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In Teheran, Noir is a political act

Writing crime fiction in post revolution Iran

Back in the day, so my mother tells me, on the rare occasions when my father took her along to one of the cabarets of old Tehran, the tough guys—the lutis—the bosses, the knife brawlers, and the traditional wrestlers, would lay out their suits and jackets on the floor of the place for my mother to walk on. It was a gesture of supreme respect for one of their own. And it says a lot about a Tehran that simply doesn’t exist anymore—a Tehran of chivalry and loyalty, a place where allegiances meant something, where friendships harked back to a classical world of warriors from the great Persian epic, the Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), and to the medieval Islamic notion of the ayyar brotherhood in Iran and Mesopotamia where the bandit and the common folks’ champion were one and the same, and where every man followed a code of honor set in stone.

Or else, all of this may simply be wishful nostalgia for something that didn’t exist even back then. Back then means a time before the Islamic Revolution of 1979. That watershed event that sits in the mind of every Iranian as a chasm, a sort of year one after which everything strange became law. The brutal eight years of war with Iraq—the longest conventional war of the twentieth century—the persistent pressures from America in its own everlasting twilight war with Iran, the official corruption of the new ruling class, and the snowballing inflation turned just about everyone into a “night worker.” Living an honest life was no longer an option. Prostitution, theft, an explosion in the drug trade and addiction, the selling off of raw materials and historic national treasures—plus endemic, in-your-face bribery—became a way of life. Meanwhile Tehran grew and grew, until it was one of the megacities of the world, now pushing at fifteen million stray souls—a leviathan that can barely stand itself, a purgatory of unmoving traffic, relentless pollution, and noise and anger and inequity, surrounded by some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world.

Tehran, then, is a juxtaposition of ugliness and beauty that breaks the heart. A place where not one but two inept dynasties came to miserable ends, and where, arguably, the third most important revolution in history (after the French and the Russian) was started. It is also the city where Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt met to divvy up the world while the flames of WWII were still burning. And it was where one of the CIA’s first manufactured coups (with the prodding and support of the British—who else?) against a democratically elected government was put into motion, thus ushering in years of a dictatorship which in turn was swept aside by the first real fury of fundamentalist Islam, a harbinger of the world we now live in and call post–9/11.

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‘The Book Hunters of Katpadi’ review: A Madras and a Chennai novel

Opens up the magic casement to the land of book adventures

While bibliomysteries, or adventures centred on books and the surrounding world, are quite common in the West — Spanish writer Carlos Ruiz Zafón has recently quite popularised the genre — in India, they are still a rarity. With The Book Hunters of Katpadi, Pradeep Sebastian opens up the magic casement to this forlorn land.

Of course, it needs a bit of specialisation to know that a battered copy found in a second-hand bookshop or a book leaf perforated by silverfish can be worth a fortune or a murder or two (there is no murder in Book Hunters though).

But anyone who has been following Sebastian’s column, ‘A Typophile’s Notes’, in these pages of Literary Review would be familiar with the significance of rare print editions, bookmaking, book collecting, antiquarian book dealing, and so on. Book Hunters also explains these topics at length, preparing the ground for more bibliomysteries to follow in the future.

Lost world

Fittingly, this book about books is a lovely object in itself, with its quaint pen-and-ink illustrations, silk-ribbon page-marker and dust jacket in black, green, gold and white. For many book lovers, it will bring back a lost world of gilt-edged hardbacks found in shadowy library nooks or grandparents’ damp-decorated bookcases.

Book Hunters resurrects a bygone era not just in its form but also in its content. While being set in contemporary Chennai, it invites you to imagine, via the bibliomysteries it sets out to solve, the Madras and Ooty of yore when sahibs and memsahibs walked the streets.

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The new Scandi noir? The Korean writers reinventing the thriller

The country has emerged as a surprising literary force as a novel by the ‘Korean Henning Mankell’ bags a six-figure deal and sparks a global bidding war

Last December, Korean novelist Un-su Kim set out on an eight-month deep-sea fishing trip as part of research for his next book. Unreachable by phone or email until next August, when his boat docks in Fiji, he has no idea that his thriller The Plotters has been the subject of a wildly enthusiastic auction in the US, where it recently sold to Doubleday for a six-figure sum. German publisher Europa Verlag has called Kim “the Korean Henning Mankell”, while publishers in the UK, Czech Republic and Turkey have placed offers, and international film companies are also battling for rights.

His agent, Barbara Zitwer, who plans to meet him in Fiji to reveal the news, believes Kim’s novel, about an organisation that masterminds assassinations, has caught a wave of interest in Korean thrillers – a previously unknown quantity. “The world is finally embracing them. Korean thriller writers are invigorating the genre,” she said. “They are pumping new life into it. Readers are tiring of Scandinavian thrillers – they crave something new.”

Korean writing can seem new to English readers due to the unique cadence and economy of the language; translator Deborah Smith described the process of changing Korean to English as “moving from a language more accommodating of ambiguity, repetition and plain prose to one that favours precision, concision and lyricism”. There is no grand tradition of mystery writing in Korea. Writers there are creating something entirely new: sparsely worded, stylistically sophisticated page-turners that incorporate ideas important to Korean society, such as family, loyalty, nature and hierarchy.

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8 Great Japanese Books in Translation That Aren’t by Haruki Murakami

We love Murakami, and all the cats, jazz, whiskey bars, mysterious women, and glimpses at modern Japanese life that populate his books. But there’s a world of magnificent novels out there by Japanese authors who don’t receive as much U.S. press for their work. If you’ve already devoured Murakami’s story collections (like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman) and his acclaimed novels (including Kafka on the ShoreThe Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and IQ84), it’s time to add these contemporary Japanese books to your end-of-summer reading list. There’s something for everyone: mysteries and thrillers, teen horror, relationship dramas, and twisted, yakuza-related crime stories, all taking place in locales that may be unfamiliar to American readers. Each will get your imagination churning and your passport begging for stamps. Here’s a sample of our favorite modern books from the land of the rising sun.

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