I’m always a few days late to the monthly Six Degrees of Separation meme hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and My Best – it’s the fun bookish linking game, and this month we are starting with Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, an exploration of life lived in the social media age. I don’t think I’d be very interested in reading this, but I remember it came out at roughly the same time as another book written by a young American author on the same topic, Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts, which I haven’t read either. That’s perhaps why I struggle to tell them apart, so Oyler’s book was the obvious first choice in my set of links.
‘Fake’ is what connects this to my next book, Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Ground.It is the second in her riveting anti-hero Ripley series, and this time Ripley is involved in an art fraud rather than identity theft. Of course, he is perfectly to commit a few murders along the way to keep his involvement in the fraud a secret and his hard-won reputation safe.
From a book by Patricia Highsmith, to a book in which she plays the starring role, namely Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer. This is a work of fiction rather than a biography, but the author has done meticulous research and ends up producing an affectionate, but disturbing portrait of the famous writer.
Jill Dawson was originally a poet before she ventured into novel-writing, and there seems to be quite a trend for crime writers to also have a poetic sideline (or at least to have started out in poetry). Another famous example of that is Sophie Hannah and I am picking her most recent book in which she continues the Hercule Poirot legacy, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill.
With his monocle, hat, gloves and impeccable moustache, Hercule Poirot reminds me of Arsène Lupin by Maurice Leblanc, although I am sure the Belgian detective would shudder to be compared to the French gentleman thief and master of disguises.
Although Emile Gaboriau is generally credited as being the first French crime writer, Maurice Leblanc is certainly among the first wave and achieved huge success with his literary creation. I was trying to find an equivalent in Romanian literature, but the early writers were either merely imitating imported models, or else considered themselves writers of literary fiction who used murders to make psychological or social and political points. Liviu Rebreanu in the early part of the 20th century was the author most preoccupied with crime, guilt and punishment, and his late novel Both of Them, about a double murder in the provincial town of Pitesti, is the one that most closely resembles detective fiction, featuring an ambitious young prosecutor investigating the case.
US, England, France and Romania – not quite as frenetic a travel schedule this month as some we have seen in the past. It has also been a rather unintentionally criminal chain! Where will your six links take you?
When I was at secondary school, I used to record myself reading quotes I had to remember or essays I’d written for exam revision. I thought that I had a much better auditive than visual memory – and I still remember people’s voices better than their faces. So I should be the natural audience for audiobooks, right?
The Virtual Crime Book Club read for November is Sophie Hannah’s The Monogram Murders, her first in the series continuing Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories. Since I’m trying not to spend too much money on books and since my library visits are few and far between, I thought I would give it a go as an audiobook. It came free with a trial Audible subscription for a month, and it’s exactly the sort of light-hearted, unchallenging novel that might work well when listened to.
So, perfect material, perfect audience… everything should have gone smoothly, right? It turns out: no. Not quite.
First, the challenge of finding the time to listen to 11 hours and 12 minutes of it, when I know that I could probably read it much faster myself. I don’t like just listening without multitasking, because it feels like a waste of time (and if I do it in bed at night, I tend to doze off and miss most of it). But I obviously cannot do it while working or writing or having dinner with the boys. Scrolling through Twitter only takes up a small proportion of the day (and even that is not fully compatible with listening to an audiobook.) I tried listening while cooking (too loud), cleaning the bathrooms (tended to fall out of my pocket – danger of drowning in the toilet), ironing (I don’t do enough of it – I’m currently only ironing the boys’ school trousers). And of course, I no longer commute – that would have been the perfect time for it (although in the car I prefer to listen to music).
What worked best was using it while exercising at the gym or running. Which would make for very slow progress, since I only do that for about half an hour a day, so it would take 22 days to go through a book like that! And even so, things got a bit confusing when the narrator Julian Rhind-Tutt (who does all sorts of different voices and accents, bordering on the caricatural) blended with Michael Johnson from my Couch to 5k app: ‘And I tell you, Monsieur Poirot, sir, that… you’ve got one minute left, you’re doing great, keep up the pace!’
Secondly, I struggled to remember who said what or the chronology of things. If I missed one sentence spoken more softly, I then laboured for half a chapter under the impression that they were talking about one woman when in fact they were talking about another one. I mixed up the different names and characters, despite the strong foreign accents (which, in the case of the Italian hotel manager in particular, downright annoyed me, but was supposed to be helpful in differentiating them to the listener). The split narrative, between Hercule Poirot in third person and his sidekick Catchpool in first person, didn’t help either, as I soon lost track of who had discovered what and precisely when. They did keep summarising and repeating the facts – to the point where I wanted to fast-forward – but then I somehow lost track of the actual explanations and conclusions (rather than the red herrings).
That might have been partly the fault of the book, but it certainly didn’t help that I couldn’t go back a page or so to establish who’s who, see quite clearly where I was in the physical book or skim read ahead when I got to yet another summary passage. I found that the next day I could remember tiny details but not the overall thrust of the story or where I’d got up to, as if my memory had been wiped.
Just imagine if I’d tried to read a more challenging or longer text, like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with which I’ve been grappling recently! I can lose myself on the written page, but my mind tends to wander while listening. So sadly, I don’t think audiobooks are for me, now will I be renewing my subscription to Audible: I can just about manage a short podcast (30-45 minutes seems to be my limit), especially if it’s in a conversational format.
Last but by no means least: I struggle with earbuds. They irritate my ears, I hate placing something inside them, and I keep having to stuff them in while running, because they pop out. While headphones – well, I have enough of them quite frankly, after a day of Teams meetings. And when I have them on, I can’t hear my children (including the cat) calling to me.
Which might be an argument for audiobooks, now that I think of it!
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!
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.
This past month has been more diverse than most in terms of reading. I have managed to finish 12 books, of which only 7 were officially crime fiction, 4 were love stories (of a sort) and one was non-fiction but proved to be a more exciting and unbelievable read than any fiction. Two of them were in French, which makes me want to do a little dance of joy. My goal has been to read at least one book in French every month, preferably two, so as to improve my language skills, but I am sure there have been many, many times when I have failed in this mission. Finally, three of them were translations: one from Danish and two from Hebrew.
1) Sophie Hannah: The Carrier. Some of Sophie Hannah’s earlier books gripped me completely: it felt as though the author had been in my head and uncovered my most hidden thoughts. She always seems to set the reader up with an impossible puzzle, yet solves them with flourish, keen psychological finesse and not a little poetic vision. Although this was not my favourite of Hannah’s novels, it is still a good read, although perhaps not at an airport when your flight is delayed… For my full review on Crime Fiction Lover, see here.
2) Joel Dicker: La Verite sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert. Having seen and heard the author at the Lyon Crime Festival, and having seen how many awards and accolades have been heaped upon this book in the French-speaking world, I was naturally curious to read it. Well, it’s an easy-to-read, quite exciting story, with reasonable plot twists along the way, but I am puzzled as to why it has won all those awards, since it feels good but not outstanding to me. The setting is a small town in the United States, and there is nothing remotely French or Swiss about this book. There are a few cliche situations and characters, but the simple, even pedestrian language appealed to me as a non-native speaker of French.
3) Amos Oz: To Know a Woman. Perhaps not my favourite book by Oz, but he still is such a magnificent writer. He takes a widower’s story of loss and grieving, and turns it into a universal tale of love, reassessment of one’s life, trying to truly understand another person, moving on. He piles on detail after detail (about Yoel’s daily routines, his gardening, his cooking, his thoughts, his travels) and each adds a layer, but you feel that the depth really lies in what is unsaid.
4) Jonelle Patrick: Fallen Angel: An Only in Tokyo Mystery
Once again, the full review is here, but this is an intriguing insight into the world of Japanese nightlife and host clubs, written by someone who knows Tokyo rather well but still brings an external perspective to things.
5) Alan Glynn: Graveland. Not quite as enthralling as his previous novel Bloodland, perhaps because this one takes place all in the US, rather than Ireland or the Congo. It certainly feels very topical, dealing with unemployment, young protesters and the shadowy world of finance and corporations. I found the excessive amounts of web searching a little tedious, and the investigative journalist Ellen never quite grabbed my attention. However, the character of Frank, former architect now working as a sales assistant in an electronics store, and worried about his daughter in college, was quite moving.
6) Benjamin Tammuz: Minotaur. The principle of the story is similar to Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’: you get to see an unusual love story from multiple points of view, until you are able to discern what really happened and how each player in the drama justifies matters. I read this in one breathless go, but it is actually a book to be savoured slowly. It has so many beautiful passages and philosophical meditations on love, passion in life, music and fear of the unknown. It is a thriller, a love story, a history of Palestine, a hymn to the Levantine spirit, a noir.
7) Katherine Boo: Behind the Beautiful Forevers. This book deserves an entry of its own: it is the book I wish I could have written, as an anthropologist, yet it reads like a novel. Except that all of the events described are real. It is the heartbreaking story of everyday life, hopes, fears and disappointments of slum life in Mumbai. One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time.
8) Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde. A mix of courtroom drama, police procedural and serial killer novel, this is a solid entry in the Harry Bosch series, with an interesting backdrop of LA after the racial riots.
9) Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling. I actually left this book behind me (once I finished it) in a hotel room. I was that sure that I would never want to read it again. Although I found this story of disintegrating love and familiarity breeding contempt quite compelling. I think all of us women have experienced some of those sentiments at one time or another. However, the fable element of the story and the supposedly magic spells that descends upon all the women in the New Jersey suburbs was a little annoying and artificial, especially the ending. When it stuck to the mundane, there were many funny moments in the book. It is all at once a sharply observed, witty look at modern life in the suburbs, and a universal statement about the relationship between men and women, the way they misunderstand each other and mistreat each other, even unintentionally.
11) Louise Doughty: Apple Tree Yard – to be reviewed next week
12) Jens Christian Grondahl: Piazza Bucarest
This was an impulse loan from the library, as I stumbled across it while searching for something else, and I couldn’t resist the blurb. The narrator tries to find Elena, a young Romanian woman who married his stepfather to escape from Communism and then abandoned him. Sadly, the book was a disappointment, and not just because the woman was unsympathetic (or because we Romanian women cannot take a bit of criticism). I was never quite sure what the author was trying to say or what the point of the whole thing was. Maybe the fact that I read a French translation of the original Danish didn’t help much either – it’s like trying to see a landscape through a doubly opaque window.
My top read of this month (and many other months) is undoubtedly ‘Beyond the Beautiful Forevers’, and my favourite crime fiction pick? Hmmm, that’s a tricky choice, as there were quite a few good ones, although nothing exceptional. I think it’s a tie between ‘The Concrete Blonde’ and ‘At the End of a Dull Day’. Both rather macho reads, though, so I need something more feminine next month to compensate.
So I have covered quite a few of my reading challenge requirements. Although, don’t you find that, as soon as you near the goalposts of a challenge you set for yourself, you start moving them about? Taking them just a little further? Demanding just a tad more of yourself? Fearful of missing out on something?