Hard-Hitting in All Senses of the Word

Gutsy, forceful, bullish, coming on strong, powerful and convincing are just some of the synonyms one might use for hard-hitting, but in the case of the books below it is also about far too real knocks, punches and wounds.

epiphanyMichael Grothaus: Epiphany Jones

From the very first paragraph, where we appear to be voyeurs in a sex scene involving Audrey Hepburn, we realise this is a book that doesn’t spare your blushes! I’ve written a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but suffice it to say that this really does have it all: difficult topics like abuse and sex-trafficking of minors, graphic violence, two unreliable main protagonists constantly trying to outwit each other (the Epiphany of the title and depressed, hapless Jerry), strong language. The combination might be just too much for some, but it certainly has a unique and consistent voice, which makes the book stand out like a skyscraper in a landscape of terraced houses.

freedomschildJax Miller: Freedom’s Child

Quite a similar topic, in a way: Freedom is a disillusioned, angry woman searching for her daughter, just like Epiphany in the book above. Eccentric characters and violent situations abound, but there is a warmer feel to this novel. We can relate to Freedom and her losses more than we could with Epiphany, even though both of them have a rather elastic approach to legality and hurting others.

Freedom is no saint (she describes herself as murderer, cop killer, fugitive, drunk), but there were good reasons for each of her actions.  I also liked the fact that she is no spring chick with unrealistic expectations or illusions. She has spent the last 18 years living under Witness Protection, and she had to give her two children up for adoption. Now she is trying to find them again, but her quest could endanger all of them.

I loved this feisty debut novel featuring a mother who is prepared to do anything to protect her children (surprisingly rare occurrence in the current ‘girl’ crop of psychological thrillers), but I did have a few minor niggles. For instance, all of the chapters told from Freedom’s point of view start with ‘My name is Freedom and…’. While I can see the reason for this (she is convincing herself of her name, as it’s not the one with which she was born), and it helps to clarify POV, it becomes a little grating and artificial after a while.

As for strong beginnings – well, this novel has one of the most explosive, memorable opening paragraphs you can imagine! Jax Miller has said that she wants to write transgressional fiction of the type ‘created’ by Chuck Palahniuk (although publishers are telling her that no one wants women writers to write in this style!). On the basis of this novel, I’d say she has all that to offer and more!

What-Remains-e1435931110821Tim Weaver: What Remains

I had no idea this was a series about missing persons investigator called David Raker, but it seems to stand just fine on its own. Raker tries to help his friend Colm Healy, formerly one of the Met’s most promising detectives, but now in a sombre downward spiral since he became obsessed with a case he failed to solve a few years back: the murder of a young mother and her twin daughters. When Colm refuses his help and goes missing, Raker takes on the case where his friend left off, and becomes almost equally stubborn about finding out the truth. We flit in and out of vivid descriptions of council estates and family life, never quite sure what is real and what is fantasy. A pier in London’s Docklands (imaginary, but very evocative) becomes a focal point in the investigation.

It’s not the brutality that stands out in this book (although it’s certainly not gentle), but the damaged individuals, many of whom appear to have given up hope. Slightly depressing, but an excellent plot and subtle, well-rounded characterisation.

Olivier Norek: Code 93

dept93’93’ is the prefix for the French department of Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the poorest and most violent suburban ghettos on the outskirts of Paris. This is where the author worked until recently as a police officer and in this, his first novel, he tries to share some of his intimate knowledge of the area with his readers.

The book starts with two really puzzling incidents, which make you want to read on and on. First, in the prologue, a family is called in to the morgue to identify the body of a young drug addict, but they claim not to recognise her (despite the fact that she is indeed their daughter and sister). Why would they do that? Secondly, a corpse is brought into the morgue but revives on the table as they are about to do an autopsy on him. The newspapers are quick to label this ‘the Zombie case’ and when a few more strange incidents crop up in the neighbourhood (including what appears to be spontaneous combustion), the pressure is on for Victor Coste and his team to provide a rational explanation.

code93There is perhaps a tendency to overexplain how the police teams work, but this was very useful information in my case, so I didn’t complain. Above all, the author uses his personal experience of  team motivation and friction to describe the everyday hassles, nuisances and small rewards of police work. The final solution linking all of the cases does not perhaps quite live up to the promise of the beginning, but it’s solid work and I hear that the author is getting better and better (as he leaves the police behind and dedicates himself full-time to writing). I hope this gets translated into English soon – Norek won the prize in Lyon this year and was part of the panel featuring the real ‘hard-hitters’: Nesbo, Deon Meyer, Craig Johnson, Indridason and Sara Gran.

Highlights of QDP 2016: Part 4

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 SeriesOlivier 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.’

Craig Johnson & Indridason chatting before the event.
Craig Johnson & Indridason chatting before the event.

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.

Sara Gran and Deon Meyer
Sara Gran and Deon Meyer

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.

Olivier Norek
Olivier Norek

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.

QP20168About 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 WorldParker Bilal (Egypt/Sudan), Colin Niel (French Guyana), Caryl Ferey (Argentina/Chile), Nairi Nahapetian (Iran), Olivier Truc (Lapland)

From left to right: Colin Niel, Nairi Nahapetian, Caryl Ferey.
From left to right: Colin Niel, Nairi Nahapetian, Caryl Ferey.

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).

Caryl Ferey taking over as moderator.
Caryl Ferey taking over as moderator.

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.

Olivier Truc and Colin Niel (left to right).
Olivier Truc and Colin Niel (left to right).

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.