Shedunnit: my dream bookish podcast

Today, I want to share my favourite bookish podcast with you. It’s called Shedunnit and its premise is “to unravel the mysteries behind classic detective stories.”. If you are into Golden Age crime fiction, the authors behind the books and the real crimes that influenced their narratives, then this is most definitely for you.

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What strikes me each time I listen is the quality of the research, the depth of content (all the books mentioned are listed in the show notes and full transcripts are available on the website too)  and just how compelling it is to listen to. It is produced to an exceptionally high standard by Caroline Crampton, who also writes the content and is the narrator of the podcast.gg98405682 (2)

I absolutely love the period music Caroline uses to intersperse the sections, it really adds to the atmosphere and I also really appreciate her voice; its clarity and engaging quality – as we all know, I am so fussy when listening audio. Of course, the content is pretty special as well. To give you a taste of what you can expect, here are a few of my favourite episodes so far:

01: Surplus Women (single, independent women after the First World War 

03: Queer Clues (the portrayal of queer characters)

04: The Lady Vanishes (on Agatha Christie’s missing days)

08: Dining with Death (the pivotal role of food in golden age mysteries)

13: The secret life of Ngaio Marsh

 The podcast includes interviews with lovers of the genre, experts and with authors who set their books during the Golden Age of the 20s and 30s . Recently, two of my favourite ever authors have made appearances and were such a treat to listen to: Jacqueline Winspear (writer of my much loved Maisie Dobbs series)in episode 15, focusing on period style and Robin Stevens (creator of the gorgeous Murder Most Unladylike series)  in episode 19 looking at school as a perfect murder mystery setting.

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A couple of months ago, Caroline set up a membership option as a way to create a community around the podcast but also as a way of keeping the podcast on air. When you listen you will get some idea of the amount of work and time that goes into making each episode.  At this point I must mention that I ‘m writing about this purely because of my love for the show, my post is in no way sponsored.

Membership package 1 enables you to be part of the members only Shedunnit online book club and message board, to access extra content that isn’t included in the main podcast plus there’s an extra monthly episode. Membership package 2 included all of the above PLUS a monthly subscription box containing goodies curated by Caroline and including a rare or unusual second had detective novel. I am personally subscribed to this and absolutely love my monthly murder mystery bookish post. I had a lovely email to begin with, asking me about my reading tastes, books I’ve read/want to read in future etc- that personal touch makes all the difference. Find more info here.

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And speaking of which, this month’s package has just arrived so I’ll stop now and find out what this month’s treasures are…

Mrs Mohr Goes Missing: a Polish Mystery

Translated Polish historical fiction and a murder mystery with a female amateur detective plus an incredible cover – just my cup of tea. Thanks to NetGalley and Oneworld for my arc – this book is now available to buy.

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Before I even looked at the content as such, I was already all for reading this book as there isn’t nearly enough translated fiction out there. The book has been supported by the European Council as well as the publishers and it is part of Oneworld’s fab translated fiction catalogue, which you can find here. Mrs Mohr has been translated into English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

So Milena, what is the book actually about, I hear you say: This is the first amateur detective mission for Zofia Turbotynska, a 38-year-old, middle-class, married woman living in Cracow in 1893. Always wanting to improve her social standing and determined to relieve her boredom, she becomes involved in a charity project connecting her with the nearby Helcel House, a new retirement home run by nuns. Zofia is pulled into (or rather, she actively involves herself in) the hunt for the murderer of one of the old ladies there (Mrs Mohr of the title) and of course, there is more death to follow. Zofia, reminiscent of Miss Marple, discovers that her talent and passion lies in detective work.

I enjoyed…

The setting is a fresh take on  Golden Age crime themed mysteries: Although I know a fair bit about Golden Age crime, I know very little indeed about Poland’s history and next to nothing about Krakow itself. I really appreciated the preface with a very brief description of that period in Polish history. I thought it incredibly interesting to see what was going on elsewhere in Europe in Victorian times i.e. Emperor Franz Joseph Habsburg, ruler of Austria-Hungary. Plus, the entire book has that almost indefinable East Europeanness that I adore in books – I am very much drawn to fiction set in these parts.

So, without going into a history lecture, I will keep it brief and say that Krakow was a melting pot of diverse ethnicities, languages, cultures and religions. It was a place of divided loyalties, those loyal to Austria and nationalists increasingly longing for independence. Like so many other countries, it was also a place of inequality in terms of gender and the class system. All of this becomes apparent, mostly in a dry humoured, digestible fashion that reminded me of other Victorian narratives focusing on witty social commentary. This isn’t a book to challenge, it is a light read but the awareness is very much there and to be honest, I just really enjoyed the snarkiness and often witty commentary.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe sheer quirkiness of the narrative and especially the main character of Zofia: I will be honest and say that at first, I couldn’t connect with Zofia; she felt rather two-dimensional and was just incredibly unlikable. But I gave her a chance and as the story progressed, there were some glimpses into her character that showed the potential of a much more complex character. She may hide that side of herself well but there is definitely something intriguing about her below her bourgeois surface. Zofia is definitely a force of nature and I admired that in what was very much a man’s world. She uses the tools available to her, playing the social system to get to the complicated truth of her case. The fact that she hides it all from her professor husband and her work is never publicly acknowledged, illustrates perfectly the double life she leads in order to find herself. I also loved the chemistry between Zofia and her two sidekicks, her cook Franciszka and the wonderful nun, Sister Alojza at Helcel House. She by no means sees them as equals, there is much superiority and naive thinking on Zofia’s part, but nevertheless, these women unite and use their intelligence and skills to solve the mystery together.

It could have been better…

The overplaying of stereotypes and the often too obvious nod to the Golden Age of crime fiction: Whilst I read the book as a humorous ode to Golden Age crime, sometimes it felt too over the top, it borrowed too much, and this affected the story’s originality.  A lot of the characters were types too, with very little depth apart from their function within the plot or to support the social/political statements being made. I thought this was a shame.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eToo many internal monologues: Sophia has a lot of internal conversations where she keeps retelling the story so far, trying to work out what has happened and where this will lead her. It felt pretty repetitive at times. And she never reaches any conclusions or even hints of conclusions but then suddenly at the end, she knows everything. For me, this made  both the flow and coherence of the narrative disjointed.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe highlighting of Cracow’s Jewish inhabitants: I’ll be honest and say I didn’t understand what the authors (incidentally, the pen name Maryla Szymiczkowa is pseudonym for the writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski)  were trying to achieve with Zofia’s haphazard way of regularly and noticeably pointing out which characters were Jewish. This didn’t seem to go anywhere and felt odd. The preface tells us that a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish, but most were not assimilated and led separate lives, even those assimilated into society were treated as second class citizens. I felt that an opportunity to explore this was missed.8b1bce47b63e609e4787a5bd9f825c6eThe translation of the local/national accents/dialects: It felt too much of a caricature. As a reader and translator, I think that such things are rarely done well and often choosing to leave the accent to the reader’s imagination is a more effective option. When dialect is done well it can add a valuable layer of meaning, but this was not the case here. Again, I wasn’t quite sure whether there is an element of  parody to the dialect – if so, I can see why it’s there, but it still didn’t work for me.

So, overall…

It is the first book in a series, and I think there was enough there to hook me and for me to hope that the things I wasn’t too impressed with will be developed and straightened out as the series continues. I will certainly give book 2 a go when it is translated. And I hope the next cover is just as wonderful 😊

The Last by Hanna Jameson– stepping/leaping outside of my comfort zone

Imagine the world’s major cities have just experienced a nuclear apocalypse and you are lucky enough to have survived, staying in a once grand Swiss hotel in the middle of a vast forest. This is the situation that Jon Keller, historian and narrator, finds himself in and, as a collector of stories by profession, he decides to document the months following the end of the world as we know it. During this time, he finds the body of a young girl in one of the water towers and makes it his personal mission to find out what happened to her…

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For me, The Last is an intriguing mixture: part exploration of the human psyche, part character driven murder mystery and the odd element of 80s era horror thrown in for good measure. It’s about as far away from my reading comfort zone as I could get but I LOVED IT!

Here’s why I loved it…

The concept of recording history in the making so that your experiences are not forgotten, so that your life has meaning in the middle of chaos, really spoke to me. And the fact that it has to be written on paper as technology, including the instant history provided by the internet, is no longer accessible somehow appeals to me (I am a Luddite at heart). In connection with this, there is also a poignant section about the value of printed photographs: what happens if all you have left are digital copies of your collected memories and the people you  care about, and you can’t see them anymore? It certainly made me go through my photos, make lists and start the process of ordering paper copies. Photographs are so important in my opinion as they hold memories, precious treasures, and our brains can’t always hold onto them without help.last circle 2The characters: The hotel hosts a truly quirky cast of misfits and I think Jameson explores the social group behaviour as well as the individual motivations of the characters really well. I felt that the characters were kept at a bit of distance, as they would be with Jon as the person documenting, and usually a lack of engagement wouldn’t work for me, but somehow, I felt really intrigued and I enjoyed trying to figure them out alongside Jon (and indeed figure out the man himself, as he is far from being a reliable narrator).last circle 2The big, thought-provoking questions: These are interwoven into the conversations the characters have and the stories that they tell. They are often understated or very matter of fact yet incredibly powerful. Is there an afterlife or a duality in this world? What defines what is right and wrong in a world without structure? What does democracy actually look like and does it work? Is there such a thing as collective responsibility? How do you find meaning in life when all you had is gone and what makes a person valuable to society? This book really got me thinking!last circle 2The children and small acts of kindness: I love that there are interludes when the only two children in the hotel provide reminders of how all is not lost and that there is still wonder and joy to experience even in the most difficult of circumstances.  There is also a section when Jon is given a small ornament as a gift, which has a huge impact on him,

“The only meaning we might have left as a species – indeed the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning – is in the small acts of human kindness which we show each other…” 

I strongly believe that despite (or indeed because of) the shambles our world is in, kindness matters more than ever.last circle 2How our perception of “the end of the world” very much depends on what we have experienced before: One of the characters, Yoko, talks of her parents having grown up under occupation , how, after the Second World War, Tokyo was in ruins in every sense of the word, everything had to be built out of this nothing and it was.  Because actually, the earth is still spinning, it’s just not following the rules of a western world.last circle 2The “Is Jon one of the only truly sane characters or is he having a mental breakdown?” factor: As the story progresses, you are left questioning more and more whether Jon’s documentation accurately reflects what is happening at the hotel and whether his investigation into the girl’s death has turned into an obsession affecting his mental health. Sometimes he even questions himself. I love that element of uncertainty where you are compelled to keep on reading, trying to find and work out the clues.last circle 2The cause of the attacks: we never find out the details of the attacks themselves and I liked this deliberate vagueness as the emphasis falls on general political behaviour, making the issues universal; politicians making the wrong decisions and citizens not being proactive  enough or having enough power to prevent disaster, and the extensive impact of this on the survivors but also physically on the Earth– sound familiar?last circle 2

A couple of things that I personally wanted more of/less of:

The gore! I think that the explicit moments are there as a shock factor and a nod to 80s horror fiction, but for me personally they felt a bit disjointed, disconnected and just personally not my cup of tea.

The hotel’s mysterious and possibly sinister past: I really enjoyed the premise of this; the dodgy deals, the high level of deaths and the capturing of a serial killer during his stay there in the past, but I found that there just wasn’t enough depth to this. There were moments when the hotel almost had a personality of its own (the kind of creepy I like) but they faded away. So basically, I just wanted more!

The ending felt like a bit of an anti-climax to me: I must say that this is just my own preference of what I wanted to read really and I can totally see why Jameson chose to end it this way (I can’t really say much more without spoilers!)

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I wonder if Jameson has a sequel planned?  There is so much there just waiting to be explored- I need to know what happened next!