Archive for March, 2014

51eCX1AIs2L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_510-na8C0iL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_My crime fiction reading has been put on hold for the moment as I am planning to read two outstanding prize winning history books. Bloodlands Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder, and Iron Curtain The Crushing of Eastern Europe by Anne Applebaum.

I am at present about a third of the way through Bloodlands, and in the words of Anthony Beevor [author of Stalingrad] it is “original, wonderful and horrifying”. The actions of political leaders are far more frightening than anything invented in a crime fiction novel.

I was inspired, if that is the appropriate word in the circumstances, to read these books by the apparent eagerness of  our current politicians to get involved in the Ukrainian-Russian dispute over Crimea. For much of my life politicians of the left in Great Britain viewed the Soviet Union as some kind of socialist utopia ignoring the horrendous crimes perpetrated by Stalin and his cohorts. While those on the right conveniently forgot that with a few outstanding exceptions their leaders were prepared to appease and support Hitler as a bulwark against Communism.

Now politicians from both left and right seem oblivious to the fact that financially challenged Great Britain is no longer a world power, or even a European one. Our main problem at present is not the referendum that allowed the secession of Crimea from Ukraine, but the referendum in September 2014 that may allow the secession of Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom.

We would lose oil revenues, our nuclear submarine base, whisky, smoked salmon, Andy Murray, Sean Connery, and Alan Cumming; and as well as those disasters our entire political system will be thrown into chaos until the new elections in 2020.

Everything flows, everything changes.

You can’t board the same prison train twice…..Vasily Grossman  

51ohmdSj07L._Among the books I have been sent recently by Europa Editions UK was a thin book of 140 pages entitled Game For  Five: A Bar Lume Mystery by Marco Malvadi translated by Howard Curtis. The handy length and the recommendations on the front and back cover from Andrea Camilleri meant I moved it to the top of my reading list.

Do you have to be Italian to write extremely amusing novels about a tragic subject?

I suppose if in a mere hundred years you have had your army commanded by Luigi Cadorna, an advocate of decimation to encourage the troops, and then been ruled by Benito Mussolini and Silvio Berlusconi you develop an intriguing national sense of humour.

At the Bar Lume four old men sit playing cards, insulting each other, and the other  residents of Pineta, a small coastal town in Northern Italy. They argue and gossip with  Massimo the barman, and when a young woman is found dumped in a trash can they encourage him to take the role of amateur detective in the investigation. After all in Pineta sticking your nose in other people’s business was the national sport.

The plot is good with several suspects for the murder but it is the interaction and relationships between the younger Massimo and his elderly customers that makes this book such a brilliant read. The social commentary on the subtle incompetence of the Italian administrative system is neatly done. 

The name of the fourth man is Pilade Del Tacca. He has watched seventy-four springs glide pleasantly by and is happily overweight. Years of hard work at the town hall in Pineta, where if you don’t have breakfast four times a morning you’re nobody, has formed both his physique and his character; apart from being ill-mannered, he’s also a pain in the butt.

There are other well drawn characters including Tiziana, who…

possessed two perfect attributes for working in a bar. Firstly, she wasn’t clumsy. Secondly, she had beautiful breasts……..

There is also Fusco, the standard Italian incompetent local police chief, the elegant Arianna Costa the victim Alina’s mother, and an assorted selection of suspects for the murder.

I won’t spoil it by giving any more details because if you only read one translated crime fiction book this year make it Game For Five. 

Thank God I’ve got coffee. Who was it who invented coffee? He must be the cousin of the genius who invented the bed.

Nobel Prizes for both of them.

For them, and for the person who invented Nutella.    

51FLkOS0cLL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_David Downing is the author of six John Russell spy thrillers set in World War II Berlin one of which, Stettin Station, I read and reviewed for Euro Crime back in 2009. That series is now completed so I was interested to get an ARC from publishers Soho Crime of the first book in what promised to be a fine new spy series set around the Great War. Jack McColl, a luxury car salesman, is also working  for British spymaster Cumming and hoping to obtain a full time post in the fledgling intelligence service.

Cumming is based on George Mansfield Smith- Cumming, the original C, first director of the Secret Intelligence Service SIS whose top agent during the Great War was the “Ace of Spies” Lieutenant Sidney George Reilly, the man Ian Fleming probably based his creation James Bond. It has always amused me that the quintessential British secret agent was based on a  man going by the name Sidney Reilly, who was actually Georgi Rosenblum from Odessa.

The story starts with McColl in Tsingtao, a German colony on the Chinese mainland, where along with his younger brother Jed and his friend Mac he is marketing the Maia luxury automobile. McColl, the spy, uses local prostitutes to obtain pillow talk information from German officials and naval officers about their East Asian Squadron. Tsingtao fell to our Japanese allies early in the war, but this German colony left the legacy of a beer sold widely in our supermarkets. When one of his young Chinese information gatherers asks too many questions and the German officer becomes suspicious, McColl has to flee Tsingtao travelling by rail to Shanghai. 

McColl himself was thirty-two years old, and had been born into a world without automobiles or flying machines, phonographs or telephones, the wireless or moving pictures. Who in his right  mind would exchange this thrilling new world for battle fields soaked in blood? 

Well that question was answered earlier in the chapter by a supposed German water engineer, talking about the Kaiser.

He grew up playing soldiers and can’t seem to stop.

Simplistic but probably not too far from the truth.

McColl begins an involvement with the beautiful  suffragette journalist Caitlin Hanley, and the story moves rapidly on as he journeys from Shanghai across the Pacific to San Francisco; enjoying Caitlin’s company at every opportunity despite worries about her family’s affiliations and her antagonism to British colonialism. There is much more to McColl’s journey, and the reader learns about  working conditions in American factories, India’s struggle for independence, the Irish problem, and the Mexican revolution.  

This book was an easy read and there was tension and excitement in places, but I could not get over the feeling that there was more than enough international incidents packed into the 338 pages to fill another couple of books. I wondered if some of the plot, that occurring at Tampico and Vera Cruz, was added later with thoughts of an American readership. Unfortunately the frenetic action meant the characters were a bit predictable and somewhat naive, with McColl’s ability to sustain punishment and get out of impossible situations a bit more James Bond than Richard Hannay. A good, but slightly disappointing read, and I will be very interested to see how the rest of the series develops.  

From the website Typographical Era [see below] I was pleased to learn that translator Don Bartlett has been nominated along with author Karl Ove Knausgaard for the 2014 Best Translated Book Award. Don translates Jo Nesbo and K.O.Dahl among others; so he has brought to mono-linguistic English readers  many exciting books over the past few years. I was very pleased to see part of my interview with Don was used to publicise the award. The photo shows Don with the late Maxine Clarke, a great champion of Scandinavian crime fiction and an admirer of Don’s work. 

“A novel, short story, or other piece of fiction might be great in its original form, but let’s face it, without the loving attention of a skilled translator it could end up destroyed when it arrives in its English version.  The Best Translated Book Award isn’t just about the authors, it’s about the translators who take their work and make it accessible to an even greater audience as well.  To drive that point home, the award’s$10,000 cash prize is split equally between the winning author and the translator of his or her book.

P1010564My Struggle: Book Two / A Man in Love
By Karl Ove Knausgaard
Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett

Don Bartlett lives in Norfolk and works as a freelance translator of Scandinavian literature. He has translated, or co-translated, a wide variety of Danish and Norwegian novels by such writers as Per Petterson, Lars Saabye Christensen, Roy Jacobsen, Ingvar Ambjørnsen, Jo Nesbo and Ida Jessen. (Official Bio, taken from My Struggle: Book Two / A Man in Love)

Bartlett on translating from the Norwegian: …I read the book in Norwegian first, get an idea of what strengths there are, what I will have to make sure I bring out, what knotty problems there might be, then make a first draft, which is usually poor because it keeps too close to the source language. Then I start making it sound more English and slowly begin to crack the problems. I go through three or four drafts and there are more adjustments as the translation goes through the editing stage. No such thing as perfection, just gradual improvement. (from Crime Scraps)”    

italiangreatwar0101-28-~3 (2)06-21-~1 (2)lucarelliThe quality of many of the sub-titled crime/political series that BBC4 have shown in their Saturday night slot has been very high. Spiral [France], The Killing [Denmark], The Bridge [Sweden/Denmark], Borgen [Denmark], Montalbano and Young Montalbano [Italy] have set a high standard not least for the amount of interesting and very attractive female characters.

The sub-titled series that has just finished on Saturday was called Salamander. It was Belgian and despite some good camera work showing Brussels and the countryside, it could never quite get over the handicap of being Belgian. Poor Hercule Poirot must be spinning in his grave to discover his birth country was being run by a sleazy clique, whose solid financial foundations were started by stealing money sent by the British to Brussels. But enough about the EU. Salamander had an identity problem as the plot didn’t quite know whether it was meant to be a police procedural or political thriller with a back story set during WWII. And I would suggest the average British village bobby takes more precautions going into a pub on a Friday night, than apparently the Brussels police do when dealing with murderous conspirators.

I am not one of those who thinks that translated crime fiction and  sub-titled TV is somehow superior. In fact I am concerned that the insistence on publishing both second level crime novels and any old TV series simply because they are foreign and trendy is a grave mistake. British home grown TV can come up with outstanding crime fiction series such as the currently running Line of Duty on BBC2, and last year’s Mayday [BBC], Southcliffe [Channel4] and Broadchurch [ITV].  

But the new BBC4 sub-titled series starting next weekend is Inspector De Luca and I am fairly sure that if this series is anything like the books written by Carlo Lucarelli it will be dramatic and educational TV. The De Luca books are set in the period around the end of WWII, beginning when Italy was occupied in the South by the Allies and in the North by the Germans and their Italian Fascist allies. Benito Mussolini briefly ruling a German puppet state called the Republic of Salo before meeting a just end at the hands of Italian partisans.

I understand the TV series starts earlier in 1938 when Italian Fascism was still a major force in European politics. Incidentally I have two books on my TBR pile from another series set in Italy during those Fascist years, the Commissario Ricciardi novels by Maurizio De Giovanni. [more on this series soon]

How do honest people police a country when the people who make the laws are bigger criminals than those who break the law? [I got that one from Bernie Gunther courtesy of his creator Philip Kerr]

The Great War was the most influential event of the 20th century because it lead to the fall of four defeated empires Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman, and also the grave weakening of the two victorious empires the British and French. But another victor country, Italy suffered a terrible fate and fell into a long dark age that lasted from 1922-1945. 

What happened to Italy after her “victory” in the Great War?

Italy in spite of signing the 1882 Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary had in 1915 joined the conflict in alliance with Britain and France. The Italian army attacked Austria in the Alps and along the Isonzo River, and was shattered by the terrible blood bath most of it caused by the sheer incompetence and cruelty of their commanders. But the war not only caused great loss of life it also discredited Italy’s democratic institutions and lead to their overthrow by Benito Mussolini, and the creation of the world’s first fascist state. For an account of the Italian campaign I can recommend The White War, Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915-1919* by Mark Thompson; it won the prestigious Hessel-Tiltman Prize for History in 2009, and goes some way to explain why Mussolini was able to seize power. 

My reviews of the De Luca series: 

I reviewed Carte Blanche the first in the trilogy here
The second The Damned Season I reviewed here.
The last book in the trilogy, Via Del Oche.
*Some of the most iconic figures of the 20th century were involved in that Italian Campaign- ambulance driver Ernest Hemingway, stretcher-bearer Angelo Roncalli later Pope John XXIII, Erwin Rommel, Benito Mussolini, and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.   

51BvycWWroL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_51Y4W4o-IIL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_51WrzjbXCpL._SL500_AA300_41Tp7vFqe0L._SL500_LiaDHSomeone   These are the Official Petrona Award shortlist nominees and only one of these books, Linda, As In The Linda Murder by Leif G.W.Persson, appeared in my own opinionated shortlist. I have read four of the six books and here are links to my reviews. 

SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir tr. Philip Roughton (Hodder & Stoughton)
LIGHT IN A DARK HOUSE by Jan Costin Wagner tr. Anthea Bell (Harvill Secker)
My own shortlist was based on my personal opinion of what I felt Maxine [to whom this award is dedicated] would have chosen; a Don Bartlett translation and an Annika Bengtzon novel by Liza Marklund.
The Weeping Girl by Hakan Nesser is definitely a worthy contender for the award, but I chose the next book in the series, The Strangler’s Honeymoon, simply because it featured more of Van Veeteren, and concentrated a fraction more on society’s problems. The first Scandinavian crime fiction I read way back in the 1970s was the Martin Beck series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo which is why I prefer a little humour with my murders; even if it is the dark satire of Leif G.W.Persson. There is very little humour in Closed for Winter or Strange Shores and that is why I did not enjoy them very much, annoying in the case of the very depressing and predictable Strange Shores because Arnaldur Indridason is one of my favourites. 
Will I read the remaining two books before the winner is announced?
Someone to Watch Over Me concerns a young man with Down’s syndrome accused of arson and murder. Author Yrsa Sigurdardottir is a charming lady, but I would probably find she had inadvertently put something in the book that clashes with my own knowledge about people with Down’s syndrome, therefore I will give it a miss. 
If I have the time I hope to give the Jan Costin Wagner novel Light In A Dark House a try despite the fact that my TBR mountain never seems to get any smaller. I look forward to the judges decision on the Petrona- my pick the Hakan Nesser or Leif G.W.Persson?  

512S7Oo65LL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_Asa Larsson’s The Second Deadly Sin, which is set in Kiruna way up in the Arctic Circle, was chosen as Best Swedish Crime Novel in 2012. 

The story begins when a hunting party bring in an expert to kill a wounded bear that has attacked and eaten a dog. When the bear is killed the stomach contents show that it has also eaten a human. 

District Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson is having a quiet Sunday morning when her old friend Sivving, asks her and police Dog handler Krister Eriksson to accompany him out Lehtiniemi in order to check on Sol-Britt Uusitalo who hasn’t turned up for work. When they arrive they find Sol-Britt murdered in her bed, and her 7 year old grandson Marcus missing. Sol-Britt, a recovered alcoholic, had pulled herself together in order to look after Marcus, whose father had been rundown by a car three years previously, and whose mother had run off to Stockholm with her new boyfriend, who would not take Marcus. The traumatised Marcus is found and stays with Eriksson pretending to be a “wild dog” along with the real dogs. Asa Larsson captures the atmosphere of Sweden’s far north where there is a close relationship between man and nature and animals.

Police Inspector Anna-Maria Mella leads the investigating team with colleagues, Tommy Rantakyo, Fred Olson and Sven-Erik Stalnacke. In the Swedish system they are supervised by a prosecutor who is a lawyer. But Rebecka who had been assigned the case is removed by her boss, Bjornfot, after pressure from District Prosecutor Carl Von Post. Rebecka knows the locals, Rebecka had a breakdown in the past. The pompous Von Post takes over the case despite being extremely unpopular with the police. 

When they discover that Sol-Britt’s grandmother, young schoolteacher Elina Petersson, was also murdered the reader is taken back in a series of flashbacks to events in 1914/1915 and the story of Kiruna as a frontier mining town. The two strands of the story come together in a dramatic conclusion with a linked theme.

She looked at Sivving. She knew he had stared real poverty in the face. “We could easily have ended up in a children’s home,” he sometimes used to say.

Not everything was better in the good old days, she thought.

I really enjoyed this book especially the contrast between the modern women Rebecka and Anna-Maria,  and the situation of Elina back in the early twentieth century. Sometimes a back story holds up the narrative but in The Second Sin, Elina’s tragic tale of an educated woman with a modern ideas is compelling reading. Elina reads  and reads books including Selma Lagerlof, the first female writer to win the Nobel Prize, and Ellen Key, whose theories that the 20th century should be the century of the child and that motherhood should be supported by the government not by husbands is probably one of the main reasons for Sweden’s advanced position in the world today. But the vulnerability of all women to powerful ruthless men is a theme in crime fiction that never changes.

The Second Deadly Sin is a book full of great characters, the police dog handler Eriksson, disfigured in a fire as a child; Anna-Maria Mella, struggling with a career and three children; the objectionable prosecutor Von Post; and Rebecka, who could have an easier life as her lover Mans is a partner in a trendy Stockholm  law firm, but chooses to live in Kiruna. The Second Deadly Sin is a good read in a series that continues to deservedly win awards, and restores my faith that there are still outstanding Scandinavian crime fiction books being translated. 

Bloody woman, he thought, examining himself in the mirror. Handsome top dog? Old man? He would go to Riche anyway, and have a glass or two. Just sit there, observing beautiful women. Much better than gaping at “Mad Men” on the telly , all alone in his flat.