WARNING: This is a long post about the best literary event I’ll attend this year, and three cracking books that I read for it. There is much I wish to say.
What makes or breaks a literary festival event for the audience? The chair, of course. Not the one you’re sitting on, but the person in charge of the author(s). I’ve seen events fail because of a) the chair being too awestruck to converse rationally, b) the chair being determined to prove their intellectual superiority, c) the chair not being able to control the length of the author readings, and d) multiple other pitfalls that can happen along the way. c) is a particular bugbear of mine so my heart sank when Craig Sisterton asked the audience whether they wanted the three authors at this event to read from their work and the audience, by majority vote, answered yes. However, and all credit to the three authors concerned, their readings were kept to between 3-5 minutes each. Enough to hook the audience into the work (and sell a few copies afterwards) and not too much to bore folk like me who inwardly scream I can read the book for myself, thanks! (N.B if a reading is too long, I never read the book.)
Before I reveal the authors in question, a few more words about Craig Sisterton’s chairing. One word suffices really. Masterful. The focus of the event was writing in exile. So two Scottish and one English author discussing the foreign settings of their novels and the reasons why they chose those settings. There was a lot of ground to cover, but Sisterton ensured that it was. TIme was allocated fairly between the three, with natural, and often witty linkages segueing from one author to the next. Not a single note in sight. (I appreciate just how much preparation or natural talent that takes.) Hats off, Mr Sisterton, take a well deserved bow. My applause at the end of the event was as much for you as for the authors.
Time though for me to reveal the three authors and my thoughts about the books I read for this event, starting with the author on the right and the book he is reading from.
From left to right: Craig Sisterton, Graeme Macrae Burnet, Michael Ridpath, Craig Russell
The Ghosts of Altona, the 7th in Craig Russell’s Jan Fabel series is set in Hamburg, and won the 2015 Scottish Crime Novel of the Year. (The final one incidentally. The prize has now been renamed the McIlvanney Prize.) I hadn’t heard of the author before (despite him being a recipient of the CWA Dagger in the Library), but an award-winning book set in Germany was always going to demand my attention. The question was, do I start with book 1 or with book 7? Unusually I plumped for Book 7, because then I would be up-to-date and wouldn’t need to read the 6 earlier books ….
… or so I thought. What I found between these pages sent me immediately to the website of Bookdonors, where I purchased the first 3 of the series in the current 3 for 2 offer. For the ghosts of Altona are the living dead – those who have returned from near death experiences, including the detective Jan Fabel himself. Fabel is happy to be alive, although some with similar experiences are not. This includes a social worker now suffering from Cotard’s syndrome (believing he is dead.) Another ghost is losing his mind and all too aware of what is happening and so writes a note to himself to remind him of the reasons why he must kill his fellow old-timer and best friend. But Monika is the most haunting ghost of them all. The discovery of her remains is the trigger for a killing spree linking former members of a death cult and perhaps the most chilling psychopath ever with all of those identified above, and Jan Fabel is determined to crack the case. After all, he failed to do so 25 years previously when he was just a rookie.
Amidst the action are some compelling psychological portraits as well as the argument about near death experience. Is it a supernatural one or are there rational, biological explanations? However, the determining factor in my decision to read the entire series is the way Russell, a fellow Germanophile, has interwoven German cultural references, specifically gothic and Romantic ones into the story. Oh yes, I’ll happily take as many novels as Russell cares to write playing that particular riff.
As will the Germans. Such is their appreciation for the series that they have made 3 Jan Fabel films, and the Hamburg Police have awarded Russell the Hamburg Police Star.
Michael Ridpath, on the other hand, cannot find a German publisher for his spy series set in Nazi Germany. The difficulty lies in the hero being a Prussian military officer. As Ridpath explained to me in the signing queue, this are still some sensitivities regarding Prussian militarism in contemporary Germany.
The first in the series is set in 1938 when Hitler was steering Europe towards war. Consternation on both sides: the German army worried that this would be a war they could not win; British politicians also, although they were divided in their approach. Should they appease Hitler or stand behind Czechoslovakia over the issue of the Sudetenland? Enter Ridpath’s two protagonists. For the British, Conrad de Lancey, once a pacifist, but now a disillusioned anti-fascist fighter in the Spanish Civil War. After moving to Berlin, an innocent meeting with his Russian spy cousin, marks his card and he falls into the hands of the Gestapo. He is saved by Theo, a childhood friend, the honourable Prussian officer and member of the Abwehr, the German secret service over which the Gestapo holds no sway, the organisation planning a coup in order to prevent Hitler destroying their country. Theo tries to enlist Conrad to glean information about British intentions, as do the British to find out what the Germans are planning. Conrad, however, wants none of it. He is still trying to come to terms with the betrayal of his politcal ideals in Spain, the more personal betrayal of his wife, and the death of his cousin in Gestapo hands. But he cannot fail to see the injustices and barbarity of Nazi society, particularly when he becomes romantically involved with a Jewess.
“I wanted to explore what makes a man turn traitor”, said Ridpath during the Bloody Scotland event. My issue is that the traitor I identify isn’t one of the protagonists. Both Theo and Conrad fight against the evil of Nazism, but that is a favourable judgment enabled through the passage of time. In 1938 though, Theo was acting against the established government and Conrad on behalf of a foreign power ….
If the character studies of both men are compelling, so too is that of Klaus Schalke, the Gestapo antagonist. He provides a study on the corrupting and brutalising effect of absolute power. A reluctant Nazi at first, he is sucked in ever deeper once recruited by Heydrich for his information gathering skills. That position gives him power to be implacable, particularly when dealing with personal grudges.
Traitor’s Gate is based on historical fact. The afterword tells plans in place to overthrow Hitler in September 1938 and Chamberlain knew that the coup would be triggered if Britain held firm on the question of the Sudetenland. Let’s hope he (Chamberlain) makes the right decision, says one of the characters. The rest, they say, is history, and Ridpath’s version of events leaves us in no doubt as to the true cost of that infamous peace in our lifetime. The fantastic thing is that the suspense is in no way jeopardised by our knowledge of historical outcomes. I was shaking (literally) as I read the last few chapters. So, yes, I will read the sequel, but I’ll need to take a breather first.
Last, but by no means least, you may recognise the author sitting to the right of Craig Sisterton. Graeme Macrae Burnet’s second novel, His Bloody Project, has just been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. However, it was his debut, The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau that was the prime interest here. The novel had been sitting in my TBR since last year’s Edinburgh Book Festival where it came to my attention as I just finished talking to Georges Simenon’s son. (I meet lots of interesting people in Charlotte Square.) Enter a tall Scot, who gave a copy of said book to John Simenon. I’d like you to have a copy of this novel that I wrote in homage to your father, he said. Oh, thought I, I’ll have to get me a copy of that …..
12 months later I read it. The focus at Bloody Scotland was the location, a small French town, Saint-Louis, in general and the Restaurant de la Cloche in particular. Manfred Baumann dines here every single day. The menu changes daily, in a weekly cycle. So each Monday Manfred eats the same thing, each Tuesday too. In fact, he is OCD about his routine. He does not want to raise people’s suspicions. What is there to be suspicious of? Oh yes, there is a very dark secret in Manfred’s past, which influences his behaviour and may have a bearing on the disappearance of the waitress, Adèle.
Manfred is an oddfish, an outsider, tolerated, never really accepted and, therefore, prime suspect. He compounds his problems by lying to the investigating inspector, Gorski, and the reader knows he’s lying. The seeds of doubt and his downfall are sown ….
Gorski has his own problems, mainly his harridan wife, who realises she has married beneath herself. No Madame Maigret, she, although Gorski’s style is akin to that of Inspector Maigret. He does not rush his investigation. He’s happy to wait for his prey to confess, even when he has caught him in the lie. Nor will he give up on his first case. He knows the wrong man was jailed for that.
Macrae Burnet’s style is clear and downstated au Simenon, if you will. (Not quite as plain though.) The chauvinism of the early 1980’s won’t always please the politically correct of the 20-teens, but so what? There has also been criticism that the female characters aren’t well-rounded. Give me a break – Simenon often didn’t write well-rounded female character studies either. I did enjoy the book and the sometimes subtle nods to Simenon (riffs from The Man Who Watched Trains go by, for instance), but I did feel that the dénouement regarding Manfred was hurried. Also I was a bit puzzled by the post-modern conceit that the novel is a translation of a novel by Raymond Brunet with the requirement for an afterword by the translator Graeme Macrae Burnet. Likely that puzzlement will disappear on publication of
Macrae Burnet’s Brunet’s next novel, which will return us to Saint-Louis. Looking forward to it.