I’ve just spent ten minutes writing, erasing and rewriting the first sentence of this review. I still can’t quite make up my mind about this book. There were parts of it which appealed to me: the setting, a few (very few) of the characters (Tamara, Wolf and the lovely elderly couple living opposite them), some passages of great power, anger and insight. But there were downsides too: the graphic violence and descriptions of paedophilia, being in the head of a remorseless criminal, characters you could not really care for (even if you felt sorry for some of them), the deliberate confusion of points of view to make the story more exciting.
It all starts rather too slowly for what then descends into a race against time kind of thriller. We hear a little too much about how Kris lost his job and found his calling in apologising for others. We spend far too long in the company of Tamara and her sister, then watch her and Frauke shopping to cook dinner to cheer up their friend Kris. I’m not sure what we have to gain by getting to know the back story of Wolf’s doomed love affair with a junkie. The back stories of the four friends are too long and irrelevant for what the book turns out to be. The only back story which does count is that of the killer – and that is given to us in dribs and drabs – rightfully so, as it heightens the tension.
The premise of the book is really appealing: these four friends in their late 20s, who thought they’d have made a success of their lives in Berlin by now, decide to start their own company and offer apologies for companies or individuals who have wronged people (unfair dismissal, bullying, etc.). Soon they have a roaring business and a long waiting list. Apparently, people are willing to pay good sums of money to cleanse their conscience. But then they end up in a house to apologise to a woman whom they find murdered and hung on the wall (I told you it was graphic). The murderer (their client) threatens that he will harm their families if they don’t clean up the mess and send him proof of it. And that’s when things derail and they all start behaving irrationally, not to say foolishly.
The motivations are often puerile and random, and there is something of the grotesque about certain situations (the repeated attempts at burying the body, for example, has a farcical quality reminiscent of frenetic silent comedies). Then the tone changes and there is real menace or darkness, as well as frequent moments of sadness and despair. The tone veers too wildly from one to the next, it feels like the author is not quite in control of the narrative voice. Which, of course, isn’t helped by the fact that it also swoops from first to second to third person. Add to that the final bit of clever clogs-iness: the ‘before’ and ‘after’ timeline and lots of foreshadowing and commentary by an omniscient narrator – and you will find me well and truly irked!
So, overall, although it was fun (in a gruesome, reading-through-your-fingers kind of way), it was not the most memorable of reading experiences for #GermanLitMonth. I have bought his second novel Du (You) though, which is written entirely in the second person, because I have every confidence in the opinions of FictionFan and Margot Kinberg.
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.
2015 is not over yet, so there’s still time to take a little control of my reading. It’s been a reasonably good year, and I’ve felt far less of a pressure to be ‘up-to-date’ with my reading and reviewing than in previous years. [Where did that come from? I think social media may have played a part, as I never used to care about the latest launches before.]
Anyway, I have managed to stick by and large to my resolution to be less ‘greedy’ and to allow myself to be guided by my own tastes and nothing else. I’ve surpassed my target of 120 books on Goodreads (136 and counting, so likely to hit 150 by the end of the year) and only a small number of those have been ‘unsolicited’ books for reviewing purposes. [Fortunately, I’ve learnt to turn down books I don’t fancy, so I seldom feel horribly frustrated at having to come up with something about a book I was indifferent about.]
So I’ve had fun and broadened my horizons. But… you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you?… I still struggle with a toppling TBR pile (both physical and electronic). Something needs to be done about it.
Fortunately, there are a couple of months left to make a small dent in my TBR skyscraper.
November will be German Lit Month, an initiative hosted by Caroline and Lizzy (now in its 5th year, if I’m not mistaken). I plan to read 1 Swiss, 2 Austrian and 3 German books, all with a noirish feel.
First up, Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s follow-up Bärlach novel Der Verdacht (Suspicion but a.k.a. The Quarry in English). I loved The Judge and His Hangman: these are philosophical crime novels, although Dürrenmatt himself thought of them as potboilers.
A new name to me from Pushkin Vertigo. Alexander Lernet-Holenia: I Was Jack Mortimer (transl. Ignat Avsey), first published in 1933.
Stefan Zweig. I have a copy of Meisternovellen (collected novellas), but I haven’t quite decided which ones I will read – or if I can read all of them. This volume includes the Chess novella, 24 Hours in the Life of a Woman, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Burning Secret, Confusion of Feelings, so pretty much all of the shorter pieces for which he is famous.
The final three are all crime fiction: Jakob Arjouni’s 3rd Kayankaya novel Ein Mann, ein Mord (One Man, One Murder) and 2 volumes of the Es geschah in Berlin (It happened in Berlin) series 1934 and 1938. No thanks to Mrs. Peabody for making me buy the last two!
December will be my Netgalley catch-up month, as I now have 35 titles on my bookshelf. I do want to read them all, so it’s not like my eyes were larger than my tummy. Here are the ones that attract me at the moment (although this may change by December): Yasmina Khadra’s The Dictator’s Last Night; Lauren Groff: Fates and Furies; Saul Black: The Killing Lessons; S.K. Tremayne: The Ice Twins; Sarah Jasmon: The Summer of Secrets and something completely out of my comfort zone, Massimo Marino’s Daimones Trilogy (Book 1). I know Massimo as a fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group – he is a former high energy physicist who has turned to writing ‘science fiction with heart and soul’.
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!