Sunday, April 23, 2006

Yet more new Swedish noir in translation

Borkmann's Point by Håkan Nesser is the newest of the current crop of Swedish crime novels to reach the U.S. market. But Nesser's novel is a bit different from the others. The setting is not Sweden, not exactly anyway. The beat of Detective Van Veeteren, Nesser's central character, is an unnamed European country that is something like the Netherlands, or perhaps coastal Denmark. Or maybe coastal Sweden. In a way, Nesser has staked out the territory of "new Europe" for his detective, giving himself considerable leeway in controlling the setting (but losing the anchor of a real city, one of the things I go to international noir fiction for).
Nesser's novel is a puzzle, solved in the "least likely suspect" mode, perhaps more a straight mystery than noir fiction. But the inability of citizens to rely on the justice system for justice, a dark sensibility, and the oddly disorienting fictional world bring the novel close enough to noir to be considered here. The narrative has considerable drive, though the investigation is not very systematic, as police procedurals go. Van Veeteren's self confidence echoes (distantly, fortunately) that of Poirot. On the other hand, the family problems of several of the characters give a "reality effect" in amassing detail surrounding the characters' lives. And the progression of murders, and of the detectives' efforts to catch up with the murderer, are the primary sources of that narrative drive. To me, this novel is not quite as interesting as Eriksson's Princess of Burundi, but he avoids what I see as a flaw in the Wallander books--a tendency to reach for global conspiracies in the resolution of local crimes. And it's fascinating to see Nesser build up a circumstantial, believable world from scratch. Plus the explanation of the book's title is interesting and completely unexpected...
Synopsis: A drinker is stalked and murdered, with an axe, in the woods on his way home from a bar. Obviously this is not the first novel in this series, becuase there is some unfinished business between the star detective, Inspector Van Veeteren, and his son, who is on parole and the two are at the beach together. No more explanation is offered, since the detective is immediately called away to the nearby town of Kaalbringen to deal with the axe murder. In Kaalbringen he meets the police chief, Detective Chief Inspector Bausen, and detective Beate Moerk, plus several other less well delineated detectives (Moerk and Munster both occupy the narrator's attention nearly as much as does Van Veeteren--Moerk is in fact a fully realized character, at least in the first half of the novel). Eventually, they're joined by Van Veeteren's trusted lieutenant, detective Munster. The two victims, a business man and a vagrant, seem to have nothing in common. Then another man is discovered when his girlfriend returns to their apartment--the axe is still buried in his back. The twists and turns from there on follow a familiar pattern, and there is what I consider to be a flaw in the point of view--the killer speaks, giving the reader details of his motivation, and the character who will eventually be revealed to be the killer also speaks, separately and in the voice of his "daytime" character so to speak, with no mention of the motivating compulsion that we know from the killer's monologues. So there is a blatant attempt to fool the reader, and these two voices are not really reconciled in the conclusion.

Friday, April 21, 2006

More new Swedish noir by Kjell Eriksson

Kjell (pronounced "shell," I believe) Eriksson's newly translated The Princess of Burundi (I should really start crediting the translators: Ebba Segerberg did a great job with translating this one from the original Swedish) is one of (probably the best of) a new crop of Scanidinavian crime novels hitting the shelves in the U.S. and U.K. this year. This is another "collective" novel of a sort, since none of the detectives in this police procedural dominate all the others. There are a couple of characters who come forward, though, as well as some of the families of the principals in the crime. There is no Sherlock Holmes who solves the crime by himself--on the other hand, it is less of a self-consciously social novel in the sense I use the word "collective" with respect to The Beast (see earlier post on that Swedish novel). Eriksson's detectives work in Uppsala, the famous Swedish university town, and there is a subtle variation on the "town and gown" theme that is as common in crime novels as in "mainstream" fiction (since Lucky Jim at least). The class boundary is here clarified by exposure to, and participation in, crime, and the line is drawn in an effective manner by Eriksson. Detective Ann Lindell (whose role here suggests that she may be a more prominent figure in others in this series not yet translated) remarks (with regard to the cultured detectives of a certain genre of crime fiction) that the cops she knows are not cultured, not great readers (see my comments on Garcia-Roza's detective Espinoza). She comments that her crowd is perhaps better at what they do because they are closer in class, taste, and education to those with whom they most often work, the perpetrators and victims of crime. Another of the detectives, Berglund, comments at the early stages of the investigation that "Solving a crime was a matter of discerning a pattern...and in that way this man and his context, his part of town, his expressions, gestures, and language were a part of the answer," and that when confronted with the puzzle that a crime represents for him, the investigator must put together "the pieces of the puzzle, the puzzle of the town..." These comments get to the heart of what makes a crime novel "noir," and also what makes crime novels (and to me, particularly the international ones) so interesting. To be effective, a "noir" writer must get to the heart of a city, and also give a certain amount of the surface detail, the "map" of the city. Eriksson's book is not a travelog, though--his characters have the pessimism about society and about the bureaucratic realities of policing that make "noir" noir. If I find one flaw in The Princess of Burundi, it's in the plotting--especially of the ending. Without giving too much away, I hope, I found the solution to this puzzle a bit unsatisfying, not in the way the book ends but in the revelation of the criminal's identity. It seems almost as if the author had originally designated one character to be the murderer, and then decided that wouldn't work--so he came up with the most similar character he could as the perpetrator. Still, the plot moves forward without any other artificial contrivances, and the conclusion has a genuine inevitability and pathos. This is a good one.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Brazil's Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

The fifth of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's Rio de Janeiro crime novels featuring Chief Espinoza is now in English--a good occasion to review the whole series (The Silence of the Rain, December Heat, Southwesterly Wind, and A Window in Copacabana). On the face of it, this is a series I should like--even want to like. The setting is exotic and interesting, and there are the elements of noir (a bleak portrait of modern life in general and the particular setting, corruption in the police force, jarring crimes, poverty and despair). Plus the tone is fairly light (given the material), allowing for a certain dry comedy. But I just can't seem to get into the series--they are not novels I can easily imagine going back to again and again, as I would do for some other series. The plots are intricate and turn on believable events that are integrated into the society in which they happen. In fact the plots are the main interest of the series, because there is little character or interaction among characters. Espinoza is a writer's idea of a policeman--he's obsessed with books (his no bookcase bookcase--made entirely of books--is a feature in all the books). He cares little about what he eats but the novelist is careful to talk about what he's eating--and since Espinoza is not all that particular, the meals are usually pretty boring (in contrast, for example, to the meals of the main characters in the novels of Spain's Montalban or Italy's Camilleri). None of the other characters have much personality, other than a few colorful characteristics. The other cops are either routinely corrupt or, in the case of Espinoza's few trusted lieutenants, simply not corrupt--they have no other personality (though Garcia-Roza does give them little snippets of life outside their work). The text is very "narrated," rather than growing integrally out of the setting or the characters. Garcia-Roza is present in every word. I've been tempted to refer to the novels as like Doyle's, since there is a puzzle character (but no similarity in methods between Holmes and Espinoza). The novels seem almost parable-like--tempting me to compare them to Kafka (though the tone is much lighter in Garcia-Roza). I think perhaps they are simply too self-consciously literary, as are the novels of, for example, Cuba's Leonardo Padura, whose detective is a frustrated writer--but Padura's novels are full of telling detail about life in Havana, life in Cuba, life in the modern world. And the characters are (though in some ways just as cipher-like as Garcia-Roza's) colorful in interesting and believable ways, ways that further the stories. In the end, I still want to like Garcia-Roza's novels and will probably look at any new ones (in the library--I don't think I'll buy them any more), but I don't find myself wishing that the translator would hurry up...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

A Swedish "Beast"

The Beast by Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström is a "collective" novel of the sort attempted by certain novelists in the 20th century--not focused on a single hero, but shifting among a kaleidoscope of characters (in this case a couple of policemen, several prison guards, a pedophile murderer, the father of a young girl, a group of Swedish rednecks, and assorted other characters. Their stories (told in the 3rd person) are intertwined until all the threads ultimately come together, with several twists that take the plot beyond that of the average crime novel, in an ultimately not-unexpected ending. Rigosi's Night Bus (mentioned in an earlier post) has a similar intertwined structure, but whereas that novel is a rollercoaster of a comic thriller, The Beast is an all-around indictment of a society whose limits and ethics are tested by the strains of a child molester's exploits and their awful aftermath. Most of these characters are damaged (and the one flaw I would find in the novel is that the "back story" of a few of the characters molested youth is a bit overdone), and none come out of the novel without further damage. But the novel is compelling, and the technique is carried off almost flawlessly--collective novels are often tedious and unfocused, but this one is driven and tightly wound. One aspect of noir fiction that is seldom plumbed by current authors is the thinness of the veneer of civility in an entire society, rather than a narrow spectrum of an enclave such as the criminal underworld. The Beast does plumb those depths, convincingly and tensely.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Helene Tursten's The Torso suffers from a couple of problems with respect to the noir tradition (or anti-tradition, as may be). The first is one I mentioned in my last post, a certain woodenness in the language that I would (without any evidence) attribute to the translator. The woodenness reflects some aspects of the Swedish language--for one thing, if you translate some Swedish swear-words more or less literally, they sound pretty mild, so that in this translation, the main character (detective Irene Huss) says things like "Yipes" when we would (in American or even more so British spoken language) expect "Fuck." I can't exactly fault the translator in respect to instances like that, but I might hope for a livelier equivalent to Swedish expressions like "djävlar," which literally means "devils" and is short for "a thousand devils," but is used more like "damn" in English. The other problem is one that Tursten shares with the better-known books of Henning Mankell--a reflection of the "political correctness" of Swedish culture. In one of the early Wallander books by Mankell, the main character is devastated by being caught for driving under the influence, hardly the cause for much soul-searching in non-Scandinavian crime fiction. Tursten's police squad, and in particular detective Huss, seem inordinately shocked in The Torso by fairly straightforward kinky sex, and a bit self-righteous about smoking and other non-sexual sins. Still, these attitudes of the Swedish characters are believably contrasted in The Torso with more worldy attitudes of the Copenhagen police detectives who figure in this novel prominently. Overall, I found The Torso to be pretty effective as a noir-ish police procedural, and actually fun to read (except for the annoyances mentioned above), though there's one more flaw I could mention--that old cliche the "snuff film" makes a guest appearance here. Fortunately the plot doesn't turn on that mythic video genre, but on a more gruesome and believable genre of serial killers, involving necrophilia. On balance, then, I wold recommend The Torso, which in some ways is better than the Wallander books, if you think like I do that the morose Wallander is getting a little tiresome--if Huss's family life is a little too sunny, perhaps some of the other Scandinavian crime novels coming out this spring will prove to be a better balance. The next novel I'll be dealing with, The Beast, by Roslund and Hellström, is not a police procedural at all, so it will likely be either a contrast or (even better) an antidote to the various excesses or failings of these more prominent (in the U.S. anyway) Swedes.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

More Scandinavians

Had a reply to my recent post on (mostly) male Scandinavians: "Asa Larsson - Sun Storm (Apr), Anne Holt - What Is Mine (Jul) and Liza Marklund - Prime Time (Sep)." I don't think of Marklund as "noir," more of a mainstream thriller kind of thing. Still, it's another female voice in the stream of Scandinavian crime fiction that's coming out now. I don't know Larsson but look forward to that and to the Holt. The new Tursten novel (The Torso) has some of the same problems as her first novel in English--due to (I presume) the translation. The text is a bit wooden in English, but the novel's forward movement is only impeded a bit. More later--I haven't finished the book yet.