Category Archives: Crime

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.

A pathological liar

Even though I know I will love listening to Sophie Hannah talk about her new book, it takes me by surprise how entertaining she is. Fun. Intelligent. I’ve had her A Game For All The Family sitting here for a while. First I was going to read it immediately, but you know how that tends to go. After that I was too scared to contemplate it. Because Sophie is one scary woman, too.

Sophie Hannah

She’s satisfied with the title of her novel. She got the words from numerous boxes containing board games and the like, and her novel is about a family playing games, just not Cluedo or Monopoly. It’s her first standalone novel, and she couldn’t use her normal detectives Simon and Charlie, because she needed the police to be useless. And to be in Devon.

It’s about pathological lying, which is different from ‘normal sensible lying.’ She was inspired by her daughter’s friend, who was an unusually interesting nine-year-old boy. (Sophie tends to go out of her way to avoid children.) Set in a house on the same spot as Agatha Christie’s Greenway, it was inspired by Sophie’s family holiday there.

Sophie Hannah

Sophie has to plan everything in advance, as her ‘mysteries are so weird’ and there is generally just the one possible solution. She reminisced about her own house move from Bingley to Cambridge, moving not because they needed to, but because she felt like living in Cambridge. It made her feel a bit neurotic, worrying about having randomly moved her family, possibly tempting fate in doing so.

As a child she used to write jolly, childish stories, but rarely of the fingerprints and DNA variety. She talked about the pathological liars she has known. Her husband told her ‘no one is even remotely as weird as you.’ She feels attuned to the weird side of life, and loves inviting insane guests for dinner. (You’ve been warned.)

Apart from for her Poirot novel Sophie has come up with the titles for all her books, and she likes having the title before she starts writing. She feels there is often a link between what authors like reading and the kind of books they write. Sophie grew up on Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, who are both favourites, as well as P D James’ Innocent Blood which she would go up to strangers to recommend.

Sophie Hannah

At the moment Sophie has four and a half days off from having finished her next book, The Narrow Bed, before she starts on a secret writing task that has to be done by Christmas. I think we can guess.

When I got home, all fired up, I discussed the book with the Resident IT Consultant. I said I must read it. He – who has read it – commented on the plot, and I said ‘that sounded like a bit of a spoiler.’ He looked embarrassed before saying he’d better not say any more. Wise man. Maybe I’ll gag him.

A kind of Bernard, but one level down

One day I will know not to say to people I’ve just met that I’m pleased they are so old. I mean it in the most positive way, but realised – belatedly – that it might not sound too good.

Two weeks ago I knew nothing about Lindsey Davis, and when her publicist mentioned her to me, I visualised a twenty-something with long blonde hair. (It’s something about the name, that sounds so blonde and so young.) Hence my relief on discovering Lindsey is 66 and wears black socks. Like Jeremy Corbyn. (Her words, not mine.) She was ‘terribly sorry, but it’s just the way things are.’

Lindsey used to be a civil servant, rather like Bernard in Yes Minister. Now a bestselling author of historical Roman crime novels, Lindsey could take up sitdown comedy if she ever wants to, with no need to go civil servanting again. And at 66 she has her pension. I do hope her sense of humour will help her forget my bad manners. As I said, I meant well. (And as Lindsey said, ‘no I’m not going to stop [writing]. I don’t think female authors give up, do they? How old was P D James? 93.’)

We had tea, and coffee (which was not so frothy it gave her the moustache she craved), before her Bloody Scotland event. I’m grateful for the opportunity not only of meeting Lindsey, but being able to switch events to go to hers. It was one of the best ever, and I’d happily go again tomorrow. She had started her day by lying down on the carpet in her hotel room, until she remembered that in CSI they always point out how much ‘stuff’ will be lurking in a small square of hotel carpet. But since she was down there, she decided to make use of it.

When she was a civil servant during Thatcher’s reign, Lindsey used to do many strange things, and I especially approve of building toilets in – already – ancient monuments. And that’s with only O-level Maths, and English from Oxford. Lindsey decided to leave the civil service when she had to write draft letters on behalf of someone, and then had to write draft replies back to herself.

Lindsey Davis

To cheer herself up Lindsey wrote a novel, set in her favourite period, the English Civil War. She was runner up in a writing competition, so decided to give writing a go. In the 1980s the Civil War was the wrong period. ‘I chose the Romans because nobody else was doing it, which now seems rather funny. I like to tell myself they wouldn’t be there [in the bookshops] if I hadn’t.’ She had a leaking roof that needed money spending on it, and she’d already done some research on the period, and could ‘bluff well.’

Her Marcus Didius Falco books are in effect the Roman Archers; with her adding family details as the series grew. When writing about the Emperor Domitian, Lindsey discovered she quite likes ‘evil paranoid tyrants,’ reckoning she is one of them.

The new Albia series about Falco’s adopted daughter Flavia Albia is set when Albia has reached adulthood, so she has a certain standing in society, despite being a mere woman. Lindsey also feels that both authors and their characters need maturity and life experience, in order to avoid that young, blonde feeling.

(I kept mentioning the Roman Mysteries, and the fact that the female detective in those books is also a Flavia. Apparently you would be named for the Emperor, which explains the staggering number of Flavias. And then I mentioned the RM a bit more still… Lindsey reckons girls didn’t marry as early as we are made to believe. ‘I’m not convinced that that really happened. I think it was something that was practised in the aristocracy.’)

The most recent Albia book, Deadly Election, wasn’t planned to coincide with the elections either here or in the US. It mainly happened because of some stolen Rugby tickets for the Five Nations in Rome, which Lindsey had thought she could use for some kind of Colosseum background. And anyway, in Rome it was the Emperor who decided, with no elections necessary. (She told me she had always wanted to write about a Roman election, and how in the series this was a good moment. ‘And I found a book on it as well, so it just happened, and then I realised just how exciting it was going to be.)

Lindsey Davis

During the Q&A we discovered that the hall was full of retired civil servants. One man wanted her to come and live next door. I think that was a sensible request. We got an explanation to the background of the turbot gift, which featured an editor burning his hands on a hot tray of recently cooked fish. A very large fish, but no turbot.

Lindsey is a sneaky woman. I like her. She wanted to write a series of seven books, set on the seven hills of Rome. Two editors said no. Instead she’s writing about Albia. Each book is set on one of the hills of Rome. A new hill every book. There will be seven books.

She doesn’t plan much. (Except perhaps for the seven hills thing.) She has a vague idea of who will die and who did it, but wouldn’t want a long synopsis to ‘colour in’ when writing the book. And no need to suggest potential plots to her. ‘I don’t want people to give me ideas. I have plenty of ideas myself!’

At this point someone felt called upon to let us know that Lindsey’s ‘twin’ Jeremy Corbyn had won, so black socks are clearly ‘it.’ She grew up as much on radio drama crime as on books, liking Chandler and Hammett. Lindsey does read, but ‘when I stop work I tend to do something completely different, like gardening.’

No ‘street Latin’ for her in the books, either. ‘I hate books where they break into foreign languages.’  What she’s got is mainly 1940s style wise cracks. Lindsey finished by reading the first page from her next novel in the Albia series. This is a woman who knows what she’s doing.

Lindsey Davis

At the end of the day I discovered I was also wearing black socks. Admittedly, I’m not 66, but it’s a good witchy number. Long live old age.