Friday, December 28, 2007

Peter Temple has a distinct style, a kind of in-medias-res effect that extends from the plot to the sentence structure. The Broken Shore reads as if it were the third or fourth novel in a crime series, when in fact it's a stand along novel. Details from the past of Senior Detective Sergeant Joe Cashin, who is at the center of the story and at the focus of the novel's third-person point of view. At first, I thought I had missed some earlier episodes in Cashin's career, but when I realized what was going on, the splintered quality of the story and its style became clear. Indirect dialogue, leaving much as simply understood, forces the reader to interpret and to make suppositions--or simply to go with the flow. It's as if at all points, the reader is overhearing a conversation in progress, and people and incidents referred to in passing without explanation will only be clarified at some other time. Singo, for instance, is referred to several times in the first half of the novel, but who that is is not clarified until the second half, and then only slowly. The story is also told indirectly, as Cashin discovers the people and events connected to the beating of a wealthy man in his own home. Cashin is himself "damaged goods," on a sort of leave from his Homicide job, assigned to a small station in Port Monro. In spite of having roots in the community (the old ruin he lives in belonged to an ancestor who died while trying to dynamite the place), he remains an outsider: able to be an observer to the racist attitudes of the white community to the Aboriginal community living in a nearby settlement. Cashin in fact has Aboriginal cousins, though he lacks any personal or social sense of solidarity with those other outsiders. There is powerful but understated imagery in the book, regarding the "broken shore" of the title, but the novel is primarily "dramatic," rather than poetic--the emphasis is on dialogue as well as some indirect internal monologue on Cashin's part. The conversations that move the story forward are ironic and oblique, especially in in the sometimes joking, sometimes aggressive talk among the cops. Once in the flow of the book, the reader is tied into the narrative (interpolated into the story) through the necessary effort of keeping up with the pace of the dialogue and with the gradual unfolding of the truth. The resolution of the story is a bit conventional, given the indirect route getting there. Again, there is some suggestion of a novel in a series in the way things are resolved, but not quite--as if leaving something for the next book. But the buzz around the book is deserved, regardless of any conventional elements, because of the quality of the writing and the clear portrait of racism in its most casual an its most destructive manifestations. Does anyone have any recommendations about which of Temple's stand-alone or series novels to seek as a follow-up?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December reading

While I've been waiting for some new crime novels from Italy, Scandinavia, and elsewhere, I've finished a couple of big books that are only sort-of crime fiction as well as the first two of Theresa Schwegel's police novels (I'm waiting for the 3rd one, which promises to be her best so far). The big books are Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (the police detective and the gangster are surrogates for bigger issues that finally bring the twin narratives together at the end--a very good novel, but be prepared for a long haul if you start on it) and Gentlemen, by Klas Östergren (which claims to be part thriller and part spy story, but is actually a meandering satire about Sweden in the '70s--an interesting excursion of you're interested in Swedish culture and literature, but not a crime novel at all). Schwegel's books are interesting in several respects: most crime novels are about detectives or civilians rather than uniformed cops, which is Schwegel's "beat." Her books resemble Wambaugh's or those of John Westermann (whose Long Island cop stories are better than the reviews on Amazon would indicate). Schwegel's tales are also set in the North Chicago neighborhoods where I once lived, an extra bonus. Her stories are cynical (or realistic, if you wish) and involving--bringing the daily dilemmas of working police to the forefront (instead of serial killers or human trafficking or the other standard fare of the run-of-the-mill police novel in the U.S. I'll report on her new Person of Interest when I get hold of it. In the meantime, I'm finally catching up with the much-reviewed and highly recommended Broken Shore by Australia's Peter Temple--more on that later.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wyatt's 2nd and 3rd, by Garry Disher

The 2nd of Garry Disher's Wyatt novels is like a Southern Gothic (I compared Kickback, the first volume, to classic Westerns a couple of weeks ago). Wyatt wants to get the money back from the mob, called the Outfit, that hijacked his heist in Kickback, but needs to get a bankroll. Leah, a contact in small-town Australia, offers him the possibility: a payroll carried by a small armored car company that travels around the smalal towns in her area. Wyatt sets up a team, involving one slimeball and a slow-witted man right out of Sanctuary or No Orchids for Miss Blandish. But, as usual in this series, things go wrong. Wyatt jis supposed to be a master thief, or at least a master planner, but his glory days are behind him and he can't "get good help" anymore--his hijack is hijacked and he's on the run again, moving into volume 3, Deathdeal, which reunites him with the woman who set up his job in Kickback (and who double-crossed him then).

At the end of Deathdeal, Wyatt is telling himself that his luck can't get any worse, as he heads into a casino--but throughout the first three novels of this intriguing series, his luck couldn't be any worse. That brings out aspects of his character that we wouldn't see if his life was going according to plan, a big job now and then to finance travel to distant, quiet places. Instead, both his resourcefulness and his ruthlessness are on display. If volume 2 reads like Southern Gothic, volume 3 is like a pulp detective novel, something by David Goodis or maybe Charles Willeford--the people surrounding Wyatt are venal, greedy, vindictive, and often stupid. And as in classic noir, the characters with redeeming qualities are often convicts or other down-and-outers. The social portrait that Disher gives us is bleak and depressed, and described in terms that are more direct and grim than the more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the same social scene in his other crime series, featuring police rather than thieves. Disher has such control over his voice and his technique that we accept each of these very different series on its own terms, and though I find myself more drawn to the police precedurals, I'm still trying to get hold of the rest of the Wyatt books.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Slide, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

The new Hard Case Crime book by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr picks up (in more ways than simply plot) where the previous one, Bust, left off. The pulp end of the crime fiction spectrum is so stylized, in the pure form of the genre, that an author constantly risks tipping his story over into parody. Most of the Hard Case Crime series stays tantalizingly on the "serious" side of the line, but Bruen and Starr, this time, shift joyfully over into the "comic" side. There are in-jokes in abundance, with Bruen appearing as a mugging victim and copies of Bust and other Hard Case books lying around as set decoration. Presumably, the 2 authors wrote alternate sections of this 2-pronged story, with Bruen contributing the Irish serial killer plot (one of his specialties) and Starr the modern entrepreneur gone to seed plot (definitely his specialty)--but in both cases they've turned their usual style up a notch, obviously having fun with the terms of the genre as well as their own previous works. Max, the entrepreneur of the (mostly) New York story, thinks he's tough when he tries to talk "street," which he does idiotically badly. Slide, the would-be serial killer, does an equally bad impression of Al Pacino in Scarface. The two female characters, Angela (from Bust) and Felicia (a stripper, of course) have in common that they have spectacularly bad judgment when it comes to both men and money. The plot is fairly simple: Max (the entrepreneur held over from Bust) wakes up in an alcoholic haze, somehow having landed in an Alabama motel. Discovering the joys of crack, he recruits his Southern contact, an unbelievably naive, Bible-thumping young dealer, as his supplier for a new career as a New York crack dealer. Meanwhile Angela, having fled to Ireland after Bust, falls in with a sadistic but not-too-bright would-be serial killer (whose nickname is Slide) and follows along on his crime spree from Dublin back to New York, where the two stories will inevitably collide in mayhem. Bruen's sections (I'm guessing, but it's pretty clear) are a combination of his Brant and his Taylor series, but freed from any constraints regarding violence, sexism, and self-parody--I've never been a big fan of the Taylor series (though I've always liked the Brant books), but the seriousness of those previous novels (even Bust) is clear when compared with the wild comedy of Slide. Parody can be a lot of fun, but there's a risk that comes along with it: can the reader ever again take pulp-noir fiction seriously after experiencing its comic travesty in a book like Slide?

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kickback (Garry Disher), crime, westerns, etc.

I finally got my hands on some of Gary Disher's Wyatt novels, which are very different from his more recent police procedurals. Wyatt is on the other side of the law, but the novels are also on the other side of a border we might draw between "noir" as a traditional form (going back through Jim Thompson to the pulp detective novels of the 30s and 40s) and the contemporary crime novel. Plus Kickback, the first of the Wyatt novels, makes an explicit comparison between cowboy fiction and crime fiction (perhaps in part a nod to the early career of crime great Elmore Leonard, but certainly a link to the Western genre in fiction and film). First of all, names: Wyatt and the Younger brothers; plus the solitary quality of Wyatt's life, and the fact that (like so many classic Westerns) the story exploits a changing social pattern (Wyatt complains of changes from cash to electronic and plastic money, a change that is cutting into his business as a burglar/thief--in the same way that modernization provides the background to a host of cowboy stories about the "end of an era" as the cowboy lifestyle came to and end, or even the land wars in the Western U.S. that caused that change). Even the businesslike thief versus the "cowboy" recklessness of Wyatt's antagonist, Sugarfoot (another Western reference, explicit in the novel--if anyone remembers the TV series of that title). The novel, though overlaid with the cowboy metaphor, is a classic caper-plus-the-mob story, with even a bit of Mike Hammer (revised for modern audiences--though I won't go into that parallel too much, since it would give too much of the story away). Wyatt is doing small jobs leading up to a moderately large one, while being pursued by that Sugarfoot character, who feels Wyatt wronged him on one of the small jobs. The key figure in the big job is Anna, who engages Wyatt emotionally as well as professionally and sexually. That emotional attachment suggests for a moment Disher's later work, when the more stylized world of pulp-noir will give way to the more complex milieu of the contemporary crime novel. Disher, a prolific writer across a number of genres, has something in common with Ed McBain, who under several names produced detective stories, the template of all modern police procedurals, and gritty literary novels about life in the modern city. As with the later books of McBain (or, for that matter Graham Greene) the genre fiction and the literary fiction come together in Disher's more recent books. While the Wyatt books are tersely written in a very effective way, and are leavened by humor and emotion, they're basically (on the evidence of the first one, and I'll revisit this theme when I've had a chance to read some of the later ones) caper stories of a high order, comparable to the "Richard Starke" novels featuring the master thief Parker (as detectiveswithoutborders has pointed out in some detail). With the Challis/Destry books, Disher enters the realm of those crime novels that satisfy fully in the terms of both the genre and the larger literary world (though there's still a bias against crime fiction, especially series fiction, in certain quarters of the literary world). It's unfortunate that the Wyatt books are so inaccessible to readers outside Australia, but if serious readers haven't discovered the widely available Challis/Destry books, they have only themselves to blame.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

a Sophie Hannah preview

Sophie Hannah's new crime novel (her third) is scheduled for release in the U.K. in early February. It's a hybrid, and the combination is highly unusual: the novel is an amalgam of a paranoid-threat thriller, a comic harried-housewife novel, an emotionally-damaged-cop novel, and a couple of other things. One of the substantial accomplishments of this book is that it remains funny even as the reader realizes that what he or she has been laughing about is at the same time the heart of the very tense threat-plot. There are several elements in the story, separated by narrative style. The first person narrative is that of Sally, who is at her wit's end trying to cope with two jobs, a clueless husband, and a couple of demanding young children--and suddently seems to be pushed into the path of a bus. Cleverly paired with Sally's narrative is a diary by a woman who was found dead in a bathtub (her daughter also dead, in another tub). The diary's narrative is an extreme version of Sally's, puzzling the police in its negative (even violent) thoughts about the child that the diarist, a stay-at-home mother, was raising until they died. The police have mostly accepted the idea that the mother drowned the daughter and then slashed her own wrists, after dosing them both with a date-rape drug. But Simon (the detective who, along with his Sergeant-partner and sort-of love interest Charlie, are the running characters in Hannah's series) can't see it as a murder-suicide. The police strain of the book is told in the third person, mostly but not entirely from Simon and Charlie's divergent points of view--the other cops are differentiated by various characteristics but never really as alive as Simon and Charlie (or Sally and Geraldine, the dead mother). And Sally sees Geraldine's husband, Mark, on TV, but she knows that the man she sees is not the "real" husband, since she'd had a brief affair with Mark during which he'd told her all about Geraldine and their daughter (while she's complaining to him about her own family situation). Hence the paranoid plot--if this is Mark, who was it she spent a week with last year? And if she knew the real Mark, who's the guy on TV--and did one or the other of them just try to kill her? All of that sounds complicated, but Hannah is very good at keeping all the plots going--and as the tension increases, she's also good at building up the reader's interest only to suddenly shift into one of the other plots. There are elements of this book that refer to genres that I don't care much for (the cozy or traditional mystery, the threatened-woman thriller), but Hannah uses the cops to bring everything together in what is not quite a police procedural, and not quite the new-wave crime novel, and not exactly a "literary thriller," but her own form combining all the elements above. She even manages a bit of postmodernist metafiction (without being obvious or obnoxious about it): part of the plot depends on the diary being an unreliable narrative, but also on the detectives finding its author a believable character--the detective, within the story, acting as a literary critic to pass judgment on the quality of the writing of a segment of the book he's a character in... In some ways, The Point of Rescue reminds me of the much more low-key crime novels of Kate Atkinson, but in the end, as good as Atkinson's novels are, they're more literary works than crime fiction per se. Hannah's novel is more effective in depicting a crime and giving the reader a sense of the characters' endangered state, while at the same time seriously (though often comically) engaging serious issues (particularly the damaging expectations heaped upon women in family situations--the beginning of The Point of Rescue is indistinguishable from the beginning of a literary novel on that topic, even beyond the attempt to murder Sally, right up until the police narrative takes over and the extreme version of Sally's story, in the diary, casts that more conventional harried-mother story into stark relief. I highly recommend The Point of Rescue as an enjoyable crime novel that is at the same time funny and involving, and still manages to tackle serious social issues. One word about the "series" aspect: at first, the relationship of Simon and Charlie seems so complex and their history already so fraught with difficulties that a reader might think starting with the most recent of Hannah's three crime novels will be confusing--but in fact, the reader ultimately has all the information he/she needs to follow not only the plot of this book, but the plot of the Simon/Charlie relationship as well (you just have to be as patient in following their story as in pursuing the crime and motherhood plot).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Australia according to Garry Disher

It's obvious from the beginning of Garry Disher's Chain of Evidence, recently released in the U.S., that Disher is in control of his material. There's not a false note in this compelling book that nevertheless remains tied to the day-to-day-ness of crime and criminal investigation. Chain of Evidence is, like Grace Brophy's The Last Enemy (previously reviewed here) published in the excellent SoHo Crime series. And, as in Brophy's novel, the point of view (always in the 3rd person) shifts among a number of characters. But unlike Brophy's narrative, Disher's remains distant from the point of view of the suspects and even potential suspects (apart from the short first chapter, the original crime from the anonymous perpetrator's point of view--something that has become a standard feature of the crime novel). We are privileged to hear what the primary characters of the novel (Inspectors Challis and Destry) are thinking, as well as several other investigators--but the narrative stays with the investigators, which is important in a police procedural. There is a narrative irony, as so often in crime fiction: we see clues that the police are missing; but these are viewed through the anonymous narrator's eye, not other characters. And even this detail of narrative irony is handled in an interesting way by Disher: frequently when the police get around to that already-revealed-to-the-reader clue, it is a case-breaking revelation and a success for the main character of the story. Disher is much less melodramatic: a clue (glimpsed by us in the original crime and on a victim's refrigerator door) is uncovered, but only as one more piece of evidence that, on its own, will not convict the child-predator at the center of this book. The frustration of the police in amassing a case that will, indeed, hold up is a driving force in Disher's book (something missing in Brophy's, which is structured more like a traditional mystery, interested only in revealing the identity of the killer). There's also a passage that highlights the noir credentials (rather than those of a cozy mystery) of Disher's brand of police procedural: in the narrator's voice but from the point of view of detective Ellen Destry, we get a view of modern society: "We admire rapist footballers, own plasma TVs we can't afford, grow obese and vote to keep out strangers. Our fifteen-year-olds get poor educations and move on to senseless crimes, addiction, jail time or deatah behind the wheel of a stolen car, and if they make it past fifteen they can't find work. A great, banal sameness defines us, making us mostly soporific—but nasty if cornered. We're vicious with paedophiles, probably because we produce them." That point of view is sympathetically carried through in Disher's portrait of the underclass in South Australian housing projects and small towns (a big part of Chain of Evidence). The social, even sociological, quality of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which I've often held up as a model for effective noir police procedurals. Disher captures the society that produces the criminal classes, the milieu that spawns the individual criminals and causes the depression of the cops that retain a conscience. His novel is an achievement to be appreciated and a valuable and enjoyable addition to the genre. We become personally involved (and implicated) in the several strains of Chain of Evidence: the child molester, Hal Challis's vanished brother-in-law, and surrounding events and characters that reflect and amplify the pain and anguish of everyone involved on both sides of the law. Chain of Evidence makes me want to go back and re-read the Challis-Destry books from the beginning, and also to wish for access to Disher's other crime books.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Grace Brophy's The Last Enemy

I know it's not fair to start of a review with a complaint about what's really a technical matter, but the editor-side of me comes out when there are a lot of proofreading errors in a book. Grace Brophy's new series set in the Italian hill towns (mostly Assisi, in the first book) has a lot of them: Names are routinely misspelled (a character named Giulio is often referred to as "Guilio," another named Giuseppe is as often called "Guiseppe," Giorgio is frequently "Georgio": maybe the proofing system has a problem with names beginning with "g," though there are other mangled names as well. Maybe the publisher, the estimable SoHo Crime imprint, was in a hurry to get the book out, but it's very irritating. The Last Enemy also has some of the characteristics that I've referred to as "tourist noir": Americans are included as characters (primarily here the victim), the English text is peppered with Italian phrases for local color (not usually done with translations from foreign-language crime novels, and it actually does add local color, so I'm not complaining), and a "cozy" plot transferred to the exotic localed (though here with a substantial dose of political cynicism à la Donna Leon). There's a crime at the beginning, then the detective begins eliminating the many suspects while battling his personal enemies in the bureaucracy, aided by his trusted cohorts, as the point of view shifts from one character to another. That last point, about point of view, is particularly an issue with The Last Enemy: When the detective, Commissario Alessandro "Alex" Cenni, arrives in the household of the victim, each of the characters is focused on, his or her history and thoughts entered in turn. It's almost like one of those lists of characters found in translations of big Russian novels, or the massing of characters for the concluding confrontation in a country house mystery. The point of view continues to shift as the novel moves along, mostly among the police but also among other characters--that sort of thing goes on in "noir" police procedurals, but typically the focus (and the reader's attention) is a little more carefully controlled. The event at the center of the novel's atmosphere is a grim-looking Good Friday processional through the streets of Assisi, penitents dragging crosses, accompanied by the hooded figures carrying memento mori as portrayed on the novel's cover. But that scene, and the mood it might convey, are off-stage, while the reader is whisked from the palatial digs of the would-be Italian royalty to the police station, to the cemetery (similarly not very spookily evoked, though Italian cemeteries can be wonderfully strange by Anglo-American standards). There is a behind-the-scenes advantage in Brophy's method--we get to see beyond the Assisi of the tourist buses into the private homes of the wealthy as well as the middle-class (and even working clsas and immigrant populations) of the city and the surrounding hill towns. But there are irritating tics on the part of the detectives: Cenni assumes from the corpse's facial expression that she was not in distress at the moment of death, and further from the obviously staged rape scenario that the killer is a woman: these assumptions are surely the stuff of melodrama rather than crime fiction of the grittier sort that in other places Brophy clearly has in mind. I wanted to like The Last Enemy, and will probably pick up the projected sequels, but I'm hungrier for translations of some of the Italian noir fiction that, on the basis of what has become available so far, is collectively a more substantial addition to the crime canon.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dibdin's second-to-last

Not being a Dibdin fan (something about the writing has always irritated me), I'd noticed the publication of his last novel--but instead picked up the previous one when I noticed reviews that talked about Back to Bologna more as a comic novel than a crime novel. One of Dibdin's satirical targets is semiotician-novelist Umberto Eco, surely too easy to lampoon these days both for his novels and for semiotics as a postmodern profession past its prime. For some reason, the scholarly literary references (even in fun) in Dibdin's novel seems forced, whereas a passing reference to Italo Svevo (without mentioning that author's name) in Carofiglio's The Past is Another Country seemed natural and unforced--simply a shorthand description of the character's state of mind, in terms that would have come naturally to the university-educated character himself. As has pointed out, Dibdin also indulges in a bit of insider humor by naming two characters with, alternately, the first and last names of the chief characters in his chief "competitors" novels (those of Magdalen Nabb and Donna Leon. Which leads me to the topic of Italian crime stories written by Americans and Brits who live (or have lived) for a time in Italy. The temptation is plainly difficult to resist: setting a novel in Venice or Florence (or all over Italy, as Dibdin does) is clearly more appealing (and probably more marketable) than setting it in Akron or Bradford. For readers of noir, perhaps Akron or Bradford would be more appropriate settings, though. I've referred to this phenomenon in its more egregious manifestations as "tourist noir," though Leon and Nabb lived in Italy long enough to escape that title. Dibdin did live in Italy for some time, but I believe he wrote the novels from a safe distance, in Seattle. Much of the comedy (and the plot) is derived from portraits of celebrities (the semiotician is balanced, in the plot-thread concerned with him, by an equally lampooned celebrity chef) and other "big" people, rather than from the life in the streets that I find more appropriate fodder for crime stories, even comic ones. See, for instance, the very funny crime novels of Donald Westlake, focused on small time criminals, not presidents and media types. Maybe I just have a tin ear for celebrity satire, or maybe it's not a format that translates into the crime genre very well. Regardless, there isn't quite enough crime to balance the comedy in Back to Bologna, and though there are several appealing new characters (including a lampoon of a private detective, a curiously naive Albanian immigrant--though she says she comes from Ruritania, the comic-opera locale of her favorite novel, also the source of her student-lover's name--and some local cops) there are a few too many characters and subplots, so that the whole thing comes off as a shallow skimming of the possibilities of Bologna (better seen in the excellent Night Bus, which manages crime and humor in Bologna in big enough quantities to far outshine Back to Bologna). But Dibdin's Bolognese book does have some things to recommend it: his brief descriptions and evocations of Bologna are apt and colorful. And when the narrative finally settles down briefly into the investigation of the ostensible crime (the murder of a football-club owner) the dialogue among the cops and Zen's progress through the city are a suggestion of the crime novel this might have been. But the crime and the investigation collapse under the farce and the metafiction (the Eco character proposing to write a crime novel called Back to Bologna, starring a detective named Nez...). Flavia the Ruritanian herself refers to the plot as "silly intrigues," so perhaps Dibdin the metafictional author was himself aware of the shallowness of the farcical elements of his plot.

New Carofiglio novel

The Past is Another Country is a "stand-alone" crime novel by Gianrico Carofiglio, already known in English-speaking countries for his excellent, somewhat low-key series of legal thrillers set in Bari, on the east coast of Italy. The new book starts out something like a Patricia Highsmith novel, with Giorgio, a law student, coming under the influence of Francesco, a stronger personality who teaches Giorgio how to make money by cheating at cards and lures him further and further into Francesco's shadowy world. But what for the first third of the book seems to be a story about a gambling scam takes a sudden shift in the second third, when Giorgio's first-person narrative begins to alternate with a third-person narration about Lieutenant Chiti, a young detective with the Carabinieri. Forget Marshal Guarnaccia and the Carabinieri barracks of Magdalen Nabb's novels set in Florence: the paramilitary police in Carofiglio's novel are fiercely competing with the regular national police for big cases and their interrogation technique is to begin beating a suspect immediately upon catching up with him, ceasing only upon confession. There is also a distinct class difference between Chiti and his men (something also seen in Nabb's novels); Chiti is a product of officer's school, whereas the other men in his unit went straight from military training to the streets. In following Chiti, we learn about a serial sexual molester who has been beating and forcing fellatio on a series of young women; the Carabinieri have caught some of the cases and Chiti is under pressure to solve the case before the national police do. That process, and Chiti's own demons, occupy his sections of the rest of the book, alternating (loosely) with Giorgio's story, in which it becomes clear that Francesco is a "user" in the sense that he takes control of Giorgio without allowing the weaker young man any choice in what they do or when. Then the story departs from gambling, for the most part, concentrating on Giorgio's descent into a pointless, directionless way of life (whether under Francesco's influence or after being dropped by him). It's less suspense or mystery that drives the story than a fascination with seeing how low Giorgio can be dragged. There's a framing device, in which Giorgio is confronted by a woman whom he does not recognize at the beginning of the novel, setting the narration into motion--and, effectively, the woman returns at the end, her identity revealing the distance that Giorgio has traveled, in the story's events and in intervening years. It's an interesting story, effectively told, though without the sympathetic quality provided in Carofiglio's other books by the engaging personality of Guido Guerrieri, his running character in that series. The Past is Another Country is more noir, quite different from his other books, and a valuable addition to the cluster of Italian crime fiction available in English (rather than Italian stories by U.S. and U.K. writers who live or travel there, of which there has always been an abundance--more on that topic in my next couple of posts).

Word Verification, I'm afraid

Sorry folks, for anyone who wants to post a comment to this blog--I'm getting so much spam as comments that I'm going to have to install "word verification" for a while. Sorry for the inconvenience, I guess it's a fact of life on the web today...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

New Italians next

Some new Italian crime novels are in the queue for the next reviews: The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofiglio (his first non-legal novel), the next-to-last Michael Dibdin/Aurelio Zen novel (somebody explain the appeal of the Zen novels to me, I just don't get Dibdin, in spite of the appeal of his "tour of Italy," setting the novels all over the country), and the first in a new Italian series by a non-Italian, The Last Enemy by Grace Brophy. The Carofiglio review will follow in a couple of days.

Monday, October 29, 2007

patience of the spider, andrea camilleri

Normally, when a crime novel or series is made into a film or TV series, the novel is far more rewarding, richer, and definitely a more immersive experience. Not always. In the case of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, the Italian TV series based on it (in which Camilleri has retained a role), the filmed realization is so rich, the setting so convincing, and most of the actors so closely identified with the characters they portray that the films are at the very least an accurate representation (even an alternate realization of the characters and the stories) that seeing the films after reading the stories is fine, but reading the stories after seeing the films is like reading the same novel twice, or perhaps more accurately, reading the screenplay after seeing a movie.

Part of the reason for the unusual appeal of the films is that Camilleri's style as a writer is simple and direct, the characters drawn skilfully in a few strokes and the stories not unnecessarily complicated. The films are also understated, relying on the incredible Sicilian setting and mostly understated performances (with some exceptions--the desk sergeant in Montalbano's unit is the incomparable and almost incomprehensible Catarella, played by Angelo Russo in a performance that dances along the edge between impersonation and lampoon). Luca Zingaretti doesn't look like I imagined Montalbano, not even like Camilleri described him, but he so embodies the role that he's indistinguishable from the character, while he's acting the part (just as he's the embodiment of evil in the wonderful late "prequels" in the La Piovra mafia series from Italian TV). The Patience of the Spider is a typically indirect story, a crime that is not what it seems and a resolution that is not a genre cliche. The novel is, like all the Montalbanos, short, about the same length as those classic Maigret novels or the classic American noir fiction of the 40s and 50s--easily read in a couple of sittings. The great Leonardo Sciascia's Sicilian crime novels are also short, direct, and economical--maybe it's a Sicilian virtue, as well as a throwback to some of the classics of crime writing. Montalbano is, as usual, devious in his use of the media and sympathetic in his attitude toward citizens who may not be strictly remaining within the law (as with a rural woman who sells eggs as well as herself). Livia (his usually absent girlfriend) is present more than usual, to the dismay of Montalbano's housekeeper (one character missing from the TV series) and the occasional disruption of the detective's peace of mind. I won't reveal any more about the plot, and have probably said enough about the series to make it sound tempting--if you haven't seen the TV series, there's a peculiar public tv channel in the U.S. that runs them, and it may be available on your local cable or satellite service under the names MHZ Networks or MHZ World Vision (it's worth checking it out).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Irish crime series

Both seasons of Proof, the Irish TV crime series, are about the interface between industry and politics in the new Ireland, the scene set by the economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger, integration into Europe, and new immigrant populations. The first series emphasized the political side of the equation, and the second series the commercial side (though the two series are equally cynical about the outcome of that particular marriage in the modern world). Both series are, incidentally, widely available as multi-zone DVD sets of 2 DVDs each. The second series has a stylistic tic that is both effective and irritating: a constant reference to the Dublin Spire, a new monument in the place of the infamous Nelson Column on O'Connell Street near the equally infamous central post office, a building at the heart of Ireland's Easter Uprising in 1916. The Spire is a peculiarly contemporary monument, in that it doesn't monumentalize anything in particular, and was designed not by an artist but by an architect. Proof returns to images of the Spire at all times of day, in all sorts of weather, in close and distant views, showcasing the abstracted geological motifs etched into it's bright metal surface as well as the impressive height of its needle rising high above today's Dublin. In the end, it is an impressive symbol of the sleek contemporary city that hides the ugly racism, corruption, and criminal indifference that are the subject of the series itself. More on the spire in a minute. The series: Two stories intertwine and ultimately come together. An African immigrant trying to operate a small shop in Dublin is harassed by anti-immigrant-skinhead-nationalists, resulting in the death of her child in an arson fire. And an out-of-work scientist who has set up a meeting with Terry Corcoran (played by Finbar Lynch) but is pushed into oncoming traffic in front of Terry's eyes. Meanwhile, Terry's ex-girlfriend Maureen Boland (Orla Brady) is investigating corruption in a drug company that's about to be taken over by an American conglomerate. Terry is a sort of Jack Parlabane relocated to Ireland (see Christopher Brookmyre, if you don't know Parlabane) and deprived of his near-superpowers and most of his sense of humor. He stirs up trouble, gets lectured by the police, and tries to save everyone that's under threat from the authorities, the skinheads, the Americans, the Irish hitman and his drug-company boss, etc. The show is a little formulaic, but better than most of what's on U.S. and U.K. TV, and it's great to get a tour of contemporary Dublin's seedier side. On the non-seedy front, back to the Spire--more than any other monuments I can think of, it resembles the Eiffel tower (both in its nonreferentiality and in the way it wears its technology on its sleeve) or the Washington Monument, here in DC. But the obelisk form of the Washington Monument has certain triumphal associations, and as you may or may not know, the Washington monument was originally designed as a temple surrounded by huge obelisks, but the plan ran out of money after only part of the first obelisk was completed. The stub of the monument stood on the Mall for many years, until a parks department employee unilaterally decided to finish that obelisk and let it go at that. The Spire is equally abstract, but with even less reference (it's not about O'Connell or the Easter Rebellion heroes, though located in the vicinity of those historical figures' memorialization along the same street). The tourist-eye view of the Spire as seen in Proof is probably the Spire at its best--if anyone reading this review lives in Dublin, and therefore lives with the Spire, let us know what you think of it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Last of the Carvalho stories

Offside is not the last of the Pepe Carvalho novels by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, but it's the last one I've read (I read them all out of sequence, for no very good reason). Offside is typical of the series in some ways (Pepe's concern with food, the appearance of the regular characters as well as mention of some characters from previous novels, cynical and unresolved ending) but untypical in others (satire on professional football/soccer, death of a running character, more than usual concentration on the urban transformation of Barcelona, and lack of a corpse until two-thirds of the way through the book). The plot is in fact very unusual even for the crime fiction, speaking generally, much less for this unconventional crime writer: the story hinges on the appearance of a series of anonymous notes declaring that "the center forward will die at dusk", the Spanish title of the book. But who the target of the assassination is to be, and the identity of the writer of the notes is very unusual--the reader suspects long before the end that the center forward that Carvalho is hired to protect is not the one who will die, but the reason for the death threats is completely unexpected (was to me anyway). Everyone who has not read the novel should turn their heads away for a moment and plug up their ears: the notes were written by a character who wishes to make a poetic statement, not a criminal one. And another thread of the novel, concerning two junkies that all the other characters keep running into, seems to be related to the plot in one way, only to end up being related in another, as they fall into the midst of a plot to frame (rather than kill) that center forward. Although I don't understand football/soccer enough to appreciate the evident satire, even that part of the story (carried forward through conversations and lectures by the characters who are involved in the two clubs at the center of the book) is nonetheless funny. And Carvalho's frustration (nearly despair, really) at the end of the book is profoundly presented to the reader, as is frequently the case in Vazquez Montalban's works. I wouldn't say that Offside is the place to start with Carvalho (I think in fact that I should have read them in the order they were written, after all), but it's a living document of crime fiction, urban planning, post-industrial culture, the comic detective novel, the new Barcelona, and other things as well--wrapped up compactly in an entertaining novel.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Last entry in current Scandinavian crime wave

There are more Scandinavian crime novel's coming in the spring (and at least one non-Walander Mankell book that I haven't read) but for now, the recently translated Frozen Tracks by Åke Edwardson is the last in the string of Nordic noir novels that I've been posting about recently. I liked this one better than the two earlier ones by Edwardson that have been translated, because of the considerable tension built up in Frozen Tracks as the police doggedly pursue a couple of possibly related cases. Frozen Tracks illustrates a principle of the mystery or crime novel that I've mentioned before (the novel moves forward by delaying the resolution rather than marching toward it) but also a distinctive feature in the genre: there's no corpse until very late in the novel. That second, distinctive, feature helps Edwardson build tension through the first, universal, principle of delay: the children under threat in this story remain under threat, rather than showing up early on as candidates for autopsy. The daily lives of the cops (which I've mentioned several times as an element that I think many crime novels, including Edwardson's, concentrate on too much) are here used effectively as extensions of the primary plot (glosses, if you will, on the primary thread, which has to do with families and their ills). But the tension in the novel is very frustrating in its reliance on dramatic irony (the theatrical device in which the audience knows more about what's going on than the actors). Very early on, we see (through a policeman's eyes) a key clue to the resolution of the central investigation, but the police themselves do not return to that clue for a few hundred pages. Similarly, we see a good bit of the action from the point of view of one of the perpetrators, so that we know more about what's going on than the police. But there is an inexorability about the criminal's progress as well as that of the police that draws the reader on, almost breathlessly, to the rapid (almost abrupt) conclusion in the last chapter. The plot: two crimes; several young men walking alone are attacked with a blow to the head from behind--they neither see nor hear their attacker; and several children are briefly abducted and then returned to the vicinity of their daycare facilities. The police are clear about the significance of the attacks on the young men (though none of the blows are fatal), but the children are the only witnesses to the child abductions, and no one is sure that they are telling the truth rather than fabricating stories. Only as the abductor escalates his pattern do the detectives move into high gear. There is a bit more teamwork in Frozen Tracks than I remember in the earlier novels featuring Edwardson's Gothenburg detective, Erik Winter, and in that feature of this novel as well as the social conscience of the book, Frozen Tracks reminds me a bit more of the Sjöwall-Wahlöö novels of the '70s (that's a good thing, I would say, though the Scandinavian crime writers must find that comparison both inevitable and annoying). the tone is a bit different from the S-W books, which are in their own particular way very pessimistic and dark (they are among the most noir of police procedurals). Edwardson keeps more of a balance between the sunnier and more shadowy aspects of society and the family, possibly more suitable for today's reader but in a way less philosophical or less "deep" than their predecessor. But lacking any unlikely discovery of unpublished S-W books (or Maj Sjöwall's unlikely return to the roman policier), Edwardson will do very well as compensation.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Barcelona and Pepe Carvalho

I still have Offside to read, but have worked my way through all the rest of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Carvalho books (such as have been translated in any case). The earliest (or earliest to be translated) is The Angst-Ridden Executive, the closest of the novels to the end of the Franco regime and the first glimpse of the pessimism or disillusionment with democracy in Barcelona that characterizes the series as a whole. Carvalho's previous life in the CIA is also explained here a bit more fully than in later novels. First one and then another executive of a multinational corporation are killed, and there are hints of both corporate corruption and political collusion (plus ça change, as the French say). If later novels (and in particular An Olympic Death) bemoan the redevelopment (or destruction) of the city for the Olympics, the earlier ones, in particular The Angst-Ridden Executive, provide plenty of evidence that the city needed some cleaning up. Executive includes a hint of the metafictional quality of the series: a film director interviewed by Carvalho (one of the angst-ridden and deceased executive's friends) describes a film he'd like to make--and the plot is that of a later book in the series, Southern Seas.

In that book, one of the more philosophical in the series, a rich developer dreams of escaping to the South Seas, but instead goes underground in a seedy housing development that he built himself. Themes of bourgeois guilt, Marxist sympathies, and the real interests and points of view of the working classes are portrayed with empathy and specificity as elsewhere in the series, but in Southern Seas with exceptional clarity and sadness. There's a bit of animal cruelty in this book that you can smell from a mile away, when the animal is first introduced--adding an element of sadness that Vazquez Montalban will return to again and again, even in references to this specific animal, in later books. Another example of returning characters and themes occurs in An Olympic Death (which does not in fact deal directly with the Olympics at all, but with the demolition and construction leading up to it--and that only tangentially). In that book, a beautiful woman asks Carvalho to find "the man of my life," which is the title of the last Carvalho novel--and the woman (as well as the young woman at the center of Southern Seas) returns both in the "present" of that novel as well as in excerpts from the earlier books.

For a notorious book-burner, Carvalho demonstrates great respect for his fictional milieu. Two more comments--one about milieu and, first, one about the book burning. It originally shocked me when Carvalho pulled a book off the shelf and began tearing it up for kindling. Now, a bit older myself, I understand the impulse on several levels. While constitutionally incapable of destroying a book myself, I feel the same weight of a library carried forward through the years, and some of the same weariness with the published philosophies and discussions that I once found essential. The other comment, about milieu: some of the real places that Carvalho visits no longer exist, and others have changed. Barcelona is still a beautiful city, though it has lost some of the character that Vazquez Montalban treasured and portrayed. It's quite interesting to read the novels during and after a visit to Barcelona, because a historical, even geological, layer of the city's life and history are revealed behind and beneath the tourist-crowded plazas and buildings that embody the city's charm. Vazquez Montalban provides not a tourist guide to Barcelona and Catalonia, but a portrait that is at once narrow and in great depth. I'm motivated to go back to the other Barcelona crime novels that I've reviewed here to see if any will capture a view of the city that measures up to Vazquez Montalban's, even in part.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Murder on Gotland

The second of Mari Jungstedt's Gotland crime novels is out, with the title Unspoken (not a translation of the Swedish title, which would be more like "In the Night's Silence" or even "In the Still of the Night"). The first novel in the series was Unseen--the tendency to give a crime series a repetitive title sequence of some sort is pure marketing, but I can attest that the Swedes do it, too. When Mel Brooks's film The Producers first appeared in Sweden, they used the title Det Våras För Hitler, or Springtime for Hitler. So when Blazing Saddles came out, they called that Det Våras För Sheriffen (Springtime for the Sheriff) and so on: Det Våras För Frankenstein (that one's obvious) and on and on--the strangest one, to me, is Det Våras För Världshistorien (Springtime for History of the World?!). These days, the distributors are more likely to just keep the English title for new films and TV shows released there (would an American distributor dare to keep a Swedish title? Could the moviegoing public in the U.S. pronounce a Swedish title?). Anyway, Jungstedt's Unspoken deals with the murder of an alcoholic photographer who has just won big at the harness-racing track. The police (led by chief detective Anders Knutas, who is a bit stiff, in a slightly comic way, even consciously so, within the narration that sticks to his point of view) pursue a widening series of leads, some provided by a TV journalist sent over from Stockholm (just as he was in the first Knutas novel, and his affair with a married mother of two continues--regardless of the fact that she's not involved in the case, as she was in Unseen). There's plenty of dark stuff in the book, in an unspectacular way--no serial killers, nobody returning from the dead, nobody plotting to kill the Prime Minister--but that, I think is one of the strengths of the majority of new crime novels coming from Scandinavia. The authors seem to find plenty of threat and drama in ordinary life (which is, as I've mentioned before, one of the characteristics of noir as a genre, and one of the reasons I'm drawn to that sub-class of crime fiction). For me, there's a bit too much "soap opera" here--the private lives of Knutas, the reporter and his girlfriend, and even those involved in the crimes threatens to tip the balance between the criminal proceedings and the problems at home, etc. But Jungstedt is skillful in rebalancing the story and moving the crime and its investigation forward. I like the fact that Knutas doesn't inspire awe in his team--they're irritated by some of his stiffness and his jealous reaction to a Stockholm detective brought in for the case (whom everyone else likes immensely). That, more than his arguments with his wife, give depth to the character and to the life of the police station. There is one device in this story that I find a bit awkward--one thread of the plot involves a 14-year-old girl who is lonely and suffers from what's called the Borderline syndrome (she's cutting herself, for one thing). Part of her story is told in the "now" of the narrative (each chapter is headed by a date), and part in irruptions of text titled "Several Months Ago." I think I'd have been less irritated if these sections were separated out more from the rest of the narrative, and it may be that it's the publisher rather than the author who is responsible for the way the story is textually laid out. But as is, it seems like a "make-do" device rather than an elegant way of integrating flashbacks. The novel ends with an unconventional cliffhanger (for a crime novel, anyway), so I guess there are more Knutas & co. novels to come. I'll keep reading them, for the almost sinister ordinariness of the characters and the stories, as well as the, to me, exotic setting. However, the "solution to the crime" in Unspoken seemed a bit contrived to me, though entirely in line with the crimes. There is a passage in the novel that illuminates in an interesting way one of the differences between Scandinavian and American or English crime fiction: we're used to hard-boiled detectives (and reporters) and the adherence of their Scandinavian counterparts to definite rules of behavior is a little startling. Johan, the reporter who has seduced a married Gotlander, is insistent about not crossing boundaries, like publishing a name that the police want kept secret or interviewing a woman who's in shock after the death of her daughter. The ethics are admirable, but we're so used to hard driving reporters (and cops) who ignore the rules that the humane and rule-bound Scandivian characters in crime fiction (with the notable exception of the novels of Jo Nesbo) mark a distinct cultural difference. That difference, too, is one of the exotic attractions of the current crime wave from the far North. A personal note: I will probably not be blogging for the next week or 10 days--I'll be sitting in a cafe in Barcelona with a Vazquez Montalban novel...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's newly translated novel, Last Rituals, has a motto or subtitle on the cover (An Icelandic Novel of Secret Symbols, Medieval Witchcraft, and Modern Murder) that is very misleading, but does anticipate a key thread of the book. The leading character, Thóra Gudmundsdottor, shares a good deal with Erlendur, the central character of Arnaldur Indridason's estimable Reykjavik police procedurals, though Thóra is a lawyer rather than a detective. Both are divorced, both have problems with their children, and both are without a companion--but where Erlendur is depressed, Thóra is just harried; where Erlendur's daughter is a junkie, Thóra's 16-year-old son has gotten into a more typical teenage problem (though almost as disruptive for the family). Erlendur's private life is a mess (as is his apartment), but Thóra's is a more "normal" kind of mess (keeping track of the kids, the house, the ex-husband, her job, etc.)--and the normality of her life is frequently exploited for both contrast and comic effect amid the violent and bizarre discoveries in the story. Last Rituals also shares a couple of things with Arnaldur's: Iceland is itself an important element in the books; there are overtones of a dark past (much further in the past in Yrsa's book) and the story moves forward with the doggedness of an investigation rather than the trappings of a thriller. These are procedurals, though Last Rituals doesn't follow the police for the most part. The rituals of the title, as well as the subtitle on the cover, imply witchcraft and metaphysics, but Yrsa's novel is really more about academia than devil worshippers. But she skillfully uses the sensational aspects of the deceased student's life and research (and Icelandic history) to keep the reader interested through the slow accumulation of evidence (the victim is a "modern primitive," an apt description of the subculture of piercings and body modifications). In brief: a German student in an Icelandic university falls out of a closet, dead and with his eyes removed, onto the head of his department. The body also has a symbol carved on it. The family, not believing in the guilt of the drug dealer arrested by the police, sends a family lawyer to Iceland to locate a local lawyer who speaks German and is willing to help them investigate the circumstances of their son's death. The lawyer, alternately stiffly formal and sarcastically flirtatious, vies with Thóra for the novels center of gravity, though the German remains slightly opaque as a character. Thóra's naiveté ragarding the salacious and strange revelations of the victim's death and his academic interests parallels a frequent pattern in Scandavian crime fiction--as for example in the adventurous sexual escapades at the center of one of Helene Tursten's books, in which Detective Irene Huss reacts in a less than hard-boiled way to the salacious facts of the case. Though Scandinavia was once famous for its porn, Scandinavian crime fiction projects a rather tamer cultural milieu. But at least in the case of Last Rituals, Thóra provides a moral center that anchors the book. Yrsa's book is a solid entry, full of fascinating historical and cultural detail, in the Scandinavian crime wave. It avoids clichés, builds slowly, but pulls the reader along without the devices of pulp (such as, when the story flags, throw in another murder). The sensational elements are handled in a nonsensational way, and I found myself drawn in by the historical references and Thóra's investigative efforts more than the post-adolescent fascinations of the circle of students at the ostensible center of the story. So the subtitle or teaser on the novel's cover misleads to the extent that it suggests a novel focused on witchcraft, but does suggest the bloody history of Medieval and Renaissance Europe that anchors the story. I hope Yrsa's novels find other Maguffins that are as effective in her later books, and look forward to finding out.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Reply to a comment on earlier post

An anonymous reader of my running commentary (or blather?) in this blog has left a comment to my original post on Tana French's In the Woods. I'm reposting his comment and my reply, with a request for further discussion about the character of crime novels and/or mysteries. Here goes:
"Anonymous said...Dont you get it.....Ryan did the original murders and that is why he blocks out what happened....12:12 AM". My reply was "Anonymous thinks that the novel is a puzzle to be solved, and that the answer is Ryan as the murderer in the old case (the murder of his 2 childhood friends). I think the novel is more than a puzzle, and the obvious possibility that Ryan murdered his friends is no more certain (or essential to the novel) than the other possibilities, criminal or metaphysical. 6:52 AM". BTW, I'm not up reading blog comments at 6:52AM, that's California time and I'm on East-Coast U.S. time. But the exchange implies the question of what a crime novel or a mystery is "about," especially in the case of a complex story or a novel with literary aspirations. Is it important to know who murdered Ryan's friends? Some of the reviewers on Amazon thought so--they were disappointed by the novels conclusion. Are the metaphysical overtones that are if anything emphasized by the ambiguous conclusion a problem for a crime novel? And is the solving of a puzzle a necessary distinguishing characteristic between what we are these days calling "crime fiction" and mystery novels? Any thoughts?

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Havana Noir

Next up will be another string of Scandinavian imports, one from Iceland (Yrsa Sigurdardottir's Last Rituals) and two from Sweden (Åke Edwardson's Frozen Tracks and Mari Jungstedt's Unspoken); but first, Havana Noir, the 17th in Akashic's Noir series, but the first based on a non-Anglo culture (anthologies from Ireland and the U.K. are the other non-U.S. books so far). Havana Noir, edited by Achy Obehas (who also translated most of the stories) deserves attention not only as noir and as a glimpse into a culture most of us have little access to--but also for the quality of the writing regardless of source or genre. In fact, a number of the stories are not conventional crime stories (though most qualify under Obejas's own definition of noir--see quotes from her introduction in my previous post). Few have police or detectives in central roles. But most are startling revelations of the darkness at the heart of not just the Cuban experience but modern life as a whole. The best of the stories (including Obejas's own "Zenzizenic") offer complex rather than simplistic appraisals of life in Cuba (and some, also including Obejas's story, employ considerable humor). Only one story, by Carolina García Aguilera (a prominent emigre writer) is disappointingly one-dimensional in its vision of Cuba. Among the rest, whether by emigres or writers living in Cuba, include many that are moving, evocative, and significant. Miguel Mejidas's "Nowhere Man" is surreal and nightmarish experience that made me think of the stories of the great Cuban poet Virgilio Piñera. Alex Abella's detective story is an exciting tale of revolution and escape (and the only "pulp noir" story in the collection), and the story that most clearly states the oppressive context for the revolution (Batista's dictatorial, corrupt-capitalist regime), as well as American support for that regime. Several stories deal with the Chinese legacy in Havana and several others with the influence of Santería. Several show a violent underworld from the point of view of the members of that world, and all the stories demonstrate the hollow claims of the government that there is no crime in Cuba's socialist state. One story, "La Coca-Cola del Olvido" by Lea Aschkenas, turns on violent politics in the emigre Cuban community of the U.S. This is a substantial collection, over 350 pages with 18 stories ranging from barely 3 pages to over 30. Altogether, the writing is excellent, the view of Cuba unparalleled, and the contribution to the literature of noir undeniable. Havana Noir will stretch in various ways readers' notions of noir, of Cuba, and of crime writing as a limited or limiting form.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Noir (and Havana)

I won't have my review ready for a couple of days, but I've been reading the new Havana Noir (edited by Achy Obejas for the Akashic Noir series), and I can't resist passing on the excellent thoughts on noir that Obejas offers in her introducton. She says that, "Descriptive rather than prescriptive, noirs explore the symptoms of an ailing society but rarely suggest remedies. They are frequently contestataire in their unblinking portraits but unnervingly apolitical. Their protagonists are alienated and at risk, caught in ethical quandaries outside of their control, and driven to the very edge." She adds that, "Crime stories, especially those with detective protagonists, try to find order, to right things; noirs wearily revel in the vacuum of values, give in to conflict not as a puzzle to be solved but as a cul-de-sac. Noirs explore and expose but refuse to solve." I've been seeking adequate definitions of "noir" since I started this blog, and Obejas goes a long way toward describing what is unique (and, at least to me, appealing) about the genre (if it is actually a genre rather than simply an attitude). Not that all of the stories in Havana Noir exactly fit her own definition, but at least the first half or so of the anthology (as far as I've gotten) is very good on its own terms (and the best of those among the Akashic series that I've looked at so far).

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Two from Barcelona

Neither of these books is new, and one is not a crime novel, really. I dug them up because I'm going to Barcelona in a few weeks and wondered whether there were crime writers other than Vazquez Montalban who were from or set their books in Catalonia. Study in Lilac by Maria-Antonia Oliver was written in Catalan rather than Spanish, and is set in the pre-Olympics Barcelona of seedy dockside and fetid seas. It's a feminist tale, whose title refers to graffiti in that shade that recommend revenge of a particular sort for rape--something not revealed until very late in the book. With its Conan Doyle reference in the title, it shouldn't be a surprise that the novel has some metafictional overtones--not only Pepe Carvalho (from Vazquez Montalban's books, and the hero of an as yet untranslated series of detective stores written in Catalan make appearances, one playing a key role in the end. But metafiction and tendentious politics aside, Study in Lilac is an interesting journey toward a conclusion that is not politically correct in any conventional sense, but is satisfying in the context of the novel's own world. Benjamin Prado's Never Shake Hands with a Left-Handed Gunman is all metafiction, with the author as an essential character, one of four narrators giving their perspectives on a missing friend who was obsessed with literature, punk-rock, Elvis, and other cultural phenomena. Crime fiction is constantly referred to but never achieved in this book: It's literature, after all. But Prado recognizes explicitly that it's a failure as a crime novel, which
is one of the book's primary virtues (another being that it's a short book). The characters are itneresting, the setting lively if a bit vague, and the plot almost non-existant (one of the usual factors in the by now large library of too-literary crime novels). The splintered perspective of the 4 narrators is echoed in the discursive, meandering story, which both starts and ends in the middle. I can appreciate what Prado is doing (and his knowledge of and his own appreciation for crime fiction), but Study in Lilac is more fun.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

New round of scandinavians: Arnaldur

Icelandic crime writer Arnaldur Indridason has a new book out in English translation,
The Draining Lake. Like all the Erlendur books, this one features straightforward investigation by the police plus insight into the minds of others involved in the crime or its aftermath. The new novel also has a certain similarity to the 2nd of the 4 books available in English, Silence of the Grave, in the sense that a very old corpse, really a skeleton, has been revealed (in this case by an ecological disaster: a lake whose level is dropping precipitously, probably because of an earlier earthquake). But where the earlier book deals with family tragedy and abuse, the new one deals with tragic love and espionage (with a uniquely Icelandic twist). The spy story is engaging, if occasionally didactic (on more than one side of the argument): a man in Iceland ruminates about his schooldays in Leipzig during the early years of the Cold War, and the story involves surveillance, the recruiting of spies, and concealed identities. Meanwhile, Erlendur and his cohorts Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg try to figure out who the body in the lake was, weighted down by Russian bugging equipment. Erlendur becomes obsessed with a side issue opened up by the investigation, one of the men who went missing about the time the body went into the lake. Who is in the lake, and what the identity of that missing man is, are the mysteries of the book, and as the cops pursue them, they, too, get on the trail of the espionage tale. As I said, the spy story is very Icelandic, very different in tone and emphasis from Le Carre, yet on that same wavelength in several ways. And as is usual with this series, a melancholy air pervades the book, even with considerable comic effects--in this novel both the mess of Erlendur's private life and the tragic love affair in Leipzig provide the melancholy, but in both cases there is a sense of resolution (more personal in Erlendur's case, more historical in the love affair, through the uprising in Leipzig that began the fall of the Berlin Wall). All in all, the book, as with all in the series, are very satisfying as police procedurals, in spite of the fact that the police don't really discover very much through their own efforts--the frustration of their search, and Erlendur's more personal search for the missing person (missing persons being a major obsession on his part, due to his personal history), are an essential element of the texture of the series. So if you're looking for a thriller or violent noir, or a cozy, this won't be your sort of story. But if you respond to dark tales of investigation and of darker (though sometimes funny or at least satirical) everyday lives (in the face of cultural and historical realities), The Draining Lake is very rewarding--and very well written in a straightforward style that seems to be the norm up there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Havana Noir part 3

I'm off to Scandinavia soon (in my literary travels--actually I'm off to Barcelona in a month in more literal travel terms), but taking a side trip to Cuba first, by means of Leonardo Padura's Havana Blue (that's the title in English of the third of his quartet-plus-one of novels featuring detective Mario Conde, the Count). All of Padura's books are melancholy, and all contain considerable social criticism of the socialist milieu of this not-very-cop-like cop. But Havana Blue seems even more melancholy (though Mario gets the girl, in a sense) and more critical (if I'm not forgetting some of the critical edge of the books translated earlier). Mario repeatedly refers to the "squalid story" that he wants to write, and the story of Havana Blue is pretty squalid. Corruption is the theme here, in a style that would be as corrupt in a capitalist system, but here has particular Cuban inflections. An old school acquaintance is missing, and Mario's reflections on his school years (and his infatuation with that missing friend's now-wife, Tamara) occupy a considerable portion of the novel, notable for both nostalgia and cutting satire of both the educational system of Communism and the still existing class structure of the school and the state. Padura's novels do not proceed directly, nor does the detective. Though mostly told in the third person, it's Mario's vacillation between attention to the case at hand and meditation on his disastrous personal life (plus his attention to a small circle of old friends) that form the structure and the surface of the story. A reader has to have a lot of tolerance for Mario's ruminations, which don't leave a lot of room for development of other characters who on the basis of the scant evidence seem very interesting, such as "China," the half-Chinese investigator who helps ferret out the financial corruption in this case. But as a window on Cuba, on a particular kind of Anglo-loving Cuban frame of mind (it's largely music and literature from the U.S. and U.K. that Mario returns to again and again, particularly Hemingway). One Americanism in the novel is botched by the translator (who is plainly British)--he gets the lingo of baseball all wrong, and baseball is important enough in this book that the mistakes are irritating. Nevertheless, Havana Blue is an essential addition to the crime fiction available from this setting and this writer.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Book covers, U.S. vs. U.K.

Less annoying than the bad habit publishers have of changing the titles of translated crime novels (and less than the even more annoying habit of publishing the same novel under different English-language titles) is the change in the book cover between the U.S. and U.K. editions. Usually, I find the cover of the U.K. edition more appealing, though the English edition of Tana French's In the Woods has a startlingly misleading pitch on the cover (playing to the Gothic impression they were trying to give of the story). Sometimes, U.K. publishers (and in particular Penguin) are amazingly creative in cover designs--as in the recent U.K.-only editions of Kafka. Between the U.K. and U.S. editions of Benjamin Black's Christine Falls, I'm surprised that Henry Holt, the American publisher, didn't keep the U.K. cover simply as a taste of Irish cultural nostalgia in the U.S. market. The U.S. edition is handsome, but emphasizes the title character (as she might perhaps have appeared on the slab in the morgue, while after all she is the "maguffin" or "mcguffin" if you prefer that spelling, rather than a character in the novel. I'm not buying a crime novel because of its cover, but covers that suggest the history of the genre or its origins in pulp fiction can have a certain appeal. Even better is a well designed book, including the cover--since a book in any genre can be an object of desire, if it's done right.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The first "Quirke"

John Banville's first crime novel, Christine Falls (under the pseudonym Benjamin Black) has a number of things in common with Tana French's recent In the Woods. Both include Gothic elements, both are tightly wound and elegantly written stories that don't suggest much possibility for a sequel (though both do have forthcoming sequels). French's novel is more tightly plotted; Banville's has a good deal more plot than some of his other novels, as well as a somewhat more straightforward style. He packs a lot of elements from the mystery and crime tradition into the book: a Jim Thompson plot about a young drifter in the U.S., a Ross McDonald plot about a rich family spanning the Atlantic, a good deal of material drawn from the Magdalene scandal (which has already appeared in the work of other writers, including Ken Bruen), and a lot of depressing material about the broader interface between the Catholic Church, the poor, and the very rich. One thing that is surprisingly not important, after the early pages, is the profession of Quirke, Banville/Black's central character: unlike other fictional pathologists who are amateur or part-time detectives, Quirke only discovers one fact (although a big one) through his medical skills, and it's the fact that sets the rest of the book in motion. But after that, Quirke's job is only used for metaphorical purposes (his relation to the dead, versus his step-brother's profession as an obstetrician). Quirke is trying to find out why his step-brother has falsified the death certificate of a young woman, whose name the novel bears, and it leads to a dangerous network of Irish and American folks involved in the manipulation of orphans and mothers. Quirke is attacked, a woman who confides in him (partially) is murdered, and there are many revelations and events--perhaps too many, especially toward the end, when events seem less to carry the story forward than to eliminate characters who are getting int he way or to keep the moody atmosphere at its gloomy heights. The novel is set in the early 1950s, seemingly to take advantage of some aspects of Irish and American society in relation to the Church at that time. But the gloom and Gothicism seems well suited to the '50s, better perhaps than the now booming city of Dublin (though surely there are still many of the characteristics of his story that would still be relevant). It's a tightly packed, involving, beautifully written, and somehow not quite adequate crime novel. Banville's brother Vincent wrote a few detective stories that satisfy as such, though perhaps without the literary heft of the Benjamin Black tome. Banville isn't quite slumming in Christine Falls, but he's also not taking a full and focused advantage of the genre elements that he summons for this book. As with Tana French, I'm looking forward to the next Quirke book, partly to see how the trick of a sequel will come off, and partly to see if he's more tightly in control of the structures that he's borrowing from the nature and history of the crime novel in future efforts.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tana French and "Benjamin Black": A little news and a question

Unlikely as it may seem (to anyone who has read Irish writer Tana French's In the Woods), French is working on a sequel or maybe a series. The next volume, titled The Likeness, isdue out next spring, featuring the female partner (Cassie) of Ryan, the detective narrator of In the Woods. Cassie has her own dark past (to match Ryan's childhood secrets), both in her college years and in her undercover work prior to joining the fictional murder squad. I have to say I'm intrigued... And on another subject related to Irish crime fiction: is anyone else startled by the eruption of a Jim Thompson-esque subplot (set in Boston) in the middle of John Banville's pseudonymous, set-in-the-'50s crime novel, Christine Falls (written under a totally transparent pseudonym)? The style even seems to shift from the more elegant prose of the central tale of a Dublin pathologist (whose narration, though in the third person, is in the cultured tones of an Irish doctor) to the pugnacious reactions of a guy from Delaware who's trying to claw his way up into the working class in Boston... A review of Christine Falls follows soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tana French (and is Benjamin Black actually John Banville when he's slumming?)

The question in my title is only half serious, and I've just started reading Christine Falls, the new crime novel written by John Banville under a transparent pseudonym. So I'll let you know what I think about that question after a while. In the meantime, there's another crime novel from Ireland that was preceded by p.r. and reviews that tout it as a "literary crime novel," so this post and the next will be related. All that p.r. and some of the reviews made French's novel sound like a dark, brooding Gothic thriller, which it isn't. It's for the most part a straightforward "policier" with one or two differences. First, the narrator, detective Rob Ryan, is a very chatty speaker, and his story moves forward with sly jokes, and a lot of silly banter with his partner, Cassie Maddox--the two are joined at the hip, soul mates one might think (but that relationship is ultimately a major factor in the plot). Rob's chatty manner takes the story over after a florid opening chapter (fortunately--I'm not sure I could have stuck with the overheated prose of the novel's beginning, which is much more Gothic than the body of the book). Rob even explains the quality of the prose in an offhand comment that he has a knack for imagery of the cheap flashy sort (as well as warning the reader that he, like all detectives, lies--a gesture toward the classic literary technique of the unreliable narrator, which remains part of the novel but not in a blatant fashion). The story itself is part of the reason that the book sounds so Gothic, when the story is outlined: Ryan is actually the sole survivor of a group of 3 children apparently attacked in a semi-rural wooded area 20 years previously. The other 2, his closest childhood friends, were never seen again. The return of this story, as gradually remembered by Ryan as well as given in references to the original case notes, does add a Gothic note at odds with the breezy narrative, and when the case at the core of the present-day narrative heats up, the 2 levels or tones of the book converge to some extent. The "current" story involves the body of a young girl discovered on a prehistoric, sacrificial stone in the middle of an archaeological dig that is hurrying its task in advance of road construction. The stone (and body) are in the same woods into which Ryan's friends disappeared. I have to admit that the setup was offputting to me at first. I've read a couple of crime stories set in Ireland with similar "Celtic" overtones, and they were mostly pretty bad (as well as mostly being by non-Irish writers). French's book fortunately concentrates on the procedural aspects of the investigation, along with the detectives' struggle against depression as the case moves forward without success over the course of a month. The archaeologists, the murdered girl's family, and local developers come under suspicion, but no evidence points clearly to any of them. Something is wrong in the girl's family, but Ryan and Maddox can't prove anything. And evidence and overtones of the story keep bringing back the 20-year old case (as well as Ryan's professional risk in not stepping off the case, in fact keeping secret his identity as the sole witness in the earlier case). The matter-of-fact quality of the present-day story, and the almost gossipy tone of the narrator keep the book grounded and fresh rather than overwrought, even when supernatural or magical elements drift past the tale, remaining well in the background. I have several problems with the book, but before getting to that I want to address a complaint made by several of the people who have posted reviews on Amazon--and this is a bit of a spoiler alert. The ending does not wrap up some of the threads of the tale, and that has confounded and annoyed some readers--if this is a mystery, why isn't everything tied up in a neat bundle at the end? And if this is not a mystery in that sense, is that because it's really a literary novel in disguise (or slumming as a detective story)? While there is a sophisticated structure underlying the book, I didn't get the sense that it was condescending to the genre. But Ryan's voice can get a little annoying, and the oblique clues to the unresolved parts of the story have a metaphysical tone that you have to take on whatever terms you are willing to do so--French does not tell you how far to go in accepting that aspect of the book at face value, or even how far she's willing to assert it. And the relationship of the 2 detectives, important as it is to the book, can be a little annoying--they're a bit cute together, until they stop being that, as the case moves into its final phase. Still, I liked the book much more than I anticipated, and followed it closely through a long-ish 400+ pages without it seeming too long. I'd appreciate hearing from others who've read this one--do you think it measures up as a crime novel? or does it seem pretentious in its literary ambitions? Questions I expect I'll have to return to in the next post, about Black/Banville.

Monday, August 06, 2007

New Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum's newly translated Black Seconds seems to be the fulfillment of the clever and effective false start of her first novel to be translated (actually the fifth of her Inspector Sejer series), Don't Look Back. In that novel, everyone thinks a very young girl has been abducted, but the search party discovers instead the body of a teenage girl. That initial twist away from a particular kind of crime novel, the child abduction, and perhaps Fossum has been waiting to write that story since using it as such a clever feint earlier in her distinguished career. But there are twists here as well. Fossum is frequently compared to Ruth Rendell, and there is certainly some common ground there, particularly in Fossum's close attention to family dynamics and their attendant horrors. Fossum's novels are not whodunits. In Black Seconds, for once a literal translation of the original Norwegian title, we know early on who the likely perpetrators are: but there is considerable tension built up around the questions of what exactly happened, and why (also the key questions in most of Fossum's other novels). Fossum's sympathy for her characters is another key aspect of this series: she wants to understand the people, criminals and victims alike, as much as the what and why of the events. In Black Seconds, even the people responsible for the violence to the missing girl are eligible for Fossum's considerable sympathy, and ultimately ours. Fossum is also skillful in constructing the books, using parallels (in Black Seconds some of these have to do with silence or a choice not to speak) to create a well-formed tale. At least one of the earlier novels in the series, Calling Out for You, verged on gothic horror (without the metaphysics), but Black Seconds is a return to the bleak realism of which she is a master (mistress?). The Scandinavian crime wave seems to specialize in bleak emotional landscapes, and Black Seconds qualifies for inclusion in that category, but Fossum imbues the tale with humanity, and in the ending, even a little glimmer of hope for a positive future for some of her characters. About the plot, for those who are interested: a beautiful little girl disappears, an autistic middle aged man on a three-wheel-truck is glimpsed by the mother, out looking for the girl, and the mother's sister sits worrying at home while her son arrives home disgruntled because he's just dented the fender of his new car. All the elements are already in place, and the rest of the novel follows each of those characters as well as the police (detective Sejer and his uniformed younger colleague Skarre) move slowly forward in piecing together the facts of the case. Another thing the Scandinavians (since the estimable Sjöwall and Wahlöö) seem to be good at following the police in a systematic investigation that moves forward in fits and starts, giving the northern romans policiers a particular rhythm and style. Black Seconds qualifies for the top rank in that company.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

McGilloway's Borderlands

Borderlands, the title of Brian McGilloway's first crime novel, evokes a wide range of associations, particularly in the northwest of Ireland, where the novel is set. Detective Ben Devlin and the rest of the characters cross repeatedly over the national border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and both the police and the various criminals and suspects cross back and forth over the line between social norms and antisocial behavior. The story deals with the discovery of a young woman's body in circumstances that suggest that the murderer may have been one of the travelers (formerly known as tinkers), Ireland's gypsies. The social lines between the settled population and the travelers, between petty criminals and businessmen, between the police and the murderers are never completely clear, and McGilloway manages the multiple ambiguities of the story very skilfully. Devlin is the narrator, but he's no superdetective: he muddles along, frequently aware that damage is being done because he hs made the wrong move or remained a step behind those responsible for the original murder, vicious beatings (of which he is more than once the victim himself), and crimes of the present and the past. The long, sad history of Irish political entanglements is one of the subjects of the novel, but it remains in the background, as McGilloway and his narrator focus instead on the people who have inherited that history and those entanglements. McGilloway's style is clear and direct, even when the story is not, giving a real sense of Devlin's puzzlement and the process by which things are clarified. The various policemen and women involved interact with believable and human qualities, and the rest of the society of small-town Northwest Ireland and western Northern Ireland is drawn with subtlety and compassion. This is a short but powerful crime novel, and a sympathetic portrait of a "borderland" that is too often obscured in cliches or ruralisms in fiction of the present and the past. McGilloway conveys a believable portrait of a real, troubled, and coping-as-best-they-can population in the new Ireland, with all its contradictions and complexities.