Molly’s Top 10 International Crime Novels of 2015

  • Post by Molly Odintz

 Last year, I posted a list of my top international crime novels, and a list of my top novels of the year, foreign and domestic. This year, as part of my life-long attempt to destroy all hierarchies and question all assumptions, I have decided to include my top international crime fiction as one list, and my top domestic crime picks as another.

Below, you’ll find an eclectic group of novels, united only by the scattered and distant nature of their geography. Next week, I’ll be posting my list of top picks for US-based fiction – more concentrated geographically, but just as diverse in subject matter


innocence or murder on steep street1. Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius-Kovály, Translated by Alex Zucker

Explore the world of 1950s Prague, where the men are either Russian occupiers or in the gulag, and the women who try hardest to do the right thing are the ones most morally compromised by the Soviet system. This darkly atmospheric novel was written by a woman who had worked to translate Raymond Chandler into Czech, and functions as a perfect Soviet noir. Available in English for the first time!Read More »

If you like John le Carré…

  • Recommendations from bookseller and mystery blogger Molly Odintz

I’ve always enjoyed tales of espionage, whether they be the glamorous exploits of international men of mystery, the paranoid ramblings of an everyman caught as a pawn between spies, or the delicate and devastating critiques of washed-up bureaucrats tired of destroying nations from their armchairs.

The latter two categories, in particular, drew me to the work of John le Carré. Along with Graham Greene, in such classic works as The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana, le Carré’s clear analysis of the Cold War, bitter condemnation of corrupt and uncaring nations, and compassionate insight into its unwilling victims have hugely influenced portrayals of the Cold War since the early 1960s.

Le Carré’s work since the fall of the Berlin Wall has shifted to a critique of unregulated capitalism and its devastating environmental and health effects. Meanwhile,  declassified documents on both sides of the pond and access to Soviet sources have led to a flowering of historical scholarship covering topics which, at the start of le Carré’s time, found a home only fiction. Below, you’ll find recommendations (both fiction and non-fiction) for the fan of le Carré’s work. 
Read More »

MysteryPeople Q&A with Alen Mattich, author of the Marko della Torre novels

  • Interview by Molly

Molly Odintz: So, I’ve read a few novels set in former Yugoslavia this year, and Zagreb Cowboy is by far the most adventurous. What made you stay away from the mournful and focus on the amoral?

Alen Mattich: Zagreb Cowboy takes place just before the start of the Yugoslav war, before people realized quite how serious and tragic it was to become. There were local upheavals and stand-offs. A few shootings. But despite the tensions, mostly it was a time of uncertainty and unease rather than mourning. Many people had more pressing concerns than politics, not least how to make ends meet during a time of great inflation. In doing so, many behaved “amorally” — everyone was looking for an edge, everyone was gaming the system, corruption became a necessary way of life just to get food on the table. This was true for people in all walks of life. Economic laws that failed to account for economic reality were routinely ignored. Of course, some people do it better than others. In these circumstances, there are always Strumbićs. And I knew one who was equally lively, equally full of life and schemes and had done very well for himself. It’s hard not to admire people like that, notwithstanding their utter amorality.

Read More »

Molly’s Top Ten of the Year, So Far

  • Post by Molly

innocence or murder on steep street1. Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street by Heda Margolius-Kovaly

Heda Margolius-Kovaly lost her family to the Holocaust, her first husband to Soviet purges, and the right to visit her native land to her defection to the United States. She also translated Raymond Chandler’s work into Czech, and his style, combined with her experiences, are the inspiration for Innocence, a bleak and hard-boiled noir about a woman who engages in increasingly desperate acts to secure her husband’s release from political imprisonment. You can find copies of Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street on our shelves and via bookpeople.com
The Meursault Investigation may not be shelved in the mystery section, but if The Stranger is considered “Mediterranean noir,” then I dub this post-modern redo of The Stranger, told from the perspective of the Arab victim’s family, “De-Colonial Noir.” The Meursault Investigation reads like Said’s Orientalism as a mystery novel, which to me is the best thing in the universe. Spoiler alert: Meursault did it. You can find copies of The Meursault Investigation on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.

Read More »

MysteryPeople Pick of the Month: ZAGREB COWBOY by Alen Mattich

zagreb cowboy

Post by Molly

When Alen Mattich first left Croatia as a child, he (probably) had no idea that he would spend the next few years in exile, eventually settling in London with a career as a financial journalist. He also (probably) never suspected that, twenty years after becoming a citizen of the world, he would merge his experiences, those of his countrymen, and crime novel conventions in Zagreb Cowboy, a rollicking good ride through the black market wilds of collapsing Yugoslavia, just before its constituent parts embarked on years of nationalist and ethnic conflict.

There is no official moment when current events become history, losing their immediate emotional impact in favor of the perspective of distance. Is it five, ten, twenty, or fifty years, before we can bear to touch the wounds of the past, to process their long-term impact, and to preserve the experiences of the past in the fiction of the present? What form do these narratives take? Are they tragedy, bitter satire, or small, humanistic stories? In 2015, as we experience the twentieth anniversary of the official cessation of hostilities post Yugoslavian break-up, several novels, including at least three detective novels, set in former Yugoslavia have been released.

Phillip Kerr continued his Bernie Gunther series with WWII-era Croatia as part of his setting, in The Lady From Zagreb. Kerr dives into the conflict between the nationalist and anti-communist Četniks, the anti-fascist and communist partisans, led by Tito, and the Croatian fascist puppet government of Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, the Ustaše. Ausma Zehanat Khan, a Canadian professional multi-tasker (novelist, media maven, human rights expert, etc.) released her debut mystery novel in January, The Unquiet DeadThe novel addresses the Srbrenica Massacre, asylum for war criminals, and the long-term impact of the conflict on its perpetrators and victims. Over in the general fiction section, Sarah Novic, in Girl At War, uses her own experience of exile to tell the fictionalized tale of a young woman’s return to Croatia and her experiences as a child soldier.

Zagreb Cowboy, while sharing a setting with the books listed above, chooses to focus not on emotional processing or revenge for deeds done. Rather, Mattich has a tear-it-all-down mentality to the Yugoslavian system. He fills the novel with fascinating and often humorous insights into how a corrupt and criminal system functions, then ceases to function, all in a very short time. The title is particularly apt, indicating the lawless, wild west atmosphere of a territory in between rulers.

His protagonist, Marko della Torre, begins the novel working for the Yugoslavian secret police’s internal investigations department. He sells the information he gathers to an outside source, who then uses the files stolen by Marko to blackmail government officials. When Marko’s business partner goes rogue and steals some dangerous information for himself, Marko must go on the run from several corrupt and powerful forces, including organized crime and the secret police.

Marko della Torre is Istrian, and has a rather blase attitude towards national affiliation. Della Torre remarks at one point in the novel that his grandmother managed to live in several countries without ever setting foot outside her home province, shuffled back and forth between empires throughout the 20th century. Della Torre’s wife is one of the last Jews left in Yugoslavia, and she doesn’t have a particular dog in the fight over Yugoslavia’s inevitable split either. Della Torre and his wife represent groups preserved by one empire, destroyed by another; casualties of nationalism, yet supporters of national autonomy.

A review from the Bowed Bookshelf blog called the novel “more than a little farcical,” and in all these novels that have been released so far this year, none other than Mattich’s have taken a satirical approach. The Lady From Zagreb‘s few scenes set in Croatia read a bit like a horror novel, and it’s focus on WWII-era Ustase war crimes provides a very different look at Yugoslavian dynamics than novels set during the post-Communist disintegration. Girl At War focuses on the tragedy of wartime experiences and the difficulty of returning home, while The Unquiet Dead takes a step back for a police procedural deeply concerned the long-term effects of genocide.

There’s a long tradition of farce and satire used by authors as the only way to make sense of the dogma of the totalitarian state or the chaos of civil war (see Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, or Orwell’s Animal Farm, just for starters). Mattich’s novel, through its cartoonish violence and absurd officials/criminals, fits right into this tradition. Zagreb Cowboy is also a classic gangster flick, with a complex plot, a series of unexpected reversals and setbacks, breakneck pace, and oh-so-satisfying conclusion.

By the end of Zagreb Cowboy you’ll be rooting so hard for the collapse of Yugoslavia, you won’t care what’s about to happen, and perhaps this is part of Mattich’s point – of course a large, multi-ethnic country dissolved into conflict after the end to a long, enforced period of cooperation and rule by a corrupt and repressive government.

You can find copies of Zagreb Cowboy on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.