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The Hermit – Thomas Rydahl

51mdiqrtcqlTitle – The Hermit

Author – Thomas Rydahl (translated by K E Semmel)

Published – 2014 (Oct 2016 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

This is another book that I’ve found a little puzzling. I think it’s been the mix of Canary Isles setting and Nordic Noir sentiment that made this quite a challenging read.

‘The Hermit’ is Erhard, a sixty-something Danish ex-pat who lives a reclusive life on Fuerteventura, earning a living as a taxi driver and sometime piano tuner. He is asked by a friend in the local police force to look at some pieces of a Danish newspaper that were found with the dead body of a baby boy. Although he can shed no light on the source or relevance of the newspaper he is galvanised into finding out more about the abandoned child. When the police are involved in a cover up Erhard takes drastic action to foil them and ends up in a bizarre situation as a result.

As well as being a story of detection and investigation it’s also Erhard’s story – a sort of reawakening for him. His is the only character that is really fleshed out – all the others seem to be less well defined. As the story unfolds he looks back on his life and some of his regrets and grasps some of the opportunities that are presented to him. This aspect of the book – the introspection and detail of his daily activities slows the pace down but there are some thrilling action pieces to balance this. His amateur investigation leads him down some paths he could never have anticipated and Rydahl delivers a complex and twisting plot. Although I picture the island to be quite a large place it seems to have a village mentality and it seems as if everyone knows everyone else’s business – including what Erhard is up to.

There are a few things hinted at in the book which never seemed to be fully explained and these are typical of Nordic fiction – a mysterious break up with his wife and the suggestion of an uncanny ability to find customers for his taxi. The author doesn’t shy away from more gory and graphic aspects of the story and shows a side of the location that holidaymakers might not be familiar with.

The book has won Rydahl many plaudits in Denmark including:

  • Winner of the Danish literary Debutant Prize 2014
  • Winner of the National Danish Crime and Thriller Prize 2015
  • Winner of the Nordic Crime and Thriller Prize “The Glass key” 2015

It will be interesting to see how the English translation is received.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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The Ice Lands – Steinar Bragi

Title – The Ice Lands

Author – Steinar Bragi (translated by Lorenza Garcia)

Published – Oct 2016 (in English)

Genre – Crime fiction / Thriller / Horror

This came as an unsolicited review copy but I was intrigued by the cover and with an interest in all things Icelandic it pushed its way to the top of my TBR pile.

The story is about four friends and a dog who are on a camping trip in the volcanic wilds of Iceland. There are tensions between the four and they see the trip as away of mending their relationships but things have already become fraught early on in the journey when they crash in the middle of nowhere. They take refuge in an isolated farmhouse occupied by a mysterious elderly couple.

The efforts to resume their journey are thwarted – they fail to leave in their jeep, or in the car they borrow from the couple and even resorting to leaving on foot they end up returning to the dark and menacing house. At the times where they have put some distance between themselves and the house they make further mysterious discoveries in the wilderness – an abandoned car, an abandoned village on a cut-off ‘island’.

The inside of the house, farm and the couple are no less puzzling. They struggle to figure out the relationship between the uncommunicative man and woman, there are animals’ bodies on the doorstep and a hidden room that just adds to the mysteries.

As the story unfolds the backstory of the characters comes out which casts light on them both as individuals and on the relationships between the four of them. In some ways these feel like caricatures – this isn’t a criticism but it feels as if the author was using the four people to highlight some of the issues around the financial crash (the book was published in Iceland in 2011). Their lives and perspectives are quite exaggerated but their reactions to the events after they become stranded seem surprisingly relaxed.

I still don’t know what to make of this book. It was part crime, part thriller, part horror and part, well, just plain weird. I was really taken in by it. I didn’t particularly like the characters, but I wanted to know what happened to them (or what had happened to them). I didn’t have any issues with the writing or translation. There was probably too much of the characters’ backstory for me but the story was atmospheric, tense, dark – it really gripped me. But I just couldn’t figure out what was going on… Since finishing the book and while writing my review I’ve had a look to see what other people make of the book. There is a full synopsis on Wikipedia which tells me that it ‘enjoyed very positive reviews’ although it seems to be struggling to do so in the English translation. Perhaps it just isn’t reaching the right audience.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy.

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Mr. Miller – Charles Den Tex

41dD-rNkplLTitle – Mr. Miller

Author – Charles Den Tex (translated by Nancy Forest-Flier)

Published – 2005 (2015 in translation)

Genre – Thriller

When I posted the details of the long lists for the CWA Daggers I mentioned that it seemed odd not to have heard of all the books. Perhaps this means that a critically acclaimed book, whatever the genre, may not be commercially successful, or perhaps hasn’t had the same marketing push as others in the genre can afford. As a consequence of this post, however, I was offered a review copy of Mr Miller by Charles Den Tex which is on the long list for the John Creasey (New Blood) dagger.

The author is Dutch and the story is set in Amsterdam. Michael Bellicher is a consultant working for a company we can probably all recognise – a huge corporate monolith with thousands of workers of whom much is demanded. One Monday morning he accompanies his parents to meet his brother at Schipol Airport but something happens which shakes him so much that he goes on a drinking binge and misses crucial work appointments. On his return to the office he is so afraid that he will be sacked and won’t be able to get back into the building that he hides away overnight – but he is not the only person in the building. He witnesses something he shouldn’t have seen and this males him flee the office and as he tries to make sense of what happened he finds that he is now being hunted as the perpetrator of the crime.

What happens next is a real rollercoaster ride of a thriller. The premise is that ‘technology’ is at the root of Michael’s problems and the mysterious Mr. Miller, who has a network that not only knows everything about Michael but everything about everyone else too. The more he understands the way he is being hunted the more he must abandon the technology on which he normally relies – even his credit cards. Not only is he trying to clear his name (as the body count rises) but there is also a huge conspiracy which he needs to find a way to stop.

Dealing with issues around immigration and world stability this felt very timely. There are also some much more personal issues which Michael has to deal with, some of which I’ve not really come across in this genre before. (Intriguing, eh?)

The writing style is quite unusual and I’m sure in no small part due to the translator. Whilst the language feels deliberately styled to match the content of the plot it never feels stilted, nothing jars. It would be interesting to know what Dutch readers felt about the style.

What was surprising to me is that the book was originally published in 2005. The themes are so prescient I didn’t realise until I was writing my review that it was written more than ten years ago. For a book that features technology to such a high level it also stands the test of time – remarkable when you consider how quickly ‘tech’ can seem dated. Perhaps it all seemed more fanciful when it was published!

I have to confess that this probably isn’t a book I would have chosen to read if I had’t been offered the review copy. The story really delivers on the thriller aspects although I found some of the technology aspects a little distracting.

And how do I rate the CWA Dagger chances? Personally I preferred Rod Reynolds ‘The Dark Inside‘ but I have only read two of the longlist.

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Behind the Scenes – the Translator

This is the second in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the translator and Frank Wynne was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.

Frank is an award-winning translator, working from both French and Spanish, with three CWA International Dagger awards, twice winning the Premio Valle-Inclán, as well as winning the Scott Moncrieff Prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. If you’re a reader of crime fiction you’ll probably be most familiar with his work through the books by Pierre Lemaitre.

You can find Frank on twitter under the name @Terribleman.

Was being a translator something you imagined you would do when you were at school?

Absolutely not! It never occurred to me that I would be ‘allowed’ to translate a novel – it seemed (and still seems) such a huge responsibility to take on the task of recreating the tone and styles of an author. I remember the author’s  note Barbara Trapido wrote in her novel “Brother of the More Famous Jack”, where she said that she wrote her first novel at 41 having previously believed that novels were written by people who were “dead or already famous”; I felt a little like that. I felt as though translators were from some alien world; that one could not simply become a literary translator.

I came to translation by accident. I moved to Paris at the age of 22 (having never been to France) and was surprised that i quickly became fluent in the language. I began to read compulsively. It was while I was reading La Vie devant soi by Émile Ajar (a pseudonym of Romain Gary) that I felt the urge – the need – to translate. But it did not occur to me even then that it was something I might do professionally. It was almost fifteen years later (while I was working for an Internet company, and spending weekends writing “reader’s reports” for publishers) that an editor asked whether I wanted to translate a novel – I was terrified but hugely excited. A couple of years later I gave up the day job so that I could translate full time.

Can you outline the process of translating a novel?

I will usually read a novel twice before beginning a translation. Once for the sheer excitement of the book, to enjoy its pleasures as a reader – whether plot, characterisation or language. The second time, I may slow down and consider the voice(s) in the text, the rhythms of the prose – occasionally I will find myself toying with English phrases as I read the second time.

Different translators approach a first draft in very different ways. I can spend a lot of time wrestling with a sentence / a paragraph to get the sound I feel I need, and I also litter the draft with footnotes to myself – highlighting passages I’m unhappy with, questions I want to ask the author, jokes or puns I think I need to work on. Once I’ve finished the first draft, I will usually write tot he author and explain my approach to the text, ask any questions that are niggling me as a reader and / or translator. In the second draft, I am already beginning to think of the book as English-language text – I find myself reworking phrases and images that seem too ‘lumpen’ in the English. I sometimes read passages – particularly dialogue – aloud to test whether I find them convincing.

Once delivered to an editor, it will usually be several weeks or months (once, more than a year) before I get editorial notes and comments. Coming back to a translation after a long period gives you a fresh eye – suddenly, solutions that were intractable seem obvious. Work on the third draft involves responding to the editor’s comments and suggestions. An insightful editor can flag a translator’s lexical tics and mannerisms, but also highlight phrases that feel literal or literal to his / her year. By this time, I am no longer referring back to the original text, but simply working with the English.

The last piece of tinkering comes when the publisher sends page proofs / galleys. Seeing a text typeset like a ‘proper book’ is another jolt and – while at this stage I am only supposed to correct errors and typos I often find myself reworking sentences and snatches of dialogue. It is almost compulsive, and it is important to know when to stop. I often say “a translation is near finished, only abandoned” (shamelessly paraphrasing W.H.Auden’s paraphrase of Paul Valéry).

Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?

By definition a translation is a war of collaboration even if the original author has been dead for centuries. But in practice, the process and one’s relationship with authors can vary enormously. Some are perfunctory and professional, some almost non-existent (I’ve had one author who – despite repeated emails – declined to respond to my queries), most involve discussions that are informative and revealing, a small few are truly personal. I have felt intimately close to authors I have never met, and I have also had good fortune to have one or two relationships with authors evolve into friendships. In the end, however, though translation is an act of collaboration (with author, editor, copy editor  and proof reader) it is the translator who must take responsibility for recreating a work. A musician can endlessly question a composer about the intent behind a piece of music, but when it comes to playing, it is the performer’s interpretation that is heard.

Do you work on more than one project at a time?

Very rarely – and it is something I can only do if the projects are very different, or are in different languages, otherwise I find that the voice of one book begins to bleed over into the other.

Translating is like an intimate conversation, with the translator listening intently and responding to the writer; it is difficult to do so with multiple authors without sacrificing that intensity.

How much influence can a translator have on the tone or feeling of a book?

In theory, a translator has absolute control over the tone or feeling of the translated work – unless the author is bilingual. In practice, we strive (and should always strive) to recreate a tone and feel which we hear orintit in the original. The process is, of course, profoundly subjective; the voice I hear may differ slightly form what another translator will hear – something that has become clear in the many “Translation Duels” in which I have participated over the years.

Every decision made by a translator – about tone and register, about the cadence or rhythm of a sentence – influences the tone of the work in English. To me, this is most apparent when translating dialogue, wordplay and idiomatic language which can have no direct equivalent in the target language. But if, at such point, a translator is called upon to invent, this is circumscribed by his or her understanding of the intent and impact of the original.

Most importantly, a translator needs an ear for music and for voice, it is this that has allowed me the privilege to ‘(re)write’ novels I could never imagine, to briefly ‘become’ authors from the wide world of Francophone and Hispanophone literature and, through language, to try to recreate narratives I love and admire.

You’ve translated a range of different genres and languages, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?

I enjoy working in most genres and do not have a particular favourite, but I think it is true that I enjoy working on novels with a playful or complex relationship to language.

It is often assumed that very “literary” novels, with highly poetic voices are most difficult to translate, but I find that, while it takes time to conjure the right voice for such books, once that voice is found it provides a solution to other spaces of the text.

There are two authors whose books I found both deeply challenging and profoundly rewarding. The first is Ahmadou Kourouma, one of the great 20th century African novelists, whose novels Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote and Allah is not Obliged I had the honour of translating. Kourouma’s novels are linguistically dense and his narrators employ the cadences of the West-African griot tradition. The text is peppered with words and expressions in Malinké, and evokes traditions and cultures that are very different form any I have experienced, yet the time I spent trying to recreate Kourouma’s prolix, poetic vernacular was a wonderful and cathartic experience. The second is Andrés Caicedo, whose novel, ¡Que viva la music! took me two years to translate. Cicero’s novel (published in English as Liveforever) is suffused with music, particularly the salsa dura of late 1970s Colombia, and the lyrical, hypnotic voice of the protagonist, Maria Carmen del Huerta, becomes a song on itself. Translating it, involved teasing out the hundreds of allusions to lyrics, song titles and film and literature threaded through the narrative, and weaving them into a new melody.

Often books are translate some time after publication in the original language, does that pose any problems for you?

Not particularly. While I like to be able to address questions to an author, at the end of the day much of what I do is about immersing myself in a text.

Is there a translation or a translator that you particularly admire?

There are many translations and translators I admire. Translations that have thrilled and excited me would include William Weaver’s translation of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Lydia Davis’ version of Proust’s The Way by Swann’s (sadly, not all of the Penguin volumes of Proust are as near-perfect). In a very different register, Christopher Logue’s War Music – an “account” (he did not call it a translation) of several books of Homer’s Iliad is a luminous revelation. More recently, I admire the stunning work done by Anne McClean and Rosalind Harvey in translating Enrique Villa-Matas’ novel Dublinesque.

I admire all translators, they constantly remind me of the joys of what we do. But if I had to choose a living translator, it would be Margaret Jull Costa, whose seemingly effortless poise and mastery of source and target language leave me breathless.

And what book would you love to be asked to translate?

Too many – and most have already been translated. For a long time, my response would have been La Place de l’étoile by Patrick Modiano, but the Nobel Prize and a very supportive editor meant that I got to translate that in 2014.

What are you reading at the moment?

La gazelle s’agenouille pour pleurer – a book of short stories by the Togolese writer Kanji Alem, whose novel La Legend de l’assassin blew me away.


I’d like to thank Frank for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions.

Two short reviews – Antti Tuomainen & Nadia Dalbuono

A couple of short reviews in an effort to clear the ‘read but not yet reviewed’ stack.

519xkpynnPLTitle – Dark as my Heart

Author – Antti Tuomainen (translated by Lola Rogers)

Published – Oct 2015

Genre – Crime fiction

Finland has perhaps been one of the smaller forces in the wave of Scandi and Nordic noir so it’s difficult to know if this take on crime fiction is typical of the Finnish contribution.

The story is told from an unusual perspective – the premise is that the murderer (responsible for the disappearance of a young woman some twenty years ago) is already known from the beginning  of the book. The guilty party is a reclusive millionaire who the police have been unable to link to the woman’s disappearance. Her son Aleksi, now in his thirties, decides to take matters into his own hands and manages to get a job working on the man’s country estate. The story is told from Aleksi’s point of view (and in first person) both in the present and as flashbacks to the time around his mother’s disappearance. As Aleksi tries to unravel the events of the past and find the evidence he needs he is drawn into a relationship with the millionaire’s reckless daughter Amanda.

There are some recognisable themes from ‘Nordic Noir’ with dark characters, isolation playing a key aspect in the tension and some graphic violence. However, I found the writing slow going, a lot of use was made of coincidences and I didn’t care enough about the characters. I am perhaps  in the minority, though, as Dark as My Heart was optioned for feature film in 2013 and is in development at Making Movies Ltd, the production company behind the Finnish film Black Ice. The novel has also been voted the best crime novel of the past decade by the readers of a Finnish crime fiction magazine.

You can see a more positive review on Raven’s blog.


 

51T1XZu41pLTitle – The American

Author – Nadia Dalbuono

Published – Jan 2016

Genre – Crime fiction

I was keen to read this book as I’m a fan of crime fiction set in Italy – it can offer a more relaxed approach to police procedurals compared to books set in the UK or USA and of course there is the opportunity to be transported to somewhere more exotic.

The book opens with the apparent suicide of a man discovered hanging from a bridge in Rome close to the Vatican City. The detective assigned to the case – Leone Scamarcio – is concerned that the death echoes the notorious murder of Roberto Calvi (‘God’s Banker’) in 1982. The murder a few days later of a cardinal within the Vatican City and a warning by some mysterious heavies from the ‘US Authorities’ guarantee that Scamarcio is more rather than less interested in getting to the bottom of the death.

What follows is a mix of police procedural and thriller made more complex by the introduction of conspiracy theories around 9/11, the Polish Solidarity party, corruption in the Vatican and acts of terror within Italy. The actual effect of this was to slow down the pace of the investigative part of the plot to expand on the theories with background and explanation and I found it all too detailed and complex to hold my interest.

What I found particularly disappointing about this book was that it felt as if it could have been set anywhere – I prefer my crime fiction to give me a better, more immersive, feel for the country it is set in.

You can see another point of view on the Euro Crime website.

Thank you to the publishers for the review copies.

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We Shall Inherit the Wind – Gunnar Staalesen

51ePFKhhZXLTitle – We Shall Inherit the Wind

Author – Gunnar Staalesen (translated by Don Bartlett)

Published – 2010 (2015 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

I read this title not long after reading The Writing on the Wall which was originally published in 1995 and in English translation in 2004. Here we’ve gone from the twelfth in the Varg Veum series to the eighteenth.

This book is set in 1998, with Veum sitting at the hospital bedside of his girlfriend Karin, recalling the events that have taken place over the previous week and led to her critical situation. The root of the story is Velum’s investigation of a missing wind-farm inspector. He is asked to find the man because he is the husband of Ranveig, an old friend of Karin’s. At the first meeting with Ranveig she is accompanied by a man called Bjorn Brekkhus – former Chief of Police for the area, family friend and coincidentally the man who lead the investigation into the disappearance of the missing man’s first wife some years before. Suspicious eh?

Most of the action centres around a wind-swept island where there are plans afoot to erect a wind farm which is attracting a great deal of interest as the opposing parties meet on the island. The remote location gives some added tension to the plot.

I’m someone who would always choose to read a series in order so the book is already at a disadvantage when there is a gap in the sequence of translations. The second issue which I assume is also due to the order of the translations is that this felt very similar to The Writing on the Wall – a  private investigation where the person approaches Veum before the police. Although a common theme in ‘Scandi’ crime fiction the environmental slant feels a little dated now.

Thank you to the publisher for the review copy. You can see another point of view on the Crimepieces blog.

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The Defenceless – Kati Hiekkapelto

810AJmUp3cL._SL1500_Title – The Defenceless

Author – Kati Hiekkapelto (translated by David Hackston)

Published – 2014 (2015 in translation)

Genre – Crime fiction

This is the second book in translation from Finnish author Kati Hiekkapelto in her crime fiction series featuring Senior Constable Anna Fekete.

If you take the definition that Nordic Noir “typically features dark storylines and bleak urban settings” and also “incorporate larger social issues into the narrative of police work” then The Defenceless is a perfect example. Through the investigation of a number of deaths which seemingly have no connection Hiekkapelto explores the issues of immigration and isolation, the treatment of the elderly, drugs, gangs, smuggling…

The police investigation initially concerns the death of an unidentified elderly man who has been run over on a deserted road by a Hungarian au pair. With no obvious evidence to suggest how he found his way to the site the investigation is making slow progress. Then elsewhere a bloody knife is discovered in the snow. At the same time there is concern that a new gang of criminals is trying to expand into the city and it’s Fekete’s colleague Esko who takes the lead on this, using an informant to try to track them down. But as all the investigations progress they become linked to a single apartment block.

The immigration issue is obviously a particularly topical one at the moment and it’s interesting that the book features both those who are obviously immigrants (a young man from Pakistan) as well as those who don’t outwardly appear to be different (Fekete herself is originally from Hungary, a survivor of the Serbo-Croatian war, she immigrated to Finland with her mother and brother when she was a child). This gives the author the opportunity to explore the issues around immigration from multiple points of view – from the young man who is battling against a drug addition and trying to claim asylum, to a young woman trying to blend in with her Finnish colleagues whilst struggling with the distance she is putting between herself and her family. The other side of the issue is explored through Fekete’s colleague Esko, close to retirement he is overtly racist (as well as being a drunk, a bully and sexist to boot) although he does have some moments where redemption seems possible.

I must also mention the translation, which is absolutely seamless, there wasn’t a moment when the writing reminded me that I was reading something which wasn’t originally written in English.

The Defenceless certainly has the melancholic feel that you would expect from Nordic crime fiction and while the plot seemed as if it was going to unfold simply, as Fekete and her colleagues brought the different threads together, it managed to hold more surprises.

Thank you to the publisher of the review copy. You can see another point of view on Vicky Newman’s blog.

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