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.

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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.

Spring Books to Look Out For

Spring is in the air (well not today) and I’ve been reading some excellent books which will be published in the coming months. I know I often say this, but I’m always struck by the diversity of what constitutes crime fiction and in this lot, I went from compelling historical noir to a thriller immersed in contemporary politics.

Star of the North is the debut thriller from D B John who coauthored Hyeonseo Lee’s bestselling memoir about her escape from North Korea. In 1998, an American woman disappears from a beach on a South Korean island. She is mourned by her twin sister, Jenna, who works in Washington as an East Asian expert. She’s approached by the CIA and discover that her sister may be the victim of kidnapping by North Korea. As Jenna enters the CIA training programme, tensions escalate between North Korea and the US in the twilight years of Kim Jong Ill’s regime.

The Star of the North is perfect for fans of Terry Hayes’ I Am PilgrimIt’s a substantial read with the recruitment of Jenna entwined with the story of Choa North Korean functionary and Mrs Moon trying to earn a living in the regime. John cleverly plays with the concept to twinship without ever resorting to cliché and Jenna is a rounded and believable character. Star of the North  is out on the 10th May.

Julia Heaberlin’s Black Eyed Susans was one of my favourite books of 2016. Her follow up Paper Ghosts, published on the 19th April, tells the story of a woman who befriends the man she believes kidnapped and murdered her sister and takes him on a road trip to visit spots where she believes he killed other victims. Carl was a photographer and has snapped images of these places but, because of his alleged dementia, claims he has no memory of them. Less dark than Haeberlin’s previous book, I thought Paper Ghosts to be an interesting exploration of memory and loss. Haeberlin is excellent at characterisation, even of people the reader briefly encounters, and it was a lovely read.

I read MJ Tjia’s debut, She Be Damned, last year and was impressed by both the quality of the writing and the heroine, Heloise Chancey. Part courtesan, part detective, she’s a fascinating character who returns in the sequel, A Necessary Murder, which is out in June. A killer is stalking London, a small child is murdered in a privy and another victim is killed outside Heloise’s house. It’s another sumptuous historical thriller from Tjia and I loved returning to her world.

Finally, my favourite book of the year so far, American by Day which is out next week. Derek B Miller has written a cracker of a novel featuring Sigrid Odegard who readers might remember from Miller’s award winning book, Norwegian by Nights. Sigrid travels to the US to look for her brother, Marcus, who has gone missing. His disappearance may be connected to the death of a prominent African-American academic who died after falling from a building. American by Day is written with the author’s distinctive mix of intelligence and humour. Miller shows an excellent understanding of the clash between the Norwegian and American mindset and plays on these differences with a light touch. The story of the crime is never lost but the highlight, for me, was the unfashionable US setting and the excellent characterisation.

 

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My latest reads: The Silent Companions, Marked To Die and The Z Murders

The Silent Companions has been getting excellent reviews and I’d been looking forward to a quiet weekend to read this new novel by Laura Purcell. Elsie, newly married and recently widowed, is pregnant and travels to her late husband’s house accompanied by his cousin, to await the birth of her child. There, she discovers a grim house, the object of mistrust by the villagers, where creepy wooden figures, the silent companions of the book’s title, keep appearing. It’s part ghost story, part historical mystery and a compelling read. There’s an inevitability about Elsie’s fate that keeps you turning the pages and the historical detail creates an atmospheric background to the unfolding drama.

Sarah Hawkswood writes mediaeval mysteries featuring Sergeant Catchpoll and Undersheriff Bradecote. The books are set in the Worcestershire area, a region I don’t know very well but am discovering in Hawswood’s books. In Marked to Die, a deadly archer is picking off his victims and disappearing into the forest, alarming the residents of Droitwich who threaten to take the law into their own hands to discover the culprit. I love the level of period detail in Hawkswood’s work and the life she imbues into her characters. There’s a hint of unrealised supernatural and a sense of fun in the narrative which makes the book a great addition to the series.

The Z Murders is by J. Jefferson Farjeon author of Mystery in White which became a bestseller following its reissue by the British Library. The Z Murders has an atmospheric beginning as traveller Richard Temperley arrives into Euston station on a sleeper train and goes to the smoking room at a nearby hotel at dawn to wait for London to wake. He finds the man with whom he shared his train carriage dead in the room and a woman he briefly saw sitting by the fire has disappeared. Motivated by chivalry and a desire to discover the truth of the killing, he outwits the police and goes in search of the woman. The book has such a promising start and I absolutely loved the description of thirties London. When the chase takes them across the country through Boston in Lincolnshire and on to Whitchurch the narrative is less compelling but it’s still an interesting read.

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