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.