Saturday, January 31, 2009

Neglected Swedish crime fiction writer

Taking a break from my trek into Cuban crime, I thought it might be a good time to remind folks that there's a Swedish crime fiction pioneer that hasn't been mentioned much in the blogs praising the more recent Swedish crime wave. Kerstin Ekman was originally a crime fiction writer, though of this first crime novels only one has been translated, as Under the Snow (published in Sweden in 1961, in English in 1997. She departed from crime fiction for some years (producing experimental and historical fiction that I know about, but I'm not an expert on her work), returning with a bestseller translated as Blackwater (published in Sweden in 1993, in English in 1996).

Under the Snow is itself an unconventional crime novel, dealing with a murder in a small town in the far north, investigated as much by a friend of the deceased as by the policeman sent out to look into it. The progress of the story and its resolution are indirect, but the form is that of a crime novel. The subject is hate, poverty, and racism in a small town, touching on Sami-Swedish relations. The position of the Sami is also central to Blackwater, which is a much longer and more complicated story, using a very violent double murder to talk about racism as well as small town hatred, a hippie commune, and a bunch of characters who are investigated in depth by the author. The story progresses slowly after the murder, for quite a stretch, with Ekman more interested in the characters and their interrelationships than in moving the investigation (by the town's police chief) forward. Then, in the book's second section, set 20 years after the first, a woman whose trip to the commune had initiated the novel recognizes someone who will lead to a resolution of the crime. Where another writer might have shifted quickly from that original time frame to the later one, Ekman (in this phase of her career) is more interested in drawing out that first setting and its population as long as she can give life to it, more in the fashion of a mainstream novel. But her skill in giving that life to the narrative makes the story hypnotic, even when it is moving very slowly. And when the "current time" narrative moves into gear, we are well prepared to understand and empathize with the story of the crime and its consequences, as well as the consequences of commune life, small town life, and life in the far north, with its divided cultures (one vastly more powerful than the other). Ekman's crime fiction has little in common with the better known earlier masters of Swedish crime, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, whose work is straightforward and linear (though there are gaps between the crime and its finall uncovering in their work as well). Even in the shorter Under the Snow, Ekman draws her characters in subtle detail, focusing on them more than on the plot. Sjöwall and Wahlöö draw their characters skilfully but in quick strokes, and use them to give the crime and the police a resonance in a social context that is their primary concern. I have to say, I'm more likely to re-read the Martin Beck novels again and again than to return repeatedly to Ekman's prose, but we should remember that Ekman's work is a lens through which we may better understand the more psychological and character-driven of contemporary Swedish (and Scandinavian) crime novels.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Havana Lunar, by Robert Arellano

I can't say a lot about the plot without telegraphing much of the novel's effectiveness, but Robert Arellano's recent Havana Lunar starts quickly: Manolo Rodriguez (called Mano), a doctor in "special period" Havana (after the fall of Cuba's biggest patron, the U.S.S.R.) is in his home's private clinic at night and hears breaking glass. The short first chapter progresses rapidly from a break-in, to Mano following the intruder to a bar, to a confrontation with a menacing police detective who is looking for a young woman who is Mano's patient. The novel then moves through a series of interlocking chapters set in various periods of Mano's (and Cuba's) history, filling in the background and moving inexorably back to the moment of the break-in and its consequences. I was afraid momentarily that the novel was using the crime-fiction model as a mere maguffin or excuse to present an "art novel" as if it were popular fiction, but by the middle of this short book, I was thoroughly hooked. In fact, Arellano is not only using precedents in Cuban literature and crime fiction, he's also honoring the tropes of classical noir--this could almost be a tropical version of a Goodis novel. And every element contributes to the movement toward a conclusion that coincides with Hurricane Andrew (a device other Cuban writers, not to mention Florida and Louisiana writers, have also used--but Arellano doesn't overdo it). The glimpses of Mano's orphaned youth are not merely local color: they supply both context and essential material for the "present day" (1992) plot. Every move the melancholy and moral doctor makes and every element in his first-person narrative (including Cuban spiritualism, political realities, the hardhips of the blockade, and the details of the doctor's life and character) contributes to the whole. By the time the noir plot has worked its way to an inevitable conclusion (with betrayals of friendship, love, sex) and a coda that is both pessimistic and oddly hopeful, the reader can finally see the whole picture. It is a poetic vision of both Cuban and modern life, in the form of pure noir fiction, with all the pulpy and profound aspects that the genre is prone to. I'm staying in Cuba for a while (after this very promising start to my "visit"), with very high hopes for Leonardo Padura's Havana Dreams (boosted by Krimileser's praise of the book in a comment to an earlier post here) and Achy Obejas's Ruins (boosted by her very excellent presentation of crime fiction in the Havana Noir collection).

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Shadow Walker, Michael Walters

I first heard about Michael Walters's crime novels (featuring Nergui, former cop and now at the Ministry of Security) set in Mongolia from Maxine, at her Petrona blog. I'm behind the curve in discovering the Nergui books, but since the U.S. publishing industry is also a bit late discovering them (the first one, The Shadow Walker, had its first U.S. edition only in August 08) I don't feel so slow. One of Walters's achievements is his portrait of an almost entirely new noir environment: I can't think of another urban noir novel in which nomadic tent settlements coexist with apartment blocks and abandoned factories. Mongolia and its capital city, Ulan Baatar, are (in the novel, at least) at the tipping point between a traditional nomadic culture and an already post-industrial globalism. The former Soviet influence now replaced by gangsters and multi-national corporations, Nergui's Mongolia is beset by corruption, economic uncertainty, uncertain urbanization, and the difficulty of returning from cities to a rural, peripatetic life. The characters range from former insurgents forced out into the countryside to Russian gangsters to English cops and diplomats to hard-working police (best exemplified by Nergui's protegee, Doripalam. The plot is based on a frustrating police investigation into a series of puzzling murders (serial killer? political assissin?), with one of the victims being a U.K. citizen, causing a senior detective from Manchester (Drew McLeish) to join the team. The English detective provides a Western point of view, someone for whom Mongolia needs an introduction (like the reader), an effective device. The plot, though, is less central to the novel than a growing sense of shadowy threat (Walters carefully leaves the murderer and other evildoers offstage for a long time) and an increasingly complex network of interests involved in the crimes: mining, politics, development,industrial espionage. The complexity of the competing interests rivals Le Carre's post-Cold War plots, but within a linear narrative (provided by the police investigation) rather than Le Carre's splintered storytelling style. The complexity is also evident in the Nergui's somewhat mysterious background (is he really police, a spy, a national hero?), but Nergui is a fascinating, fully rounded character rather than puzzling cypher--and The Shadow Walker (and, I expect, this series) rests firmly on his shoulders. It's not merely the unique location (though Walters makes great use of that) that makes The Shadow Walker a good read: Nergui's world is grounded in very real, very contemporary forces affecting all of us, concentrated in a unique form in a place that is both totally exotic and immediately recognizable.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The queue

I've been "off the air" for a while, life intervening to keep me from my awaiting stack of books. So I have nothing to report except for the contents of that stack, along with the country that each is set in:
The Shadow Walker, by Michael Walters, Mongolia
Havana Lunar, by Robert Arellano, Cuba
Havana Fever, by Leonardo Padua, Cuba
Bamboo and Blood, by James Church, North Korea
In the Heat, by Ian Vasquez, Belize
Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation, by Martin Millar, U.K.
African Psycho, by Alain Mabanckou, Congo
Politics Noir, edited by Gary Phillips
Not necessarily in that order, and there are a few others as well. Any recommendations regarding which one I should get to first?

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Psychological noir: Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza's Blackout

Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza's Blackout is, like the earlier 5 novels in the Inspector Espinosa series, a psychological mystery that is distinctive but also has substantial common ground with some current and classical crime fiction. The plot is reminiscent of Simenon's Maigret books (as is the interest in psychology); rather than doggedly pursue a criminal or an investigation, Espinosa meanders around it, paying at least as much attention to his extracurricular reading, his girlfriend, and his food, calling to mind Pepe Carvalho in Vazquez Montalban's fiction and Leonardo Padura's Mario Conde. Though Espinosa has a reliable team (the only policemen he trusts in a corrupt force), they are not thoroughly characterized (as are, for instance, Carvalho's crew or Montalbano's cops in the novels of Andrea Camilleri): appropriate enough in stories that are less about police procedure or mystery than about philosophical investigations (and it's obviously no accident that the Inspector is named after a classical philosopher). But the philosophy is never obtrusive--these are philosophical novels rather in the manner of Camus's Stranger, but also remaining thoroughly within a crime-novel tradition. The psychology of victims and perpetrators (and of his urban Brazilian culture) has always been Garcia-Roza's underlying interest, but as I recall, it's only in the two most recently translated books that psychology and psychologists are also part of the plot. In Blackout, a homeless, one-legged man is murdered on a hilly cul-de-sac late at night, near a house where a dinner party is going on. Espinosa wonders how the man on crutches even got up the hill, much less why anyone would have killed. him. Intertwined with his musings and the investigation is the story of an interior designer and his wife who were at the party: the designer is having troubling blackouts, including the night of the murder, and the wife is a psychoanalyst who is beginning to get frisky with some of her female patients. The plot doesn't have a neat conclusion (typical with Garcia-Roza), and when the plot seems to be heading in a predictable directly, the author has some surprises up his sleeve. Espinosa is basically an observer, but one who cares deeply about his city and its troubles, while also keeping his intellect alive with extracurricular as well as professional. Blackout is a thoughtful, slow-moving story--perhaps the perfect followup to the very fast and adventurous Girl Who Played with Fire, but also in its own way a lively story and a an insight into one of the world's liveliest cities and into the challenges of social interaction and the human mind.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Comments on The Girl Who Played with Fire, by Stieg Larsson

So much has already been written in the blogosphere about The Girl Who Played with Fire, volume two in Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, that I don't need to go into a lot of detail. But I do have a few comments. It's a book that doesn't get going, really, until around page 200, and it's repetitive and overstuffed. But it's still compelling and I began to wonder why, what the secrets of its appeal are. It has been extensively noted that the lead character, Lisbeth Salander, is fascinating and unique--but there's actually a good bit of common ground with other characters in fiction and fantasy (Carol O'Connell's Mallory is an example from crime fiction, and then there's Tank Girl, and Hellboy's Liz Sherman. That drift into fantasy and comics suggests one of the points I'm heading toward. But first, how does the bagginess of the novel relate to its popularity: Larsson is engaging in what has been called the "reality effect," piling on detail and repetition that seems irrelevant or not directly relevant to the story, but detail that gives a sense of a complete world that the reader has entered into--so complete that one almost has a sense of peripheral vision, detail beyond what our eye is picking up directly in the narrative. By the time we get to some plot elements that are actually pretty hard to swallow, we're already committed to the naturalism that Larsson has embedded us within. What Larsson is doing, I think, is using a crime fiction structure to bring an old-fashioned adventure tale into the realm of ordinary modern, urban life (the world reinforced by the reality effect). The structure of The Girl Who Played with Fire (even more than is the case with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a title that might have been more accurately translated as Men Who Hate Women) is at its basic level that of an Alexandre Dumas story (with elements of The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Misérables--and even The Man in the Iron Mask), with some aspects of George Sand's more melodramatic novels as well as Sand's sexual politics. But the adventure is updated into the realm of journalism, research, police procedure, hacking, etc., rather than swordplay and dungeons (though there's some of that, at least in its modern version, as well)--plus there's even some romance, of a sort. Salander's black-and-white morality as well as the plainly evil nature of a good portion of the cast of characters is also reminiscent of Dumas and the adventure story. Larsson goes further, though, into fantasy and superhero comics and even Star Wars (I won't give that element away, but trust me, there's a distinctly Star Wars turn to the plot). Though I am not really susceptible to the appeal of fantasy and superheroes, I am, in fact, susceptible to the appeals of the old-fashioned adventure tale, as I suspect are a lot of people who like or don't like fantasy and comics. Larsson gives all of us something: a naturalistic crime story with fantasy elements, a morality-and-adventure story that's entirely contemporary, without (almost) any superpowers, and totally without metaphysics or theology. It's our world, but with swashbuckling (of a very contemporary sort) and even cliffhangers. I mentioned Mallory before, and O'Connell's novels do have something of the fantasy world about them, but in a more straightforward noir format. In my experience, the broader canvas and the nod to 19th-century adventure in particular are unique to Larsson. I assume that the epic winds its way through a different set of events in volume 3, before reaching some sort of resolution--but unless I start practicing my Swedish I'll have to wait until next year to find out (and it would probably take longer than that for me to get my Swedish reading skills up to the task).

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Dublin noir by Arlene Hunt

Arlene Hunt's first novel, Vicious Circle (from 2004), is quite different from her subsequent Dublin detective series: Vicious Circle is more violent, has a more thoroughly split focus, and is definitely more noir. The novel doesn't at first offer a specific point of view or central character. Gradually, from the shifting focus on a murderer, his victims, several cops, some prostitutes, and a police raid on a brothel, several key characters emerge: garda Sergeant Michael Dwyer and his boss, Jim Stafford; Amanda Harrington (prostitute and dominatrix) and her business partner Marna; and a big-time pimp named Paul "Tricky" McCracker. A few other characters become important later on. As you can see, it's a complicated story, with two basic plotlines (a serial killer and a ruthless pimp) that criss-cross and then cross back again. Hunt skilfully controls the complex plot so that the reader is never in doubt as to what's happening, where, and to whom. The narrative moves along briskly among the several characters, with a lot of detail about the working lives of both the gardai and the hookers. The story picks up considerable speed as it moves along through various victims and several twists and turns, toward a wild ride in which everything seems resolved (but isn't, quite). There's also a sort of coda, a bit like the ending of the film Body Heat, with the ones-that-got-away not quite happy to have escaped--but Hunt uses the coda to clarify some plot elements that she has previously concealed from the reader in a way that doesn't quite adhere to the unwritten contract between reader and writer/narrator: We are in one character's head often enough that we may feel slightly deceived when we find that there was something quite different going on in the character's head, something we're not privy to. Still, Hunt's initial effort has a lot to recommend it--she doesn't lean on the serial killer plot too much (and like some other bloggers have said recently, I am really sick of the serial killer plot), the world of the prostitutes rings true without being salacious, the characters are vivid and believable, and the cop shop is drawn so clearly that we might have expected the setting to recur in a series quite different from the somewhat less dark series with which Hunt has continued her writing career. Her first effort is an interesting venture into the darker realms of narrative and of modern Dublin.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Cops 1977: Charlie Owen's Bravo Jubilee

Charlie Owen is a British Joseph Wambaugh, in a way. He tells stories about beat cops, many of them very funny and many of them very violent. Bravo Jubilee has a plot of sorts, concerning DCI Harrison's pursuit of a Turkish gangster, Sercan Ozdemir, who has been trying to set up shop on Harrison's turf in the dead-end town of Handstead (known by one and all as Horse's Arse), near Manchester. But the plot is only a framework on which to hang a series of comic-but-naturalistic vignettes not too different from Wambaugh's classic cop stories in novels and true crime books going back to 1971. Owen's history of Horse's Arse and its team of reprobate cops, which has reached 3 novels now, is embedded in the U.K. (specifically the Manchester region) and in the 1970s, recalling (as the book jacket proclaims) the reprobate (and sexist) cops of TVs Life on Mars (the original, not the U.S. version) at least as much as it recalls Wambaugh. The considerable comedy of Bravo Jubilee, leading up to the Queen's Jubilee, is offset by a grotesque form of torture and murder that owen dwells on frequently and gleefully, but all in all the book is more comedy than crime novel.

Swedish crime: Mari Jungstedt's The Inner Circle

The Inner Circle is the third of Mari Jungstedt's series set on Gotland, off the coast of Sweden, featuring detective Anders Knutas (as well as a number of running police characters, a television journalist, and his girlfriend--who was a witness in the first Knutas book but is now only related to the crimes through the journalist). The translation by Tiina Nunnally is graceful and elegant (as always), in a direct language well suited to the material. The novel begins with a sailor witnessing a primitive ritual as his ship passes Gotland, an incident that will be recalled only much later. Then a horse is found decapitated, puzzling everyone, and then a body of a young woman (whose brief career in archaeology we have been following through her eyes) is found hanging naked from a tree. The sensationalism of the events (and the ritual killings) are downplayed by the simple, straightforward style of the narrative, the short chapters, and the commonsense rationalism of the cops. Though it's a bit frustrating to watch how long it takes for the police to grasp what sort of ritual they've been witnessing (after the fact) in the murders, the flatfootedness of the investigation and the narrative save the story from becoming melodramatic or sensational. In fact, the only element of melodrama is a cliff-hanger that suspends one of the running characters (close to death? dead?), a plot element to be resolved in the next book, presumably. Jungstedt evokes here not only the island and its contemporary culture (as she has done in the earlier novels) but also the Viking past (through the archaeology connections to the murders, more than through the ritualized killings--again avoiding sensationalism). We get a good deal of the daily events in the lives of Knutas and the journalist (and his girlfriend--now ambivalent about all that has happened to her, good and bad, in the series so far), anchoring the narrative further in the ordinariness of life. The so-far-translated Swedish crime writers seem to veer toward a real-life plainness of style and plot, even with highly charged material--one of the aspects of Scandinavian crime writing that I most appreciate. There's a bit more local color in Jungstedt's books than in, for example, those of Helene Tursten or even Henning Mankell (I would actually hope in the future for more local color from some of the Swedish writers--Åsa Larsson's Kiruna, for example, is a setting I'd like to hear more about). I'd be hard pressed to rank the writers in the Scandinavian crime wave, but Jungstedt is certainly in the first rank. Less important than the book itself, but still of interest, is the series of covers for the U.S. editions, which are very effective without relying on the "branding" so often the case with series novels (better for once than the U.K. covers, which feature a coordinated set of island scenes).

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Literary crime: Benjamín Prado's Snow is Silent

Snow is Silent, by Benjamín Prado (translated from the Spanish by Sam Richard), has elements of James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith, in a story that announces one crime in its opening paragraph, describes the planning of a robbery and the execution of a murder, moves on to a femme fatale, police interrogation, double cross, prison, and a final revelation. Plus there’s an element of the mystery-puzzle: the narrator announces at the beginning that he is one of the three main characters, one of whom will commit the crime, but he refuses to allow the reader to know which of them he is, concealing himself for the rest of the story in a third-person narrative that is omniscient with respect to all three of the characters, and promising to reveal who he is at the end. Sounds like a crime novel, or perhaps even a traditional mystery. And in a way it is, but it’s first of all a literary novel that’s just using the form of a crime nove. How can we make that distinction? I won’t say all, but a lot of literary novels are ultimately about writing rather than the story or the events and characters in the story. Snow is Silent is about, in a circuitous way, the writing of a novel about a novelist whose friends are helping him write a novel. Setting aside that very literary conceit, the Snow is Silent is most concerned with the construction of fiction: it follows a dictum of Modernism that a work of art is actually about itself, or more specifically about the inherent characteristics of a particular art form (the most famous statement of this sort is by Clement Greenberg, who said that modern painting is about the chief characteristic of that form of art: flatness). Fiction would then be about the chief characteristics of that form of art, the construction of a text or the writing in itself. Modernist writing, or literary fiction in the era after Modernism, can be both interesting and fun, but the very common, reflexive focus on the writing (and on writers) can be irritating for a reader who has come to a book for a story about something other than writing a story. Snow is Silent is clearly written, not in a turgid or academic style. Though it gets started on the crime story rather slowly, the narrative suddenly picks up speed, and moves rapidly through a cascade of events and revelations in short chapters that are almost like scenes in a film--except that the writing, and the conceit of the writing of a novel as the subject of the story, continues to be prominent. There is a certain reflexive quality in a lot of crime fiction: Ken Bruen is constantly referring to crime writers, the Spanish novel I reviewed here yesterday features a victim whose bookshelves are filled with crime novels, and the fact that his bedside table holds an Andrea Camilleri novel as well as a philosophical treatise by Hegel is a prominent plot point. But Prado’s book uses the crime form mostly to talk about about telling stories, and Bruen or Domingo Villar or John Harvey (and there are very many other examples) are referring to other crime writers as homage, as shorthand clues to the reader about the context of the story they’re telling, as a form of showing us who a character is by showing us what he/she reads, or as clever asides from a writer to the reader. The motive of the writer is in these cases more about telling a story than telling about writing. Is this a distinction that seems to hold up? Does it make Prado’s book sound more appealing or less? The cover of the U.K. edition, pictured here, is very effective in suggesting one strain of the plot (one man's obsession with a woman), but perhaps for that very reason misleading about the nature of the book (as well as suggesting that the relationaship goes a bit further than it actually does). Still, it's a great cover.

Friday, January 02, 2009

From Galicia: Water-blue Eyes, Domingo Villar

Descriptions that I had read of Domingo Villar's Water-blue Eyes (translated from Spanish by Martin Schifino and published in Arcadia's EuroCrime series) made it sound comic and low-key, and it is both those things, but it's also an interesting crime novel from an interesting part of the world, the city of Vigo in Galicia, Northwest Spain, a region with its own language and character. Villar's team of detectives, Inspector Leo Caldas and his assistant, Rafael Estévez, bears some resemblance to that of Barcelona's Alicia Bartlett-Gimenez (gender notwithstanding): an educated middle class boss and his crude sidekick, except that Estévez is larger and cruder than Bartlett-Gimenez's version, and he's also an outsider to Galicia, a device that Villar uses to much effect as he is frustrated repeatedly (to the point of violent comedy) by the regional trait of refusing to answer questions directly. The other key device (repeated almost to the point of becoming irritating) is the recognition of Caldas by everyone he meets as a radio personality (in fact, the novel begins with him in the studio enduring--rather than enjoying--his role as "Patrol on the Air" police spokesman). The mystery around which the story revolves is the gruesome death of a jazz musician (a unique murder weapon evidently chosen for its capacity to make everyone in the story (and a good portion of the readership) squirm. The story takes a familiar arc (the police treading water and getting nowhere, then suddenly making a discovery after another murder), but nothing is as direct or simple as it seems--in fact, Villar uses a trope that I haven't seen before: the police make mistakes because they miss blatant clues that the murderer has deliberately left for them, even though the investigators are in fact following the path the criminal wants them to take. The resolution to the mystery is, however, not in the end that unusual. But the light tone of the prose, the interesting if somewhat familiar central characters, the evocative imagery, and the effective immersion in Galician culture, gastronomy, and even city planning combine to make this a very worthwhile crime fiction read--and it also has a virtue much ignored these days: it's rather short, at about the length of classic crime fiction of the 1940s or '50s, a pleasant interlude rather than a long-term commitment, in terms of the reading experience. Spain is getting to be an interesting and varied source for crime fiction now, as well.