International Association of Crime Writers, North American Branch


by J. Madison Davis

Perrine Leblanc.  The Lake. Translated from the French by Lazer Lederhendler. Arachide.

Though this small, well-written novel hinges around a crime and its effect on a small community, it isn’t really a crime novel. A girl is murdered and thrown into a lake, and is later found through the frozen surface by a boy playing hockey. There is little mystery and procedure of the usual sort, however, though the first half of the novel exploits these suspense elements. What makes the novel stand out are the exceptional portraits of the main character, townspeople and their interrelationships. The Lake is written and translated with considerable beauty balanced against a somber realism reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson. Small towns can be suffocating and the main character escapes to Montréal in order to breathe. Much of the book concentrates on the creation of perfumes, and the subtlety and overtness of different scents becomes a metaphor for the complexity of people and emotion. The author lives in Montréal and won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French Fiction for her first novel.

Åsne Seierstad, One of Us: The Story of a Massacre in Norway and Its Aftermath. Translated from the Norwegian by Sarah Death. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

One of Us has already been exuberantly praised in The Guardian, the New York Times, and many other venues, but the existence of a good book is something to celebrate among the tree-slaughtering and pixel waste that often stretches to our literary horizon. As you no doubt recall, in July 2011, Andres Breivik killed eight people with a bomb in Oslo, then went to a summer resort where he massacred sixty-nine people, mostly the children of Norwegian politicians. We have grown too used to this kind of horror, in which a deranged madman uses the justification of whatever political agenda attracts him to do what he really wants to do: to glorify himself through killing. Do we really want to understand these degenerates? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is impossible, but as Truman Capote proved, to connect with the dark humanity that is behind such brutality might strangely help us to grasp aspects and of the human soul that lead to these seemingly inevitable tragedies. There are only a few steps between anti-immigrant blowhards and murderers such as Breivik. This book is a fast read, despite its over 500 pages, and uncomfortably, but cogently, helps us see exactly what kind of person is willing to take those steps. 

Robert Karjel.  The Swede. Translated from the Swedish by Nancy Pick and Robert Karjel. Harper.

Robert Karjel is a helicopter pilot with the Swedish Air Force who has trained with the Marines and served in Afghanistan and Somalia. As might be expected, even though it doesn’t directly exploit Karjel’s background, the novel is a testosterone-filled thriller that ought to be a hit with fans of Lee Child and other manly man adventures. It opens with a brutal scene, but carries its tension mostly by implying the possibility of further brutalities. There are elements of John Le Carré with a rendition and torture mystery at the core of the novel along with a bank job involving an unlikely group of tsunami survivors, art theft, and a Kansas fundamentalist church. The FBI and CIA play large roles as well. Summarized, this may sound like an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plot, but all of it proceeds methodically, without straining the suspension of disbelief too much, and without becoming predictable. The plotting is clever and the author and his co-translator write cleanly, directly, and with the hum of a high voltage wire.

Nele Neuhaus. I Am Your Judge. Translated from the German by Steven T. Murray. Minotaur.

Nele Neuhaus is a bestseller in Germany and will likely do well here. I Am Your Judge is her latest. Her main character is a police detective who postpones her wedding in order to investigate the murder of an elderly woman. The book is put together almost as if it came from a primer on writing bestsellers, with bits and pieces of your typical episode of Criminal Minds. An irrational serial killer turns out to have a reason (natürlich!) for his selection of victims, which is discovered through lots of legwork and dot-connecting. The content of this story doesn’t really justify its length. The book ends with a happily ever after kiss, but it takes over 400 pages to get there, with the characters often reminding each other of the clues that, since they were there, they ought to remember. It is competent light entertainment, good for languid afternoons under the beach umbrella.

Han Kang. The Vegetarian. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith. Hogarth.

The Vegetarian is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize and isn’t actually what I would call a crime novel, though the mysterious creepiness of the story may have you anxious about that noise you thought you heard in the hall. A woman suddenly refuses to eat meat after having a strange dream, and the destructive impact on everyone around her (husband, parents, sister) is the subject of the story. The impact of this novella (under 200 pages) is much greater than its size promises. The creepiness is reminiscent of much of Patricia Highsmith, but reminds me most of the careful blend of realism and gothic eroticism in the great Junichiro Tanizaki’s short stories like “The Tattooer” and “Diary of a Mad Old Man.” These are all masterpieces of being absolutely clear, while you feel an evocative dread of powerful things just at the periphery of sight.

Patrícia Melo. The Body Snatcher. Translated from the Spanish by Clifford E. Landers. Bitter Lemon Press

The vitality of noir shows itself again in this remarkable little novel, which has all the requisite elements of the style, while seeming always original and vivid. The narrator is an unemployed radio operator–with the tic of annoyingly saying “over” as he finishes a thought–who witnesses a plane crash in a river close to the town of Corumba, near where Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia meet. This random event leads him into a dangerous arrangement with a cocaine dealer, complicated by his relationship with his girlfriend, who works for the police department, and his passionate and tumultuous affair with his cousin’s wife. Ultimately, he undertakes a ransom scheme which he thinks is so carefully planned it should be foolproof, but, of course, like most perfect crimes is filled with flaws that make it almost obvious. The piranhas are lurking, both literally and figuratively. The fast-moving story is told without dialogue, but this never seems arty or self-indulgent on the page, a tribute to Melo’s deft skills. The ending is a bit of a departure from the usual noir and comes across as a little weak; however, the feeling of sweat and humidity is on every page, bringing the setting and characters brilliantly to life.

Woman of the Dead
, by Bernhard Aichner. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell. Scribner.

Blum is an undertaker married to the policeman who investigated her parents’ drowning death, and she is pretty much sociopathic except for her passionate love for her husband. Adopted, she grew up in an emotionally frigid house and was ostracized by other children because of her father’s profession. When her husband is killed in a hit and run, she discovers conversations on his cell phone that suggest the accident was no accident, and she sets out to find out exactly what he was investigating and then to avenge his murder. Reflecting its main character’s mentality, this is a remarkably controlled novel, surprising without cheaply pandering in the way many lesser thrillers do. Ultimately some of the links in the chain of events are a bit incredible and the list of victims may be one or two bad guys long as it got this reader thinking “That’s three down. How many to go?” There’s a bit of repetitiveness in buttressing the emotion, as well. Nonetheless, Woman of the Dead is excellent, dark and intriguing, in the best noir tradition. The author lives in Innsbruck, Austria, and this is his first book translated into English.

Man Tiger, by Eka Kurniawan. Translated from the Indonesian by Labodalih Sembiring. Verso.

Is this a crime novel or not? It is certainly not a conventional crime novel, but then worrying about categories and definitions is a good way to miss many an interesting book. Kurniawan is an Indonesian author who is lauded in the novel’s introduction by Benedict Anderson as being Indonesia’s most original author of novels and short stories, “an unexpected meteorite.” Man Tiger is the story of the murder of a man named Anwar Sadat (this is no reference to the Egyptian leader) by a man, Margio, who has been supernaturally inhabited by a white tiger. Margio doesn’t seem to be under a delusion that a tiger is within him--though one could read the novel this way--but rather, in a way reminiscent of magic realism, he actually is possessed by the tiger and rips out Anwar Sadat’s throat with his teeth. If this summary sounds like horror, it shouldn’t, and a reader looking for horror would find it disappointing. The richness of the novel comes from its insights into character and in the portrait of life and love in a rural village. Kurniawan works out his characters in richly detailed back stories and uses dialog almost never. Man Tiger is a window which allows another way of seeing the world through fiction, elusive and precise at the same time.

The Truth and Other Lies, by Sascha Arango. Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor. Atria Books. 

The Truth and Other Lies has been appearing on “best book” lists this year, and unlike many books on those lists richly deserves it. Arango is a German television and screen writer and this is his debut novel, but it is not very script-like, in that it focuses on the protagonist’s mental processes rather than overt action. The main character, Henry Hayden, is a highly successful novelist, if you can call him that. Actually, his wife Martha is the writer of his novels, but conceals her talent, seeming to suffer from some kind of hypergraphia, writing only for the sake of writing. Henry, meanwhile, plays the role of best-selling author for the public and, as is typical of fictional authors, is deep in the spiderweb of an affair. A witty sociopath, Henry has a lot to lose, and as murder and its coverup become his preoccupations the reader discovers just how subtle and deceptive Henry can be. Too many psychological novels are disappointingly Psych 101, predictable and falsely profound. This one brings to mind the best of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock. While Henry is absorbed in his manipulations, the reader looks on in admiration and wicked amusement at his evil legerdemain. Perhaps something is being said here about the situation of the screenwriter, often anonymous but manipulating in the shadows so that a story seems convincing. Henry anticipates the reactions of the people around him to create a coherent and believable story that will leave him off the hook. The Truth and Other Lies is an intelligent, suspenseful, and entertaining novel, certainly one of the best this year, if not for many years.

Duet in Beirut, by Mishka Ben-David. Translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg. Overlook.

Mishka Ben-David has published a number of spy thrillers and other books. He is a twelve-year veteran of the Mossad who ought to know the espionage business intimately. At one point on his career, he was assigned to take an antidote to a Hamas leader in Jordan after a poisoning attempt by the Mossad had failed. As John Le Carré has frequently demonstrated in his books, espionage makes strange bedfellows. In Duet in Beirut, Mossad agent Gadi goes into Beirut to stop an agent who has disappeared and is suspected to have gone rogue, intent on completing an assassination that he botched as a member of Gadi’s team some time before. Tel Aviv, however, no longer wants the assassination carried out. Perhaps the author knows how this kind of thing works too well. The first part of the novel consists of an account of the internal review of the failed assassination, but this section goes on too long and despite the action picking up somewhat afterwards, the book never quite loses its expository tone. According to the dust jacket, Ben-David’s thrillers are in development for international television.

Ice Cold, by Andrea Maria Schenkel. Translated from the German by Anthea Bell, trans. Quercus.

Ice Cold is only Andrea Maria Schenkel’s second novel, but it earned her the German Crime prize, making her the only author to win that award in two consecutive years. That alone should tell us that her talent must be exceptional and to expect a lot from this little book. Saying a book seems longer than it is rarely is intended as a compliment, but this 140 page novel is rich in its portrayal of character, evokes atmosphere like a much longer novel, and conveys a complex story. Set in Germany during the Nazi period, but before the outbreak of war, the novel begins with the execution of a murdering rapist and, because he is a member of the party, the suppression of public news about it. The book then flashes back to the story of the victim, a country girl who takes off for the city to find a job. Despite her poverty, she manages a lively period of drinking and sex, only to end up dead beside the road. The evocation of the time period with its lowering clouds is brilliantly done without the usual overripe melodrama and over-the-top evil characters. Anthea Bell, who has translated W. G. Sebald, Stefan Zweig, and the Asterix comics, does us yet another favor by rendering Ice Cold into English.

Eyes Full of Empty, by Jérémie Guez. Translated from the French by Edward Gauvin, trans. Unnamed Press.

The French, by embracing Poe, had their own golden age of crime writing before World War I and now, after recognizing the concept of American noir post-World War II, have created a distinctive breed of their own noir. Eyes Full of Empty is the first novel by 26-year-old Jérémie Guez to appear in English, and it demonstrates the deeper shade of black that noir has taken on in France, darker than even the Scandinavian variety. Idir is the son of a bourgeois Algerian immigrant and has done jail time. Like Showtime’s Ray Donovan, he does odd jobs as a discreet detective and fixer. He gets involved in two mysteries here, locating a stolen Audi R8 and finding a missing brother who disappeared after being raped by a gay sadist. The hardboiled motifs are all here. Idir has a network of colorful characters he can call on when he needs help. The streets were never meaner, the bad guys never more psychopathic, and, of course, there is the irresistible babe with dubious motives. Idir is curiously plagued by fits of crying, the lingering result of some kind of breakdown he suffered in prison, and though he is very tough, he’s no Mike Hammer when confronted by killers. Guez makes all of this seem gritty rather than derivative. This looks like the beginning of a long career.

Innocence or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margolius Kovály . Translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker. Soho Crime.

The odds were against Heda Margolius Kovály surviving to write anything at all. In fact, astronomically against it. Born in 1919, she was confined to the Łódź ghetto in 1941, then transported to Auschwitz in 1944 and death marched to Bergen Belsen in 1945, from which she somehow escaped to haul ammunition for the uprising in Prague. Later, her husband (who had also survived the death camps) would be convicted of treason and executed by the Communists. Much of her history was recorded in her memoir Under a Cruel Star and though Innocence is a novel, it is largely based on her life under Communism in the 1950s. The main character, Helena, works in a movie theater with a variety of other women who are trying to get by in a Prague that Kafka envisioned long before it came to pass.The police suspect that the theater is a means to pass information and Helena is under suspicion because her husband is currently a political prisoner. Meanwhile, a boy is murdered in the theater and then, a philandering investigator. It’s a good mystery made richer by the convincing characterizations of the women, but the power of the novel is in giving us a vivid feel for the atmosphere of the conquered Soviet Czechoslovakia. In that gray world, Mrs. Kovály outlived most of her tormentors and saw her country independent again. She passed away in 2010, at the age of 92. It is our good fortune she had the opportunity, for at least part of her life, to write.

The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura. Translated from the Spanish by Anna Kushner. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

History is a mystery and never ceases to be one, as we rarely know exactly what happened and almost never exactly why. Nonetheless, clever novelists create convincing clarity that often seems more real than what we actually know.

Padura’s remarkable novel takes the murder of Leon Trotsky and develops it into the kind of novel that used to be more of a staple of literature, the kind of novel that the words “epic sweep” were intended to describe.

Nearly six hundred pages, it takes the reader on a journey that is more psychologically and character driven than event driven, as, after all, if we know who Trotsky was, we are also likely to know he won’t come out of Mexico alive.

Some big books skip from event to event like a stone over a shallow pond. The great ones, and this may well qualify, slide steadily deeper. The character of the assassin is rendered, if not sympathetic, at least comprehensible—something rarely done in conventional thrillers. A finalist for the Book of the Year award in Spain, the novel was translated over a two-year period by Anna Kushner, earning a nomination for the PEN translation prize.

(Editor’s Note: Padura is a member of our Cuban branch.)

Bed of Nails, by Antonin Varenne. Translated by Siân Reynolds. McLehose Press.

A police department bureau that investigates only suicides is an interesting idea, but as portrayed in Antonin Varenne’s Bed of Nails, it’s a kind of Siberia run by losers and detectives on the outs with the brass.

In this case, a performer who specializes in sticking sharp metal objects through his arms, cheeks, and other body parts is supposed to have intentionally bled out in a live performance. Of course, the detective Guérin and the performer’s friend John suspect murder and dangerous secrets and menacing characters soon appear.

Guérin bears all of the hallmarks of the noir policeman, with the addition of a pet parrot. He’s odd, naturellement, but of course brilliant and dismissive of authority, a gnomish type reminiscent of Pierre Lemaitre’s detective in Alex. Dealing with the various internal obstacles in the bureaucracy and out-of-control colleagues, Guérin never quite comes across as convincing, partly because his pursuit of the truth is much less interesting than John’s.

John is an expatriate hippy type who lives in the backwoods of rural France and gets drawn into his friend’s problems involving a large debt and an embassy employee compromised by his homosexuality. Along the way, John links up with the most vivid character, an ex-con who lives as a caretaker in the Luxembourg Gardens in a small shack with his dog.

Bed of Nails is a fast read, with the stories told in parallel mostly. But the plot is unnecessarily complicated, as if the author couldn’t decide who or what to focus on. More of the pleasures of pulp and a little less self-conscious noir would have benefitted the book greatly. Nonetheless, it was an award winner when published in France, and Varenne is a writer to watch for as his promising career continues.

Behind God’s Back, by Harri Nykänen. Translated by Kristian London. Bitter Lemon Press.

Harri Nykänen spent many years covering the crime beat in Finland and uses his extensive knowledge of police procedure in his novel, Behind God’s Back.

The setting and his detective’s name, Ariel Kafka, suggests that the usual elements of Scandi noir will be in play, but Kafka doesn’t come across as the usual world-weary Wallanderoid, and the case is rather straightforward and free of angst, despite the opportunities set up by Kafka’s being part of the small Helsinki Jewish community, a former girlfriend’s father getting shot at his front door, and the mysterious relationship of his own brother to the case. Little thought is expended on what it means to be a diaspora cop in Helsinki, though there are anti-Semitic crazies, there as everywhere, who may have been behind the murder.

The Mossad, Russian gangsters, professional assassins and corrupt politicians are also involved, but the book doesn’t become an international thriller, either. One anticipates the usual passionate reunion of former lovers, Kafka crying in his beer, but the former girlfriend barely appears–even though her husband is a possible suspect.

There are a couple of major bad guys who are much discussed, but are never confronted. Kafka has a bit too much equanimity as well, getting home by nine and drinking a beer, and listening to the solution of the case rather than actively figuring it out. In a way, this might make Kafka a more realistic portrayal of real detectives, but, as Chandler put it, all that isn’t quite enough. The novel is quite different from the usual, but if you toss the huge “K.” card on the table, the expectation is that it doesn’t just lie there. It didn’t help that there are several typos and very odd wordings as well.

© 2016, used by permission
J. Madison Davis is the president of IACW’s North American branch, an author, and a Contributing Editor at World Literature Today.