Wednesday, March 28, 2007

K.O. Dahl--new Norwegian noir.

A blurb on the back 0f the newly translated The Fourth Man, by K.O. Dahl, compares the novel to the classic noir of James M. Cain. The comparison is apt, especially since Dahl's book is basically a love story, as many of Cain's were (Dahl's novel also has something in common with the movie Body Heat, which is in its turn a take on Cain's work. I don't know how many of Dahl's books there are featuring his dyspeptic duo of Oslo detectives, Frølich and Gunnarstrand, but this one is focused on Frank Frølich, the younger of the two. Dahl takes a logical tack in turning the format of the police procedural in a noir direction: he makes his detective an outsider by showing him in disgrace or disrepute in any case. Jo Nesbo takes another tack with his detective, Harry Hole, by making him an alcoholic mess. Frølich may in fact be better company than Hole, though I'm still a big fan of Nesbo's work. Dahl's novel is also more compact than Nesbo's, which are on the massive side. Dahl takes several other elements of the genre (besides the Cain-ian love story and the cop-outsider), including a twisty plot and a cynical attitude toward wealth and property. It's a fast-moving plot told in a much more metaphorical and adjective rich style (not for Dahl the famous advice of Colette to the young Simenon: "cut out all the adjectives"). It's engaging and well written, and a more classic version of noir than most of the current Scandinavian novels.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Swedish crime novel: The Glass Devil

I've read the three crime novels by Helene Tursten that have been translated, all of them police procedurals featuring Inspector Irene Huss of Gothenburg (Göteborg). There are plenty of dark and terrible crimes (in the case of the new The Glass Devil, a brutal triple murder, hints of Satanism, pedophilia, etc) but Inspector Huss herself seems to have no dark side to her character. She's always troubled by the darkness in the killers she confronts, has nightmares about the crimes, but her homelife is untroubled, her relationship with her co-workers mostly no problem. Her fellow detectives are less well developed, but except for some alcoholism and taciturnity, also pretty much untroubled characters. In that sense, Tursten's novels are more like 87th Precinct novels than true noir (also the case with several of the other current crop of Scandinavian crime novels in translation, particularly the series by Åke Edwardson and perhaps also the one by Liza Marklund). I've enjoyed the books, but they have a sunnier quality than some of my favorites among the new Scandinavians, such as Jo Nesbo. In the new novel, Inspector Huss interviews the co-workers of a murdered parson and his family, tries to get an interview with the sole surviving member of the family (a daughter who has moved to London), runs down leads based on Satanic symbols left at the scenes of the crimes, and generally follows police procedure down lots of blind alleys without finding any motives and few clues. If you like procedurals, all of that is fine. My biggest problem with the book is one inconsistency in the plot: One of the few pieces of physical evidence that the police find is planted by the murderer to put them on a false trail--but just as the police follow that false trail, the killer gives himself up saying that they're getting too close to the truth. But the form of the confession is unique and there are still a couple of surprises (one interesting and one a bit cute) still to come after that dénouement. So I have a few quibbles but it was still an enjoyable read and I'll be watching for more of this series. I still have a few more new Swedes to get through, including K.O. Dahl's first and the newest one by Marklund (plus a couple of Irish crime novels and the new Vicki Hendricks)--lots to look forward to!

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Fruttero & Lucentini

Does anyone remember the crime novels of Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini? They remain bestsellers in Europe, but only one was published in the U.S. (The Sunday Woman, translated by William Weaver in the mid-70s, was promoted as a literary novel rather than a crime novel, if I remember correctly--possibly because of the translator and the publisher, Helen and Kurt Wolff). Another title, An Enigma by the Sea, was in print in the U.K. for a while, and a third was promised there but never published. It's difficult to see why these novels have not been a success in English. They're hardly noir, in any traditional sense. They're light and frequently funny, depicting the interrelationships among a group of middle-class Italians in difficult circumstances and various cities. The Sunday Woman is set in Turin (of which we get a significant tour in the novel), and deals with murder (of course) but also sexual pursuit and attraction. The conversation between the detective and the leading lady is funny and true to life, as is the attraction between them (not Bogart and Bacall stuff, more comic and real). There are also gay lovers, hot pursuits through a city market, and langorous conversations in hillside villas. The Sunday Woman is long out of print, but still easy to find second-hand (it must have had a large printing in its first edition, plus a mass-market paperback was done, also in the 70s). Enigma by the Sea deals with a murder among a group gathered together in a country house, but the dynamic is much the same. The novels are charming and addictive, and worth going back to read again. If you're looking for shoot-em-up action, you'll find them frustratingly slow. If character and setting are what you're interested in in a crime novel, they're unsurpassed. I long for more of them to be available in English, since I have little hope of polishing up the little Italian I know enough to read them in the original...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The other igi heitman novel (by Pernille Rygg)

Igi Heitmann, Pernille Rygg's main character in two crime novels (The Butterfly Effect and The Golden Section) set in Oslo, Norway, is one of the most distinctive and thoroughly "present" of all noir characters. The novels are complex and allusive, and not written in easy or transparent language. Rygg's style is often indirect, almost stream of consciousness and with oblique shifts in direction. In the 2nd book, several pages of discussion of threats against women from Igi's point of view go by before you realize that she's in the middle of being beaten by a couple of thugs. And after this passage, another aspect of her writing arises: her use of an extended rhetorical image to evoke Igi's situation and her state of mind. And the milieu of Oslo is not simply described, each setting within the city is so particular in its metaphorical presence that each has an emotional resonance: each setting is so sharply evoked that it becomes a participant in the story. Sometimes the indirection of Rygg's prose reminds me of Henry James (though without the moralism and long, long sentences of James). In the midst of this complexity, the novel can be quite funny. There is one (sort of) gang fight that is a (sort of) rumble between Pakistani gangsters and gay s&m clubsters--as comic as the gang war in Graeme Gordon's hilarious but violent Bayswater Bodycount. And Igi's insight into modern society, the crime at hand, and her own life and mind is extensive, and she's a complex character, worth spending time with. Don't expect a straight line from one chapter to the next, though. As the first novel dealt with occultism and sex games, the second deals with psychology and art. And as the first novel revolved around Igi's recently deceased father, the new one revolves around the rest of her family: her transvestite husband (much more fully realized than in the 1st book, along with his female alter ego, whom Igi seems to think of as an intruder into the family circle), her mother and stepfather, and especially her young daughter (Igi discovered her pregnancy at the end of the 1st book). But Igi is no stock character as a mother: she's a bit jealous that the toddler is more attached to her father than to her mother, but she's not wracked with guilt about it. She's desperate to protect her daughter at times, but still not overprotective. The daughter, even, is a real character, with her own quirks but without caricature, as might have been the case with a more genre-bound novel. Rygg's text is poetic, but her feeling for the crime victims is real and believable. She has no official stake in the mystery (one murder suspect is a patient--Igi is now a practicing clinical psychologist--and another is a woman Igi meets with in looking into the circumstances of the first crime). And wrapped around all of this is a well-evoked artworld, with its own jealousies and personalities, the world of urban-revival real estate with its own relentless logic, as well as a capitalist coterie that is interested in art, murder, and Igi for its own reasons. The Golden Section is a complex tale, told in poetic style, and develops Rygg's fictional world further than The Butterfly Effect did. As far as I know, there are no more Igi Heitmann novels, even in Norwegian, but I can hope for more, and more translations into English, some time in the future. There was a gap of some years between the first 2 books, and the time was well spent--if it takes Rygg a few years to produce another crime novel, the result will likely be even more interesting than the first 2.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Saskia Noort's The Dinner Club

I trust some small presses for their consistently high quality international noir fiction. Bitter Lemon, from the U.K., is one of them (others are Serpent's Tail, Europa Editions, and a few others). So I had no hesitation about buying a copy of Saskia Noort's new crime novel from the Netherlands, The Dinner Club, which has been available for a while in the U.K. The blurb on the back of The Dinner Club compares it to Desperate Housewives combined with Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith is the more apt comparison, since what Noort's circle of friends shares with the Desperates is a suburban setting and lifestyle--but Dinner has none of the cuteness that mars the Desperates. Another comparison noted on the book cover is with Nicci French, the pseudonym of journalists Sean French and Nicci Gerrard. To me, that's not much of a recommendation, and I would probably not have ordered the book without a) the Bitter Lemon imprint and b) the Dutch setting. I've already reviewed or mentioned a few Dutch crime writers or writers who use Dutch settings (Nicholas Freeling, Baantjer, van de Wettering, and Håkan Nesser, whose novels are set in a fictional country that is as much Netherlands as it is Denmark or any other North European country). The Dinner Club is not much like all those: the story develops slowly, and for the first half it seems hardly like a crime novel, more like a suburban-housewife novel of a more general sort, like Maeve Binchy's books, for example. But the menace builds, more slowly perhaps than in a Highsmith book, but just as inexorably. In the end I enjoyed the book (I read it on the intercity train over the past 2 days). The point of view is very controlled, almost claustrophobic, confined to the mind of Karen, the main character. Some of the other central characters are skilfully defined, but others are mere sketches, even some of the essential characters. The plot is carefully constructed and geared for a final surprise revelation (a surprise for Karen, at least, since there is plenty of indication of who the murderous plotter is)--and surprise is not, actually, a Highsmith-ian characteristic. The action sequences in that final surprise are actually a weak point in the book--necessary for the plot but at odds with the atmosphere of the rest of the book. What is happening? Basically, Karen and her husband move out from Amsterdam to a commuter suburb for all the usual reasons, but she becomes frustrated with the unfriendliness of the village natives. She ultimately falls in with a circle of women who are all transplants from the city, but share little else in common. When there are two apparent suicides in this circle and their families, Karen (and a police detective) become suspicious and start to look for conspiracies, to the ridicule of Karen's husband and the rest of the circle, to the extent that she is ultimately ostracized (adding to the paranoid atmosphere). As I said, I enjoyed it without being quite seduced by it. I'd probably read another of Noort's books, for the same reasons I read this one, but it might not be at the top of my list.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Scandinavian tsunami, and others

The flood of Scandinavian crime novels continues unabated. Are there more crime writers than ever before in Sweden and Norway (especially those 2) than ever before? Or have they only just started translating them. I'm just starting the second Pernille Rygg novel, The Golden Section, but that one's actually several years old. Rumors of new Scandinavians include Helene Tursten (I actually have that one already), Nesser, Fossum, Indridason, K.O. Dahl, and Kjell Eriksson (I'm looking forward to that one especially, since I especially enjoyed The Princess of Burundi--there's a new Liza Marklund but it's hard to get in the U.S. and I haven't been motivated enough to order it via intercontinental shipping). And can a new Nesbo be far behind (though his books are pretty long, maybe the translation takes a while). There are a few non-Scandinavians I'm also looking forward to: including Gene Kerrigan, Fred Vargas, and Saskia Noort (I've got those piled up on my end table) plus not-yet published titles by Deon Meyer from South Africa, Vicki Hendricks (OK, OK, this is supposed to be about non-U.S. novels, but Hendricks is great, and her publisher is in the U.K.--does that count), Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett of Spain, Jean-Claude Izzo from France, and Carlo Lucarelli from Italy (the next chapter of his wonderful fascist-era series). Plus there's a new book from Japan just out (The Hunter, by Asa Nonami). I haven't heard anything about any more translations from Dominique Manotti, but I can always hope.

Inger Frimansson

Some writers who turn to crime fiction after having a career in another genre or in mainstream fiction turn out what might be called "professional" novels that are incidentally crime novels. Elmore Leonard is an exception--his earlier career was in Westerns, and his crime novels, while throughly professional, have a casually written air, almost as if they were transcribed rather than composed. One example of professional, though no less enjoyable for that, fiction is Inger Frimansson's recently translated Good Night, My Darling. Frimansson's book also contrasts with the previous Swedish novel reviewed here, Mari Jungstedt's Unseen. Both novels turn on revenge for events experienced much earlier, in school. Both feature girl bullies. Both include substantial flashbacks. And both are "collective" novels, a term I've been using to describe stories told from multiple points of view, i.e. with the focus split among a number of characters. But Unseen is a procedural, a roman policier, and that structure dominates the plot. Good Night, My Darling is instead a thriller, I suppose--without the overlay or grid of police activity. And the atmospheric, slowly building composition takes shape in more poetic language than is typically the case with the policier (and the language of Unseen is typical of the genre--a plain language that I happen to appreciate in contemporary writing--not Hemingway-esque or even Simenon-esque, but still straightforward). Frimansson's first book in English is not overwritten, by any means, and perhaps resembles Ruth Rendell than any other prominent writer in English that I can think of. But there's also quite a bit of Patricia Highsmith, and even a taste of Beat Not the Bones, the amazing jungle adventure/suspense novel by Charlotte Jay (an adventure hinted at from the novel's first words occupies a large chunk of narrative toward the end). There's not an early murder to solve, there's a building sense that something bad is going to happen, and a slow revelation of bad things that have happened in the past, things that foreshadow or even determine what is happening in the book's "now." One of the pleasures of Frimansson's book is a more complete picture of a certain suburban slice of Stockholm than has so far been shown in most contemporary Swedish crime fiction. This isn't urban Stockholm--it's the city's boundary with nature. Stockholm is built on a lake, and is at the edge of an archipelago, and nature is important to even urban Swede's sense of themselves. The denizens of this novel dwell at that not-quite city and not-quite rural zone, and nature invades the main character's house, in the form of a tame bird that is not the usual parrot, parakeet, or canary. These characters are not cliche Swedes, though--several of them have non-Swedish forebears (the main character, Justine, has a French mother, who died when her daughter was 3). And the characters range in age from the remembered primary school kids of the novel's past to a paralyzed old woman in a rest home--as well as a moral range across numerous shades of gray. No one in the novel is guiltless, but all are sympathetic. My only quibble with the novel is that at the end, Justine's character seems hardly capable of some of her actions, regardless of her substantial motivation--but that ties her to Highsmith's characters, in fact, since Highsmith's violence often far exceeds the apparent capacities of the characters who perpetrate it. I'm pasting in a cover from a recent Swedish paperback edition because the American cover isn't up on the web anywhere yet--I may come back and paste in the American one later.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Cobblestone: A Detective Novel

Occasionally I like to take a look back at an older novel that is remrkable in one way or another. One of the most remarkable is Cobblestone: A Detective Novel, by Peter Lengyel, a Hungarian writer better known for science fiction than detective fiction. But Cobblestone is and is not a detective novel. It's a massive story of the beginning fo the 20th century, ranging across Europe but centered on a pursuit through Budapest's streets and brothels: a master detective pursuing a master safecracker. And at the same time it's a meta-novel taking Hungarian history from the end of the 20th century back to the beginnings of the universe. Not only are there layers and layers to this tale, there is also a sudden shift at the middle of the novel that is unlike anything else in any other novel, detective or otherwise--I won't give it away, but it is either a masterstroke or the most irritating device ever attempted in fiction. But back to the detective story, the tale is a fascinating mosaic of the underworld of Budapest, as well as a fantastic heist story. It unreels like at atmospheric movie, but it is decidedly a novel, not really filmable at all. If anyone's interested, I can give more details. It's not easy to find, but it's not out of print.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The last Vazquez Montalban

In the couple of years before his death, Manuel Vazquez Montalban brought out one last Pepe Carvalho novel, The Man of My Life. In a novel that circles around several women (a couple of them returned from earlier novels), the author violates the logic of one of Carvalho's most scanadalous habits: burning books. In this last book, the previous novels come back in the form of those two women and in the reminiscences they narrate and provoke. Most of the novel is actually taken up with discussions of Catalan nationalism and post-nationalism, Satanism, Catharism, and so forth. Vazquez Montalban seems to be taking stock not only of his own work but also of the nervous and more or less paranoid currents of the new Europe. One thread of the book does involve a murder that Carvalho is supposed to be investigating, but his cursory search for the killer is frustrated not only by the powers behind the killing but also by the constant distractions that sideline the detective: food, philosophy, love, and memory. None of the Carvalho stories are straightforward--they're about texture and thought and politics, food and sex and violence (usually institutional more than individual). The Man of My Life is the least straightforward, though, and the most thoughtful. This book is essential for anyone who has enjoyed Carvalho's exploits and mannerisms, but not the best place to start on an investigation of this quirky and brilliant Catalan crime writer.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

From Sweden: Jungstedt's Unseen

Unseen, by Mari Jungstedt, came out last year in the U.S., but until recently it escaped by attetion somehow. It's a police procedural that has inevitably been compared to Henning Mankell's novels but is actually quite different. It's another of the "collective" novels that have been coming out of Sweden: as with Åsa Larsson's novels of the far north of Sweden, Jungstedt's story of Gotland (an island in the Baltic just off the Swedish coast) has a central character that only occasionally takes center stage. That alone takes this police procedural away from Mankell territory (his detective, Kurt Wallander, is at center stage all the time, except when--usually later in the books--the killer is at the center of the narrative). Jungstedt's detective, Anders Knutas, is in many ways less well defined than several of the other characters, including the best friend of what is thought to be the first victim of the novel's serial killer (and the journalist who befriends her). A woman is killed with an axe, along the shore after a violent argument with her boyfriend. Then another woman is killed on her way home from a bar, where she had flirted with a stranger. And as the victims pile up, there's no thread linking them. The collective, split point of view works very well in carrying the story forward step by step, withough anticipating too much of what's to come. But there are two flaws, to me, with the book. The killer's voice periodically interrupts unnecessarily--I would have been happier with the book if I'd simply skipped those passages (conveniently italicized). I might actually try that exercise if I read the book again. And a more substantial flaw is that the ending is both sketchy and cliched. After proceeding at deliberate speed throughout, Jungstedt feels it necessary to kick into such a high gear at the end that it's difficult to visualize what's happening (except that we've been over this particular high-stakes, high-tension ground so many times that the film almost runs in our head without the author's help). There are a couple of uniquely Swedish twists--such as the consequences of the novel's final death (something that readers not already conversant with the mores and the correctness of Swedish police novels may find a bit startling). I won't say more because I don't want to risk inserting any spoilers. Unseen was good, if not perfect--better in some ways than either Helene Tursten or Åke Edwardsson (two other prominent competitors for the other-than-Wallander detective spot) and I'd recommend it--and I'd definitely read any further translations from her work (I think there is a German tv movie of at least one of her novels, with more forthcoming--Swedish detectives on Gotland speaking German, no doubt, just as Donna Leon's characters speak German in the Venetian setting of the German tv adaptations of her work).

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Swedes just keep coming, plus an old UK noir

New Swedish noir just keeps coming. There's a newly translated book by Inger Frimansson that I've ordered (it's officially coming out in April in the U.S.) and I just discovered Mari Jungstedt's Unseen, which I've started (but barely). Both come highly recommended. In the meantime, I picked up a copy of Jerry Raine's '90s Smalltime and read (or re-read) it--when I picked it up I couldn't remember whether I'd read it or not, when it was new or newer, and I still can't say for sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that I started it and couldn't finish it. I'd like to hear other people's opinions about Raine, because his next couple of books (Frankie Bosser Comes Home and Slaphead Chameleon) sound like just the kind of noir that I like, but Smalltime is irritating in a lot of ways. The setting is fine--a corner of London suburbia--and the characters are effective, as layabout working class types. But the language is very flat and the plotting is slow without offering any compensation in texture or detail. It's not that the characters or plot are unbelievable, it's just that none of the aspects of the novel seem to add up to much, and the language is so plain-spoken that it has hardly any life. It's not hard-boiled "tough-guy terse" language, it's just so straightforward that you barely sense any author behind it. It is, to be fair, a first novel--and as such it accomplishes its goals in getting the characters through their paces all the way to the end. But it's hard to care about anything in the book, and the occasional comic touches seem added on, not growing integrally out of the situation, just something Raine thought of and added in. Please--any thoughts? Should I go ahead with the next two? And to be honest, I have a smiliar problem with another Do-Not Press author, John B. Spencer. Any thoughts on him?