Category Archives: Crime

Hej då, Henning

By now you probably all know that Henning Mankell died this morning. His death is in the news everywhere, which just goes to show how far crime will get you. Even when you’re a foreigner, as Henning undoubtedly was to most of you.

I never did get that interview, apart from my impromptu four-minute one in the children’s bookshop in Charlotte Square; the place where he wasn’t guarded at all, unlike for his adult events. But we did speak very briefly, several times, including that first meeting when Son startled him by wanting a book signed that Henning didn’t recognise as his. It was his, though, and after some discussion it got sorted out.

Even then, Henning was a grand person, while on Swedish soil; walking round with a bit of an entourage. But that’s how Swedes do their worshipping. His star status in the English speaking world came a little later.

I knew he was ill, and ever the pessimist I expected the worst. But as recently as last week I felt a moment of optimism. I have a Facebook friend, whom I barely know, despite having ‘known’ him for decades (he’s GP Cousin’s very good friend). He’s rich, and he’s a rather radical leftie, and he does unusual things with his time and money. His latest venture is some museum for another well known Swedish radical, which is opening next month. And the encouraging news was that Henning was to do the honours. So I thought, ‘Oh, he’s well enough to do that then?’

Today’s sad news took my radical millionnaire by surprise too, as he was due to have lunch with Henning a few hours ago. Which I suppose was a good sign in itself; that he’d felt able to make such plans.

As for me, I’m glad we met a few times, and I’m even glad I cried at his event in Gothenburg eight years ago. He was a good man who did lots of good to lots of people, and that’s not counting entertaining us with Wallander.

Henning Mankell(I prefer this photo from some years ago, to the one my local Swedish newspaper used, where you can clearly see how unwell he was.)

The Henning Mankell mini-interview

Recreating a 1960s newsroom

I’m old enough to have worked at a desk with a spike, on which to save your work as proof until no longer needed, although mine was only ever about money. Here Peter Bartram (whose novel Headline Murder the Resident IT Consultant reviewed here yesterday) tells us about those smokey, crazy days in the 1960s, when they could make newspapers despite having no mobile phones or anything.

When I decided to set my Crampton of the Chronicle crime mysteries in the 1960s, I had to travel back in time to recreate the atmosphere of a newspaper’s newsroom of that era.

I first walked into a newsroom as a young reporter in 1966. Newspapers were very different in those days. No computers. No mobile phones. No digital cameras.

The new technology has been essential to keep newspapers alive. But it seems to have made newsrooms less exciting places. I love those old Hollywood newspaper movies – such as The Front Page – where newsrooms pulsate with a kind of chaotic energy.

I wanted to emulate that in Headline Murder, where Colin Crampton works in the Evening Chronicle’s newsroom as the paper’s crime correspondent. So I needed to cast my mind back to those far-off days when I was a reporter.

What were the sights and sounds like? Well, first thing I remember is how 14 of us – all reporters – were crowded into a room sitting at desks grouped mostly in fours. We pounded away at old sit-up-and-beg typewriters. As deadlines approached and everyone was typing together it sounded like a volley of machine guns firing.

We typed on sets on paper, called folios, interleaved with carbon paper, never more than a paragraph or two on each folio – so that if the sub-editors wanted to change the order of the copy they could easily re-order the folios. (No on-screen cut-and-paste in those days.)

On each of our desks there was a big black telephone and a spike on which we’d impale carbons of old stories we’d written. (No Cloud back-ups!). We worked in an atmosphere of constant noise – telephones ringing, shouted conversations, the rattle of typewriters. (Elsewhere silence may be golden, but on a newspaper, it means there’s no news!)

There were a couple of telephone booths at the side of the room into which we retreated if we needed to make a call to a special contact we didn’t want colleagues to overhear. The room was lit by harsh fluorescent lights but most of the time they were shrouded in a fug created by cigarette smoke.

Research is important for writers – and there are many ways to do it. Yet the best research often comes from personal experience. Although not all memories are reliable. Did I really hear the editor cry: ‘Hold the front page’?

Headline Murder

Oh, Brighton, how we miss you! (I suppose we could go back for a visit…) The Resident IT Consultant swiftly read his way through this somewhat nostalgic crime novel by Peter Bartram, set in our former home town. And here he is, review at the ready:

Set in 1960s Brighton, this first crime novel features Brighton Evening Chronicle crime reporter Colin Crampton. It is high summer and Colin is desperate for a decent crime story. But nothing happens: a bicycle stolen from a house in Maldon Road, a minor motor accident at Fiveways – nobody hurt – and a dog lost in Stanmer Park (a King Charles spaniel). Then the owner of a miniature golf course on the seafront goes missing. The owner is linked to an unsolved murder twenty years earlier and Colin senses he may have a story.

Peter Bartram, Headline Murder

Assisted by his Australian girlfriend and the staff of the newspaper’s clippings department, who have to be encouraged with regular deliveries of cream cakes, Colin uncovers a tale of shady developments, municipal bribery and police corruption which ultimately uncovers a double murderer and leads to an exciting cross-Channel chase.

The story is told in the first person, by Colin, in a brisk style that is a little reminiscent of Chandler. It was fun remembering and recognising the locations in which the action was set.

Nordic grey – The Origin Story of Nordic Noir

I have a certain bias, but I felt that the Translation studies research seminar at the University of Edinburgh yesterday afternoon was pretty good, and really interesting. Even for me, with some prior knowledge as well as interest in the subject of Nordic Noir.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

The talk by Ian Giles, aka as Son, was part of a series of seminars in the next few months, and it was merely a happy coincidence that they kicked off on what was International Translation Day.

The Resident IT Consultant and I both went. We were pleasantly surprised to find Helen Grant there too, but shouldn’t have been, as she’s both a linguist and proficient translator, when she’s not simply killing people. I introduced her to Peter Graves, making rather a hash of it. Translator Kari Dickson was also in the audience, as were other Scandinavian studies people and aspiring translators. And I was surrounded by a whole lot of Chinese whispers. Literally.

Nordic Noir didn’t begin with something on television five years ago. It’s been coming a long time, and Ian is on its trail, trying to determine where and when we first met ‘dark storylines and bleak urban settings.’ It’s more than Sarah Lund’s jumpers or Lisbeth Salander’s hacking skills.

The trail might begin (or do I mean end?) with Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell, via Peter Høeg to Sjöwall and Wahlöö. But that list is not complete without mentioning the murder of Olof Palme or Kerstin Ekman’s Blackwater. And apparently some critic recently accused the new Martin Beck on television of imitating itself.

Here there was a slight sidetrack to a Turkish writer, translated twice in the last twelve years, long after his death, and only because his compatriot, Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk said he liked him. Knut Hamsun had something similar happen to him.

Because yes, the trail goes a long way back. Before Sjöwall and Wahlöö we had Maria Lang and Stieg Trenter, for instance. Earlier still, Hjalmar Söderberg’s Doktor Glas would have qualified, as would Norwegian Mauritz Hansen. And maybe even Carl Jonas Love Almqvist and Zacharias Topelius.

And when it comes to the crunch, Peter Høeg’s Miss Milla’s Feeling For Snow is not a true progenitor of Nordic Noir. It seems to be, but isn’t. People would have read the book no matter what. Hindsight tells us Peter Høeg doesn’t belong to the origin story.

Anyway, there are many more books translated into English than there used to be. The 3% of translated books has recently become more like 4 or even 5%. Swedish books come sixth if you look at language of origin, but make that Scandinavian books and they end up in third place, and if you count all the Nordic languages, they are the second most translated.

Nordic Grey with Ian Giles

So, it’s not all jumpers, and Scotland has just claimed to have more words for snow than the cold Nordic countries. The latest idea for selling books on the international market is to translate the whole book into English, rather than a few sample chapters, making it possible to offer an almost finished product, as well as facilitating sales to countries where they don’t have a steady supply of translators from Scandinavian languages.

As I said, I found this interesting. And Ian’s a tolerable speaker, too. The right amount of jokes, and a good selection of slides and videos to show what he’s on about. The beard, however, was rather a surprise.

If You Were Me

It would seem that Sam Hepburn is good at taking a topic I’m not all that keen on and then writing a novel about it; a novel so good and so exciting you don’t know what to do, because you have to hold on to the book to keep reading, but at the same time you could really do with holding on tight to your chair. Or something. You know.

Sam Hepburn, If You Were Me

If You Were Me is a gut-churning thriller, about Aliya and her family who had to flee Afghanistan in a hurry one night, only to exchange a bad situation there for a bad one in London. Her brother who was an interpreter for the British, is accused of being a terrorist, plotting to kill the man who helped them enter the country.

With the help of Dan, who came to sort out the plumbing in their decrepit flat, she starts sleuthing, desperate to clear her brother’s name. Dan is keen to assist, but he also has reasons to hide certain aspects of their investigation, to keep his family safe and intact.

It’s amazing how these two manage to find any clues at all, let alone that they are able to make something of what they discover. Very, very exciting indeed. And basically, you must remember you can’t trust anyone. Had the introduction not suggested it might end well, I’d not have believed it possible.

Aliya and Dan are two incredible heroes. Not everyone else is bad, but very nearly.

Writing someone else’s sequel

I don’t mind in the least. But at the same time I wasn’t eagerly looking forward to the next ‘Stieg Larsson’ novel, even if it means I can have more of Lisbeth Salander. Didn’t exactly feel I’d boycott the book, but nor did I visualise myself reading it.

But then I read the first interview with David Lagercrantz in Swedish magazine Vi. It was a good interview, done by one of my favourite columnists on Vi, Johan Norberg. Johan usually writes about music, which he does well, since he’s a professional musician. He’s also a good friend of David’s. It’s very Swedish, this, but for the last two decades these men have delivered and fetched their children from the same daycare. (Yeah, a lot of children were required.)

Vi interview David Lagercrantz

The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Swedish title Det som inte dödar oss [literally What doesn’t kill us]) was conceived and written under the greatest secrecy, like something straight out of a Stieg Larsson novel.

When I first heard David Lagercrantz was writing the book my cynical reaction was ‘of course,’ as in my mind he belongs to a writing dynasty. Turns out he’s part of the nobility, too, which I didn’t know. But from my foreign horizon I had no idea it was David who wrote Zlatan, or any of the other books he’s responsible for. He just wasn’t important enough for me to keep track of.

For obvious reasons Son wondered who the translator of this fourth Millennium novel would be. The name George Goulding elicited more wondering, as he was totally unknown to everyone. Some digging by Son suggests he’s a pal of Christopher MacLehose, with no translating past, apart from the recent Alan Turing book, also by David Lagercrantz.

Anyway, judging by Johan’s article in Vi, David is a nice, and somewhat shy man, who prefers not to leave his home, other than for the previously mentioned school run. He has been subjected to the expected nasty tabloid articles, because in Sweden it doesn’t do to seem to be more than anyone else. (But they can’t all write Larsson novels!)

David’s only comment to Johan’s interview was that he most certainly doesn’t shave using disposable blades. So now you know.

Capital Crime; Edinburgh Noir

They are busy upsetting tourist boards all over Scotland. They, being Neil Broadfoot, Doug Johnstone and James Oswald. I mean, how dare they commit murder in the lovely settings the tourist boards are meant to promote?

Yes, well, they do. But last Sunday morning the topic for discussion was putting people off Edinburgh, or rather, telling us about how they have approached murder in the Scottish capital.

James Oswald – described in a blurb as the new Ian Rankin – started writing his Tony McLean books in Wales, so had to pick the areas of Edinburgh he knew from when he was a student. Besides, Stuart MacBride already had Aberdeen, which would have been a second choice for James.

Doug Johnstone is from Arbroath and thought that Dundee is a big city, so he simply ‘got over it’ [Edinburgh’s reputation], and he tries to find areas less well represented in fiction to make them his. He has also written about Islay, and in order to avoid lots of research he makes his characters visitors, so that he doesn’t have to prove he knows a place like a native.

Neil Broadfoot’s only reason for ‘being here’ was Edinburgh. A journalist for the Scotsman he described getting the idea of killing someone by throwing them off the Scott Monument. He also enjoys killing on Skye, and generally likes taking a beautiful place and doing something terrible in it.

So the introduction by Alanna Knight was obviously quite apt; ‘Edinburgh has always been bad.’ She talked about Burke and Hare, saying what a fascinating crime history Edinburgh has.

James Oswald

James’s Tony McLean hardly ever gets sent out of Edinburgh. He needs to be there. In the early days of writing James described the rather nice area of Trinity, off Leith Walk, as a place full of drug addicts and whores. Now he checks his facts a bit better. He also finds he needs to move McLean and the murders to new areas, and not just stick to the few he knew well years ago. A while ago he thought of a friend’s house in Gilmerton, and decided he was going to murder someone there. He then discovered the caves in Gilmerton, which were absolutely perfect for killing people in.

Doug tries to be as accurate as possible, so has maps and photos on his wall. He checks distances from A to B, and which way you’d travel between them, as well as knowing house numbers, mentioning a murder which took place in Ian Rankin’s house.

Neil Broadfoot

Neil said you’d never have a Mardi Gras in Princes Street, and that tone and flavour is the most important. He also seems to have considered, very carefully, how you’d kill someone by running a tram into them.

Questioned on writing series, Neil said that one novel tends to give him the next one. Doug isn’t strong enough to be hard to his characters by having them go through the treatment he dishes out more than once.

Tony McLean gets more scarred with every book, but James blames Stuart MacBride for this. Asked if you have to read the books in order, he said you don’t need to, but that he’d prefer for people ‘to buy all the books…’ (The Benfro books must be read in order, however.)

James read the passage from Gilmerton cove and it was chilling even when you have already read the book. Doug read a suicide scene set on the Forth Road Bridge in Queensferry, which made me want to read the book, while also making me not want to read it. Neil said that as it was after twelve, he was allowed to swear, which he did when he read about murder in a newspaper editor’s office [not the Scotsman].

As to who they write for, they agreed you must write for yourself and not try and please others. James found this out when publishers made him lose the supernatural from his books, but it was rubbish. Besides, Allan Guthrie told him to keep the ghosts in.

Doug Johnstone

Doug said you have to write what you have to write. This former nuclear physicist has always written, and he was encouraged to ‘go for it’ after getting two quite nicely done rejections.

And politics is generally a no.