Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ice Moon, by Jan Costin Wagner (Finnish/German)

I set aside Jan Costin Wagner's Ice Moon for a while, not too tempted by the descriptions I'd read (concerning alternating chapters from the cop's and the killer's point of view) or the fact that it's about Finland but written by a German. But Ice Moon is in fact worth the wait: it's an excellent crime novel in a style that is a bit like Henning Mankell, in the simple, almost flat, prose and the introspection of the troubled and lonely detective. But Wagner's prose is ultimately more poetic than Mankell's without sacrificing simplicity or directness. The detective is Kimmo Joentaa, whom we meet at the moment his wife is dying of cancer. His grief and gradual reconciliation with life is an arc of the novel that criss-crosses with two characters whose lives are deteriorating rapidly, the killer and the chief of detectives, Joentaa's boss. We do see through the killer's eyes, as well as several victims and other characters, but without the lurid voyeurism that we have seen in some serial killer books. And the points of view do not alternate: When more is happening in Joentaa's life and in the investigation, we get sequential chapters from the detective's point of view, with attention returning to the killer when more is happening there. The balance is much more effective than a simple alternation. Because we know what the killer is doing, we recognize the clues that the police are overlooking, and part of the book's tension is the anticipation of Joentaa's realization of what he is hearing and looking at: this isn't a mystery, it's part police procedural and part character study, with the murders and the resolution both growing organically from what we know about Joentaa, the killer, and other characters, and with visual and spoken/thought metaphors reinforcing the story and the lives of the people we meet. Ice Moon is compelling and complex, drawing the reader into worlds that are not alien but recognizable (perhaps seeming more normal because of the simple prose style), and all the more effective for the ordinariness of Joentaa's grief, his boss's erratic behavior, and the killer's descent into his private vortex. Compliments are due the translator, John Brownjohn, for a lucid and evocative translation from the German--I'd be interested to know, from German speakers who've read the original, whether the directness and flatness of the prose are an effective transformation of the style of the original German.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Crime, ghosts, spirits, politics: Olivier Pauvert & Colin Cotterill

Crime fiction sometimes has metaphysical or supernatural overtones, as in Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead, reviewed here recently. But I’m usually not much of a fan of outright supernatural occurrences in what is otherwise noir writing. There are two distinct types of supernaturalism in noir (at least), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi sort of thing and intrusion of the supernatural into ordinary life—the first exemplified by Olivier Pauvert’s Noir (from France) and the other by the Laotian series by Colin Cotterill. Pauvert’s Noir is a dystopia, but not in the rational, straightforward style of 1984 or Brave New World. Pauvert’s beautifully written novel evokes instead the “end of the world” or after-death narratives of Flann O’Brien (The Third Policeman), Mervyn Peake (the third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy) and some of the writers invoked by the publisher’s blurbs (J.G. Ballard, Michel Houellebecq, and Kathy Acker). The narrator is somehow involved in the gruesome death of a young woman, and after being arrested is in a police van that crashes, killing all aboard. The rest of the book is a phantasmagorical vision of a France after the election of a radical right-wing government, wherein Spirits of the dead who are somehow still linked to the world mingle with police patrols and outcast Black revolutionaries (the literal source of the novel’s title) in revolt against the government that has banned them from daylight. The book is episodic, as the narrator moves from place to place attempting to find out how he is implicated in the girl’s murder, and how he has moved 12 years into the future (a device that seems to rub the narrator’s nose in the fact that he had voted for the government that has now become a racist dictatorship. The story is part thriller, and part political allegory, and the conclusion fails t resolve the real-world situation, veering instead into an almost Greek notion of entering the afterlife reminiscent also of Wyndham Lewis’s Childermass. The book, in the end, is interesting as a piece of writing and as a cautionary political tale, but it lacks the focus, structure, and forward motion of a crime novel (whether a “contemporary” or a “sci-fi” version of the crime novel). Colin Cotteril new “Dr. Siri Investigation” (as the cover announces) is Curse of the Pogo Stick, and it, too is part thriller and part political allegory, but also part Carlos-Castañeda-like tour of the spirit world. The Siri series always balances a rational outer world and a world of spirits, both in the story and in the personality of the only coroner in Communist 1970s Laos. Pogo Stick has very little plot (the two strands of the story concern a) a villainess from a previous novel who is out to get Siri and his associates and b) a Hmong village where a kidnapped Siri is pulled into becoming a shaman in the person of the spirit who has persistently haunted him throughout the series. The “villainess” plot is sketchy and the “shaman” plot isn’t really concerned with crime (it’s about persecuted Hmong villagers, their animistic culture, and Siri’s struggle with (literally) his inner demons. If you’ve read and liked the previous Cotterill books, you’ll probably like this one—the “otherworld” is more prominent here, and Siri’s relationship with his new bride and his assistants in the morgue are developed bit further. But it’s not the place to start with the series: the earlier books are more concerned with crime and with the larger problems of Laos in the ‘70s, and the emphasis on spirits here could be off-putting if you’re not already accustomed to the dual worlds of Dr. Siri.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arlene Hunt: Black Sheep

Black Sheep is Arlene Hunt's third crime novel and her second in a series featuring Dublin private investigators Sarah Kenny and John Quigley. I'm just discovering Hunt's fiction, so I can't yet say anything about the series as a whole, or about her first, stand-alone, novel (False Intentions), but Black Sheep is an interesting amalgam of crime fiction styles: part George Pelecanos, part Sophie Hannah, part Vincent Banville (whose crime novels feature the purest hard-boiled detective in Irish fiction so far), and even part Maeve Binchey (a comparison inevitably suggested by the portrait of Kenny's middle-class Dublin family problems). Though the novel starts off a bit slowly, the various strands of the plot each developing more or less independently, the story builds to a very fast and violent final 100 pages on par with some of the best noir fiction being produced today and reminiscent of some of the best noir film. The last 30 pages are so are a bit of an anticlimax, and there's an epilogue that's really only there as a hook to lure the reader on to Hunt's next novel, but overall Black Sheep is effective and fun. The story concerns a young girl's body discovered in the forest, a middle-aged man drowned under a bridge, and the people who get sucked into the maelstrom around those two events, including the detectives, a gangsta-wannabe and his twin brother (the wannabe is the source of my comparison to Pelecanos), a genuine Dublin gangster, a fence and his father, and the friends of the drowned man. There are some coincidences linking various strands of the plot, and there's really not much mystery about what happened--the interest in the novel is in following the impact of bad decisions leading to more bad decisions leading to awful consequences. The conclusion offers little solace to anyone (other than some characters in a comic subplot), and the portrait of human character, contemporary Ireland, and the larger culture are pretty bleak; but the concentration on ordinary individuals caught in the misery and on their frequently inappropriate actions is moving and cogent: genuinely noir and a different style but a valuable addition to the stream of high quality crime fiction coming out of Ireland today.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Crime Fiction Reads of 2008 (Kerrie's Challenge)

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise ( has proposed that her readers submit a best reads of 2008 list (crime fiction we've read in 2008, regardless of publication date) and I'm cross-posting my list here as well as in a comment on her blog. But here, I'm including comments on a few items on the list (and here as in the cross-post I can't resist listing some films & TV shows as well):

* Peter Temple, Bad Debts (I'd have listed The Broken Shore but I read it at the end of 2007--Bad Debts was the first I got my hands on from his other series, also excellent)
* Giancarlo De Cataldo, Crimini (best anthology of the year)
* Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star (I re-read this one after the immediately previous novels in this series were published in English--and The Devil's Star, excellent though it was on first reading, is even better on second reading, with the background of the story finally filled in by the publication of the earlier books)
* Dominique Manotti, Lorraine Connection (not a police procedural, but as excellent in its own way as her police procedural series)
* John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet (the first of this Canadian writer's books will stand in for both novels released so far, each equally excellent)
* Håkan Nesser, Mind’s Eye (the first of the Inspector Van Veeteren novels but only released in the U.S. after two others)
* Jakob Arjouni, Kismet (German crime of a pure noir sort)
* Magdalen Nabb, Vita Nuova (regrettably the last of the Marshall Guarnaccia novels, and perhaps the best of them)
* Carlo Lucarelli, Via Delle Oche (the end of the De Luca trilogy)
* Arnaldur Indridason, Arctic Chill (this is the title from this excellent Icelandic series released here this year--any of the series would be among the best books of whatever year it was released)
* Allan Guthrie, Savage Night (comic, violent, rapid)
* Adrian Hyland, Diamond Dove (fully realized social context, characters, story, as with the other Australian novel on my list, but in a different vein)

* Proof (the Irish TV series
* The Wire (the HBO series, and maybe the best police procedural ever on TV)
* The Brush Off, director Sam Neill (from Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novel, and a better film than the first of the Whelan movies adapted for TV by Neill, The Brush Off)
* Jar City (Myrin), director Baltasar Kormákur (from Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur novel, and a wonderful bleak adaptation of the original
Noise, director Matthew Saville (not an adaptation, but an offbeat, off-center movie about a cop's personal and professional difficulties)
* Pars Vite et Reviens Tard, director Regis Wargnier (from Fred Vargas's Adamsberg novel, maybe not a great movie but a good adaptation of a series that is difficult to encapsulate in a film)
* In Bruges, director Martin McDonagh (black humor of the first rank)
The Lookout, director Scott Frank (pure old-fashioned noir that turns a character who would have been a minor figure in an old-fashioned noir story into the central figure, as he grasps for the limits of a life and a world narrowed by tragedy)
* And an old movie I saw again this year that has to be the all-time worst adaptation from a great crime novel, The Laughing Policeman, 1974, director Stuart Rosenberg, a travesty of the wonderful Sjöwall-Wahlöö book, and one of the worst cop movies ever.

Both lists are restricted by the time-limit: There should be more from Ireland and Sweden that show up here, but I actually read more of the excellent books from those two countries before this year. You may notice that there are 2 books and 2 films from Australia on the list: only a hint of the excellent crime fiction coming out of that country.
Comments? Agree or disagree?
And Happy New Year!

A Not So Perfect Crime, by Teresa Solana

Do most readers look at reviews or blurbs or the descriptive copy on the back of a paperback (or the inside of the dustcover of a hardback) before starting to read a book? I try not to, because I like to be surprised, and I like to discover the characters in the midst of their own world rather than in the "outside world" of a reviewer's (or a book promoter's) notion of who they are. I didn't read much about Teresa Solana's newly translated (from the Catalan, by Peter Bush) before I read the novel, but I found myself looking at reviews after I finished reading it (something I usually don't do until I've given some thought to what I might say about the book in a review myself): A Not So Perfect Crime does not fit neatly into any category of crime fiction, and the particular pleasures of reading the book are not easy to describe or to pin down. At one level, the book is a lot of fun, with some very telling Hitchcock references, for example, and in numerous passages, Solana gives a very palpable sense of walking through Barcelona and walking into various kinds of uniquely Barcelona rooms and buildings. Solana's book is on the one hand a straightforward detective story, of the inexperienced-detective-in-over-his-head type. Eduard and his fraternal twin brother Pep (who adopted a new identity under the name Borja) have struggled into middle age, each in a different way, Eduard (the narrator) leading a conventional office-worker's life with wife and family and not quite getting to the end of the month on their paychecks; Borja arriving in the novel's present and back in Barcelona after a more bohemian life traveling around Europe and the world. Borja has convinced Eduard to both keep concealed the fact that they're brothers and join with him in an unincorporated, unlicensed business specializing in discreet investigations. What follows is an intriguing satire of Barcelona society and politics, as well as a serio-comic crime story leading from a politician suspicious of his wife to murder and an unlikely and unconventional success in solving the puzzle of the crime. But what pulls the reader forward isn't the puzzle: Eduard and Borja (plus Eduard's wife Montse, Borja's romantic attachments, and various characters from Catalan high and low society) are great company, and the writing is lucid and impeccable--and Eduard's voice as narrator is that of an ordinary guy who's gotten himself into a situation he can't control. There is a farce lurking in the plot but Solana doesn't foreground it in the way that Ottavio Cappellani does in his Sicilian Tragedee; Solana's switched paintings, blackmailed politicians, and hidden identities remain tantalizingly under control, subservient to an almost matter-of-fact, naturalistic style. The central characters are in some senses right out of the hard-boiled detective playbook, but they turn out to be fascinatingly normal, three dimensional rather than clichéd. And the jealousies, strategies, and crimes are the stuff of daily life and conflicting social class rather than the overheated stuff of serial killers or international conspiracies: Solana's writing is cool and straightforward and her plotting and characters are right off the ordinary streets, schools, political offices, and new-age clinics of a contemporary city (albeit a unique and fascinating one). Some of the elements of farce do resolve themselves in subtle comedy, and others remain cloaked in secrecy: did Borja change his name only to masquerade as aristocracy (there seems to be more to it than that); why does Borja refuse to let Eduard tell even his wife that they're related? Such basic conundrums suggest the beginning of a series (which I'd wholeheartedly welcome), in which the mysteries would play a part (or find a solution), but they also give the novel as it stands a depth beyond its glimmering surface. A Sicilan Tragedee is a laugh-out-loud comedy of modern but murderous manners; A Not So Perfect Crime is a wry, subtle comedy of satire and character, that also manages to be a noir crime novel that comments on the mores and morals of 21st century Spain. Solana's book is a great complement to the other outstanding Barcelona crime novels that have been translated, from Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett (who both write in Spanish) to Maria Antonia Oliver (who like Solana writes in Catalan, but whose only Barcelona mystery to be translated is Study in Lilac). More of Vázquez Montalbán has just come out in English from Serpent's Tail, and Europa Editions has been steadily adding to the Gimenez-Bartlett novels available in English, and now Bitter Lemon has given us Teresa Solana's first book. Can we hope for more from Barcelona, from these and other writers?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Crime, comedy, satire, and Happy Holidays

I'm having an Irish Christmas, in terms of reading material. I just finished Garbhan Downey's Running Mates and I'm starting Arlene Hunt's Black Sheep. But first, in honor of all the dark Scandinavian crime fiction we've all been reading this year (and the Wallander films in Swedish and in English that some of us have seen recently), I just rediscovered a film from 30 or 40 years ago that has a certain reckless charm. It's De Düve, the famous parody of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal (you can see it on-line at various places, including Though Bergman did a genuine Christmas movie (Fanny and Alexander) and at least one horror film (Hour of the Wolf) along with lots of stories of crimes of various sorts, he was a noir-filmmaker only in the broader sense of "noir": but for a Scandinavian crime parody, De Düve will have to do for now (though as far as I can tell, there are only 2 genuine Swedish words in either the soundtrack or the subtitles). There's a very young Madeleine Kahn in it briefly. If anyone knows of Scandinavian crime comedies or parodies, please let us know!
Downey's Running Mates is satire, rather than parody, but very funny. It's technically a crime novel, I guess, since there is copious murder, but it's at least as much a story of star-crossed lovers (middle-aged ones). There are lots of references in it that non-Irish readers will find puzzling, particularly the calculations of political hacks regarding the Irish proportional voting system. There are also a number of characters who have shifted careers from terrorism to straightforward gangsterism, but all of them are so much fun to be with that we wish them no harm (and in fact most of the unpleasant characters fall foul of a certain murderer's attention). Satire isn't always funny, and good satire is a difficult trick--Downey manages both, and with enough plot to keep the whole thing moving forward through a series of conversations among various groupings of the politicians, gangsters, journalists, bartenders, etc.--at first it's a little hard to tell who's who or which ones are the important ones, but it all becomes gradually clear. Highly recommended. Happy Holidays to everyone out there in crime-blog-land!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Acqua Alta and Donna Leon

After being in Venice for Acqua Alta last week, I read Donna Leon's early Guido Brunetti novel, Acqua Alta, which is a bit more operatic than most of her stories--appropriately, since opera is one of the big topics of the novel. Leon describes very well the annoyance and the strangeness of flooding in Venice--Brunetti goes into a bar where the staff goes on about its business despite several inches of water inside the bar, much less the even higher water outside. I'm pasting in several photos here of water in a shopping street and inside our hotel, plus the metal or wooden platforms that are placed strategically to make it easier for people to get through flooded lobbies or campos or piazzas. There is certainly no place like Venice--and no place where the natives so easily take flooding in their stride. The Brunetti Acqua Alta book is about that resilience in the face of extreme difficulty, but also about ethics, in the realm of art and art theft as well as the Italian non-compliance with the law as in Leon's other novels. What's different here is a mafia-related kidnapping and rescue attempt with overtones of a more conventional beautiful-woman-threatened plot (but Leon's plots are in the end never conventional). I've heard that there are tour operators who now plan trips to Venice explicitly designed to give tourists an Acqua Alta experience--not necessarily something that I would set out to do, but certainly a unique trip. And a very wet Venice is still Venice, after all. There are more of my "holiday pics" at, if you're interested.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Echoes from the Dead, by Johan Theorin

There's been a lot of positive press about Swedish author Johan Theorin's debut novel, Echoes from the Dead, so I don't need to provide a lot more of the same--suffice it to say that it's a very good book, and quite different from most of the rest of the Swedish crime wave. It's set on Öland, off the coast of northern Småland, a mostly rural area. There are elements of the amateur detective story and the cozy (a grandfather living in an assisted living facility is investigating the disappearance and probable murder, 20 years earlier, of his grandson. But there are also elements of the psychological crime novel (the missing boy's mother is the initial focus of the novel, in her self-destructive obsession with her son) and of the serial killer or pedophile story. But what's distinctive is that Theorin is looking for an equivalent for the folk tale or ghost story within the framework of a realistic crime novel. The "troll" of the book is Nils Kant, a murderer who disappeared decades earlier but remains in the community's memory as part ghost, part "boogey man," and possible child murderer, with rumors that he is not actually buried in his coffin in the graveyard. Ghosts seem to occupy his deceased mother's abandoned, decrepit house. The "alvar," te grassy plain of the island, becomes a haunting character itself. The chapters of the book loosely alternate among the perspectives of the mother, the grandfather, and the troll. There are a number of references to second sight and other paranormal perceptions, but more as metaphor than as plot points. The reader's perception of all three of the main characters shifts as we know more about them: the mother becomes less obsessed, the grandfather less senile, the troll more human. Gradually, as if in a focusing lens, contemporary reality takes the place of the ghosts, trolls, and animism that are close to the surface at the beginning and become metaphorical tropes by the end. In a sense, Echoes from the Dead is about storytelling, and more than once, the grandfather draws out the narrative of his investigation as he talks to his daughter, and delays also the reader's knowledge of his suspicions regarding past events. The final step out of fairy tale menace into ordinary human motives may be a bit startling, and a reader's satisfaction with the conclusion may depend on his or her expectations along that myth-mystery scale. But Theorin's tale is a complex intertwining of a straightforward story of loss, a rational investigation of the past, and a passage through the nightmare world of the old stories--it's fascinating to watch the story twist and turn through all of its facets. Theorin is another in a seemingly bottomless pool of sophisticated and effective Scandinavian crime writers.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex

Based on a true story, The Vampire of Ropraz (published in English by Bitter Lemon Press with translation by W. Donald Wilson) is a hybrid of folk tale, allegory, literary Surrealism, and crime story. Jacques Chessex’s book shares some ground with Nosferatu (the first vampire movie), The Return of Martin Guerre, the Wild Child of Aveyron, Kosinksi’s The Painted Bird, the dark strain of French literature (the grotesqueries of Georges Batailles and Blaise Cenrars, who is not only cited in the book but becomes a character) and the crime novels of Fred Vargas (though her Medieval and foltale plots usually veer toward realist solutions before the end), and Friedrich Glauser (in the dark and atavistic countryside of several of his books, especially The Spoke). All of that in a mere 106 pages of large type, plus there’s a very large twist at the end. The story is fairly straightforward: In fairly quick succession, three women’s bodies are exumed in the night from their fresh graves and the bodies are mutilated and sexually violated. Casting around for suspects, the authorities seize upon a young man discovered in an act of bestiality with farm animals, and the young man becomes the center of public outcry (“Kill the Vampire”), legal proceedings, sexual fascination, and psychological study. He is ultimately sentenced to life in prison, incarcerated instead in an asylum, escapes, and dies in World War I as a soldier of the French Foreign Legion. The style alternates between documentary, poetry, and fictional narrative in reconstruction of, alternately, rough outlines of the story and intimate imaginings of fiction and dialogue. Altogether, the novel is a fast and intense experience, and no one should let the literary precedents and overtones put them off: Chessex never loses sight of the true story at the center of his narrative, and the spooky quality of the novel resonates with the core of human nature rather than with supernatural speculations. The final ironic twist, whether speculation or invention on the author’s part, carries the story out into everyday political and social experience. Several of Chessex’s other novels have been available in English for some time, but none had appealed to me—they appeared to be oppressive in theme and style. I’ll have to check them out now, but I have a suspicion that the germ of reality in The Vampire of Ropraz both anchors it in naturalism and intensifies the strange fascination of the story. If anyone can link this book to Chessex’s others, I’d love to hear.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Sicilian crime farce

I expect there are not many readers who have wondered what a crime novel by Ronald Firbank might have been like. Much less a Mafia vendetta à la Firbank. But in Ottavio Cappelani's newly translated (by Frederika Randall) Sicilian Tragedee, that's pretty much what you get. The new novel is more coherent than Ottaviani's previous, funny, violent Who Is Lou Sciortino, but with the same large and diverse cast of characters drawn from 21st century Catania, a not-quite-post-Mafia realm full of not only Mafiosi but also lots of gay men, jealous wives, marriageable daughters, and scheming bureaucrats. If you aren't familiar with Firbank, he's definitely an acquired taste: brittle, fey comedy full of absurdity and esoteric wit, from the 1920s, with sparklingly silly dialogue and plots that are at once extremely simple and almost opaque. What Ottaviani's prose shares with Firbanks is the funny, theatrical dialogue interspersed with oblique narrative and description. What Ottaviani adds to Firbank is one of the funniest murders in recorded (literary) history, plus a lampoon of Romeo & Juliet that circles around (and around and around) a codpiece joke, a lot of Mafia scheming, a lot of which is actually good old-fashioned matchmaking between rival families (Romeo being in this case one mafioso and Juliet the daughter of another). The book takes a while to get going, partly because of the oblique quality of the writing (cinematic in some ways, one reviewer likened the text to a screenplay). But about halfway through, once your ear is attuned and things start to get rolling, the weird and violent comedy becomes compelling in its own odd way. This book may not be for every reader of crime fiction (and it's definitely not noir), but it's definitely something different. Following Ottaviani's characters (gay and straight, mobsters and schemers) down their strange (but also very familiar) paths and you'll get is a very funny, crude, sophisticated, Firbankian ride.