Friday, December 04, 2009

Read On ... Rebecca Cantrell and wartime crime novels

Three years ago I wrote about an efficient little reference book called The Bloomsbury Good Reading Guide to Crime Fiction. That book expanded its range through such clever devices as entries on themes and a handy "Read On ... " addendum to many author entries that referred readers to similar books and writers. This made the book a guide to many more authors than the 220 who received entries of their own.

I thought of the book today when I received Rebecca Cantrell's A Trace of Smoke in the mail. I heard Cantrell on the War Crimes panel at Bouchercon 2009 in Indianapolis, and I liked what she had to say about her book, a tale of death, intrigue and secrets in interwar Berlin. Among her fellow panelists, James R. Benn and Charles Todd also set novels in that jolly time between the start of World War I and the end of World War II.

I'll read A Trace of Smoke when I get some deadlines out of the way, and Benn is also in my TBR pile, along with Olen Steinhauer, whose novels are set amid the Cold War. I'll want to read more John Lawton, whose Second Violin chronicles inglorious episodes in English history before Word War II, as well as Charles Todd.

And then there's ... Well, here is where you come in. Help me build a "Read On ... " list of current crime novels set in Europe between 1914 and the early 1960s, Europe in World Wars and Cold Wars. What are your favorite crime stories set in these times and places? Why do you like them? What is the appeal of such books?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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28 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

I was going to suggest Eric Ambler, but those are espionage, not crime.

Oh, I see. You want authors writing books now about those periods. Scratch Ambler and Dorothy Sayers, then.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Espionage could qualify, and I'm always open to classics of crime and espionage from earlier periods. John Le Carre would be an obvious choice among such books, but for this question, you're right: I'd like to explore the phenomenon of younger authors writing about periods through which they did not live. What attracts them to the periods they choose to write about? Rebecca Cantrell studied in Berlin, for example, and I can well understand why an author might be attracted to that weird, dynamic, unsettling city.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, I am pleased you have mentioned Rebecca Cantrell if you go to: http://camberwell-crime.blogspot.com/search?q=rebecca+cantrell

And scroll down you will find my interview with this charming author. Do find time to read A Trace of Smoke it is very good, well researched, atmospheric and with great characters.

Other excellent authors writing about this period are Hans Fallada [more literature than crime], Alan Furst, Philip Kerr, David Downing, and John Lawton.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

My favourite series set in a not too distant past is Andrew Taylors´ Lydmouth-series. It takes place in the fifties, which means before I was born, but a decade which appeals to me. The world seemed more manageable then.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

There is a fuzzy line between crime and espionage novels, as you have already suggested, so I would offer another author whose writing inhabits that fuzzy territory: David Downing. His SILESIAN STATION and ZOO STATION are particularly noteworthy; set in Nazi Germany on the eve of WW2, the novels offer richly textured historical settings and plenty of crime and suspense within the espionage subgenre.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Uriah: Here's your interview with Rebecca Cantrell for easy reference: Parts I, II, III and IV. Thanks. Thanks, too, for your author suggestions. You know how much I liked John Lawton's Second Violin. I had not heard of David Downing, and you'll push Hans Fallada back into my consciousness. You've written about him before, haven't you?

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, Andrew Taylor came to my attention with an interview and an engaging speech at Crimefest last year. Where should I start with in his series? What are its highlights?

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

OK, R.T., that's two nominations for David Downing.

It's understandable that much popular fiction about this period falls into the espionage category. It's also a commonplace that women don't like espionage fiction. (To what extent this is true, I don't know, but it's one of those observations one hears from time to time.) So perhaps there's a bit of extra interest to Rebecca Cantrell's having been attracted to aspects of the period that authors have not written about as much.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Dorte H said...

Well, they are all fine, but if one loves them for the return to the fifties, I would say the first five are best. And as Lydmouth is a small town and a number of the characters (not only the policemen but also journalists, hotel staff, town councillors etc) recur from book to book, the best starting point must be book one, An Air that Kills.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Jo Walton has written three alternate-history novels about a Scotland Yard cop named Carmichael in post-war Britain. In order, they are Farthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crown.

The alternate history part? The US didn't come to Britain's aid with Lend-Lease, and the Conservatives negotiated a separate peace with Hitler in 1941. So the cops spend a lot of time monitoring political activity rather than crime.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dorte, I like the introduction to the series on Andrew Taylor's comprehensive Web site:

"Lydmouth and its hinterland form a provincial society which was typical of the period - still relatively self-contained; conservative; instinctively wary of a world which was about to change beyond recognition. Time and place are essential ingredients of the series."

Thanks.

Perhaps appropriately for a novel set in England, my verification words is "dears," of which England has lots of old ones.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Linkmeister. That sounds like an alternate history that forms a pretty chilling commentary on real history. John Lawton's Second Violin, set mostly in and around London in 1938 and immediately thereafter, has a few minor characters, English, whose beliefs fit rather nicely with those of the Nazis.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Looks like David Downing has a newish novel as well, Stettin Station. Scroll to page 291 of
this catalogue. (The page marked 291 is page 309 including the cover and introductory material.)

December 04, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

No doubt at all in my mind. The very best books written about this period are Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther's series. I am a woman and I absolutely love espionage novels! In fact I almost missed a plane back to the US from Heathrow because I was looking for "unknown in the US" British spy novels in the airport book store.
Paula

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Heh! I have missed planes because I was reading crime fiction, so I know what a high tribute your comment is to your love of espionage novels.

Philip Kerr is undoubtedly at the forefront of today's crime authors writing about this period and probably one of the more original storytellers in the genre as well.

December 04, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Paula, I neglected the obvious question: Did you find any suitable books at Heathrow when you almost missed your plane?

December 05, 2009  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Of course, Jacqueline Winspear comes to mind. Set just after WW 1 and the years following.

December 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd heard of Winspear, of course, but I haven't read her. It appears that her stories have direct roots in World War I, during which Maisie Dobbs was a nurse and the man who later became her assitant a patient. Winspear's Web site offers some remarks about the wartime and interwar periods, so she makes onto this list. Thaanks.

December 05, 2009  
Anonymous Rebecca Pool said...

What about Rebecca Pawel's Carlos Tejeda series, which is set in pre-WW II Spain? I have only read the first one, but I enjoyed it because it made me do some research to figure out Spain's political situation was during that time.

Can you post the list when you are done? I really like books from this time frame and I am always looking for suggestions.

Thanks!

December 05, 2009  
Anonymous solo said...

A book I enjoyed reading was City of Gold by Len Deighton. I'm not sure if that counts as current, as it was published in 1992 and it falls down geographically as well since it's set in Cairo in 1942 but the principle characters are European and the plot concerns Nazi spies. Since the British ruled Egypt at the time I suppose you could sneak it on to your list on political grounds.

December 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rebecca, thanks for your suggestions. I knew Rebecca Pawel set her novels in Franco-era Spain, but for all I knew, that could have been Saturday Night Live Franco-era Spain. I didn't know she set them before the war. And thanks, too, for suggesting a list. That's a good idea.

Interesting that a crime novel spurred you to do research on Spain. That ought to gladden the hearts of crime writers everywhere,

December 05, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I'm broad-minded; 1992 qualifies as current. I haven't read much thriller and espionage fiction, but Len Deighton is obviously at the top of those categories. So I'm happy to sneak the book onto the list. Thanks.

December 05, 2009  
Blogger Pat Miller said...

Marshall Browne has written two excellent Franz Schmidt mysteries set in Nazi Germany: 'The Eye of the Abyss' and 'The Iron Heart'. I'm not sure if they are really mysteries as they read more like espionage, but I don't mind, I'm also a fan of spy fiction. These are very suspenseful. The re-release of Charles McCarry's 1960's-70's espionage series is a real treat, too. Despite begin written as spy thrillers they contain some some well crafted mystery that makes them close relations with crime fiction.

December 06, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. That's two more for my list. I'd only ever heard of Marshall Browne's Rome series. I didn't know about his other books or about his military background and the other places he'd lived overseas.

December 06, 2009  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

I came to read John Lawton through this blog and have enjoyed his Frederick Troy novels immensely -- so much so that I am holding back on the two most recent ones in order to savor them more slowly. Lawton is a superb writer, distinguished in my mind from a good storyteller (although the Troys are real page-turners). "A Little White Death" is the best of the four I've read to date. It captures early-1960s England better than any book I've read outside of ones actually written in the 1960s.

I can't think of any contemporary fiction *writing* I've enjoyed more since A.S. Byatt's "Possession" and "Angels & Insects" (fiction with a bit of the mysterious to them).

That said, I also agree with other readers who love Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series.

I've read Charles Todd's Inspector Ian Rutledge series and they are a bit problematic for me. Recommended to me by a friend who knows of my interest in the WWI period, I did enjoy the first few but they have become formulaic more recently (each book generally has two murders, etc.). Yes, I know this can be hard to avoid with series detectives, but... The American authors also make a number of English language vocabulary and phrasing and time-period gaffes that tend to take the reader out of the story. Too bad, because the psychologically-damaged Rutledge is a most appealing lead. If one were to read only one of the series, I'd recommend "Wings of Fire."

For best WWI-era espionage novels, they don't get any better than John Buchan's Richard Hannay series. Peter, you had an entry on his "Greenmantle" a while back. I know they are less popular today, partly because the romantic Hannay isn't the requisite world-weary, cynical secret agent of today's espionage tales. But these novels really capture the British character and worldview of the 1910s period and the stories are quite exciting. One of the characteristics I most like about Buchan's writing is his use of the landscape as character in his novels.

December 07, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Is "A Little White Death" the Keeler/Profumo book? I suspect John Lawton would be especially pleased to read your remark that he "captures early-1960s England better than any book I've read outside of ones actually written in the 1960s." I asked him at a reading from "Second Violin" why he'd jumped back in time for that book after having previously written about later periods. He replied that he loved being a time machine. But he'd be no more pleased than I am that you came to his work through this blog.

Lawton might also be pleased that you invoked a "literary" writer. At the reading I attended, though he listed a number of crime writers among his favorites, he said he resisted being marketed as a crime writer. And I'll give you a pass on A.S. Byatt. Why not welcome the occasional literary author to these violent precincts?

I haven't read Charles Todd, though I did hear one half of the Charles Todd team at Bouchercon this year. Sorry to hear about the gaffes, and thanks for the recommendation.

Some of the social attitudes expressed in those books might militate against their popularity today. I mentioned these when I wrote about "Greenmantle," but I also cited some far-sighted observations from the same book, In re landscape as character, the Scottish moors in "The Thirty-Nine Steps" are one example, though my memories may be colored by repeated viewings of Hitchcock's movie. But "Greenmantle" has some splendid descriptions of Constantinople and of shelling.

December 07, 2009  
Blogger Kerrie said...

Peter, over on my blog, I'm collecting best 10 crime fiction you read in 2009 if you have time to contribute - I just need title and author for approx 10 books read in 2009, regardless of publication date. If you go to the blog you'll find a link at the top.

January 03, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for letting me know. I'm off to bed now, but I'll put together a list tomorrow.

January 03, 2010  

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