Reading Round-Up

I’ve had an eclectic book month as I’ve been reading for various events plus I’ve been trying novels that I’ve wanted to read for a long time. There’s something about the summer that encourages me to free up time to look beyond familiar authors and I’ve been racing through some interesting books.

Tomorrow, I’m at the Derby Book Festival chatting to Jo Jakeman about her debut novel, Sticks and Stones. It’s a fascinating story of three women involved with the same man, the violent Philip Rochester. When he threatens to make his estranged wife, Imogen, homeless she locks him in the cellar and finds unexpected allies in Ruby his former wife and in Naomi, his current girlfriend. With strong prose and complex characters, Sticks  and Stones is a summer psychological thriller to get your teeth into.

Next week-end, I’m at Alibis in the Archives, in one of the most beautifully located libraries in the UK. I’ll be giving a talk on Derbyshire crime fiction and there’s plenty to discuss from Sheridan Le Fanu to present day crime writers. I’m a fan of Kate Ellis’s writing and, in her books, she usually fuses past and present. In  A High Mortality of Doves, she turns her attention to 1919 Derbyshire and a community reeling from the effects of the Great War. Mutilated women are discovered around a village and tales of a soldier seen near the murder sites brings Albert Lincoln up from London to investigate a complex crime. Written with Ellis’s attention to detail, she provides a clever twist which adds rather than detracts from the story.

On the subject of Derbyshire, I finally got around to reading Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s not crime novel but set in a Derbyshire town where a thirteen year-old girl has gone missing. It’s probably the book that most sums up Derbyshire for me: the well dressings, the changing of the seasons and the communities where nothing and everything happens. I absolutely loved this books which deservedly won the 2017 Costa Novel Award.

While we had an unexpected period of hot weather, I read a Christmas mystery.  Portrait of a Murderer  by Anne Meredith was  first published in 1933. It’s a country house mystery where the patriarch, Adrian Gary, is murdered on Christmas Day morning by one of his six surviving children. The murderer is revealed early on but Meredith uses an ingenious plot construction to take us through the impact of the crime and the slow unveiling of the killer. It’s a clever, soberly written mystery and a perfect read if you’re missing the winter already.

 

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Reading Round-Up

I’ve been busy reading for various panels and events that I’m moderating over the coming weeks and also working hard on my own writing. Tomorrow, I’m off to Bristol for CrimeFest, the crime fiction convention which I always look forward to. On Saturday, we will announce the winner of the Petrona Award and more on this will appear on Crimepieces. In the meantime, below is summary of some the excellent books I’ve read over the last few weeks.

That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unswoth  is the story of a spy ring during the second world war who use black magic in an attempt to destabilise Britain. Ross Spooner is the detective who is forced to enter a world of mediums and occultists to discover who is at the heart of the mischief. Unsworth cleverly weaves in the real life mystery of a woman found inside an ancient tree and there’s also a hint of Dennis Wheatly about the dark practices as enemy agents attempt to promote the Nazi cause. It’s a fascinating and unusual read.

Barry Forshaw turns his attention to historical crime fiction for his latest pocket essential guide. I’ve always admired the huge commitment to research that writing  crime fiction set in the past demands and there are some giants of the genre in this book. My natural inclination is to go to the authors I have read and it was great to see substantial entries for Philip Kerr, Kate Griffin and Kate Ellis in Historical Noir. Presented in chronological order, Lindsey Davis opens the book and it ends with the less familiar Gaute Heivoll who writes about 1970s Norway. As always, Forshaw’s books are fascinating to read and provide a handy insight into new authors to try.

Mari Hannah, always a strong writer, has excelled herself with her new book The Lost. A woman returns from a holiday with her sister to discover that her young son has disappeared. Alex’s husband, her son’s stepfather, comes under suspicion but the police investigation reveals a more complex web of lies. Hannah is excellent at continually unsettling the reader and the ending was a genuine surprise. A great start to what promises to be an excellent new series.

MW Craven’s new book, The Puppet Showhas an atmospheric backdrop of the Cumbrian countryside. Police are hunting a serial killer known as the ‘immolation man’  who mutilates and burns his victims. When the name of disgraced detective, Washington Poe, appears carved into the chest of the latest corpse, Poe is brought back from suspension into the investigation. It’s a fascinating premise and Craven delivers a satisfyingly dark thriller.

Q and A with D.B. John, author of Star of the North

I’m delighted to welcome D.B. John to Crimepieces today. You might remember that I reviewed his thriller Star of the North a few weeks ago. I’m delighted to take part in his publication tour and below is a fascinating insight into how the book came about.

Thanks for agreeing to chat about Star of the North. It was a pleasure to read a substantial thriller with a satisfyingly complex plot. Can you say a little about how the book came into being?

I had long wanted to make this dark, secretive country the setting for a thriller. It was the dramatic news from Pyongyang on 19 December 2011 that first got me thinking about a plot. At noon on that day state television announced that Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader, who had ruled the country for seventeen years, had died. I watched the footage of those vast crowds crying and grieving, and behind the tears I saw fear. Everyone there, even the children, knew what awaited anyone whose eyes were dry. I became utterly intrigued to know how ordinary North Koreans coped under pervasive surveillance and extreme political control. How did they carve out any sort of private life? Did they ever risk confiding doubts, even to those closest to them? How did they live?

It was fascinating to read about North Korea, a country only known to the majority of us though what we see and read in the media. How easy was it for you to delve deeper into reality of living under the closed, secretive regime?

My visit to the country in April 2012 was a strange kind of research trip. I was careful about asking questions, because people there can’t answer them freely. An ‘incorrect’ response could have terrible repercussions if overheard by a minder or an informer. From long habit, North Koreans keep their thoughts and feelings well hidden. And on my tour I was shown only those sights the regime wanted me to see – the monuments and achievements of outmoded socialism. Pyongyang is a bit like a gigantic film set, with the population behaving as extras. But of course, now and then it was possible to peek behind the scenery, and see the reality: vagrant children, empty factories, women washing clothes in dirty river. Raw poverty.

I got a much clearer picture about daily live in North Korea from the defectors I met in Seoul. One was a young soldier who’d been arrested for distributing free CDs of Christian music at a market. He didn’t want to talk about his punishment but I could see he was missing fingers. Another was a bright young woman who’d been caught helping people cross the river border into China. After her prison sentence she was shunned in her own village and realised no one would ever marry her. From them I learned the details that help bring characters to live. However I learned the most by far from Hyeonseo Lee, whose memoir, The Girl With Seven NamesI co-authored in 2015. Many aspects of this novel were inspired by her bravery, intelligence, and sheer tenacity.

One of your principal characters is Jenna, an expert on Asia, who is recruited by the CIA when they discover her twin sister might have been kidnapped by North Korean agents. You expertly  explore of what it means to be a twin and also an American of mixed-race. How did you manage to avoid clichés around both these subjects?

I wanted to make Jenna a twin after reading about the kind of bereavement suffered by a surviving identical twin, and for much of her life Jenna believes her sister is dead. With many people, the pain of grief eases a little with the years, and they can start to honour and cherish the memory of the one they’ve lost. I’m not sure this process is the same for an inseparable, identical twin. The survivor may be traumatised in ways others can’t imagine, and would simply never be the same person again. They might forever be living with a ghost. And aside from that, of course, an identical twin premise generates no end of plot possibilities…

As to Jenna being mixed race, I know from my research interviews that Korean-Americans are seldom entirely accepted by Korean Koreans. Mixed-race Korean Americans are even less accepted. And in ultranationalist North Korea the attitude towards Jenna and her twin would be downright racist. Like many people who have had to manage multiple identities, Jenna has grown up as something of an outsider. Cho and Mrs Moon are also outsiders in their way. Such people often have an inner strength and resilience they don’t realise they have, a quality I find attractive. I’m drawn to writing about outsiders and misfits, maybe from my experience of growing up gay in a very unaccepting time and place.

 I particularly liked the very human experience of Mrs Moon who finds a propaganda balloon from South Korea filled with treats. How did that character come about?

The ‘ajumma’ is a familiar figure in North and South Korea. These tough, hardworking no-nonsense matrons, found in every marketplace, are treated with a curious mix of respect and derision in Korean society. They do not suffer fools, and have no difficulty making men look weak and incapable. I wanted Mrs Moon to be smarter and tougher than any of the men in her environment. I imagine there must be many real-life Mrs Moons in the North, women who were strong enough to keep their families alive through the great famine in 1990s, and are now making their own good fortune by hustling and trading. These women are rebels in a way, resisting the entrenched patriarchy of Korean society. They are the class of people least likely to be taken in by nonsense Party ideology. Goatshit, as Mrs Moon would call it.

Your book is timely as, of course, North Korea is prominently in the news at the moment. I’m sure you’ve been watching events – do you think that the there is likely to be some kind of resolution for families whose relatives have been abducted by the North Korean state?

Sadly I don’t think so, not in the foreseeable future at any rate. I suspect Kim Jong-il’s (very cagey) apology about the abductions in 2002 was a blunder for the regime and won’t be repeated, given the international outrage it provoked. The most famous of the victims, Megumi Yokota, who was a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl when she was snatched in 1977, remains a great cause célèbre in Japan, and is widely believed still to be alive, despite the regime’s repeated insistence that she died. Under huge pressure, North Korea did release a handful of the victims in 2004, but on their return to Japan they behaved oddly, refusing ever to talk about their lives in North Korea, even to their own families. Clearly the regime still retained some terrible hold over them. A far more likely development would be for Kim Jong-un to allow reunions for the families separated by the Korean War – still a poignant issue in the South, even after all these years. That’s a gesture he may easily make, if relations with the South continue to improve.

What’s next in terms of your writing? Will you continue in the same vein or do you have a surprise for us?

I haven’t entirely closed the door on this novel. I’ve left it open a crack at the end. It took me so long – five years – to get to know these characters well. I suppose I’m reluctant to let them go altogether. There may be a sequel. And of course, as a CIA agent, Jenna’s missions could take her anywhere. I’m don’t know where yet, although I’m extremely interested by what’s happening inside Russia at the moment. I think the West has been slow to realise the dangers of that country’s emergence as a hostile police state.

The Petrona Award for Translated Scandinavian Crime Fiction – The Shortlist

The Petrona judges met a few weeks ago to decide on the shortlist of the 2018 . It was a lively judging session as usual and below are, in our opinion, six of the best books published in 2018 from Scandinavia.

 

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr.  Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The winning title will be announced at the Gala Dinner on 19 May during the annual international crime fiction convention CrimeFest, held in Bristol on 17-20 May 2018. The winning author and the translator of the winning title will both receive a cash prize, and the winning author will receive a full pass to and a guaranteed panel at CrimeFest 2019.

The Petrona team would like to thank our sponsor, David Hicks, for his continued generous support of the Petrona Award.

The judges’ comments on the shortlist:

 There were 61 entries for the 2018 Petrona Award from six countries (Denmark, Finland, France, Iceland, Norway, Sweden). The novels were translated by 33 translators and submitted by 31 publishers/imprints. There were 27 female and 33 male authors, and one brother-sister writing duo.

This year’s Petrona Award shortlist sees Sweden strongly represented with four novels; Denmark and Finland each have one. The crime genres represented include a police procedural, a courtroom drama, a comic crime novel and three crime novels/thrillers with a strong psychological dimension.

As ever, the Petrona Award judges faced a difficult but enjoyable decision-making process when they met to draw up the shortlist. The six novels selected by the judges stand out for the quality of their writing, their characterisation and their plotting. They are original and inventive, and shine a light on highly complex subjects such as Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, school shootings, and life on the margins of society. A key theme that emerged across all of the shortlisted works was that of family: the physical and psychological challenges of parenting; the pressures exerted by family traditions or expectations; sibling rivalries; inter­generational tensions and bonds; family loyalty… and betrayal.

 We are extremely grateful to the translators whose expertise and skill allows readers to access these gems of Scandinavian crime fiction, and to the publishers who continue to champion and support translated fiction.

The judges’ comments on each of the shortlisted titles:

WHAT MY BODY REMEMBERS by Agnete Friis, tr.  Lindy Falk van Rooyen (Soho Press; Denmark)

Her ‘Nina Borg’ novels, co-written with Lene Kaaberbøl,have a dedicated following, but this first solo outing by Danish author Agnete Friis is a singular achievement in every sense. Ella Nygaard was a child when her mother was killed by her father. Did the seven-year-old witness the crime? She can’t remember, but her body does, manifesting physical symptoms that may double as clues. Ella’s complex character is superbly realised – traumatised yet tough, she struggles to keep her son Alex out of care while dealing with the fallout from her past.

QUICKSAND by Malin Persson Giolito, tr. Rachel Willson-Broyles (Simon & Schuster; Sweden)

In this compelling and timely novel, eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is on trial for her part in a school shooting which saw her boyfriend, best friend, teacher and other classmates killed. We follow the events leading up to the murders and the trial through Maja’s eyes, including her reaction to her legal team’s defence. Lawyer-turned-writer Malin Persson Giolito successfully pulls the reader into the story, but provides no easy answers to the motives behind the killings. Gripping and thought-provoking, the novel offers an insightful analysis of family and class dynamics.

AFTER THE FIRE by Henning Mankell, tr. Marlaine Delargy (Vintage/Harvill Secker; Sweden)

Henning Mankell’s final novel sees the return of Fredrik Welin from 2010’s Italian Shoes. Living in splendid isolation on an island in a Swedish archipelago, Welin wakes up one night to find his house on fire and soon finds himself suspected of arson by the authorities. While there’s a crime at the heart of this novel, the story also addresses universal themes of loss, fragile family ties, difficult friendships, ageingand mortality. The occasionally bleak outlook is tempered by an acceptance of the vulnerability of human relationships and by the natural beauty of the novel’s coastal setting.

THE DARKEST DAY by Håkan Nesser, tr. Sarah Death (Pan Macmillan/Mantle; Sweden)

Many readers are familiar with the ‘Van Veeteren’ detective stories of Håkan Nesser, but his second series, featuring Swedish-Italian Detective Inspector Gunnar Barbarotti, is only now beginning to be translated. An engaging figure who navigates his post-divorce mid-life crisis by opening a witty dialogue with God, Barbarotti is asked to investigate the disappearance of two members of the Hermansson family following a birthday celebration. The novel’s multiple narrative perspectives and unhurried exploration of family dynamics make for a highly satisfying read.

THE WHITE CITY by Karolina Ramqvist, tr. Saskia Vogel (Atlantic Books/Grove Press; Sweden)

Karolina Ramqvist’s novella focuses on an often marginalised figure: the wife left stranded by her gangster husband when things go wrong. Karin’s wealthy, high-flying life is over. All that’s left are a once grand house, financial difficulties, government agencies closing in, and a baby she never wanted to have. This raw and compelling portrait of a woman at rock bottom uses the sometimes brutal physical realities of motherhood to depict a life out of control, and persuasively communicates Karin’s despair and her faltering attempts to reclaim her life.

THE MAN WHO DIED by Antti Tuomainen, tr. David Hackston (Orenda Books; Finland)

The grim starting point of Antti Tuomainen’s novel – a man finding out that he has been systematically poisoned and his death is just a matter of time – develops into an assured crime caper brimming with wry black humour. Finnish mushroom exporter Jaakko Kaunismaa quickly discovers that there’s a worryingly long list of suspects, and sets about investigating his own murder with admirable pluck and determination. The novel’s heroes and anti-heroes are engagingly imperfect, and Jaakko’s first-person narration is stylishly pulled off.