The Hatter’s Ghosts by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

This standalone novel by Belgian author Georges Simenon was originally published in 1949 as Les Fantômes du chapelier and is now available from Penguin Classics in an English translation by Howard Curtis. Although Simenon is better known for his series of Maigret detective novels, he also wrote many books like this one – short psychological thrillers, some of which he referred to as romans durs, or ‘hard novels’. I have read a few of them and my favourite so far has been The Venice Train; this one has some similar plot elements, but is a much darker story.

The novel is set in La Rochelle during a wet and miserable December. It has been raining for twenty days, ever since an old lady was found murdered near the canal. Since then, more bodies have been discovered, all of them elderly women and all of them strangled with a cello string. The newspapers are full of speculation over who the murderer might be, but the reader knows from the opening pages exactly who is responsible – and so does the tailor Kachoudas, who has seen something that has convinced him of the killer’s identity. As the rest of the story unfolds, we are kept wondering whether Kachoudas will go to the police or whether he’ll be the murderer’s next victim.

Although we know from the beginning who the culprit is, there’s still a sense of mystery because we have no idea why he has set out to kill so many women and how he has chosen his victims. The truth is eventually revealed and we discover exactly what is going on behind closed doors, but as this is just a short novel (as many of Simenon’s seem to be), I can’t really go into the plot in any more detail without spoiling it. Anyway, the mystery is only one aspect of the story; the real interest is in following the thought processes of the murderer as he tries to justify his actions to himself and deal with his conflicted thoughts and emotions. I was reminded very much of In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes, another novel where we know the killer’s identity from the beginning and spend the rest of the book inside his mind, wondering whether he will give himself away.

The Hatter’s Ghosts is an atmospheric, unsettling novel and I loved the descriptions of the dark, rainy streets of La Rochelle. The Howard Curtis translation is clear and accessible and feels quite modern, while also preserving the tone of the 1940s. If you’re new to Simenon, or have only read his Maigret books, I can definitely recommend any or all of the romans durs I’ve read so far – as well as this one and The Venice Train, I have read The Man from London and The Strangers in the House and am looking forward to investigating some of his others.

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Book #2 read for R.I.P. XVII

The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (trans. Ros Schwartz)

This is one of Georges Simenon’s many psychological thrillers, which he described as romans durs or ‘hard novels’. I’ve read two of his others – The Man from London and The Strangers in the House – and have enjoyed both, so was looking forward to reading this one. First published in 1965 as Le Train de Venise, it has just been reissued by Penguin Classics in a new English translation by Ros Schwartz.

The novel begins with Justin Calmar boarding a train in Venice to return to his home in Paris after a family holiday. His wife and two young children will follow in a few days’ time. During the journey, another passenger engages Justin in conversation and he finds himself agreeing to deliver a briefcase to an address in Lausanne when the train stops at the station there. However, things don’t go according to plan and Justin ends up returning to Paris with the case still in his possession. Unable to resist the temptation, he breaks the locks and looks inside…and what he finds there will change his life forever.

I won’t say too much more about the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the suspense of wondering what is inside the case and what Justin will decide to do with it. This is a very short book (176 pages in the paperback version) and for the first half, the tension builds and builds. It would have made a perfect Alfred Hitchcock film! It’s not a crime novel, however, so don’t go into it expecting one; the mystery is never fully explained or resolved, it ends abruptly and we are left with lots of unanswered questions. The events on the train are simply a starting point for Simenon to explore the psychological effects on Justin Calmar as he battles with nerves, guilt and paranoia, lying to his wife and his friends and finding that each lie leads to another.

The second half of the book isn’t quite as strong as the first and I do wish we’d had answers to at least some of those questions, but this is a fascinating and compelling story – my favourite by Georges Simenon so far.

Although I was slightly disappointed that only the first few pages of the book are actually set in Venice – the rest either on the train or in Paris – I wasn’t too disappointed because Paris is, of course, a great setting as well. And as Thyme for Tea and Readerbuzz are hosting their annual Paris in July event this month, the timing couldn’t be better!

Thanks to Penguin Classics for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Death on Gokumon Island by Seishi Yokomizo (Trans. Louise Heal Kawai)

The second book I’ve read from my 20 Books of Summer list is this 1971 Japanese mystery novel, now available in an English translation. This is the fourth book in Yokomizo’s Kosuke Kindaichi series to be published in English by Pushkin Press, but actually the second in original publication order. It works as a standalone, with a few references to Kindaichi’s first case, The Honjin Murders, so you could easily start with this one if you wanted to.

Death on Gokumon Island is set in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, and nearly ten years after the events of The Honjin Murders. Kosuke Kindaichi is on his way to the strangely named Gokumon – or ‘Hell’s Gate’ – Island to deliver the sad news of his army friend Chimata Kito’s death. Kindaichi knows this will be a difficult task, but what really worries him is a prediction made by the dying man that his three half-sisters, who all live on the island in the family home, are going to be murdered.

Arriving on Gokumon Island, Kindaichi gets to know the members of the Kito household, including Chimata’s father who is said to be mad and kept locked up behind bars, as well as another rival branch of the family who live nearby and would benefit from deaths in the main Kito family. The scene is set for a classic murder mystery – and it’s not long before the first murder does take place. Kindaichi begins to investigate, but the islanders are suspicious of newcomers and are reluctant to answer questions.

I struggled to get into this book at first; I felt that we were being introduced to a lot of characters all at once and it was difficult to distinguish between them. I’ve found that with all of the Japanese mysteries I’ve read the authors seem to be more concerned with puzzle-solving than with character development, although Yokomizo is better in that respect than some of the others. After a few chapters I had settled into the story and began to enjoy it. It was good to see more of Kosuke Kindaichi than we did in The Village of Eight Graves; he’s quite endearing with his nervous stammer and head-scratching and the way he makes mistakes and isn’t afraid to admit to them.

Louise Heal Kawai’s translation is clear and easy to read (she also did the translation for The Honjin Murders, although not Eight Graves, which was translated by Bryan Karetnyk). I’m sure Japanese must be a difficult language to translate into English and I do wonder if any nuance is lost along the way, but I was impressed by the way she managed to capture the meaning of the wordplay, poetry and haikus that form part of the plot. I felt I was learning quite a lot about Japanese culture, as well as post-war life in a country that had been on the losing side.

This book has been compared with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but I don’t think they have much in common other than that they are both mysteries set on islands. This is a very different sort of island, for a start – unlike Christie’s, it’s inhabited, with a fishing community, a mayor, doctors, priests and barbers (to name just some of the characters we meet) – and although there may be a few similarities in the way the murders are carried out, the solution is completely different. It’s a solution I didn’t manage to guess at all; I was convinced I had picked up on an important clue halfway through but it turned out to be a red herring!

Now I need to find time to read The Inugami Curse, the other Yokomizo book currently available in English.

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 2/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Reindeer Hunters by Lars Mytting

Translated by Deborah Dawkin.

This is the second book in Norwegian author Lars Mytting’s Sister Bells trilogy. I loved the first, The Bell in the Lake, so was looking forward to visiting the village of Butangen again and finding out how the story would continue.

The Reindeer Hunters begins in 1903, more than twenty years after the events of the first novel. Kai Schweigaard, once a newcomer to Butangen, has settled into his role as village pastor, but is still haunted by memories of Astrid Hekne, the woman he had hoped to marry. He also feels guilt over his involvement in the removal of the two bells which once hung in the bell tower of the local church, commemorating Gunhild and Halfrid Hekne, the conjoined twin sisters who were two of Astrid’s ancestors. When Kai hears about a legendary tapestry woven by the sisters – the Hekne Weave – he sets out to search for it, hoping in some way to make amends for what happened in the past.

In the hills just outside Butangen, Astrid’s son Jehans is leading a lonely life, supporting himself through fishing and hunting, having withdrawn from the rest of the community. One day he finds himself in dispute with another hunter when they both claim to have shot the same reindeer, but this marks a turning point in Jehans’ life as he gets to know the other hunter, an Englishman called Victor Harrison, and an uneasy friendship begins to develop.

This, like the first book, is beautifully written and translated. The setting – a remote Norwegian village steeped in superstition and tradition – is vividly described, making this the kind of historical novel where you can become truly immersed in another time and place. Towards the end of the book, though, we see that scientific progress and new technology are finding their way even to Butangen in the form of electricity, improved travel and advances in dairy farming. Events in the wider world also touch the lives of our characters, including the dissolution of the Norway-Sweden union, the First World War and, finally, the flu pandemic of 1918:

There, on the church steps, Schweigaard had put all his accumulated knowledge into his advice. Mass was cancelled indefinitely. Auctions and public dances were best avoided. Folk ought not to visit other villages. They should maintain a distance from strangers. And always veer on the side of prudence.

I enjoyed reading about Kai Schweigaard’s daily life, his duties as pastor and his relationships with the other villagers and I was completely absorbed in his search for the Hekne Weave and what it might reveal. I was much less interested in the details of Jehans’ hunting and fishing expeditions and, later, Victor’s work as a pioneer of aviation, although other readers will probably find those things more enjoyable than I did! For this reason, I didn’t like this book as much as the first and every time the perspective switched to Jehans or Victor, I found myself wanting to return to the village and continue with Kai’s storyline. I did, however, come to love one of the new characters, Kristine, a young woman who doesn’t have an easy life but displays an inner strength and determination that I really admired.

I’ll be looking out for the final book in this trilogy and will be interested to see where the story will go next.

Thanks to Quercus Books, MacLehose Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 10/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

A Bad Business by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

This is the second collection of classic short stories I’ve read from the Pushkin Press Essential Stories series. The first was I Would Prefer Not To by Herman Melville, an author I had never tried before, and I found it a good introduction to his work. In the case of Dostoevsky, I have previously read two of his novels (Crime and Punishment and The Idiot) but was curious to see what his shorter fiction would be like. This collection contains six stories, all in new translations by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater. They are all quite different in subject and style and I think they would give new readers a good idea of what his writing is like, while also being of interest to readers like myself who are only familiar with his full-length novels.

I think my favourite of the six stories was The Crocodile (1865), in which a civil servant, Ivan Matveich, is swallowed alive by a crocodile being exhibited in St Petersburg. There’s not much more to the plot than that, as the rest of the story revolves around the conversations Matveich has with various people from inside the crocodile, but I found it entertaining and surprisingly funny, not something I’ve really associated with Dostoevsky’s work before. It also takes a satirical look at the economic situation in Russia at that time – the German owners of the crocodile refuse to have its stomach slit open to free Matveich because they would be losing their investment, particularly as the crocodile has now increased in value due to becoming so famous!

Conversations in a Graveyard (1873), also published as Bobok, is another satire in which the narrator is sitting in a cemetery after attending a funeral and hears the disembodied voices of the recently buried telling each other their stories. The literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin describes this story as “almost a microcosm of Dostoevsky’s entire creative output,” because it involves many of the themes, ideas and character types that appear in his other work. I probably haven’t read enough of Dostoevsky to be able to fully appreciate this, but I did still find the story interesting – and it reminded me very much of Lincoln in the Bardo!

The title story, A Bad Business (1862), follows a general in the civil service who, after discussing his political ideals with friends, decides to test one of his theories by being nice to people from lower social classes. Unfortunately, when he arrives, uninvited and unwelcome, at the wedding feast of one of his subordinates, things quickly begin to go wrong. A very different type of story is A Meek Creature (1876), about the relationship between a pawnbroker and one of his customers, a girl who pawns items to earn money so that she can advertise in the newspaper for work as a governess. This is a darker story than most of the others in the book and not one of my favourites.

The four stories mentioned so far take up more than 90% of the book, which means that the final two are much shorter. One is The Heavenly Christmas Tree (1876), a sentimental and poignant little story with a fairy tale feel, and the other is The Peasant Marey (also 1876), in which the narrator recalls a childhood memory of being comforted by a peasant after convincing himself there was a wolf in the woods. I liked both of these stories but felt that they suffered from being placed at the end of the collection; I would have preferred the shorter stories to alternate with the novella-length ones to provide more variety.

Although I don’t think any of these are stories I would want to read again, apart from maybe The Crocodile, it was good to have the opportunity to explore Dostoevsky further. I’m hoping to read my copy of The Brothers Karamazov soon.

Thanks to Pushkin Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Village of Eight Graves by Seishi Yokomizo – trans. Bryan Karetnyk

Over the last few years I have discovered several Japanese crime authors – including Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji – thanks to Pushkin Press making them available in English translations, but the one who has impressed me the most is Seishi Yokomizo. I really enjoyed The Honjin Murders, one of his many books to feature the detective Kosuke Kindaichi; I didn’t like The Village of Eight Graves, another from the same series, quite as much, but it’s still an entertaining read.

First published in 1950, the novel is set in the small Japanese village of Eight Graves where, centuries earlier, eight samurai were brutally murdered, bringing down a curse upon the village and giving it its sinister-sounding name. In the 1920s the curse struck again when a village leader went on a violent killing spree. Now, twenty-five years later, our narrator Tatsuya Terada, a young man who has been raised in Kobe by his mother and stepfather, is informed by a lawyer that his real father was the man responsible for those terrible murders. It seems that Tatsuya is now the heir to the family estate and must return to Eight Graves to claim his inheritance – but before he has even left Kobe he receives an anonymous letter warning him to stay away.

On his arrival in Eight Graves, Tatsuya finds that most of the other villagers are hostile and unwelcoming, believing that his presence will bring bad luck and tragedy to the village yet again. And so, when more murders begin to take place, suspicion immediately falls on Tatsuya – but as he is our narrator, we know that he is innocent. Or is he? Kosuke Kindaichi is called in to investigate, but at the same time Tatsuya is carrying out investigations of his own to find the real culprit and clear his own name.

Unlike in The Honjin Murders, where the untidy and unassuming Kindaichi plays a big role in the story, in this book we hardly see him at all. Almost as soon as he arrives in Eight Graves he disappears into the background again. We know that he is working on solving the mystery, but we don’t actually watch him doing it because we stick exclusively with Tatsuya’s narration and he and Kindaichi have very little interaction until nearer the end of the book. This makes this one less of a detective novel and more of a thriller or adventure novel, as Tatsuya explores the village alone looking for clues and stumbling into danger.

Yokomizo creates a wonderful atmosphere in this book with Tatsuya’s investigations leading him into networks of tunnels, caves with stalactites, and underground lakes and caverns. The legend of the eight murdered samurai is also incorporated into the story, along with a search for hidden treasure said to be buried somewhere within the village and a rivalry between two branches of Tatsuya’s family: the ‘House of the East’ and the ‘House of the West’. It’s an entertaining novel and there’s always something happening – but I did think the parts where Tatsuya is wandering around in the caves and tunnels became a little bit tedious. The absence of Kosuke Kindaichi for most of the book was also disappointing and I think I would have preferred a more conventional detective novel with the focus on solving the mystery rather than on treasure hunting.

Still, this book was fun to read and I loved the setting. Now I need to read the other Yokomizo novel currently available in English: The Inugami Curse.

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada

The war had destroyed everything, and all that was left to him were the ruins and the ugly, incinerated detritus of former memories.

For this year’s German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy and Caroline, I decided to read a book by one of my favourite German authors, Hans Fallada. Nightmare in Berlin was one of his final novels, written just before his death in 1947, and although I don’t think it’s as good as some of his others – particularly Alone in Berlin and Little Man, What Now? – I did find it an interesting and powerful read. This 2016 translation by Allan Blunden is the first time the book has been made available in English.

Nightmare in Berlin begins in the spring of 1945, just as the war ends and the Red Army march into Berlin. Dr Doll, who had been a successful author before the war, and his much younger wife Alma, live in a small rural town and, unlike most of their neighbours, choose to welcome the Soviet troops into their home. Doll is rewarded by being appointed mayor of the town, but soon finds that he is being viewed with suspicion and resentment by his fellow Germans. Eventually, they decide that it’s time to move back to Berlin, having fled from the city to the countryside during the war. When they arrive in Berlin, however, they discover that someone else has moved into their apartment and that it’s going to be much harder than they’d expected to pick up the threads of their old life.

As Doll sets out to look for help in finding somewhere to live and in getting medical treatment for his wife’s injured leg, he is struck by the greed and selfishness of many of the people he encounters, who think nothing of cheating other Germans to get what they want. Disillusioned and depressed, Doll is overcome with shame and apathy, beginning to despair for Germany’s future.

In this time of the country’s collapse and defeat, no feelings last for long; the hatred passed away, leaving only emptiness, deadness, and indifference behind, and people seemed remote, out of reach.

Although this is obviously quite a bleak novel, it does have its more uplifting moments: there are times when Doll is shown some kindness and compassion, restoring his faith in human nature at least temporarily. The relationship between Doll and Alma is portrayed as a warm and loving one, so that no matter what is going on around them, they know they can always rely on each other. However, the Dolls are also both reliant on drugs, taking morphine and sleeping pills to escape from reality and get through the day, and the middle section of the novel follows their experiences in the hospitals and sanatoriums where they are being treated for their addictions. This part of the book was of much less interest to me (I wanted to see more of post-war Berlin, rather than the inside of a hospital) and I felt that it seemed to come out of nowhere – drugs were never mentioned until the Dolls left their rural town to return to Berlin and yet they had apparently both been addicts for a long time.

Nightmare in Berlin seems to be a very autobiographical novel. Hans Fallada (born Rudolf Wilhelm Friedrich Ditzen) struggled with morphine addiction himself, as did his younger second wife, Ursula Losch. Like Dr Doll, he was appointed mayor of a small country town shortly after the Soviet invasion and then spent the remainder of his life going in and out of hospital. I think the book might have worked better as non-fiction rather than a novel, but maybe Fallada found it easier to write about his own experiences by disguising them as fiction. Still, this is a fascinating novel and worth reading for the insights it offers into the mood of the German people in the aftermath of the war.

This is book 24/50 from my second Classics Club list.