are just a few of the interesting things he said:
About reading aloud as part of the writing process:
Yes, I always do that eventually. In the case of ‘Red or Dead’, I was also fortunate enough to have tapes of Bill Shankly speaking, which his ghostwriter lent to me, so that enabled me to get a feel for his rhythm of speaking and thinking. But I also wanted to use repetition and ritual to show how he made the team effective, through constant daily effort and training every day. Besides, I want readers to read with their whole bodies, not just their head, so I try to make it a living experience for them, to make them feel they are part of the text.
About always writing about losers and underdogs:
I suppose I do, retrospectively one might say I’ve written nine books about failure. But that’s because I believe that a team learns more in a defeat than in a victory, and I try to understand who we are as human beings in my books, and for most of us it’s a history of defeat, loss and failure.
About writing social commentary:
I see more of what I do as painting portraits of a certain time and place. I don’t differentiate that much between fiction and non-fiction – you can never get away from the subjective, history is dishonest if it presents itself as objective and true. There are always multiple narratives, and I try to reclaim those stories that often get lost. I find John Dos Passos a great inspiration for recreating living history, and White Jazz by James Ellroy also succeeds in doing that – it’s one of my favourite novels and I dream someday of writing something that is half as good as it. Crime is interesting because of what is says about the society and time in which it took place. I have no interest in serial killers – he is the least interesting aspect of a story, I am more interested in how the victims became victims, how the deaths and fear affects people and the investigators.
About his political beliefs:
I don’t think anybody is interested in that. [Upon being told they are] I feel like a taxi driver sounding off about things… Yes, I am a socialist as part of my DNA. I just believe that everybody is equal, a very simplistic view of socialism, and we should all behave as such. We just choose not to do it. The working class community I come from, built around certain industries, no longer exists. I don’t intend to show a nostalgic picture of it – there was plenty wrong with it too – but I think people nowadays are yearning for a return to basic decency.
Old World, New World: Parker Bilal (Egypt/Sudan), Colin Niel (French Guyana), Caryl Ferey (Argentina/Chile), Nairi Nahapetian (Iran), Olivier Truc (Lapland)
The panel moderator was late for this session, so Caryl jumped in and pretended to replace him. This was a very good-humoured and fun panel, perhaps because most of them knew each other and everybody spoke French (including the very cosmopolitan Parker Bilal).
PB: Makana is a Sudanese exiled in Cairo and that POV of an outsider is very useful. I try to paint a picture of the region and look at the roots of the Islamic crisis we see nowadays.
CF: I am largely self-taught, never listened to much in school, so I have to really read up on things once I decide upon a country to set my novels in [he has set books in NZ, South Africa, Argentina and now Chile.] I love to read those things that no one else bothers about: Ph. D. theses, geographical and historical texts, and then go and visit those countries and be able to ask better question.
NN: I came to France as a child, but after 15 years I was allowed back into Iran and started doing factual reports on it (as a journalist). But I found myself veering more and more into fiction – especially once I was no longer allowed back into the country. I try to combine the Persian style of storytelling with about 1% of facts – the opposite of journalism, which is about the maximum of facts. Of course, in Iran there is the ‘moral police’ in addition to the normal police, and I try to describe daily life, far removed from the image you get of the country from the Western media.
OT: I’ve always been attracted to meeting people and having in-depth conversations, but my editor would never agree to my immersing myself in the field for 6 months. Luckily, I had the opportunity to do some documentaries about the Sami people and about the reindeer police. Fiction appeals far more to emotions than reason. It’s not truth itself which is important, but the texture of reality. You have to use the facts in service to your story.
CN: I worked for many years in French Guyana, a fascinating region with many ethnicities, 50% unemployment, booming population growth, cocaine trade constantly recruiting people and refugees from the civil war in Suriname being rejected by most of the country. The French administration refused to call them refugees: they were called people temporarily displaced from Suriname, as if that label made things better. I rely on facts and use a lot of sources other than personal experience, but ultimately it all has to be credible rather than true. We have to feel close to the characters described, even if they are living in very different conditions from us. I really want to present a mosaic of the cultures and characters inhabiting that territory and how much more complex things are than the easy stereotypes we like to use about a country. You might call my technique ‘pointillism’, presenting a gradual portrait of a country, without taking sides or judging or trying to prove something – that’s not the scope of fiction.
I will risk boring you this week with no less than three posts about Quais du Polar in Lyon. I’m afraid that if I were to condense all the news and pictures into just one blog post, it would become an EXTREMELY long one. So, Part 1 will focus on the people I met and pictures I took; Part 2 will be about the embarrassingly high book pile I acquired; Part 3 will be about the panel discussions. If you aren’t interested in any of this, I apologise and invite you back to my blog next week, when normal service will resume. You can also find some snippets of information about authors’ secrets and more pictures on the Crime Fiction Lover website.
This year I fell in love with…
Genial, good-humoured and incredibly productive Craig Johnson, creator of Walt Longmire, who explained what a challenge it was to have enough murders to investigate in the least populated county of the least populated state of the US (Wyoming). Prior to Lyon, he had been in Nantes for a reading and was surprised to find helicopters flying overhead and police in riot gear all around – a far cry from Wyoming, indeed!
Big teddy-bear of a man, Deon Meyer, who is cheery and not at all alcoholic and lonely like Benny Griessel. He got a whole auditorium to practise pronouncing Benny’s surname correctly and explained that he had used the name of his favourite high school teacher (now deceased). Because Benny was only intended to be a small side character initially, he didn’t think it would be a big deal. However, his teacher’s son (who also shares the name) told him recently that he is thankful for that, as it’s a great conversation opener when he picks up bikini-clad beauties on the beaches of Cape Town, who are reading Deon Meyer novels.
Sara Gran, whose Claire DeWitt novels I had only recently discovered, but who came highly recommended by the likes of Stav Sherez and other crime writers whose opinion I trust. Unruly, unusual, feisty and atmospheric, Claire is a restless soul (much like Gran herself) and moves from New Orleans to San Francisco to Las Vegas in her adventures. Sara herself is from Brooklyn, as is…
Jax Miller, whose debut novel I have yet to read but have heard fantastic things about. She was so open, friendly and funny, completely unvarnished in her opinions, but knowing how to make an appearance. I want her as my best friend, Robert de Niro accent and all!
Irish charmer John Connolly, who had been seated somewhat unfortunately right next to JJ Connolly, to confuse the festival-goers even more. Luckily, Michael Connelly wasn’t here this year (he was last year), or it would have been like a quick-fire intelligence test for readers. He kindly forgave me for not having any books (in French) for him to sign, but I hope to see him again at crime festivals in the UK, when I can get a book in English.
David Peace looked like a kindly uncle, slightly bewildered by all the fuss people made of him, and certainly far too gentle-looking to be writing the bleak, trenchant prose of the Red Riding Quartet. But then he got up on stage and read from ‘Red or Dead’, his latest book, about Bill Shankly, the manager who brought F.C. Liverpool out of obscurity to Premier League and European glory. And his rendering of the repetitions and cadences were sheer poetry, with a lovely Yorkshire accent, which he hasn’t lost even after so many years of living in Japan. The backdrop of the Trinity chapel of the Lycée Ampère was perfect for the reading: both red and for the dead.
Sophie Hannah was great fun, never one to mince her words, and very serious about her Agatha Christie endeavours and efforts not to step out of the cannon. I was also startled (and flattered) that she actually knew me by name. Of course, we have interacted on Twitter, but I imagine she has had many such interactions with readers and reviewers, so I was expecting nothing more than a polite nod rather than a cheery hug.
Leye Adenle from Nigeria and Janis Otsiemi from Gabon, perhaps the two best-looking and best-dressed crime authors of the whole Quais du Polar. I must have been so dazzled that I was stupid enough to forget to ask to take a picture of either of them!
Anthony Horowitz, my older son’s favourite writer, wrote him a lovely message in the book he had given me to sign, and was very kind about my rather disastrous initial attempts at taking a picture of him. Recognising my son’s Greek name, he then told me that he spends half the year in Greece, about an hour away from where my son’s godparents live.
Other moments to treasure: thoughtful and friendly encounters with French writers such as Franck Bouysse, Colin Niel, Nairi Nahapetian, the effervescent Caryl Ferey. Trying to find a mix of Italian and Spanish in the recess of my memory to communicate with Dolores Redondo (another wonderful hug which I shall remember). The new South African revelation Michele Rowe (what a gracious and funny lady). Talking about Japanese cults and yakuza with Jake Adelstein (former Yomiuri Shinbun reporter in Tokyo). Asking for (and receiving) a flattering portrait of myself from BD artist Titwane.
It’s unfair to select just these authors, as practically everyone else we met were delightful and fun. And then, of course, there was the wonderful city of Lyon itself, meeting two of my favourite bloggers, Emma and Catherine, and chatting about our favourite topic (you can guess what that is, right?) and even some cars fit for James Bond. Here’s a little selection of pictures.
Today I’ve invited Friederike Schmöe, one of my oldest friends on Twitter, in the hot seat to answer questions about her life of crime. I got to know Friederike in my professional capacity first, as she is a university lecturer and linguist interested in cross-cultural adventures, but then I discovered her crime novels and I’ve been a fan ever since.
She’s written 12 novels featuring gentle yet stubborn academic Katinka Palfy from the University of Bamberg, and 7 featuring feisty ghostwriter Kea Laverde from Munich, as well as several standalones (including a couple for young adults). Despite her productivity and longevity in the German crime fiction landscape, her work has sadly not been translated into English yet. If there are any publishers or translators listening out there, you are really missing out! The world needs more independent, no-nonsense detecting heroines like Kea and Katinka.
Friederike blogs in German but can be found tweeting in both English and German under the handle @123writer.
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
I’ve been reading detective fiction ever since I was able to read. As a child I was captivated by unsolved riddles. The older I get, the more I feel that crime fiction reflects the distortions in our world. People aren’t saints and everyone makes mistakes or becomes guilty somehow, even though his or her intentions may be honest. In some cases, these distortions end up in tragedy and disaster. This is reality – mirrored in crime fiction.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
I have a crush on Nordic crime fiction. I love the sound in Scandinavian literature. Don’t know where that soundtrack comes from – maybe it is induced by the overwhelming landscapes up there? Generally I browse the book stores for novels that take me to interesting places I haven’t been to yet, anywhere in the world. I don’t like serial killers and graphic slaughter scenes very much: all those paranoid murderers are overrated in my opinion. I adore stories where ordinary people get involved in something. I also want to laugh from time to time. That’s why I like to choose books with quirky, witty characters. And I appreciate real characters with a background, doubts, hopes, desperation, dreams, humour, not just the usual love affairs and burnout crises.
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?
Hard to pick just one out of so many good ones I’ve devoured lately … Well, let me name Gisa Klönne and her sequel about Hauptkommissarin Judith Krieger, a tough, cool detective chief inspector with pronounced views about life and a deep loneliness in her heart.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
I think I’d take Darja Danzowa, a Russian crime fiction writer. Her humour is just smashing and I might need something to laugh about on that island …
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
I have Deon Meyer’s ‘Seven Days’ on my shelf. I’ve been told he is a gorgeous writer. Plus, the book is set in South Africa, where I’ve never been, so it will be a kind of holiday for me.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
Biographies, family sagas, short stories, travelogues. I’ve just discovered a most outstanding writer, Nino Haratishvili, who wrote a 1200-page novel about the history of a Georgian family in the 20th century ‘Das achte Leben’ (Eighth Life). Incredibly gripping, though no crime fiction. The genre is not that important to have a thrilling reading experience, as long as you have a book in your hands where you can lose and find yourself in its pages.
Thank you, Friederike, for some very unusual suggestions – hopefully we can find some of them in English, as my Georgian and Russian are non-existent to rusty! If you read German and would like to find out more about Friederike’s books, all of them are available to order online and you can see a list on the author’s website.
For previous participants in the series, just follow this link. If you would like to take part, please let me know via the comments or on Twitter – we always love to hear about other people’s criminal passions!
This is the first South African crime fiction novel that I’ve read, but on the strength of it, it certainly won’t be the last. I have to admit it’s all thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise and her Global Reading Challenge. That is the greatest value of book bloggers and reading challenges – they push you just beyond your normal everyday boundaries. And you discover that in many cases these boundaries were entirely in your own imagination. Why had I never explored South Africa before (although I have a deep affection for the country, having been there several times on business trips)? Because it is so much easier to fall into the familiar authors and patterns of reading, obviously, but perhaps also because I feared that the very real, everyday brutality of South Africa would make its crime fiction unbearable to read.
That is, however, far from the truth. Deon Meyer does not make for comfortable reading, but there are no graphic scenes of torture or gratuitous violence here (unlike some other books I have read recently). Instead, the Afrikaans writer gives us a very perceptive picture of the tensions and contradictions in the South African society, beneath the initial optimism and affirmative action of the Rainbow Nation. His main detective, Benny Griessel, a middle-aged, doting Dad, is an Afrikaaner, but his colleagues are Xhosa, Zulu, English, coloured. They have two cases to solve. The first seems an open and shut case: the murder of a music producer in his own Cape Town home, his drunk wife found passed out next to him with no memory of the previous evening. Griessel, a fellow (recovering) alcoholic, cannot believe that the wife, a formerly successful singer in her own right, could have shot him. But before he can get too deeply involved, he is called to another crime scene. A young American backpacker has been found murdered outside a church, and there soon are indications that a second girl is on the run for her life. Traumatised by what she has witnessed, she dares not trust anyone, least of all the police. While dodging the ruthless pack of men pursuing her, she manages to place a call to her father back in the States. And so the American Consulate and local politicians put pressure on the police to find the missing girl, although no one knows why she is being hunted down with such ferocity.
Although this book (and Deon Meyer more generally) is being touted as an edge-of-the-seat suspense writer in the Harlan Coben, Lee Child and Simon Kernick, I actually found Meyer’s style more relaxed. It’s not that there isn’t enough exciting action throughout the book, but there is also plenty of breathing space. The pacing is such that we have time to meditate on corruption and justice, to find out more about Griessel’s family situation and to discover Afrikaans music. The social commentary is ever-present, yet never overdone, never slowing down the action. And I admit I am biased: Cape Town is one of my favourite cities in the world, but I loved the atmospheric recreation of its different neighbourhoods and felt I was running alongside the girl up the steep slope of Lion’s Head.
What a great introduction to South Africa – if you are going there for a visit, this book will probably tell you more than most guidebooks, as well as being far more exciting and enjoyable.