The Crime Readers' Association

Reviewer’s Diary: Barry Forshaw

7th October 2013

Sex and Crime

Two lovers who can’t keep their hands off each other’s bodies; an inconvenient and unattractive husband who it is necessary to get out of the way. I know – you’re thinkng: James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice? Or one of its many imitators? No, another writer got their earlier… No less than Emile Zola, with his carnal and unsparing Thérèse Raquin in 1867. Who can write about sex like Zola these days, with everyone now flinching in advance of ironic but ultimately censorious awards or political correctness? Such as this timeless passage:

‘Then, in a single violent motion, Laurent stooped and caught the young woman against his chest. He thrust her head back, crushing her lips against his own. She made a fierce, passionate gesture of revolt, and then, all of a sudden, she surrendered herself, sliding to the floor, on to the tiles. Not a word passed between them. The act was silent and brutal.’

I’m reading the new Vintage Classics translation by Adam Thorpe of Thérèse Raquin (a tie-in with a new film), and it’s astonishing – it makes one realise for the first time why Zola was so shocking in his day. Actually, Vintage have done this before – I remember the radical new translation they commissioned of Dostoyevsky’s The Devils (as Demons) in the late 90s.

My advice to any crime writers looking to re-energise their batteries when writing about murder and sex? Pick up a novel which was written a hundred and fifty years ago — and learn from a master.

Bleeding Hearts

The re-appearance of Nick Stone on the crime scene (with a new novel, The Verdict, from a new publisher, Little Brown) reminded me of a memorable evening. The Bleeding Heart Square restaurant in London’s Farringdon was the appropriate venue for a dinner given by Penguin for a bushel of its crime writers and trade guests. The conversation (unsurprisingly) often consisted of novel ways to murder your fellow man: Nick Stone (whose Mr Clarinet was a hit for the company) favoured the gun, and reminisced about his dangerous years in Haiti, where he had to produce a gun, should his car ever be stopped by a group of menacing street thugs. Nicci French talked about drowning — or at least, the male half of the duo that constitutes that author, Sean French, whose sense of humour is of the blackest cobalt. All this talk of mayhem was conducted with the greatest good humour; no one in the company (including Penguin crime scribes Jim Kelly and a prestigious new acquisition, the award-winning Andrew Taylor) showing the slightest inclination to be shocked by such callousness. Ironically it was the other half of the Nicci French duo, Nicci Gerard, who made it clear that she been shocked recently — but only by the scabrous humour of the ultimate dirty joke movie The Aristocrats. As booksellers and journos like myself sampled the haute cuisine in this deeply subterranean restaurant, Penguin’s ebullient crime editor Beverly Cousins (now, in 2013, ensconced Down Under) reeled off some impressive facts and figures — including the fact that in the last two years the company had notched up eight Top Ten hardback bestsellers and nine Top Ten paperback bestsellers, along with gleaning the CWA Diamond and Gold Daggers. Her even-higher-than-usual high spirits might have been down the fact that Penguin’s crime list became a force to be reckoned with shortly after she joined the company. Most memorable legacy of the evening? Andrew Taylor told me that sitting in Bleeding Heart Square in that stygian Dickensian restaurant had given him the germ of an idea for one his most memorable novels, which was to appear later under the (perhaps inevitable) title of… Bleeding Heart Square.

Keeping Secrets: Presenting the First Petrona Award

Of the many things that I never quite bought in the Bible was the nostrum that it’s better to give than receive. But I had to give a prize.

Ah, the logistics of presenting a fiction prize! Do you tell the winning publisher? How do you arrange for the lucky author to be present, if you don’t? And if you run into one of the eligible authors before the presentation ceremony, how do you keep a poker face (as Sheila Keating did with me) in order to give no indication that they have – or haven’t – hit the jackpot?

All of these questions had been very much on my mind of late, since I was asked to be a judge for the first Petrona award. Perhaps it was the fact that I was dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s on the last book I did, Nordic Noir, that prompted the persuasive Karen Meek to get me on board. Or perhaps the fact that my multi-country Scandinavian trips to interview as many important Nordic crime writers as I could positioned me favourably in her eyes (and I know she is fan of a previous book I did on the subject, Death in a Cold Climate – particularly the latter’s very translator-friendly-stance!). But I was happy to take part for a variety of reasons: firstly, my memory of Maxine Clarke, the remarkable young woman (who wrote as ‘Petrona’) after whom the award was named. Maxine died far too young, and the award (leaving aside its value in recognising the best work in translated crime fiction) was an apposite tribute. And there was the Karen Meek factor: her work hosting the site Euro Crime is a notable continuing achievement, with the site providing a resource that is second to none for details, reviews and bibliographies of Scandinavian crime authors. And my other judges (apart from Karen) had equal gravitas: Sarah Ward of Crimepieces and Kat Hall (who writes about Nesbo, Fossum and co. for Mrs Peabody Investigates). Between the four of us, we might modestly claim to have a finger on the pulse of Nordic noir.

The Nordic Godmother Wins

At CrimeFest I had been chatting with the talented (and extremely pleasant) Thomas Enger, who has made a considerable impact in this country with such books as Burned — but I had to be careful what I said, as I knew that even though he was the only nominated Scandinavian author in the room, he hadn’t won. Based on the late Maxine’s writing (rather than the thoughts of the current judges), the winner was to be the ebullient Liza Marklund for Last Will (Corgi, ably translated by Neil Smith), who shares the sobriquet ‘Godmother of Scandinavian crime fiction’ with Maj Sjöwahl. I had last spoken to the energetic Liza when I moderated a panel with her at Harrogate, but she was not in the country, and I handed the award to her UK editor Emma Buckley.

After presenting the award at this very congenial crime-writing event (the feeling between the four judges was that the Petrona Award had got off to a solid start – and that the next choices (this time by the judges rather than by the late Maxine) meant much heated discussion was in store for us. And I’ve noted that paperbacks of Scandinavian crime fiction are already starting to appear with the legend ‘Shortlisted for the Petrona Award’! The Petrona Award 2013 Shortlist was:

PIERCED by Thomas Enger, tr. Charlotte Barslund (Faber and Faber)

BLACK SKIES by Arnaldur Indridason, tr. Victoria Cribb (Harvill Secker)

LAST WILL by Liza Marklund, tr. Neil Smith (Corgi)

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE by Leif GW Persson, tr. Paul Norlen (Doubleday)


Barry Forshaw edits Crime Time at ; his books include Nordic Noir, British Gothic Cinema, Death in a Cold Climate and British Crime Film:

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