Translated by Marina Sofia — Unlike Britain or America, some countries have little tradition of crime fiction writing. During the communist era, Romania produced spy novels targeting the West as the bad guys and you can see this approach lampooned in the frankly incredible Amazon series Comrade Detective. Other than that, a handful of subversive, surreal tales would emerge using crime to obliquely question the regime.
In the 21st century things have changed with authors like Bogdan Hrib, Anamaria Ionescu and Bogdan Teodorescu raising the profile of Romanian crime fiction. The latest to be translated into English, thanks to Corylus Books, is Tony Mott. Her abrasive and witty female protagonist, Gigi Alexa, is a pathologist working in the county service for forensic medicine in Brasov, helping the police on complex cases.
This is Transylvania, we know the image that conjures, there’s at least one killer on the loose and though the bodies rack up Deadly Autumn Harvest is not as dark as you might think. The setting is picturesque, with the city of Brasov surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains and gorgeous countryside, though Gigi vacillates between finding the city dull and loving the quiet life. The banter and office politics are also a source of humour.
After a holiday sprung on her by her partner Radu, Gigi returns to the office. Her immediate boss Emil is away and fears she might get into a row with the new director in his absence. It doesn’t take long before Dr Lenmaru’s ideas strike her as truly odd. In addition to pathology, he wants the institute to offer services for the living, aiding diagnosis and so on. That’s a problem for Gigi as she wants to work in psychology and victimology, is planning a PhD in the Netherlands and is working with the police unit for behavioural analysis. They recently had a local killer who fit the serial profile but mostly it’s uncharted waters in Brasov. Gigi thinks things are changing and this kind of work will become more valuable.
And funnily enough along comes a case. Alone at night, a woman is attacked at the moment she reaches her own gate. The next morning her body is found naked and posed in the garden. Typical serial killer stuff, and that’s only the start. Soon another body turns up and the head of the police unit calls in Gigi.
The problem is the links between the murders are not obvious. The victims – there are more – do not fit a similar profile and the method of killing varies. It’s all a bit bizarre and bewildering for the detectives. Do they have one killer on a spree, or a spate of different crazed killers in the locale? Is someone messing with them? To complicate matters, the police are investigating a possible terrorist plot, which saps time and resources.
Gigi is always looking for clues that give away a pattern and she stumbles across something that doesn’t seem entirely plausible but is significant. Now her own life is in danger as she draws attention of a killer upon herself. If unchecked the bodies will continue to fall.
Tony Mott uses Gigi’s experience to reflect on misogyny, patriarchy, sexism and violence and thought that sounds heavy it’s all handled with a light touch. Still, the point about women being taken seriously in the work environment is well made. As Gigi doesn’t suffer fools gladly and is forthright in her opinions there’s never a dull moment when she’s around. Sharp and thoughtful she’s more than a match for the men in the division.
It’s always a pleasure to read a novel by a writer who loves littering their hometown with corpses but still manages to give you a positive sense of a place. This is quite a contrast to some of the other authors from Romania published in English which are much darker – Sword by Bogdan Teodorescu, Resilience by Bogdan Hrib and Zodiac by Anamaria Ionescu for instance. This is one of those books that leaves you feeling like you’ve had fun, learned a little and like some things about the world better than you did before you started reading.
In 2022, Deadly Autumn Harvest won the Romanian Mystery & Thriller Award, and there are indications that more Gigi Alexa novels will arrive in English. Watch this space.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars