Monday 29 November 2021

In Praise of Spooks

Five years ago, I gave a favourable review to the film which was a spin-off from the long-running TV series Spooks, which I somehow managed to miss when it was first screened (my excuse is that in those days I was a full-time lawyer as well as a novelist). I was encouraged to indulge in a binge-watch but the fact that there are no fewer than 86 episodes of the TV show was a deterrent. Things changed, however, during lockdown and it became one of my viewing treats.

Thanks to good old Iplayer, I've now watched Spooks from start to finish and I must say that although it wasn't meant as pandemic-escapism, it worked brilliantly as far as I was concerned. Even the weakest episodes make for acceptable viewing, while at their best the scripts are razor-sharp. One thing that is very striking is the extent to which global geopolitics have changed in the years since Spooks, which was created by David Wolstencroft, first aired almost 20 years ago - long before Brexit, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Aukus defence pact. It's been suggested that one or two of the writers let their anti-Israel feelings get the better of them, but in general I thought the political material was well handled, although there were various incredible features (not least the emphasis in later series on a Home Secretary who seems responsible for everything, with the Prime Minister remaining invisible). 

The stellar cast is superb. Peter Firth appears in every episode as Harry (later Sir Harry) Pearce, while the wonderful performers who work alongside him at different times include Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes, David Oyelowo, Nicola Walker, Rupert Penry-Jones, Gemma Jones, Hermione Norris, Miranda Raison, and Lara Pulver. The supporting cast, including the data analysts, were just as good and the fate of Colin (Rory MacGregor) was one of the darkest and most poignant moments of the series. But right from the start, the writers were ruthless about disposing of characters. One can only ever be confident that Harry, the lynchpin, will survive.

Some critics detected a falling-off in quality in the tenth and final series. I don't agree. The negativity probably just reflects the fact that Spooks was no longer new. With few exceptions, the episodes have tremendous pace, and although the attempts to humanise the spies with soap opera type backstories weren't entirely successful, the overall standard of writing was very good. Watching this show (along with Bleak House) has been a delight. If you haven't seen it, don't leave it as long as I did before you repair the omission.

Friday 26 November 2021

Forgotten Book - The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple

I first read Julian Symons' The Criminal Comedy of the Contented Couple not long after its original publication in 1985. I must admit that I found the title rather off-putting (in the US, it was retitled A Criminal Comedy) and the story didn't really strike a chord with me. I'd forgotten all about the characters and plot by the time I came to reread it the other day. And on the whole, my reaction second time around was much more favourable.

Symons felt it was one of his best books, noting in Jack Walsdorf's bibliography of his work that he found the writing of it unusually smooth, 'with none of my customary back-tracking and elimination of what seem otiose characters'. That said, although the writing is very snappy, with short scenes and multiple changes of viewpoint, there are a lot of minor characters, almost certainly more than necessary for the purpose of the plot. But they contribute to Symons' purpose, which was at least in part to offer a satirical portrayal of bourgeois English life; in that respect the novel now reads like a slice of social history. 

There are plenty of enjoyable vignettes in this story. Most of the events take place in the prosperous town of Headfield, but there are important developments in Venice and on the island of Elba. One character, Jason Durling, is interested in an obscure writer called D.M. Cruddle (here Symons was reworking his brother A.J. Symons' The Quest for Corvo) and also records some events in his diary. An extract from a newspaper article at the start of the book tells us that two mysterious deaths connected with Headfield take place in Venice, but for a long time it's really unclear where the story is heading. On first reading, this irritated me, but this time I felt more sympathetic to what Symons was trying to do. 

What strikes me very forcibly now is that, in a roundabout way, Symons was updating the classic Golden Age novel. Yes, the scourge of the Humdrums was playing the game! I don't think this has been sufficiently appreciated, either by me or by other critics. But consider the ingredients: a spate of mysterious poison pen letters; ingenious use of poison; disguise/impersonation'; literary references aplenty; an amateur detective solving a puzzle that defeats the official police; and even a thinly disguised version of the 'challenge to the reader' beloved of Ellery Queen and various other Golden Age greats, which is put forward in the newspaper article towards the end of the novel. 

To cap it all, there is a pleasingly ironic finale that I'm sure Francis Iles would have approved. I don't claim that this novel is a masterpiece - the build-up is too fragmentary for that - but it's an enjoyable and unexpected piece of work. I'm very glad I gave it a second try.

Wednesday 24 November 2021

A Jolly Bad Fellow aka They All Died Laughing - 1964 film review

C.E. Vulliamy wrote his crime fiction in two phases. First came the Anthony Rolls books in the Golden Age - two of them have appeared as British Library Crime Classics. And then, for a dozen years from 1952, he wrote a further set of novels. Francis Iles was, I think, his principal inspiration, but his writing had a distinct flavour of its own.

That 1952 novel was Don Among the Dead Men. Twelve years after it appeared it was made into a film with an equally punning title, A Jolly Bad Fellow. It's a black comedy directed by the accomplished Don Chaffey, and although it wasn't a box office success, it still remains very watchable today, because of the range of talents which contributed to its making, not least the principal scriptwriter, Robert Hamer, who is best remembered for the wonderful Kind Hearts and Coronets. The jaunty soundtrack was written by the great John Barry. And the cast is terrific.

The setting is an august university, Ockham. Professor Bowles-Ottery (Leo McKern) is a chemistry don with a taste for publicity that irritates his collegues. Conversely, their prudishness irritates him. He's married to an actress (Maxine Audley) and has an extremely glamorous lab assistant called Delia (Janet Munro). Whilst working in the lab alongside a junior assistant (Dinsdale Landen) he comes across a poison which causes lab mice to dance manically before expiring. Soon he is putting the poison to work as a means of disposing of people who make a nuisance of themselves, while embarking on a dangerous dalliance with Delia.

The lead actors perform with gusto and the supporting cast is distinguished. To name but a few, we see: Dennis Price, Miles Malleson, Leonard Rossiter (a very small part, alas), Alan Wheatley, John Sharp, Ralph Michael, Mervyn Johns, Duncan Macrae, and George Benson. I found the film to be really good escapist entertainment.

Long before his days as Rumpole, McKern gives a performance of great verve. Incidentally, I was sorry when I researched the cast to discover that Janet Munro died, after a period of alcoholism, at the age of 38. She was well-known for her exceptional good looks, but like her rival in this film Maxine Audley, she had a compelling screen presence and a great deal of acting ability.



Monday 22 November 2021

My People And Other Crime Stories - Liza Cody

Liza Cody is one of a particular group of crime writers whom I admired long before I met any of them. This group (other members included Andrew Taylor, Frances Fyfield, Ann Cleeves, Peter Robinson, and Ian Rankin) wrote varied types of mystery fiction but they had something in common: they were young British authors who published debuts in the genre during the 1980s which struck me as appealing and exerted some influence on my own thinking and writing while I was working on the first Harry Devlin novel. There were older writers who influenced me as well, of course, but this was a group of people of my generation, more or less, who were setting a high standard. 

Looking back, I think that, whatever other mistakes I've made in my writing career, I chose my unwitting mentors well. It's been a great joy to me to meet many of the authors I admired back in the 1980s and still to be able to count quite a lot of them as friends. Of the people I've mentioned, Liza was the first to be published and to make a big impact. Although her first series focused on Anna Lee, a female private eye, and Harry Devlin was - and is! - a  male lawyer, I tried to learn from her style of writing. She never wastes words, but she is strong on insight and dares to be a bit different, qualities I relish. 

When I wrote my very first Harry Devlin short story and submitted it for an anthology Liza was co-editing, she turned it down, but with comments that I found thought-provoking and which meant that I not only published it elsewhere, but also felt moved to write several more short stories about Harry. Many years later, I was thrilled when she wrote a story connected with Anna Lee at my request for a CWA anthology.

That story, 'Day or Night', appears in Liza's new book, My People and other Crime Stories, published by Gatekeeper Press. So does another story that she wrote for a book I edited, the excellent 'Ghost Station'. The collection begins with a foreword - nicely titled a 'foreword of warning' - which is as worth reading and as insightful as all her work. She discusses the 'toxic environment' in which authors are working at present and the dangers of online bullying and the thought police. Her concern is that 'the fight against bigotry seems itself to have engendered bigotry.'   

Liza's range and originality is on display in this collection, with intriguing stories ranging 'A Hand' to 'I Am Not Fluffy'. In an afterword, 'Notes from an Untidy Desk', she makes kind mention of me as well as other editors, but I've said enough to explain why regardless of that, as a long-term fan, I'm always keen to read her work. Her individualism is a great strength and anyone who likes interesting crime writing that, every now and then, gives you pause for thought as well as a chance to listen to fresh and sometimes challenging voices, will find as much to savour in this book as in her novels.


Sunday 21 November 2021

More about Josephine Tey

For a few years now, I've had an enjoyable correspondence with Jennifer Morag Henderson, whom I met after the publication of her excellent biography of that gifted writer Josephine Tey. I'm pleased to say that Sandstone Press have now produced an updated paperback edition of Jennifer's book, which I can warmly recommend.

Jennifer and I started discussing Josephine Tey's connection with the Detection Club, and the eventual outcome was a jointly-written article which has now been published on the excellent CrimeReads site. We've been pleased with feedback on the piece so far. Suffice to say that over the years I've collaborated with a wide range of authors on different subjects and every now and then it makes a very pleasant change from writing solo.  

Friday 19 November 2021

Forgotten Book - Her Heart in Her Throat aka Midnight House aka The Unseen

In 1942, two years before her death at the age of 68, Ethel Lina White published a novel which began life under the title Midnight House. The American edition (which I have in paperback) was renamed Her Heart in Her Throat, and after the novel was filmed in 1945, it also appeared under the title of the film, The Unseen. One special point to note about the movie is that the screenplay was co-written by Raymond Chandler, a crime writer utterly unlike White. For the film, the setting was also switched from the British town of Rivermead to the US. 

The story has a number of classic ingredients. Our heroine is a governess in the Jane Eyre tradition. Elizabeth Featherstonehaugh is nineteen years old and has a fertile imagination. She's intrigued by her employer, Captain Pewter, but slightly bewildered by her charges, especially the young boy Barnaby. There's a creepy house next door which hasn't been opened up for years. And there's a killer on the loose...

At first I thought I was going to be swept along by this story. The opening is atmospheric and the set-up intriguing. There are one or two 'had-I-but-known' touches during the book, but these aren't intrusive. But there are some elements in the story, including vague and ambiguous references to a 'black man in the cellar', which have not worn well. As regards the murders, we're presented with a small circle of suspects, but there was something about the style of characterisation, and Elizabeth's interactions with the other characters that didn't really work for me.

As a result, I found myself losing interest in the second half of the book, despite White's best efforts to make sure that the tension kept mounting. There's a good story lurking in here, and I can see why the premise appealed to film-makers, but overall I don't think the execution lived up the potential of the plot.

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Kabaty Press and Sven Elvestad

I came across Kabaty Press via the Golden Age Detection Facebook group. which includes a lot of interesting material from a very wide range of contributors around the world. This led to correspondence with Isobelle Fabian, who told me that she started Kabaty Press (the name comes from a suburb of Warsaw) 'because after living in Poland for a number of years, I came to realize what a vast mountain of literature there is that never makes it into English.' 

Isobelle added: 'I don't believe that book buyers avoid translated literature...Rather it's a matter of how it's promoted and sold...together with a tendency to translate only 'serious' literature rather than what the majority of people in other countries are actually reading...Also, the economics can be tricky, as the translation needs to paid for upfront, and like any book only the rare one breaks through to become a bestseller. Finally,  publishing today is very focused on promoting the author, so if the author happens to be dead,  or even unavailable for book tours in another country,  it's seen as a major negative'. Some very fair points here, and I think that outfits like Kabaty deserve every encouragement.

I've now read their recent offering, The Man Who Plundered the City, by Sven Elvestad, translated by Frederick H. Martens and introduced by Mitzi M. Brunsdale. It's a conspicuously well-produced paperback. Elvestad is better known to me under the name Stein Riverton, who has been described as 'the Edgar Allan Poe of Scandinavian', though I'd say that a closer comparison is with another Edgar, Mr Wallace. 

Elvestad's first novel appeared in 1907 and he wrote nearly a hundred more prior to his death in 1934. As you'd expect with someone so remarkably prolific, The Man... is a light, breezy thriller, definitely not to be taken too seriously, and a historical curiosity rather than a literary masterpiece. I'm glad to have had the chance to read it and I look forward to more European 'classic crime' from Kabaty.


Monday 15 November 2021

John Malcolm R.I.P.

I'm sorry to report the death of another stalwart of British crime writing from the 1980s and 90s, John Malcolm. That was the pen-name of John Malcolm Andrews, who served as Chair of the Crime Writers' Association in 1994-5. I got to know John in the early days of my writing career and we had numerous enjoyable conversations. He was a quiet, pleasant man who was clearly both a capable businessman and a great expert on antiques.

That love of antiques played a central part in his novels. He introduced Tim Simpson in A Back Room in Somers Town (1984) and the Tim Simpson books were a staple of the Collins Crime Club, a first class list with a very good editor, Elizabeth Walter. John inscribed a number of copies of his books for me, and I found them sound, capable pieces of work, good to read even if (like me) one knows next to nothing about antiques.

John also published two non-series novels which I haven't read, as well as several non-fiction books about antiques and many articles. Born in 1936, he was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, where he studied engineering. His business career meant that he travelled extensively and he worked as a management consultant as well as a machinery broker.

I haven't seen John in person for a long time but the two last stories that he published both appeared in anthologies that I edited; the most recent, 'The Marquis Wellington Jug', appeared in Motives for Murder. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2004, but we corresponded many times and I was delighted when he agreed to contribute an essay to Howdunit. In fact, he was one of the first Detection Club members to do so, and took a keen interest in the book's fortunes. I imagine that it was the last piece he wrote concerned with the crime genre. Ultimately he succumbed to cancer on 30 October this year. My condolences to his widow Geraldine and his son Sam. I shall remember him with affection as a good companion who was always willing to give some time to a young fellow crime writer.  

Friday 12 November 2021

Forgotten Book - Proceed with Caution aka Body Unidentified

Fashions change in crime writing, as in everything else. I doubt very much whether anyone today would give their crime novel the drab title Proceed with Caution. Yet that's just what John Rhode did, back in 1937. (His American publishers called it Body Unidentified, which is at least an improvement.) And it's even less likely that a modern crime novel's opening words would be: 'Things happen like that,' said Superintendent Hanslet, 'There are times at the Yard when things are as dull as ditchwater.'

After this soporific start, things can only get better. Thankfully, they do. In the prologue, Dr Priestley is told about two distinct cases being investigated by his Scotland Yard chums Superintendent Hanslet and Inspector Waghorn respectively. Both detectives are convinced that their cases are open and shut affairs, but of course three things are entirely predictable. First, the mysteries are much more complex than they seem at first. Second, they will turn out to be connected. And third, our armchair amateur detective will be quicker on the uptake than the professional cops.  

Hanslet's case involves some valuable diamonds that have gone missing, along with a Hatton Garden jeweller. Waghorn's case is a murder mystery of a Gothic nature, although it wasn't Rhode's style to make the most of the bizarre trappings of a case involving a deserted motor hearse and a body rendered unrecognisable after being dunked in a tar boiler used for road repairs. The tar boiler murder concept would, I feel, definitely suit a Rachel Savernake story, but Rhode is more concerned with timetables, alibis, and disguises than the vivid evocation of atmosphere.

I've realised belatedly that the best way to read Rhode is to rattle through his stories quickly. This is so even though I like to try to figure out the answers to Golden Age whodunit mysteries and also to try to understand how the author crafted his puzzle. Quite early on, I realised who was the villain of the piece, and rather than get bogged down in the minutiae of travel times which occupy a sizeable portion of text, I took pleasure in the way Rhode set about pulling the wool over the eyes of his readers. We never get to understand the mindset of the murderer - the motive is taken for granted - and this lack of interest in criminal psychology is one of Rhode's weaknesses, while the book is wrapped up with almost unseemly haste once the good doctor has explained things.. But there are plenty of nice little touches, and overall I'd rate this book as among the best Rhodes that I've come across.  

Wednesday 10 November 2021

The Jigsaw Murders - Jeremy Craddock

Over the years, I've written quite a bit about true crime and I once published a book (known by various titles, including Catching Killers) which focused on crime investigation and forensics as well as some famous cases. I've often thought about writing a book devoted to a single case, but I've never got round to it. I did, however, once draw up a pitch for a non-fiction study about the Crippen case (which also featured in my novel Dancing for the Hangman) and made some notes for a slightly less well-known case which has also fascinated me for ages, the Buck Ruxton case. One of the attractions of the latter case (my book was going to be called The Cyclops Eye, but I didn't get much further than the title!) was that nobody else had studied it in depth in modern times.

Well, now the gap has been filled, not by me but by Jeremy Craddock in The Jigsaw Murders, published by The History Press (an excellent indie publisher by the way; they once published a Murder Squad anthology and were good to work with). Jeremy is a journalist who comes from the Lake District and now lives in Cheshire, so I have a considerable fellow feeling for him. Regardless of that, I'm very pleased that he's produced such a well-rounded study of a major murder investigation.

Ruxton was a doctor working in Lancaster, a fascinating and historic town which rather strangely used to have a pub named after him. He was a strange man who murdered both his wife and his children's nanny before dismembering their bodies. The remains were ultimately found in the Scottish border country. An extraordinary forensic investigation was required; there's a very good book co-written by the pathologist John Glaister which details the medico-legal background. Jeremy Craddock goes into detail about Ruxton's background and some of this information was quite new to me. 

The sub-title of the book is 'The True Story of the Ruxton Killings and the Birth of Modern Forensics' and the murders were shocking and extraordinary. The investigation was undoubtedly an important landmark, whether or not you identify it as the 'birth' of modern forensics. I'd say that this extensively researched study is a candidate for the various non-fiction awards.


Monday 8 November 2021

And Now For Something Completely Different

It's not every day that I get to share the billing with a member of Monty Python's Flying Circus. In fact, it's never happened before last Saturday and I don't expect it ever will again. But I was truly delighted to take part in the Slightly Foxed Readers' Day at the Art Workers' Guild in Bloomsbury. In the first part of the afternoon, I was interviewed by Ayo Onatade on the subject of Golden Age detective fiction. And in the second part I had the pleasure of listening to Michael Palin, giving a great talk about the contrasts between writing fiction and non-fiction.

Slightly Foxed is an admirable literary quarterly journal that I find to be an unusual and consistently engaging read. I enjoyed taking part in one of their equally enjoyable podcasts earlier this year, which led to an invitation to write a piece for the journal, which will appear before long, and also to take part in the Readers' Day. This is an annual event, although this year the team had to contend with all the complications arising from the pandemic - no easy task. But they did a great job in making sure everything ran smoothly, and the venue, a sumptuous hall in a lovely Georgian building, was ideal for the occasion.

I always prefer, if the opportunity arises, to be interviewed rather than to give a lecture. I therefore suggested that Ayo Onatade would be the perfect interviewer, and despite a pressing commitment which involved an early plane flight from northern Ireland on the day of the event, Ayo kindly agreed. As she said, it's rather strange that we've been friends for the best part of 25 years, but we've never actually done an interview together. It seemed to go very smoothly and I hope we'll be able to do more conversations of this kind in the future.

I was conscious that this particular audience is keen on literature generally and I don't know how many of those attending are crime fans specifically, so we took a general approach to the subject rather than concentrating on minutiae, but the questions were very interesting and the reaction extremely positive. 

As for Michael Palin, I've been a fan of his since his early TV appearances on Do Not Adjust Your Set. When Monty Python began, I watched it right from the start. My parents were rather bemused by the humour, but I loved it and so did my school friends. We'd discuss each show at inordinate length the following day and we knew a lot of the sketches off by heart. Later, I loved Ripping Yarns, co-written by Michael and Terry Jones. 'Golden Gordon', which reminds me of my Dad's football obsessions, is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. So to have the chance to meet Michael (Sir Michael, I should say) was a real joy. And for anyone who wonders whether he is as pleasant to chat to in person as his television persona suggests, the answer is an unequivocal yes.   

Friday 5 November 2021

Forgotten Book - Dead on Time

Nigel Moss is a connoisseur of vintage detective fiction who has recommended a number of interesting writers to me. He was the very first person to encourage me to read John Bude, about a decade ago - some time before the British Library commissioned me to introduce The Cornish Crime Murder and The Lake District Murder. And he was also the first to urge me to give Clifford Witting a try. I made a slowish start with Witting, but the more I've read him, the more his agreeable writing has grown on me.

Dead on Time, first published in 1948, is a good example of his work. It's a murder mystery that isn't lacking in ingenuity. I read this book immediately after finishing a decent effort by John Rhode. One similarity is that in this book, like a number of Rhode's, the good old English pub plays a prominent part in the storyline. The Blue Boar in Lulverton is the scene of the fatal poisoning of Jimmy Hooker, and a plan of the ground floor of the inn is duly provided. 

The criminal's modus operandi here is crafty enough to be worthy of Rhode, but its strength lies in its simplicity, whereas Rhode's schemes are often highly complex. As a general rule, Witting scores over Rhode in terms of characterisation and prose style.There's a lightness, a touch of good nature about his storytelling (as with Bude and indeed George Bellairs) that has genuine appeal. Rhode was capable of pleasing touches of humour, but he was much more prolific than Witting, and such industry, although admirable, isn't conducive to elegant writing.  

The first half of the book is very enjoyable, but the story becomes thrillerish and less engaging prior to a good climax and the revelation of the pub killer. Not a masterpiece, then, but a decent story, well worth reading. And yes, the rabbits on the dust jacket cover are relevant to the story... 

Wednesday 3 November 2021

A piece of Detection Club history - guest blog by Tina Hodgkinson

I'm always glad to learn more about the history of crime fiction in general and the Detection Club in particular, so I was delighted when Tina Hodgkinson,came up with some original research and kindly agreed to contribute the following guest post:

'When I was recently preparing a talk for the Agatha Christie Festival, I contacted Martin about the Detection Club’s premises in Kingly Street, Soho which was briefly mentioned in his very informative The Golden Age of Murder. Kingly Street is the parallel road in between Regent Street and Carnaby Street. Given the redevelopment of the area, I was going to have to explore historical documents to see if they could provide a clue to the location. I’m very fortunate to work at the London Metropolitan Archives, so thanks to Mark Arnold, from the Public Services Team, for pointing me in the direction of the 1934-1940 London ordnance survey maps. On the map I found St Thomas's Church on Kingly Street, and as this looked promising, I booked a visit to the Westminster Archives, to view all the documents they had pertaining to the church, which included drainage plans and a correspondence file from the 1960s. Thank you to Cecilia and Hillary for all their assistance. Here’s a brief summary of what I found.

St Thomas's Church originally stood on the corner of Kingly Street and Tenison Court, previously known as Chapel Court. Today it’s been replaced with shops and offices. At one point the church fronted onto Regent Street and became known as St Thomas's Church Regent Street. The first church had opened in 1668, and was later rebuilt in 1702, and it is this latter church that the members of the Detection Club would have known. The church was demolished in the early 1970s.

Opposite the site of the former church, was St Thomas’s Vicarage at 12-13 Kingly Court. The Vicarage was a striking, substantial, red brick and sandstone building with a decorative, gabled attic and a basement. It dated from 1887 and was designed by Lansdown and Harris. From 1932, the top floor and the attic were converted into a self-contained flat for the vicar, while the remainder of the building was leased out for business purposes. The lower floors were used as offices, workshops and showrooms. By the late 1950s, the basement and the second floor were each rented as entire floors to two separate businesses. However, the office space on the ground floor was split into a two room and a one room rental, and the first floor as three single rooms. The correspondence I saw from the 1960s, listed the business tenants at the time, but there was no reference to the Detection Club or any of its members. However, based on the information we have, I think it is highly probable that the Detection Club met in St Thomas’s Vicarage. The best bit of all is that the Vicarage still survives. It is now a restaurant called Dirty Bones. Goodness knows what Eric will make of that!

P.S. If you want to visit Dirty Bones, there is a step free route from Carnaby Street to their Kingly Courtentrance. Staff informed me there is also an accessible toilet.'


Monday 1 November 2021

Villa Volvo Vovve: guest blog by Catherine Edwards


I'm delighted to host, for the very first time on this blog, my daughter Catherine, whose first book has just been published. I was hugely proud of a terrific book about football history published by my father shortly before his death, a few weeks before Catherine was born in 1993, and you can bet that I'm proud of what she's achieved with Villa Volvo Vovve as well. Over to Catherine: 

'If you are reading this blog, firstly, hello! Secondly, you’re probably interested in crime fiction and the craft of writing, so that’s what I’ll talk about.

In 2015, I moved to Sweden, a country that in many people’s imaginations is a dark, dreary and ominous place, where murders take place at an alarming rate, only to be solved by detectives with poor social skills but excellent knitwear.

There are a few different theories as to why Nordic noir became such a popular phenomenon. There’s no denying that the settings are deeply atmospheric. Something that stood out to me in my first winter was the silence of city evenings; the thick coats of snow have a muffling effect.

But despite the sometimes bleak winters, the real Sweden, along with its Scandinavian neighbours, have a very low murder and crime rate. It’s possible that the crime fiction trend is not despite that but because of it. Some of the most popular examples of the genre play on the contrast with peaceful landscapes -- not just Sweden, but cosy English villages, or the Lake District for example -- corrupted by cold-blooded killers. And maybe there’s an element of Schadenfreude, with readers taking pleasure from imagining that things aren’t so perfect as they look.

Sweden is neither the crime-ridden bleak landscape of your favourite deckare (the Swedish word for a detective novel), nor the utopia that you might be led to believe in if you read one too many magazine articles promising that the latest Nordic buzzword, be it hygge, lagom, or fika, will transform your life. 

Sweden is a country marked by its contradictions -- like any country really, though perhaps to an extreme extent. It’s home to a liberal democracy, but has such restrictive alcohol policies that you can’t buy alcohol for home consumption after 8pm or at all on a Sunday. It’s one of the most technologically advanced nations (while living there, I met several people who had microchips inserted in their hands) yet its people prize nothing so highly as a weekend uninterrupted in nature, often preferring to leave their wooden summer cabins uncorrupted by the latest mod cons. 

If you’re a crime fiction fan, you’ve probably read some works in translation. I was privileged to translate the story of Maj Sjöwall for a crime anthology, and I think crime novels are an excellent example of the difficulties of translation. A translator might reword a sentence when writing it in their own language, not realising that in doing so they deprive readers of a crucial clue.

Even in the short story I translated by Maj (Det var inte igår - Long time no see), there were plenty of sections that gave me pause for thought. The first passage presented me with a problem, using three Swedish words for snow, each with a specific connotation, none with a direct English equivalent. 

The story opens with a homeless woman collecting bottles from a recycling bank so she could exchange them for cash using Sweden’s bottle deposit scheme. A similar scheme is now planned in the UK, but at the time the story was written it was completely unheard of there, so as a translator I wondered how much I needed to explain the system. In the very next scene, the main character uses the coins from the recycling station at the Swedish alcohol monopoly store, another concept that doesn’t exist in most countries.

Personally, I think one of the reasons people love Scandinavian settings for murder mysteries is that these are countries we generally don’t know much about -- the unknown quantity adds to the mystery. But if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the real Sweden, my newly published book is for you. After six years living in and writing about Sweden as a journalist, together with my colleague Emma LöfgrenI’ve written Villa Volvo Vovve: The Local’s Word Guide to Swedish Life, which explores Sweden beyond the cliches and stereotypes, through the story of 101 Swedish words. The idea is to introduce a bit of the real Sweden, with all its contradictions and quirks, to people around the world, and it’s for anyone with an interest in language, culture, and the way they shape our perceptions.'