Category Archives: Crime

Kerb Stain Boys

If this wasn’t so real, it would be a lot more funny.

In Alex Wheatle’s new book for Barrington Stoke, we’re back in Crongton – his fictional part of London, where black young boys are not necessarily going towards a fantastic future.

Alex Wheatle, Kerb Stain Boys

Briggy and Terror come up with this really terrific idea to impress a girl, and to get some cash. They are going to rob a post office. Except, it’s not a great idea at all, and it was Terror’s plan and Briggy is worried about pulling out.

While learning what their lives at home and at school are like, and realising their dreams are pretty normal, you still know that robbing any post office, let alone one close to where you live, is not going to end well.

Boys will be boys, so ditching the plan isn’t likely. Besides, if the author stopped them from doing this silly thing, there would be no story. But if they do rob the post office, the boys don’t have much of a future.

I didn’t see the end coming. Can’t say more than that. Let’s hope the readers can work out they should not copy Terror and Briggy; not for any girl in the world. Especially a world in which a black boy carrying even a plastic toy weapon is a potentially lethal situation. This is something we tend to forget, if we have a different colour skin.

Advertisements

Shell Game

That dreadful feeling you get when your whole existence might be at risk, because you’re a foreigner and something minor, or something not to do with you, has cropped up on someone’s horizon, and you are innocent, but can see your life, as you know it, ending. That.

In Shell Game, Sara Paretsky writes about this and much more. It’s about what her country has become. There are always unfortunate people needing help in her crime novels, but usually V I Warshawski can help them, and the law usually will allow this help to happen, sooner or later. Now though, she, and we, know there’s much less chance of this. Nothing is quite what it was, and that helplessness is masterfully described from the word go.

Sara Paretsky, Shell Game

There are always people doing the wrong thing for money or power in V I’s world, but this time there’s an edge to it we’ve not encountered before. People can be bought more easily, and Government employees perhaps have tick boxes of [bad] things that have to be ticked. Just because they can.

And that leaves the rest of us struggling.

This is a story about family. Lotty Herschel’s great nephew Felix is suspected of murder, and V I gives him her support. Then her nieces Harmony and Reno – through V I’s ex-husband – turn out to be in dire need of help as well. By adding sexual abuse and a general fear of terrorists because of people newly arrived from Syria, we have everything that is currently deemed to be bad.

V I has to work harder than ever. But she’s V I, so you know you can trust her. Mr Contreras is by her side as ever, but this time I was struck by our changing world, and how mentioning his Anzio war history could very soon appear meaningless in a world that has moved on, with a new generation running it.

It’s hard to come to terms with, but I trust V I, and Sara. Someone has to write about this, and we need to read it. I imagine that even people with all the paperwork in the world to prove their right to live in their own country, could become a bit nervous on reading Shell Game.

The question is what they – we – can do.

Christoffer Carlsson – neither pink nor fluffy

Here is what you’ve all wanted to read; my little chat with Christoffer Carlsson, where we talk far more about schools and immigration, than we do crime novels. But it’s not every day ‘a boy from home’ comes to Stirling.

Having successfully caught the last coffee cup in the Bloody Scotland green room, Christoffer apologises, but I point out he’s better to have it than I am, since I don’t drink coffee. Anyway, he’s the guest.

It’s very noisy in the green room, after three events have come to an end and people have gathered, chattering away. In fact, Christoffer has had quite a conversation with Denise Mina, who didn’t run away as fast as I’d expected, seeing as she was in a hurry.

Christoffer Carlsson

Promising to talk loudly into my recording device, he bends his head halfway down to the table. I ask about his new, Swedish book, which he mentioned during his morning event. I’ve been wishing for something set in or around Halmstad, and now it seems he has already written it. ‘It will be published in the spring,’ he says, ‘but I’ve not started talking about it yet.’ He’s been afraid that the place he’s from won’t be considered interesting enough, for a novel. It’s the hardest book he’s written. It took two years to write, and when I ask where it’s set, I get a very exact description, which I won’t burden you with here. I know. That’s enough.

It’s close to where he grew up, where he and his brother used to play. And then, halfway through writing the book, his parents sold up and moved away from his childhood home, moving into a flat in town, enjoying their new life on the 13th floor with marvellous views. ‘The novel became some sort of farewell. It was pretty hard. It’s as if part of my past has moved out of reach.’

From his parents’ high rise, to the ones Christoffer wrote about in Salem, the Stockholm suburb in the Leo Junker series, I wonder if he knew enough about that kind of existence, after such a rural childhood. He giggles. He’s lived in various parts of Stockholm, including Hagsätra, which is his fictional Salem. He tells me about a smash and grab at a pawnshop, saying that the crimes in the more disadvantaged areas are different from those in the posher parts of the city. To be honest, he felt more at home there, enjoying being recognised as a regular in the newsagent’s. He felt he belonged.

My next question is about schools, as he and I attended schools in small-town Sweden, whereas Leo went to a troubled school in one of the capital’s suburbs. Christoffer’s primary school was Snöstorpsskolan; which had one non-white pupil and no library, in a cute and quiet area on the outskirts of Halmstad. Secondary school was Östergårdsskolan where, thirty years after I should have gone there but didn’t, immigrants made up 50%, which Christoffer and his Snöstorp friends loved. Not so much the parents. It was a well integrated school, where the white pupils only noticed that the cool kids from Andersberg were good at football, or that someone had a great collection of [ice] hockey cards. Christoffer reckons this background helped with his writing.

Christoffer Carlsson

I ask about the many immigrant names in his books. I’m not used to this. There are obviously still a lot of Carlssons, but they have company now. Christoffer mentions the books by Arne Dahl. ‘They are bloody interesting,’ he says. His A Unit was pretty homogenous at the outset, but as society changed, so did the group. ‘There are still more -sson names, numerically.’ In his new book the names come from former Yugoslavia. It was the mid-1990s, and the war meant people came to Sweden. Now it is people from North Africa. ‘But they go from being refugees and immigrants, and ten years on they have ordinary jobs.’ I mention my childhood immigrants; one from Hungary and one from Finland, and he grins. ‘How exciting.’

We compare sixth form colleges. Christoffer says mine was old and posh, so I point out it was brand new in my day. He retorts that the teachers had all moved from the town’s posh school. He cackles some more when I mention that my head teacher was considered rather infra dig by the other teachers.

We talk about the Chileans, some of whom come to sticky ends in his books. ‘A bit sad,’ Christoffer admits, but tries to reassure me that most of the Chileans did fine. One of his professors at university comes from Chile. ‘The young are in a vulnerable situation, looking for excitement.’

And you miss the new integration in more expensive areas, because the newcomers simply can’t afford to live there. ‘People just want to survive. They are neither potential terrorists or angels. They are just like us. Some are idiots, some are good. They are just people.’ Christoffer reckons crime novels have a role to play in showing us this. 

‘Why did you write your YA novel?’

He laughs. ‘The truth, the truth, Ann, is so bloody banal,’ he almost chokes on his coffee. ‘Book three about Leo Junker was so hard to write. It’s the longest, and in the middle of it I just said “I’ll do something different now.” So I went from writing about a middle aged man to a female teenager. Writing about crimes from a 16-year-old’s point of view, I didn’t want it to be too Kalle Blomkvist (an Astrid Lindgren child detective). I was, “what is it about? Is she staying put, or getting out?” Get out, or get stuck. It’s her choice.’

Christoffer Carlsson

‘Then when it was written I wondered what to do with it. The publisher felt I was in the middle of a series, so maybe make it a YA novel. I wrote it for myself; what I would have wanted when I was a teenager.’ There weren’t many changes, other than perhaps shortening the sentences. He was challenged on the flashbacks, that they might be too hard for young readers. ‘They’re into Game of Thrones! They see flashbacks all the time!’

‘So, Stirling High School, where you went yesterday. Did they really let you in?’ He giggles. ‘Yes, of course. They were great.’

Our conversation moves to October is the Coldest Month; his UK publisher Scribe calling it ‘almost transgressive fiction,’ while the Norwegians, the French, the Spanish and the Italians said the violence was sort of OK, but asked if he could ‘make the sex more pink and fluffy.’ Christoffer refused, and he asks, ‘pink and fluffy, what does it even mean?’

He isn’t sure what role fiction has today, but when he was young, fiction shouldn’t lie, there should be no whitewashing, and it shouldn’t be doing your parents’ job. Young readers can tell very easily.

‘But, in short, I was allowed to go there, and they were fantastic. We talked about books, about what they read, which is everything from Rankin to John Green to Virginia Woolf.’ Asking if people tell them what to read, Christoffer advised that they should decide for themselves. ‘Maybe not the best thing to say in a library…’ After a quick aside from me regarding Melvin Burgess once being asked to leave a school, we both say, ‘but you’re/I’m so kind and sweet looking!’ He reckons his image is really ‘sweet’ and I suggest perhaps he’s quite horrible, behind that innocent facade, and he cackles again, slapping his thighs. ‘Exactly, it’s what I’ve got going for me, I’m so kind and sweet.’

Christoffer Carlsson

Anyway, it had been good, and the students stayed to chat after the bell went. He moans that school periods are too short. He’d have liked to get there earlier, to talk for longer, but is grateful he was able to go at all.

When abroad he usually says ‘you either take me to a school, or you take me to a prison.’ And it works. Apparently it’s much harder to get into prisons in Sweden. (Although I can think of one way…) He’s been in the UK twice now, including when we first met in Edinburgh last year. He hopes to attend Newcastle Noir in the spring, with Jacky Collins, and if Scribe agree, Christoffer would like to visit a prison there. ‘Are there any?’ he asks, and I admit to not being an expert on prisons. More cackling.

We decide we’ve been sitting in the green room for quite long enough. It’s now very quiet, or would be, if it weren’t for us. Leaving the Golden Lion, Christoffer goes up the hill to his hotel and an evening of working on his book, and I go the opposite way, ‘promising’ to look him up in Newcastle if I end up missing him too much.

And that’s it. Let’s hope we can find him a prison…

Mr Godley’s Phantom

I so loved this book, and the fact that although Mal Peet is no longer with us, he left behind writing to be turned into new books for us, who loved him and his writing. Described as a ‘haunting novella’ by David Fickling, I’d say that this [adult] retro story is a full length novel, if you apply the measurements for books as they were then, shortly after WWII.

Martin Heath returns from the war, and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. His nerves aren’t good, and he drinks too much. Eventually he is interviewed by the mysterious Mr Godley and given a job at his home on Dartmoor. The job description is a little vague, and we’re not quite sure what Martin’s employer really wants or why he chose Martin.

Mal Peet, Mr Godley's Phantom

It’s hard to describe the story without spoilers, but Mr Godley’s house hides secrets, and the local women who work for him also have their own unusual histories. And then there is Martin, shaking, looking for drugs.

Mal has hit the head on the nail perfectly, both as regards the period – or so it seems from here – and in creating a strange little plot that doesn’t really take you where you expected to go.

It’s a wonderful book.

The Kiwis are coming!

I’ve got news for you. They were already there. Here. At Bloody Scotland. Except as with the Swedes, they had to fake it just a bit. Craig Sisterson, the chair, is from New Zealand, and so is Paul Cleave. Fiona Sussman has lived in New Zealand for thirty years, but is still from South Africa. Liam McIlvanney is Scottish, but has a New Zealand passport in his sights after ten years in the country. Denise Mina was the honorary Kiwi, based on her having visited twice.

Glad we’ve got that sorted out.

Denise mentioned ‘bleck hends’ which I understand to actually be black hands. Whatever that is. (To which I can offer the wisdom that blood is ‘rid.’) There is a perceived link between New Zealand and the Nordic countries – to which Scotland possibly belongs. They are all dark places.

Paul Cleave, Denise Mina, Liam McIlvanney, Fiona Sussman and Craig Sisterson

Paul comes from Crimechurch; sorry, Christchurch, and he claims to have an alibi for the earthquake. The quake still has much impact on people’s lives, and Paul reckons that in twenty years’ time, someone will write a crime novel about the murder of an insurance agent; so strong are the feelings on how they’ve been treated.

Fiona feels crime fiction is primarily a social commentary, and Denise added that it summarises what’s happened during the last year or two; the time it takes for a novel to be written and published.

Denise is inspired by real life, and there are some things you can’t make up, whereas Paul does not borrow anything and makes everything up, as he doesn’t want to be seen to be making money from real crimes. Denise informed him where he was wrong, and would most likely have taken Paul outside to make him see things her way, if she could have. You’re ‘doing it for the money.’

Craig mentioned that Paul was the one who’d travelled the furthest to get to Bloody Scotland, because Fiona lives further north. Scotland and New Zealand have in common that they are small countries with a larger English-speaking neighbour.

According to Paul everyone, but him, wants to live in New Zealand; this ‘dull, hygienic, social democracy…’ Fiona is still worried about being thrown out of her adoptive country for what she writes. And Liam has bad experience of criticising the country’s cheese. Apparently you mustn’t.

Paul is always bumping into people in Crimechurch, but never anywhere else. It’s small enough. He has some advice on what to do about bad reviews. This involves a lawyer, so he hasn’t read any reviews in five years. (At this point it looked like Paul and Denise needed separating, as they couldn’t see eye-to-eye on anything…)

Denise Mina, Paul Cleave, Liam McIlvanney, Fiona Sussman and Craig Sisterson

Fiona loves VW Beetles, and has had a lot of experience of them. But when she wrote about one in a book, it still passed both her own and her husband’s reading, before an editor mentioned that its engine is not in the front of the car! (Well, you can’t remember everything.)

This event also over-ran, and we finished with a semi-heated discussion on audiobooks and who is best at reading them. It seems no one. With one little exception in Fiona’s case, none of them have recognised their characters in the actor reading their books. It’s always the wrong voice. Paul, needing to be the ‘worst’ again mentioned the time he was offered a choice of eight American potential readers, all with very fake New Zealand accents.

(I’m afraid time constraints meant I wasn’t able to take any worthwhile photos of our quintet. And Denise had to run. But it was fun anyway.)

Paul Cleave, Liam McIlvanney and Fiona Sussman

Family Secrets

At the end of this randomly chosen event, my imagination ran away with me for a bit. I couldn’t help but think that maybe someone in the audience had been there to gather ideas for how to kill… In which case there would have been much inspiration. Or, I suppose, someone could write a crime novel about this possibility. Feel free to use.

Caroline Mitchell, Ruth Ware, Mel McGrath and Alexandra Sokoloff

Women are far scarier than men, and Alexandra Sokoloff, standing in for Lin Anderson, promised some killing of men the following day. So I’m guessing Saturday’s Family Secrets panel was a little milder.

Caroline Mitchell, Ruth Ware and Mel McGrath have a lot of pseudonyms between them. Alexandra was barely able to list them all.  And of course we wouldn’t rather have gone to the football! A group of muddy male crime writers is nothing compared with murderous females.

So, domestic noir. Caroline’s new novel features a woman who discovers her biological parents are infamous mass murderers, and she is asked to come and meet her real mother, in exchange for some information on the victims’ whereabouts. Caroline really likes ‘evil mothers; bad female antagonists.’

Ruth Ware

Compared to that, Ruth’s heroine who is offered an inheritance that isn’t actually hers, but a mistake, sounds more like a picnic. Except I gather there are interesting undercurrents in the family of the dead woman who wanted to give her money away, in a Gothic sort of way.

And Mel had been inspired by a friend’s experience of discovering her adopted son holding a knife to her biological child. It’s about children’s secrets, and nature versus nurture. Can you prevent serial killers from becoming killers? Because ‘kids are just people.’

According to Mel what you do or say within the family, means you are making choices every day. Caroline calls herself a ‘very nosy person.’ Mel used to have criminals as neighbours and she and her writer husband used to vie for listening to them through the shared wall, hoping to learn something to write about.

Caroline Mitchell

Asked about their research Caroline makes use of her nine years in the police. It’s a good background and she’s been ‘really lucky.’ The worst time for domestic crimes is around dinner; especially Christmas dinner. She sees her writing as therapy, having burned out during her time with the police. Crime writers are the nicest.

Mel McGrath

Mel finds it easy to ask people what she needs to know, as most professions want to be properly represented in books, so are happy to talk. She finds that the right amount of really nice cocktails helps, and one of her new friends can pick a psychopath in a crowd.

Faced with the cocktail idea, Ruth said she can’t be ‘bothered to research’ as she has small children. She reads and uses the internet as her ‘easy option.’ And she admits she always had safe jobs.

Not so Mel, who as a journalist learned that some things you don’t report, if the upside of your silence means you stay alive.

Ruth Ware, Caroline Mitchell and Mel McGrath

And right now I’m a little hazy on which of these lovely ladies had a ‘grandfather who was a petty gangster in the East End.’ Doesn’t matter. They are all ‘killer women’ and on Saturday they convinced a man who was only accompanying his wife, to buy some crime novels and start a new life in crime.

The Swedish Crime Wave

‘Nu sätter vi igång, eller hur?’ said Jacky Collins to her three charges Christoffer Carlsson, Johana Gustawsson and Will Dean. They all agreed to some ‘sätting igång’ and did so to a full to bursting Allan Park South Church where people were standing in the aisles.

Christoffer Carlsson books

First she wanted to know about Will Dean’s building a cottage made of wood, in a Swedish forest, somewhere ‘north’ of Gothenburg, so he went ahead and ruined her vision of a strong man with an axe. It was more flatpack, and he mainly supervised the build courtesy of that airline that flies people places for £10. But at least Will and his Swedish wife got out of their tiny London flat.

Will Dean

You will already have gathered not all Jacky’s Swedes were Swedish.

Johana Gustawsson, who is French, and maybe a little Spanish, blames everything on her Swedish husband, as well she should. After all, a man who eats flat pieces of bread with cheese on, squeezing cod roe paste from a tube on top of it all, for breakfast, has a lot to answer for. (It’s probably only my vivid imagination which had him dunk this in his coffee.) The Resident IT Consultant listened wide-eyed to this tale, as not even his extensive Swedish experience ever went this far.

Christoffer Carlsson

Christoffer Carlsson who comes from the same town as Roxette, nevertheless feels it’s natural to write about Stockholm, which is not the same as Halmstad. He didn’t get the promised ABBA number, which is just as well, since he’s far too young for them. Christoffer likes people; is interested in them, even. And he interviews offenders for a living.

Then there was the tale about his childhood friend’s dad who, ahem, created illegal alcoholic drinks at home in the kitchen, when the local policeman called. (He obviously only wanted to buy some.)

Will introduced us to Tuva Moodysson, his deaf journalist detective. After his first horrible book, it is fun writing about Tuva. Johana explained that she needed a Canadian character so that they could speak both English and French. Her women characters really have opinions. Christoffer also has some ‘bad’ early books, which ‘unfortunately’ have been published. He wanted to write about friendship, and only reluctantly made one of his characters a policeman.

Christoffer Carlsson, Johana Gustawsson and Will Dean

It seems Will is very keen on ‘sweeties’ and on hearing this Johana emptied out her handbag of a pile of sweets, whereas Christoffer only had cigarettes to offer.

There is folklore in Will’s books; he can’t leave the forest’s mushrooms and bears and elks alone, and his brother-in-law has met a troll… Of course he has. Similarly, Johana discovered a book about Jack the Ripper which placed one of his victims in Falkenberg, where her Kalles Kaviar-eating husband is from. So that had to become a crime novel. And Christoffer might write more crime after his Leo Junker series, but his next book is set very near his parents’ house outside Halmstad, and it’s a ‘very good book.’

Johana Gustawsson

Johana had much to say about us Swedes, and not just on the cod roe issue, but the Scandi hugs, where people hug those they meet for the first time. Having to take your beautifully chosen shoes off indoors, ruining the effect of your beautiful dress – [she] ‘needs to wear her effing shoes!’ – and the question whether Swedes have vegetables (mothers always worry, don’t they?). Then there is ‘lagom,’ and maybe she has said too much, but this was her first weekend away from her young children.

This was a hard act to follow, and Will sensibly didn’t try. It seems his mother-in-law doesn’t like his books… Too negative, they are. Tuva hates the woods. (I’m right with you, dear.) On a brighter note, a deaf member of the audience complimented Will on getting Tuva’s deafness spot-on.

Finally, Christoffer was permitted to have his say, and he reckons that all Swedish crime writers know each other, read each other’s books and they all live in Bromma. They all write the same. So these two fake Swedes are bringing some much needed outside perspective into all this.

Christoffer Carlsson, Johana Gustawsson and Will Dean

By now we’d over-run by ten minutes and the audience wanted more, but we still had to finish. Long and slow queues to chat to the three meant that we were in danger of never leaving, and with the audience for the next event queueing outside, Christoffer was the last man standing and practically had to be kicked out, where he duly lit a cigarette…

It’s tough being popular, isn’t it?

Our truly multilingual chair Jacky chatted in Spanish, as well as Swedish, and even some English, and before departing she wished me ‘hasta luego.’ I can’t wait.