A taste of BalkaNoir

Noir is a word that certainly appeals to us. Add an adjective or a location and hey presto! a new universe of literary possibilities opens. But what do we know about a mysteriously called BalkaNoir? Is the World Book Day a good reason to venture into the unknown?

Some lucky English readers had a chance to sample BalkaNoir at NewcastleNoir crime fiction festival in 2019 when three Romanian authors Anamaria Ionescu, Teodora Matei and Bogdan Hrib shared their enthusiasm, creativity and books. Their writing is original and brings a new interesting perspective to the European table.

Anamaria Ionescu, a journalist and a writer, has been working for the Romanian Broadcasting Company for over twenty years.  She had her literary debut in 2008 in the literary section of a national publication with a short story called Travelling Family. In 2014 she published the first novel of her Sergiu Manta mystery and thriller series Code Name: Arkon. The series keeps track of an IT specialist also a biker and a rocker, whose destiny pushes him into being an assassin.

Zodiac, the second novel in the Sergiu Manta series, was out in 2016:

When investigator Sergiu Manta is handed the investigation into a series of bizarre murders, he has no idea what he’s getting involved in as he has to work with regular detective Marius Stanescu who has his own suspicions about the biker he has been told to work with, and wants to get to the truth. The twists and turns of the story take both men from the city of Bucharest to the mountains of rural Romania, and back.

Teodora Matei is the deputy chief editor of the online magazine Gazeta SF. Her debut novel in print was The Butterfly Man (cyberpunk-crime, 2015), the first volume of the trilogy with the same name, written together with Lucian-Dragoș Bogdan, a Romanian SF/ romance/ thriller author.

Living Candles:

The discovery of a woman close to death in a city basement sends Bucharest police officers Anton Iordan and Sorin Matache on a complex chase through the city as they seek to identify the victim. As they try to track down the would-be murderer, they find a macabre trail of missing women, and realise that this isn’t the first time the killer has struck. Iordan and Matache hit one dead end after another, until they decide they would have to take a chance that could prove deadly.

Stylistically the novels differ: Zodiac is pacey, impatient, international, with a touch of a Bond fantasy. Living Candles is much more low-key, quieter, understated. And dangerous. Both books, however, are strongly anchored within the recent history of Romania which demonstrates itself in the social attitudes and past perceptions of women. Female characters seem to be in the background of the society, essential yet not recognised for their own abilities. There’s a hint of fury in a female assassin and eagerness of a young pathologist to make a mark in a man’s world. Nevertheless, machismo rules on most of the fronts. Anamaria Ionescu and Teodora Matei observe what happens around them, and are fully aware of all changes.

English, Icelandic and Romanian connections: Quentin Bates, Teodora Matei, Anamaria Ionescu, Bogdan Hrib and Marina Sofia (world literature champion) at NewcastleNoir 2019

Bogdan Hrib’s varied career encompassed the professions of photographer, journalist, lecturer and book publisher as a co-founder of Tritonic Publishing Phillips. He has been instrumental in bringing other Romanian crime writers into English publication. He also contributed short stories to and edited several crime fiction collective books such as: Noir de Bucuresti, GastroNOIR (including contributions from Teodora Matei as well) and Noir de Timisoara.

His debut as a crime fiction writer came in 2007 with Filiera greceasca / The Greek Connection:

A Greek holiday abruptly interrupted by the murder of a Russian girl. The primary suspect is a Romanian man, and when journalist Stelian Munteanu happens to be nearest person to the crime scene, he soon gets pulled into the sordid tale where nothing is what it seems. A pursuit from Greece to Rome, Bucharest, Vienna and finally across France, Munteanu finds himself entering the dark world of diamond smuggling and stolen furs, where a mysterious ex-KGB agent knows it all.

And the Nordic connection?

Bogdan Hrib said that BalkaNoir couldn’t be more different than NordicNoir regarding the social context as Romania is still trying to come to terms with massive changes of moving from capitalism to totalitarian state and back to capitalism. It is all about survival and adjusting to the new reality. Yet Romanian Noir looks up to Nordic Noir. But even if the concept of the crime fiction is different to what we’ve become familiar with coming from Nordic and Scandinavian countries, the essence of the writing is the same: good gripping narrations, interesting characters, search for answers.

Bogdan Hrib representing Romania at IcelandNoir in Reykjavik in 2014

I feel that this is a beginning of something much bigger and BalkaNoir (or RomanianNoir?) is just about to conquer the world.

Jo Nesbø’s Knife

Harry Hole wakes up with blood on his hands and no memory of what has happened the night before. Soon he has to deal with the most personal case yet to catch the killer who has completely destroyed his life.

If you are familiar The Thirst / Tørst you will know that Harry Hole didn’t have an easy time (my review via Crime Review is here). Hence the consequences of different events following the vampirist case in the previous novel The Thirst reverberate through Knife. One of them is that Harry Hole had killed Valentin Gjesrsten who unknown to him was Svein Finne’s son and so revenge seems to be a strong motive here.

The rapist and murderer Svein Finne, called Fiancé, made his victims pregnant and killed them when they didn’t give birth to his child. Harry was a young detective and worked tirelessly to put him behind the bars. He succeeded. But that was ages ago and now the most infamous serial killer is free, and hungry to pick up where he had left. His methods haven’t changed and are still horrendous. Women of Oslo aren’t safe. The first victim is a lonely teacher Dagny, too scared to report rape to the police, especially as Finne imposes his own rules, plus has an uncanny ability to know all about women he targets.

I have read nearly all of the Harry Hole books and thought that the maverick brilliant damaged detective had to deal with enough trauma that his creator Jo Nesbø had thrown at him over the years. Being the alcoholic serial-killers-catcher, fighting personal demons, losing the plot on professional level, always going against the grain… I didn’t expect that he could cope with any more pain. However, again he has no choice but to follow his notorious gut feeling and face his darkest most personal case yet. Back in his own flat, drinking himself stupid, suspended from work and desperately missing his wife Rakel who had thrown him out about three months earlier. When he wakes up with blood on his hands and no memory of what has happened the night before it means that things can only go downhill. The memory lapses are nothing new yet in this particular situation even he is shocked and overwhelmed by the complete amnesia. Soon he needs to handle the most devastating murder, shattering his life into millions of hurting pieces, and destroying future of Oleg, Rakel’s son who came to treat him as his own father. Confrontation with Finne is on the cards.

Jo Nesbø writes like a rock star that he is, creating a dangerous world, populated by fully shaped psychologically believable characters, and confident to push his hero deeper into the crisis that would have killed any normal human being. Harry, deeply flawed and existing on the cocktail of strong alcohol and savage emotions, still attracts female adulation and touches of respect from those who understand how he operates, what triggers his methods, how he will walk through fire and water to find the murderer. Even if he becomes the suspect of the murder. And yet, I wanted so much for him to survive, to find the killer, to find a tiny bit of peace and some justice.

Knife is brutal, raw and nerve wrecking. It focuses on manipulation and the outrageous choices that people have to make. It has everything you would want from a thriller so confidently penned by the best-selling author. Dubious moral choices. Weak leaders and hypocritical lawyers. Domestic dramas and power fights. Different type of violence, less graphic but equally shocking, Quite phenomenal considering this is Harry’s twelve outing, intense, both fast paced and occasionally full of slow-motion melancholy. Neil Smith translated this Norse tragedy in four acts superbly.

Jo Nesbø and his band Di Derre on stage during Elvestivalen 2019. Drammen, Norway

Hardback was published by Harvill Secker in July 2019, and paperback was out last month.

What Are You Like

‘Sadie had stepped out of her comfort zone but it was cold out there so she went back in.’

What Are You Like published by Postbox Press, the literary fiction imprint of Red Squirrel Press.

Shelley Day’s debut novel The Confession of Stella Moon published in 2014 took on challenging subject. A killer released from prison had returned home to a decaying, deserted boarding house choked with weeds and foreboding. Memories of strange rituals, gruesome secrets and shame hang heavy in the air, exerting a brooding power over young Stella Moon. She was eager to restart her life but first had to confront the ghosts of her macabre family history and her own shocking crime. All seemed ambiguous as guilt, paranoia and manipulation spun a tangled web of truth and lies. Stella Moon was certain of only one thing: that she had killed her own mother.

The psychological aspects and darkness of mind weave their way into the collection of short stories aptly titled What Are You Like where Stella appears again. But is she the same person? The interlinked vivid tales are akin to tiny gems, all individually polished and shiny and separate in their own right yet fitting perfectly together, creating an unusual exploration of themes close to anyone’s heart: love, loss, family, friendship. As the author continues to travel through time, social attitudes and own reflections on life and world, various voices enter and add to the intricate unforgettable portraits of situations and emotions. Such as the complex relationship between two ‘chalk and cheese’ sisters Sadie and Cara and that incomprehensive untamed monster of depression that engulfs one of them:

‘I used to wonder whether blood actually was thicker than water. Because when you think of it, families are where shit happens. I mean that seriously, you’ve more likely to be murdered by in your family than in some dark alleyway, more likely to be killed by a rello than by a deranged stranger. I mean blood can literally be blood.’

Deftly rendered thoughts and images bring a strong sense of various Norwegian and North England’s locations, detailed depictions of distinctive areas, and the dialects representative of social groups. Imaginative miniature visual masterpieces surprise with metaphors: ‘And once again the bag is packed; there, on the floor, it gapes its wound, its innards spilling out. Or vulval, it’s private parts exposed to my current indecision.’

Some of the stories set in Norway show deep passion for the generosity and inspiration of the landscape, changing seasons and the enteral power of nature. My favourite tale must be Svarverkjær which is a delicate yet compelling stunning love story between a small wooden house named Svarverkjær and the Elk; story about passage of time, of natural cycles of nature; of care and understanding how humans, animals and objects fit within the specific environment. It is touching and moving and so sensitively drawn you can sense the sunshine, hear the rain on the decrepit roof, tremble in the freezing cold, and taste the memories of summer just as the Elk eats the fallen apples and the old house worries about the huge majestic animal losing its status in the ancient forest. Pure poetry!

From her prose you can glean the way Shelley Day feels about the eternal want for learning from the greats and their mastery of words, her passion for language and its mysteries. To slightly paraphrase her own writing: ‘You always like to re-read on holiday because a different time a different place makes the words entirely new’, this collection will be calling you back.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The famous Swedish scientist Professor Balder contacts the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist, dedicated to exposing corruption and abuse, but within hours he is murdered and Blomkvist finds himself in the centre of the police investigation. The genius hacker Lisbeth Salander is hot on the trail of the cyber criminals who threatened Balder.

As I am musing over a completely different book which focuses on Stieg Larsson and his lost files relating to the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme (review of Jan Stocklassa’s The Man Who Played With Fire to follow) my thoughts go back to reading the first of a ‘new’ Millennium novels written by someone other than the original creator of the now legendary Lisbeth Slander fighting right-wing villains.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked Hornets’ Nest were reissued by MacLehose Press in June 2015, ahead of publishing Lagercrantz’s book in August the same year.

Following overexcited publicity, rumours and secrecy surrounding translation and publication of The Girl In The Spider’s Web I was hoping that aside from creating the outrage that David Lagercrantz took on the iconic modern-day super-heroine, that the novel will live up to the expectations of Lisbeth Salander’s fans. And thanks Odin (Norse mythology), it’s a good story. In fact, it’s really great, especially if you don’t compare it with Larsson’s legacy which is in a different world / era – which I won’t.

The premise is relatively modest. A renowned Swedish scientist Professor Frans Balder returned from America to his homeland. Living like a recluse, he has recently started caring for his autistic eight-year-old son August and recognises that the boy is a savant, with extraordinary mathematical and artistic skills. Balder fears for his life, after his computers have been hacked by a dangerous group called Spiders, headed by Thanos (supervillain of Marvel Comics origin), yet he refused protection offered by the secret police Säpo. One night he deletes years of his Artificial Intelligence research and contacts the uncompromising investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist who is currently stuck in a professional rut. A couple of hours later the professor is murdered.

Blomkvist also finds out that a genius female hacker has been in touch with Balder, aside from breaking into the most secure computer systems of the American National Security Agency. That could only be ‘Wasp’ (comic book superhero): Lisbeth Salander. She is following her own agenda, tracking her vicious powerful twin sister. Salander’s character seems to take the centre stage, and she is as Larsson’s original creation as I can remember. At first Blomkvist appears more as her sidekick – though those roles evolve naturally as the investigation into the murder progresses. Full of contradictions, Salander is the fighter for justice: especially for the abused women and children. She’s ruthless and merciless yet compassionate, breaking every possible rule, and I want her to succeed. And so does Blomkvist.

David Lagercrantz signs copies of The Girl… in London

The first half of the book concentrated on laying the foundations and delivering a sophisticated tractate on the AI concept, explaining the most intricate details of the cyber world/ underworld security, and painting a political and business backdrop for the troubled Millennium magazine. And then suddenly it takes off! I couldn’t read fast enough from the point when Blomkvist realises that the exquisite yet unsettling drawings found at the murder scene are in fact drawn by August, a witness to his father’s murder. It was like a slow climb up the ski slope in preparation for the longest ever ski flying in the air where you cannot get out for the fear of missing out while being targeted by the cyber and real criminals at the same time. Lagercrantz’s brilliant craftsmanship is visible in characterisation and plotting narrative of the novel, translated masterfully by George Goulding who not only conveyed the atmosphere of this thriller but also managed to make the mind-boggling (for me) issues of cyber espionage and the mathematical algorithms understandable. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, fast and pacey, violent and intelligent, is a worthy successor to the original trilogy.

Reykjavikin Murtomies / Cold Steal by Quentin Bates

Spot the ‘odd’ one out

I am sure you have heard of Quentin Bates in one or all his guises: journalist, translator, writer and one of the founders of IcelandNoir crime fiction festival. Immersed in Icelandic culture and nature Bates effortlessly brings various aspects of this fascinating country to English readers as he translates technical texts, classics (Gudlaugur Arason’s Bowline and Indriði G. Thorsteinsson’s Cab 79) and crime fiction. Thanks to him we are lucky to read Ragnar Jónasson’s atmospheric Dark Iceland series consisting of Snowblind, Nightblind, Blackout, Rupture and Whiteout, and Lilja Sigurdardottir’s stunning Reykjavik Noir trilogy: Snare, Trap, Cage.

However, I want to draw your attention to his own series of novels set in and around Reykjavik, featuring Officer Gunnhildur Gísladóttir, also known as Gunna, the no-nonsense down-to-earth detective with excellent skills, solid experience and a dry sense of humour. Gunna featured in Frozen Out / Assets, Cold Comfort, Chilled to the Bone, Cold Steal, Summerchill, Thin Ice, Winterlude and Cold Breath. Here are my earlier reviews of Cold Breath via Crime Review pages and Summerchill via Euro Crime blog spot but of course I would encourage you to find out for yourself about Quentin Bates and read his books https://graskeggur.com.

And I have one copy of Reykjavikin Murtomies (Cold Steal) translated by Raimo Salokangas into Finnish and recently published in Finland by Blue Moon.

A successful housebreaker who leaves no traces and no clues as he strips Reykjavík homes of their valuables has been a thorn in the police’s side for months. But when one night the thief breaks into the wrong house, he finds himself caught in a trap as the stakes are raised far beyond anything he could have imagined. Gunnhildur Gísladóttir of the Reykjavík police finds herself frustrated at every  turn as she searches for a victim who has vanished from the scene of the crime, and wonders if it could be linked to the murders of two businessmen with dubious reputations that her bosses are warning her to keep clear of.

I will be more than happy to send Reykjavikin Murtomies to one Finn based in the UK in return for telling me why they should have this book, and then spreading the word. In Finnish, English, Icelandic or any other language.

Happy 105th Birthday, Tove!

It was a lovely warm Saturday evening of 9th August 2014 when my mum Krystyna Konecka and me were wandering around the old Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki. Nothing sinister. Just a visit to the grave of an incredible woman Tove Marika Jansson to pay our respects and to leave some flowers.

I could talk for hours about the inspirational and exceptional fine artist and writer who had found international fame and was mostly known for creating the magical Moomin trolls. Instead I would like to invite you to read my earlier post charting our ‘pilgrimage’ to Finland five years ago. It was published on the NordicNoir https://nordicnoirblog.wordpress.com blog:


and our conversation (in Polish) about Scandinavian fascinations, Moomins and Tove Jansson, from the pages of the Polish Literary and Art e-magazine https://pisarze.pl:  


Hyvää syntymäpäivää!

The Ninth Step

Ingvi Þór Kormáksson works as a librarian in Reykjavik’s City Library and is well known as a musician and a songwriter, with eleven albums to his credit, and more than 160 of his compositions recorded by various artists, and featuring jazz, bossanova, blues, samba rhythms with occasional folk music traditions. His passion for literature and music are clearly depicted in his writing as he includes details, moods and snippets of musical information that would have been familiar to many Icelanders who had paid special attention to new styles coming to their country.

In 2009, his short story Hlidarspor / Sidetracked won the 2009 Gaddakylfa (`Mace’), an award given by the Icelandic Crime Fiction Association for the year’s best crime fiction story. That was the sixth time that Mace was awarded. Following year, the story was published in his first book, collection of fifteen short stories called Raddir ur fjarlaegd / Voices in the Distance, focusing on tales of the everyday life, often revisiting the past.

I had an opportunity to listen to the author discussing his writing at the first panel of the international IcelandNoir crime fiction festival in Reykjavik in 2016, where the writer, translator and festival co-founder Quentin Bates introduced the Icelandic authors whose books haven’t been translated into English yet. Ingvi Thor Kormáksson discussed literary things with Óskar Guðmundsson, Hildur Sif Thorarensen and Kristján Atli Ragnarsson. Since then The Ninth Step by Ingvi Þór Kormáksson in Larissa Kyzer’s English translation has finally appeared. It is an interesting dark novel, full of angry undertones, regret but also understanding and sensitivity, and deep desire to belong.

As a tale of forgiveness and vengeance The Ninth Step explores the emotional and physical extremes in relation to taking revenge on tormentors decades later. Hurt and humiliation had profound lasting effect not only on two boys but in a twisty horrendous way had damaged lives of other people, too. Conversation of two recovering alcoholics, probably in their forties, punctuated by musings and memories, allows for setting of social background and brining flashbacks explaining some of the has been happening.

The unnamed narrator reflects on his life, relatively carefree childhood in a small fishing village on the western coast of Iceland, in the shadow and presence of a magnificent glacier. He weaves recollections of reality of harsh but simple existence in stunning location, the impact of powerful scenery in the Snæfellsnes Peninsula and contrasting urban rock’n’roll years. The paths of Egill, the novel’s main character, and of the narrator cross as these two men had known each other as teens. For some reason Egill must confide in his old friend, especially as recent events weigh heavily on his heart and consciousness.

As a young man Egill spent his time playing, singing, drinking and trying to work out where he had belonged in a changing social landscape of Iceland. He tried his luck while living and playing music in Sweden which he has later abandoned, leaving his girlfriend and their young son. Jobs in fish factories in Faroe Islands didn’t bring much satisfaction. Return to Iceland resulted in a daily struggle just to survive, mostly on a strong cocktail of alcohol and drugs. His health declining, depression taking hold, and self-contempt overwhelming. ‘My life reminded me of a manuscript from which whole chapters have been lost.’ Yet something hidden in the depths of his psyche, something very traumatic, had forced him to seek professional help and go to rehab. And then he had found love. But what he wants to describe during an uncomfortable conversation is the growing suspicion that the tragic accidental death of his girlfriend, and then further mysterious deaths might be linked though police doesn’t think so. Pressure builds up as the ostensibly unrelated victims are connected to him.

His story appears disjointed which is no surprise as he still reels from the most fresh events, and harbours doubts and suspicions that might seriously implicate him. The narration moves between time frames and different persons who got caught up in situations, sometimes unconsciously. This stylistic method suits the confessional approach of the book.

The narrator states his opinion on misapplication of the ninth step, an important part of the alcoholics’ journey to recovery: ‘Egill mastered his courage and tried to atone, to confess, but it backfired. The twelve steps must be taken with care and you’ve got to weight and evaluate the circumstances in each instance – whether there’s a good enough reason to embark upon them even though you might think that you’re prepared to go through that sort of confessional process’. However, readers know nothing of his own battle with alcohol, apart early memories of teenage drinking, and again cannot judge the circumstances and consequences.

Through pulling the strands of experiences told from several perspectives Ingvi Þór Kormáksson’s novel comes to a poignant unexpected finale which leaves the big unanswered question in its wake. Is it possible to atone for an awful act of violence and be forgiven for inexcusable actions? Does it help to understand motives, reasons, personal pain? Can blind following of the process save your own soul and sanity? Read tense The Ninth Step to make up your mind.

Snæfellsnes Peninsula