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).
How did you get hooked on crime fiction?
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?
I love all kinds of crime, from cosies through to historical crime fiction and noir, but will always favour quality, intelligent crime fiction that’s free from gratuitous/misogynist violence. I have a particular weakness for the following:
a) Scandinavian police procedurals by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden), Jan Costin Wagner (Germany/Finland), Henning Mankell (Sweden), Håkan Nesser (Norway), Leif G.W. Persson (Sweden) and ArnaldurIndriðason (Iceland). And of course TV police dramas such as The Killing. These intelligent, socially-engaged crime narratives have finely drawn protagonists and absorbing plots. I adore them!
b) Off-the-wall hybrid novels that fuse crime genre conventions with those of sci-fi or apocalypse literature, or with literary forms such as satire. Examples include Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Saw (Greece), Hugh Howey’s Wool (USA), Ingrid Noll’s The Pharmacist (Germany), Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman (USA) and Simon Urban’s Plan D (Germany). I love these kinds of crime narratives because they’re hugely original, thought-provoking and enjoyable. They push the boundaries of crime fiction in highly creative ways and show just how flexible the genre can be.
c) Crime narratives featuring strong, interesting female protagonists, such as Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (USA), Elly Griffiths’ ‘Ruth Galloway’ series, Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Denmark), Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (Sweden), M.J. McGrath’s ‘Edie Kiglatuk’ series (UK/Arctic) and Daniel Woodrill’s Winter’s Bone (USA), as well as the TV dramas Cagney and Lacey (USA), The Killing (Norway), Top of the Lake (New Zealand) and Happy Valley (UK). They show women fighting the good fight in an unequal world and celebrate their abilities, courage and determination. What’s not to like?
d) Crime trilogies or quartets, by which I mean a set of three or four novels that create a mind-bogglingly intricate literary universe through their characters, settings and themes (as distinct from longer, more diverse series). I’m thinking here of David Peace’s ‘Yorkshire Noir’ quartet (UK), Leif G.W. Persson’s ‘Decline of the Welfare State’ trilogy (Sweden) and Andrew Taylor’s ‘Roth Trilogy’ (UK). I admire these authors for taking crime fiction to a new level and for providing us with an utterly engrossing reading experience.
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?
At the moment, it’s Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s meticulously researched and highly readable The Spirit Level, which uses data from studies all around the world to show how social equality creates a better society for everyone, using indicators such as health, life expectancy, educational performance, teenage pregnancies and crime. The sections on crime are particularly fascinating: the authors describe social inequality as a form of ‘structural violence’ which in turn breeds actual violence – data shows that homicide rates are consistently higher in unequal countries. The book is hugely pertinent for us all, and should be a compulsory read for every politician!
What an intriguing list of authors, some well-loved by me and some completely new to me (that’s what I love about doing this series – it opens up worlds)! What do you think of Mrs Peabody’s recommendations – which of them have you read and what did you think of them?
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!