Monday, June 26, 2006

A Finnish thriller by Kjell Westo (maybe not so thrilling)

My wife and I have this discussion about TV cop shows: I can't stand it when there's a lot of "soap opera" about the cops' private lives. That's why I like Law & Order and don't like NYPD Blue. And it's why I don't like a certain kind of novel, whether it aspires to noir or not. Too much "soap opera" impedes what Paul Cain referred to in the title of his classic (and classically depressing) A Fast One. The best noir progresses inexorably toward its conclusion. Kjell Westö's novel Lang starts out great: The narrator, an old friend of the Lang of the title, is woken up in the middle of the night by a panicky Lang who needs to borrow a shovel. Great, I say to myself, this has the ring of violence and also comedy--maybe this is another Getting Rid of Mister Kitchen (see earlier posts). But alas no. This is that dreaded sub-genre, the literary thriller. Simply speaking those words condemns the novel, in my lexicon. Too many "art" novelists think they can write a crime novel and when they do, it comes out baggy or full of "soap opera." Westö's Lang mentions the novelist Joyce Carol Oates favorably (while disparaging his girlfriend for reading Bridget Jones's Diary instead). But Westö's novel is a bit too much like an Oates novel, arty perhaps, but not much of a thriller. The novel is in fact a mystery-woman novel of the sort pioneered by Lawrence Durrell in his Justine. Lang's lover, Sarita, has mysterious secrets that make her, at her core, unavailable to Lang. But the real mystery is why she would indulge this pretentious asshole (a novelist and talk-show host) as much as she does. Westö does make fun of his character as a pretentious bore, and he distances the narrative by having a narrator who is a friend, assembling the story from notes that Lang sends him from prison (the end of the shovel incident being foretold in the nature of the narrative). There are also several interesting or comic literary conceits (the letters from prison, not presented directly but referred to by the narrator, recall Humbert's prison confession in Lolita; and the narrator includes a review of his own earlier work written by Lang--a highly unfavorable review). That's all very clever, but how much of the back-and-forth sexual relationship and mysterious former husband do we really have to sit through before the tale of the shovel comes back into the foreground. Writers of art novels do periodically think they can write noir, without realizing that the genre is note a mere finger exercise that they can toss off, or a genre without its own imperatives into which they can simply pour their usual literary interests. The effective crime novel is an art of its own, entertainment perhaps (like the Bridget Jones that Lang disparages though to me an entertainment of broader concerns and interests); But not an entertainment that is simple to imitate. Westö is a Swedish-speaking Finn, part of a linguistic minority within a very distinctive culture--I was hoping for more from his contribution to the crime novel. Next, I'm reading a Finnish language crime novel--maybe that one will be better (and I'm not saying anything about the conclusion of Lang--if anyone cares, leave me a note and I'll add something about it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Allan Guthrie and one comment on Derek Raymond

A couple of readers have mentiond Derek Raymond's Department of Unexplained Deaths or "factory" novels, and that they're being reprinted by Serpent's Tail (more kudos to Serpent's Tail). I should have gone into some detail about Raymond, but it's been a while since I've read them. A good excuse to go back--my memory is that they're noir to a depth that is almost surreal. I just read Allan Guthrie's first novel, Two Way Split, and it has a surreal side, too. The complex, fragmented narrative has a secret lurking at its center, revealed in the denouement. Even before that secret is revealed the narrative has a weird movement that contributes, rather than retards, its motion forward as well as its noir atmosphere. When the secret IS revealed, the novel tips into a milieu that has only been hited at earlier--has anyone read Jim Thompson's asylum comedy, The Alcoholics? It's a wild and funny surreal noir comedy, and Guthrie's first novel takes a step in that direction, as well as a step in the direction of Thompson's more straight noir novels. The sequel is much more straightforward, but still a pleasure--while Two Way Split is perhaps a more distinctive accomplishment. Check out Guthrie's extensive website, Noir Originals, which has a great deal of information about other authors as well.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stuart MacBride and a more general observation

I'm reading Stuart MacBride's Cold Granite (at a reader's suggestion) and not quite done yet. But since I'm not doing plot summaries anyway, I'm going to go ahead and post (since I'll be away from my computer for a few days). Reading Cold Granite is kind of like watching a very good cop movie or TV series, really more Joseph Wambaugh than Thomas Harris, even though the novel deals with a serial killer situation. MacBride keeps careful control of point of view, only leaving his main character's perspective for the occasional preview of a crime scene. That control is a key to the success of MacBride's approach, which is both light and dark, comic and menacing. And, like Wambaugh but unlike even McBain, MacBride captures the flow of personalities, events, non-events, irrelevant occurrences, and false leads that can make a cop story both fun and revealing (not just about cops but about the larger social setting). Cold Granite is set in Aberdeen (the Granite City, apparently) and the setting is gritty and wet (the author all but apologises to the citizens of Aberdeen in an foreword). But the focus is on personality, which allows the comedy to develop naturally (again, as in Wambaugh--though no one would describe a Wambaugh novel as "noir," I think, and MacBride does come closer to the topic of this blog). I'm looking forward to more of MacBride, when I can get my hands on the later novels. One thing about Cold Granite is that it seems to be catching the detectives in mid-series, as if the reader has known about some of the back-story that comes out in little bits through the book--it's an effective device to lure the reader into a series novel without indulging in the kind of "mythologizing," a la, for example, the first episode of the Lone Ranger (if any of you readers remembers that, or if it's still circulating somewhere in the ionosphere). You feel as if you know these characters already.
The general observation is more of a question--I've been thinking about gratuitous, sadistic violence after reading Simon Kernick's novels. There's one passage, a kind of throwaway character analysis that Kernick does a lot, in which a man casually tortures another man with a hot steam iron. The torture is not essential to the novel, just to the character description, and somehow the sadism is more pointed, more sadistic than if it were part of the main thread of the story. Though there's certainly a lot of violence in noir fiction, is there a place for such casual sadism?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Couple more by Simon Kernick

I promised a couple more UK novels before going back to the Continent, and here are a couple by Kernick--but there's one more UK work (from Scotland) still in my pipeline before we move on to Finland: Stuar Macbride was recommended to me by one of this blog's readers, and I've gotten hold of a copy that looks very tantalizing. But first, as they say: Simon Kernick has 5 novels out now, I think, but I've only read through #3. I reported on #1 earlier, but here I'll just say a few words about The Murder Exchange and The Crime Trade, two almost unbelievably complicated cops-and-mobsters stories. Kernick uses a first person narrator, one of his detectives, for some of the narrative and third-person for others, and in the case of The Crime Trade this device leads to what I would consider a flaw--the annoying withholding of information. Of course, all "mystery" writers withhold information. But when Kernick follows an undercover cop, in great detail throughout the novel and withholds a large piece of his life and character from the reader, I feel a bit betrayed. The Murder Exchange is, I think, a better novel with a (for sure) bigger payoff in the fast and violent conclusion, but it is even more complicated than its sequel--Kernick relies on an Afterword to tie up all the things he hasn't been able to deal with in his narrative. Kernick's novels have a lot to like, and there are frequently very funny and very violent passages (often at the same time), but so far all of his novels have alternated these parts with long longeurs, to my mind, and the novels could have used some judicial editing--they're a bit too long as well as too complicated, and I tend to lose interest in the repetitious dialogue that he has to indulge in to keep the details of the plot in the forefront of the reader's mind.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cathi Unsworth and what's next

I'm going to talk about a couple more UK writers (the one shown here is the U.S. cover, which I prefer to the original, for a book I've been saving for a while) and then it's back on the international circuit, with two writers from Finland (one writes in Swedish, the other in Finnish), a Cuban, and more. First, The Not Knowing, by Cathi Unsworth, another estimable noir novel from Serpent's Tail. TNK includes an English version of Southern Gothic, like Thomas Hardy crossed with Deliverance (or maybe Daniel Woodrell): at the heart of the novel is a novel-within-a-novel that Unsworth's heroine, Diana, takes seriously as a crime novel, though it's really more "wretched of the earth" kind of stuff. The set-up is that Diana works for a new magazine, Lux, that deals with crime fiction, music, and the culture scene (particularly the scene around what she calls "psychobilly," a marriage of punk and rockabilly that sounds fascinating (I need to do some research and find which bands or what scene she's portraying here--anybody have any ideas?). As the novel gets going, there's a spectacular murder of a filmmaker who's just made a splash with an updating of the great British gangster films of the 50s (and its success has spawned a craze for the style of the Kray twins). The texture of this aspect of the novel is wonderful--Unsworth is able to move back and forth from the film world, to publishing, to the pubs frequented by the musicians, and it's all great fun. Diana is likable, though she falls more into the role of victim than active agent or investigator (kudos to Unsworth, though, for not setting her up as an amateur detective, England is already crawling with those, to judge from the mystery lists). Also to Unsworth's credit is that the denoument doesn't involve any transformation of her heroine into a kung-fu master (mistress?) or any hero-on-a-horse--the conclusion arises from character rather than cliche. But the false heart of the novel, for me, is the novel-within-a-novel--I just can't accept it as seriously as the characters in the novel do. I'd rather be hearing more about some of the minor characters, such as 50s gangster-film star Niall Flynn, whose career was resurrected by the murdered filmmaker's success, or Detective Linehan, who is merely sketched in here, but seems likable and intimidating by turns, a good combination for noir. I'd read another book by Unsworth, though, and hope she fulfills the promise of this first book (apologies for my caveats--maybe it's just me).

Friday, June 09, 2006

Allan Guthrie

After Allan Guthrie posted replies to a couple of my questions, in earlier posts of this blog, I felt compelled to seek out his novels. I just read the first one I got my hands on, Kiss Her Goodbye, which is apparently his second novel. On the basis of this book, I'll definitely keep looking for the other one, Two-Way Split. People claim that what Ian Rankin writes is "tartan noir," but Guthrie's Kiss Her Goodbye is much more the genuine article--a real throwback (and in some ways a respectful updating) the original noir fiction, the pulp novels of the 50s. Hard Case Crime, the publisher, has recognized this relationship with a noir-pulp homage cover, by pulp paperback master Chuck Pyle. The big difference between Rankin and Guthrie is that Rankin seems always (or at least frequently) to reach for crimes that lead "up" to the middle class, to the government, to the power structure. Noir originally dealt primarily with the criminal class, working class, street life of society. Think of Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, or that pulp classic (by a British writer, I believe) No Orchids for Miss Blandish by James Hadley Chase. I should write a separate post about Miss Blandish, but suffice it to say that this book is exactly the Southern white trash pulp novel that Faulkner originally intended his Sanctuary to be, before his literary sensibility took over, obscuring the very pulpy events by bringing in his larger aesthetic and social concerns. There may be some sort of moral lurking in Miss Blandish, but it's primarily a guilty pleasure. Guthrie's novel is a bit more than that--though it's a fun read too. Kiss Her Goodbye is about the criminal class, but he doesn't patronize or caricature his characters. They never act or talk like cliches. And though his plot is very straightforward, it moves along at the logical pace of his characters' lives, emotions, and motivations. And in spite of the heavy weight of family drama, pain, and death, it's also a funny book (not in the burlesque fashion of Bayswater Bodycount, but in an organic way, appropriate to characters who would not want to be taken any more seriously than they take themselves. I'm looking forward to Two-Way Split. One further point--Guthrie finds a way to solve one of the vexing problems of all crime fiction these days--the cell phone. Nothing is more boring than transcribing people's phone calls--but how do you move people around and get them in face-to-face encounters these days when it's so easy to just call them on their mobile. And how do you maintain suspense and surprise about where people are and what they're doing when most folks would just get the phone out of their pocket and call to find out. Cops can claim (as Simon Kernick cops do in his Murder Exchange) that they'd rather surprise people face-to-face to see reactions, etc. But what about civilians? Guthrie gets his hero so mad that he throws his phone across the room, smashing it to bits. Then he's too busy, in this fast-moving novel, to get another one. Problem solved, and he has to run all over Edinburgh to find people and to find out what's going on.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

More Ken Bruen (and maybe the last reviewed here)

Before I make some comments on Ken Bruen's most recent novels, I want to thank those who've responded to some of my recent questions. You've reminded me of a couple of writers by whom I've only read one book--particularly Charlie Williams and David Peace. I can't remember why I stopped after the first Peace novel--I need to go back and have another look. Charlie Williams is a very dark and very funny writer, but his first novel was enough for me, for a while. Still, I'd highly recommend anyone who likes noir, crime, or black humor to run (don't walk) to get hold of something by Williams. Now to Bruen--I'm going to make some comments about The Dramatist first, then come back and edit this post with some comments on Vixen (so last year! in terms of Bruen's output--there's another in this series due out this summer, Calibre). The Dramatist is the most recent of the Jack Taylor/Galway private eye books. Bruen churns these out according to not a formula but a sensibility or an atmosphere, carried forward (seemingly effortlessly and endlessly) by the author. Up to the end, I think the Dramatist is the best of the Taylor novels (and the next most recent, dealing with the famous Magdalen Martyrs, the worst). Taylor is less self-flagellating, sober, and honestly trying to connect with people. The plot (as always with Bruen) is really secondary--the results of his investigation come late and without much punch. The point of the books is travelling the hard road (the Calvary road, almost) of Taylor's journey through Galway and other Irish towns. But the ending to The Dramatist (don't worry, I won't give it away) ruins the whole thing for me. One reviewer at Amazon extols the ending for its sadness--in fact, there's a character who seems to exist in the novel only to die senselessly, and thereby send Jack careening off the water wagon and back into the bottle and his pal, despair. That senseless grasping for the maudlin effect makes me go back and re-evaluate the other characters and events--and in that re-evaluation I'm forced to regard all of the characters as mere props to provide Jack with a reason to fall back into the sewer where he was at the beginning of the series. I'm afraid I won't be able to follow his progress in and out of that sewer any more. The virtues of Bruen's writing are all still here--in particular his references to other noir writers, a gracious and helpful benchmark for his own writing--but have gotten a bit repetitive. And, as in some cases before, Bruen is writing so fast (and not getting the editing or fact-checking that he really needs) that he's not getting his facts right. In earlier books, he has misspelled the noir authors' names, and in these recent books he refers to Oz, the HBO show, as an "Australian prison drama." Oz is about Oswald State Prison, in the U.S.--and why is Bruen referring to it at all if he's that unfamiliar with it? And why is the editor/publisher not catching that kind of mistake? Bruen is endlessly creative, in the sense of generating lively text seemingly ad infinitum, but not so creative in the sense of giving the reader new experiences. Vixen has the typical Bruen virtue or limitation, depending on your point of view, of being a quick, brief read. And Vixen is part of what is to me Bruen's best series, ensemble-police-procedurals featuring a group of cops surrounding Brant, a hard man whose taste in fiction runs to Ed McBain, in homage to the inspiration for this series. But where McBain's 87th Precinct novels are at their heart humanistic, liberal, and sympathetic to the trials and tribulations of his cops and even the general public, Bruen's series is deeply cynical, sarcastic, and anti-humanist. Also a lot of fun--there's lots of wise-cracking and politically incorrect attitude on everyone's part. The plots meander around in the fashion of Elmore Leonard's best books--twisting and turning according to the characters inner needs rather than any imposed plots. The police work is brutal and not very intricate. The speed of Bruen's writing is a virtue in this series, reinforcing rather than undercutting the focus on character rather than events and (given the ensemble character of the series) not dwelling too much on the self-loathing that some of these characters possess in almost as large a dose as Jack Taylor. But unlike Taylor, these characters may be struck down again and again, but they keep on going, like Beckett's characters, with resignation and humor rather than succumbing totally to the drugs and booze that they do, indeed, imbibe.

Irish-canadian-austrian noir novel

About as international as it can be while being set in one small region, John Brady's Poacher's Road is by an Irishman living in Canada writing about Austria. Brady, known for his Minogue novels set in Ireland, has started a new series featuring Probationary Gendarme Inspektor Felix Kimmel, whose beat is small-town Austria in the south of the country, near both Graz and the Slovenian border. Internationalism is a theme of the novel too--international crime (smuggling in particular) in the new Europe. Brady's novels are not known for ratiocination or even so much for solid policework, though he does focus on policework. His novels are about talk, the flavor of speech and the networks of communication, ethnicity, and family that the talk both reveals and attempts to conceal. Poacher's Road is primarily a long, oblique conversation between Kimmel and a Kripo detective who is both exploiting Kimmel and helping out his career. The solution to the mystery aspect of the book is almost secondary, as is the plot. But then in noir fiction, the plot and the resolution of a mystery are not the primary elements--noir is about surface effects and the depths that they reveal. Put another way, noir is about interactions among the inhabitants of dangerous streets, and the unpleasant realities of the society that is the larger environment of those streets. Most noir is conducted in narrative (first or third person), though, rather than conversation--narrative of violence, first person voices or interior monologues of varying degrees of despair or resignation (noir not normally being the cheeriest or most optimistic of genres). Brady, though, gets the indirection of real conversation just right--concealing as much as it reveals, revealing impressions, emotions, and facts slowly, as if in negotiation among the participants. And his dialogue is embedded in the region, particularly noticeable in the Irish novels--here he puncuates the English dialogue with phrases from Austrian rural dialect (followed by the character saying the same thing in English, which ought to be irritating but is surprisingly effective--perhaps since dialogue, if realistic, is repetitive anyway). This novel may be hard to get--only available in Canada at the moment--but it's worth the trouble, as another example of a very talented writer's work.