The pile of books to be reviewed was threatening to fall from my ‘filing cabinet’ (aka armchair), so I am resorting once more to quick video reviews. These all have a rather sombre theme running through them, but are heartily recommended – for when you are of a cheery disposition to handle them. I’ve tried to add a festive mood nevertheless with some tinsel!
Back from Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon and it was once again a wonderful experience, one that I would encourage all my crime fiction friends in the UK to consider. The total cost can work out cheaper than attending British crime festivals, even with a weaker pound: flights to Lyon are often cheaper than train tickets, hotels can be cheaper too, all the events are free, and you need to eat and drink in both places (plus the food in Lyon is usually of excellent quality).
So that’s my contribution to the Lyon Tourist Board. I was very lucky to attend the festival with a book-blogging friend in Lyon, Emma from Book Around the Corner, and her far more timely and excellent descriptions of each day at the Quais du Polar are here, here and here, so I am not sure I can add much more to that. But I did attend some different panels than Emma. Incidentally all the conferences available for replay on live.quaisdupolar.com (mostly in French, but also in English and Spanish, depending on what language the authors were using). I will try to include a link to each specific conference I am discussing.
Clare Mackintosh (UK) and Jenny Rogneby (Sweden) both worked with the police before turning their hand to crime fiction, so they had interesting things to say about the capacity of women to be perpetrators of crime. The other writers on the panel (Andrée Michaud from Canada, Dominique Sylvain and Harold Cobert from France) agreed that they were all tired of seeing women in fiction exclusively as disempowered victims, being raped or murdered or tortured for entertainment purposes. Andrée said that kind of writing smacked of voyeurism and she isn’t sure it serves the purpose of the story. Clare wants to give a voice to the victims, and what happens off the page, what is implied, what we all fear is often scarier than a very graphic scene of actual violence. Jenny pointed out that there is still very often a double standard: that when women commit a crime, they are judged far more harshly, as if it’s more understandable or forgivable or to be expected when men commit a crime. Harold thought (based on the example of his own young son) that all of us are born with a capacity for violence – we all feel like killing certain annoying people, for instance – but we don’t act on it because we learn to put on a thin veneer of civilisation as we grow up. Dominique didn’t quite agree with that; she argued that it’s the survival instinct, when we feel attacked or cornered, which can make even the most placid of us react violently at times. She was fascinated with Clare’s account of drunken Friday nights in city centres in the UK, when women are often more aggressive and resort to physical violence even more readily than the men, and commented: ‘It’s interesting that you don’t see that kind of female behaviour in fiction: you see the manipulative/psychological type of feminine violence.’ Indeed!
A journey from East to West and North to South of Europe: Arnaldur Indriđason (Iceland), Victor del Arbol (Spain), Andriy Kokotukha (Ukraine), Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Olivier Truc (France, but writing about the Reindeer Police in the Arctic Circle).
This was one of those panels where it was very difficult to find a common subject, other than stating that crime fiction is a wonderful way to discover new countries and cultures and that we should enjoy our European diversity without ever taking it for granted. Each author shared a little bit about their specific countries and their experience of ‘occupation’ or ‘oppression’. The most poignant account was of course from the Ukraine, where the ‘Maidan’ (street) movement was not just revolutionary but also a cultural initiative, and the protesters found refuge (and spiritual nourishment) in the Cultural Centre and Library. Yes, even Iceland has known occupation: it only became independent in 1944 and until 2006 had a US military base which practically doubled the population of Reykjavik overnight. They also expressed concern about the recent resurgence of nationalist rhetoric. As Del Arbol said: ‘I thought I was writing about the past – dictatorship, not being able to listen to other points of view, the blaming of others, hatred – but I can see we are in danger of it happening all over again.’
Three male writers – David Young (UK), Ron Rash (US), Caryl Ferey (France) – who have powerful female protagonists in many of their books. Why do they choose to write about women – in either first or third person (and they all agreed that it was much more intimate and difficult to do the first person)? What was fascinating here was the difference in approach: Rash and Ferey talked very much about inspiration, almost divine dictation straight from the source of the story. David Young had a much more down-to-earth, craftsman-like approach.
RR: It’s not that I choose to write women: the story and the characters choose me. When I tried to write one particular story from a man’s perspective, it was as if I was switched onto the wrong frequency, so I had to switch to a woman’s voice and then it all became clear. Besides, women in American fiction often only have power within the family, so I wanted to go beyond the stereotypical. Plus I am such a boring person, I want to write about much more interesting people than myself. Perhaps some other writers – naming no names – should consider doing that too. And I love the challenge of writing about something or someone that I know less – we are all essentially trying to describe what it means to be alive in the world, to be human. After a while, you start to hear the voice so clearly, it’s like being possessed in some ways.
CF: Two women together in a scene are always far more interesting than two men: with two men in a scene in a crime novel, they usually end up fighting or shooting each other, with women it’s a lot more complex. I do admit falling in love with my female character, pathetic though it may sound. And my ideal of manhood is David Bowie, who is that perfect combination of male and female characteristics.
DY: I had a much more cynical reason for using a female heroine: I wanted to write a thriller set in GDR in the 1970s, but that kind of thing usually only appeals to male readers, so I wanted to draw in female readers by creating Karen Müller as the recurring main detective in the series. Plus, it is reflective of East German society at the time: over 90% of women were working, in all sorts of jobs, it was a far more egalitarian society in that respect. I was also lucky that my tutors at City University were women and gave me good feedback if they felt that I was straying too far from a woman’s perspective on things.
This was the first of two panels on Germany: viewed from the inside, by German authors Thomas Willmann, Sebastian Fitzek and Oliver Bottini. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second session on Germany and Berlin seen from the outside by Maxime Gillio and Romain Slocombe (France), Philip Kerr and David Young (UK), but I will be listening to that recording.
Aside from the huge pleasure of hearing German once more, I also appreciated the opportunity to discover some new authors. I had only read Fitzek before, and his fast-paced psycho-thrillers are not necessarily my cup of tea, but I discovered that Bottini has a series featuring an alcoholic woman detective Louise Boni (makes a change from male alcoholics, I suppose). However, the one that captured my imagination was Willmann’s combination of Heimatroman (translated as: sentimental novel set in a traditional regional background) and Western, with a stranger coming to a snowbound village in the Alps, sounded very much like Dürrenmatt’s play about revenge ‘The Visit’ liberally sprinkled with Scandinoir moodiness. It has been filmed in Austria, directed by Andreas Prochaska. The German language trailer is at the end of this blog post.
What all three writers complained about was that German literature tends to be very earnest, full of educational zeal and purpose, so genre literature, whose sole purpose is entertainment, is regarded with suspicion and quite a bit of derision. Fitzek claimed that he doesn’t care what the critics say about him, or what drawer he gets stuck in, as long as he can tell the kind of story he enjoys reading himself. Bottini, however, was more enraged by the lack of consideration given to crime fiction, and said there are no big crime festivals in Germany which could compare to Quais du Polar or English festivals. In spite of all that, German ‘Krimi’ is remarkably healthy and diverse, and it engages with current affairs, examines social problems, provides a kind of X-ray of society.
Although I want to avoid this becoming a roman fleuve, I also want to avoid a massively long post, so I will write separately about the two political panels which I attended, plus the advance screening of the first episode of the new series of Spiral (Engrenages), as well as my book haul and personal encounters.
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?]
- Cityscapes in Crime Fiction: Richard Price (NY), Michèle Rowe (Cape Town), Donato Carrisi (Rome), Carlos Zanón (Barcelona), Walter Lucius (Amsterdam)
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.
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.
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 fatales: Philippe 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.
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.
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.
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!
It’s been a while since I last had the pleasure of interviewing some of my favourite book bloggers about their criminally good reading habits. So it’s doubly delightful to welcome the very well-read and thoughtful Mrs. Peabody to my blog today. Mrs. Peabody is the pseudonym of British academic Katharina Hall, Associate Professor of German at Swansea University and fellow international crime fiction lover. Her blog is a constant source of information and delight. She has also been featured on the Radio 4 series on European fictional detectives ‘Foreign Bodies’ (a series I keep referring to all the time).
Like many fans of the genre, I discovered crime fiction as a teenager through family copies of Agatha Christie novels. I remember loving the clever solutions to The Murder of Dr. Ackroyd, Murder on the Nile and Murder on the Orient Express, and still have a soft spot for her work. Those were followed by an encounter with John D. MacDonald’s macho ‘Travis McGee’ novels, whose more worldly content was an eye-opener, although their gender stereotyping annoyed me even then.
After that, there was a bit of a gap. I studied English and German at university, and spent the first decade of my academic career focusing on ‘high’ literature – although I can see with hindsight that I was often drawn to authors who played with crime conventions, such as Thomas Pynchon and Günter Grass. My friend and former colleague Barbara takes the credit for my full conversion to crime. A few years ago she found a German crime novel at the back of a store cupboard at work, and passed it on to me. It was Self’s Punishment by Bernhard Schlink, author of the international best-seller The Reader, and featured a detective who was a former Nazi. That’s when I started thinking about representations of National Socialism and its post-war legacies in crime fiction, and became properly hooked. I’ve been reading and researching international crime fiction ever since, and set up the ‘Mrs. Peabody Investigates’ blog in 2011.
Are there any particular types of crime fiction or subgenres that you prefer to read and why?
What is the most memorable book you have read recently?
Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, the impressive debut novel of a young Australian author who spent time in Iceland as an exchange student: she describes it as her ‘dark love letter’ to the country. Set in northern Iceland in 1829, it explores the case of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed there for murder. The figure of ‘the murderess’ tells us a lot about the gender, class and power relations of the time, and the picture the author paints of every-day, rural Icelandic life is fascinating. The story, setting and their links to the Icelandic sagas have stayed with me since I finished it a few days ago.
If you had to choose only one series or only one author to take with you to a deserted island, whom would you choose?
Such a difficult choice! At the moment, I think it would be Leif G.W. Persson’s ‘Decline of the Welfare State’ trilogy: Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End (2002), Another Time, Another Life (2003) and Free Falling, as in a Dream (2007; about to be published in the UK). Collectively, these explore Sweden’s big, unsolved crime – the 1986 assassination of prime minister Olof Palme – against the backdrop of twentieth-century Swedish, European and Cold War history, with a cast of beautifully complex characters and highly compelling narratives. They have a wonderful streak of black humour too, which I suspect I’ll need on a deserted island… When I start talking to myself, I can adopt Johansson’s ironic catch-phrase ‘I’m listening…’. Crucially, they’re extremely long and are the kind of novel you could read repeatedly without tiring of them.
What are you looking forward to reading in the near future?
Here’s a small selection of the books I’m keen to read: D.A. Mishani’s Possibility of Violence (the second in the Israeli Avraham series), Natsuo Kirino’s Out (and more Japanese crime fiction by women in general), Jaume Cabré’s Confessions (a Catalan bestseller with elements of crime), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (New Zealand Booker winner drawing on crime conventions), and Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person (a 1970s crime novel by the French 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature winner). I’ve made peace with the fact that there are too many crime novels out there for me to possibly get through. I’ll simply plod on as best I can and enjoy the one I have in front of me in the here and now.
Outside your criminal reading pursuits, what author/series/book/genre do you find yourself regularly recommending to your friends?
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!