Thursday, July 30, 2009

SoHo Crime, Bitter Lemon Press, and Sergio Bizzio's Rage

SoHo Crime in the U.S. and Bitter Lemon Press in the U.K. are two of the leading independent publishers of international crime fiction in English. Their lists overlap a bit (both publish Garry Disher) and both publish novels that are detective-oriented and books that are more in the line of psychological novels (thrillers isn't really an adequate word), though SoHo's list tilts toward the detectives and Bitter Lemon's list tilts toward the psychologicals. The newly translated (by Amanda Hopkinson) Argentine novel Rage by Sergio Bizzio (from Bitter Lemon) is definitely in the latter category. The cover announces that it's to be made into a movie by Guillermo del Toro, and that's no surprise: the claustrophobic and high-concept novel hearkens back to early-20th-century expressionist writing in several ways. It's focused on the working class (as many of the expressionist writers were), it includes a hallucinatory (though also ordinary) architecture as its primary setting), and its effect is rather more like reading a ghost story or a fairy tale than reading a crime novel. In some ways it's a combination of the Phantom of the Opera and one of Francis Carco's gritty novels of lower-class Paris. There's also a hint of gender confusion in a couple of spots, one being that the primary character, José Maria, is most often called Maria. He's a construction worker who falls in love with a maid, Rosa, who works in a mansion near his current construction site. The novel actually begins with a suggestion of pornography, Maria suggesting a sex act that Rosa is reluctant to perform, in one of their rare moments together in a room-by-the-hour hotel. the tone shifts away from porn, though, when Maria goes on the run, pursued for the murder of his boss; instead of running way he runs in: he hides in the attic of the house where Rosa lives and works, but without telling her. The rest of the book narrates the scenes and sounds that Maria witnesses as he sneaks up and down staircases, through hallways of upper stories, and occasionally down to the ground floor, spying on Rosa and her employers and occasional visitors. The crimes that occur in the house, including rape and murder, are a less important aspect of the novel's texture than Maria's daily effort to survive undetected. As I said, it's easy to imagine del Toro's attraction for the story, given that director's interest in and skill with labyrinthine tales (both in scene and psychology). Bizzio's evocation of Maria-the-phantom's scurrying journeys and his glimpsed and overheard narrative is vivid, though I did find my attention lapsing now and then; it is, after all, a very high concept story--you either buy into the conceit or you don't; you're either in or out, there's no halfway. The same was true to some extent with some other Bitter Lemon books, Blackout (by Gianluca Morozzi, also to be made into a movie), for instance--though Blackout leads up to a plot twist while Rage moves forward with a kind of inexorable rhythm toward an almost inevitable conclusion foretold by a pun or double meaning in the original Spanish title that I can't explain without giving too much away. I'd definitely be interested in other books by Bizzio (and in the del Toro film), though Rage (in spite of the murder and mayhem) isn't the kind of crime novel I usually look for. Thanks are due to Bitter Lemon for stretching my reading horizons as well as for the high quality of their entire crime list.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum

I had a chance to see the first of the new TV films based on Gunnar Staalesen's series about Bergen, Norway private detective Varg Veum (on the MhZ Network, a public TV station in the U.S. that specializes in non-U.S. programming, mostly news). Three of Staalesen's novels have been translated, though a couple of them have been out of print for a while, and a 4th is about to be released by Arcadia in the U.K. The film is an interesting portrait of Bergen and of an unconventional private detective: Veum is a former social worker, specializing in children's cases. As a detective, he also frequently works on cases involving children. So while he's a tough and hard-boiled investigator on the one hand, he's also a principled and socially conscious citizen and professional (the social consciousness comes through a bit clearer in the novels). The actor playing Veum, Trond Espen Seim, is quite good, showing the character's melancholy determination without overdoing it. The rest of the characters, business professionals and cops, are a foil for Veum's seedy persona (and the cast is quite effective, in a European style of acting--fairly low-key). The story involves a missing child, a corporation that, while undergoing a generational change of leadership, is also involved in dirty deals. How the missing child is related to the corporation's greed is a complex trail that Veum gradually unravels, while getting abused verbally and physically by cops and corporate thugs. It will be interesting to see how the Veum series develops, but this first entry is quite effective in updating the private detective while also providing a new model for a detective's background and motivation. And the series also should remind us that what seems like a gap between Sjöwall and Wahlöö and the current Scandinavian crime wave (beginning with Wallander) was in fact a busy time for the crime genre in the Scandinavian countries--Staalesen's first crime novel appeared in 1975 and Varg Veum first appeared in English translation in 1986. This is an excellent and unique series that should not be forgotten in our appreciation of Scandinavian crime fiction's current worldwide popularity. And one benefit of the availability of the new film is that a reader finally gets some idea as to how "Varg Veum" should be pronounced...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rob Kitchin, The Rule Book

I rarely read reviews of a book before reviewing it myself, but Rob Kitchin's new Irish serial killer novel breaks so many rules of crime writing (an irony perhaps intended by Kitchin in his title and the books premise: The Rule Book) that I went looking for other opinions before trying to formulate my own. The most useful review was by Critical Mick (see his review here), who remarks on Kitchin's rule-breaking style as well as other aspects of the book. I fully agree with Mick's praise of the book's success in pulling in the reader, as well as his analysis of Kitchin's twists on the serial killer genre in film and fiction. I also agree with one of his criticisms of the book (that there are a number of proofreading errors that may not be the author's fault) but disagree with a couple of others. Mick says that the police procedural method is followed too closely and accurately, perhaps confusing the reader with the numerous detectives' names and activities: I for one am a big fan of the police procedural as a genre, and Kitchin gives us an excellent version, emphasizing not the lurid crimes committed by the serial killer but the sometimes plodding pursuit of the killer in the detectives' meticulous methodology. I also disagree with Mick that the setting is evoked with perhaps too much realism. I haven't spent that much time in Ireland, and have never been to Maynooth or some of the other particular settings, but I found Kitchin's descriptions of these places evoked a real Ireland, a real picture of the place that formed an excellent "frame" for the fictional events. Kitchin's background in geography and mapping provided not only some conceptual elements in the plot and action, but perhaps also the background for his skill in sketching out his portrait of Ireland (and like Mick, I appreciate that the places in The Rule Book are not fictionalized equivalents, but actual places we might either recognize or visit. Mick mentions that Kitchin breaks a big crime-novel-plot rule in his ending (which can't be described without giving too much away): I can admire Kitchin's daring and his accomplishment in this particular case while still being a bit frustrated by it. You'll see what I mean when you read the book--which I highly recommend you do. The story follows Detective Superintendant Colm McEvoy's dogged pursuit of a serial killer who leaves behind a "rule book" that demonstrates his genius and lays out a plan (partly in code) of 7 murders in 7 days. That "rule book" provides the title and the structure, without overwhelming the narrative drive, mostly maintained in the dialogue among the cops (sometimes professional, sometimes emotional). As the killer progresses through his plan, the police have immense difficulty in keeping up with him, much less identifying or catching him. In a few instances, the killer is lucky, but in most cases, his rules (not always followed exactly) are proved in his acting out of them. McEvoy is frustrated not only by the killer but by an ambitious subordinate and back-stabbing superiors in the Gardai. He is also hampered by his own emotional and physical state (he's a wreck, in the aftermath of his wife's death, leaving him as a single father to a 12-year old girl). McEvoy's turmoil is believable and not overwrought, and the dialogue among all the police is also natural, not strained or over-written. The story is told in the third person mostly from McEvoy's point of view with occasional short segments from the point of view of the killer and that of a couple of the other cops, plus one of the victims. That focus on McEvoy tightens the drama without overly limiting the reader's perspective. And the story is tight indeed, moving along at an electric pace that never lets up. Kitchin's skill in maintaining that pace as well as the naturalism of the characters and setting is quite impressive in a first novel. A sequel is implied in the text (and Kitchin mentions he's working on the third McEvoy novel in an interview by Gerard Brennan here), and I'm hoping the sequel doesn't take long to arrive.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Declan Hughes, All the Dead Voices

The fourth of Declan Hughes's Ed Loy crime novels is just coming out the U.S. now. The novel brings together the uncertain future of the failed Celtic Tiger and the deadly past of the Irish Troubles. The Troubles lurk in the background of any contemporary Irish crime novel (certain elements that had used crime to finance their violent actions are simply continuing their career as criminals now), but the IRA, INLA, etc., figure in All the Dead Voices more than in the first three Ed Loy novels. And it's a bleak picture that Hughes draws, of gangsters and good citizens that share a common violent past but have moved on in disparate ways, and of the new violence of an urbanized Dublin. As always, though, Hughes grounds his story in that most violent and turbulent of human institutions, the family. Loy is hired by two families in distress: a gangster who has fled to Greece asks him to look after his younger brother, now a celebrated footballer; and a young mother asks him to find out who murdered her father years before (her mother's lover had been jailed for the offense but released on a technicality, but the Gardai believe he did it and refuse to reopen the case).

The two cases inevitably intertwine, as Loy moves back and forth around Dublin among the cops and the gangsters, often becoming the subject of "unwanted attention" from both. There are a lot of characters (and a lot of murders), sometimes a little hard to keep up with the plot, but Hughes skilfully reiterates the story through Loy's overlapping interrogations of the suspects and victims--if the reader momentarily forgets what's going on, the narrator (whether Loy himself or the non-Loy-narrated sections concerning the gangster who hired him and a family in Armagh 20 years earlier) will set you straight. The plot goes off in some unexpected directions: just when you think you're headed for a predictable or operatic crescendo, Hughes undercuts that expectation with casual violence or the withdrawal of an expected twist. And at the end, amid the nearly Jacobean mayhem, there's a hint of redemption for Loy and those around him.

I see that Loy is off to his former home-in-exile, L.A., in the next book, and into a serial-murder plot that will threaten that very redemption--but we'll have to wait until next year for that. A word about covers--I'm pasting three images of the U.K. and U.S. covers as well as a Harper-Collins cover that apparently was rejected but still appears on the publisher's website (as H-C is the parent of Wm. Morrow, the titular U.S. publisher). In the U.K., someone (Loy?) is headed into a tunnel and in the U.S. released version he's headed over a bridge. Whereas the U.K. cover looks like a film poster ("Ed Loy in..."), the U.S. version is cluttered with text (blurbs and award announcements). All in all I like the unreleased U.S. version best (the one at the top of this blog post), though it misspells John Connolly's name in the blurb on that one, and there's a bit of Gothic type that doesn't quite work. Thoughts, anyone?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

David's Revenge, by Hans Werner Kettenbach

The two crime novels by Hans Werner Kettenbach that have been translated so far (both translated by Anthea Bell and published by Bitter Lemon Press) have a carefully controlled point of view. In the new one, David's Revenge, we see everything through the eyes of a middle-aged schoolteacher who is married to a lawyer and has a teen-aged son who is an incipient skinhead. But Christian does more than narrate: he tells himself stories, spins rationalizations of his behavior and that of others, wraps himself up in his story-inspired notions of what is happening around him. The result is a particularly claustrophobic paranoid thriller, brought down to human (rather than global) level within a bourgeois German household. Regardless of this domestic focus, the plot is political: a post-Cold War tale of (possible) spies and collaborators in the newly united Germany and the newly liberated Georgia, thrust then (as again recently) into bloody civil war based on the country's former and current relations with Russia. The novel begins with a letter from Georgia from a translator, David Ninoshvili, whom Christian had met at a conference in Tbilisi a few years earlier, and who is now announcing that he's arriving in Germany to stay in Christian's guest room while pitching Georgian literature to German publishers. Christian remembers David and especially David's wife, with whom Christian had almost had an affair. The whole story turns on what David might or might not have known about the interrupted affair, and on who David might actually be now and have been then: a KGB or Georgian intelligence officer who lured a German into a compromising position? A jealous husband bent on revenge? Christian is quite a different character from the narrator of Black Ice, Kettenbach's previously translated novel, who was a bit slow intellectually. Christian is an intellectual and a seasoned high school teacher and drama instructor. Rather than piecing together the puzzle of what might have happened, as in Black Ice, Christian evolves through a series of reinterpretations of David and of his own wife and son (whose relationships to David change through the course of the novel), through the narration of events and through the stories (told in the present tense, as we would tell a joke--"a dog walks into a bar...", at least in English) that Christian's interior monologue repeatedly lapses into. As with Black Ice, though, the murder and mayhem are all off-stage, and Christian only catches glimpses of these events second-hand, through the TV and newspapers. Christian is an ordinary guy, caught up (or not) in international intrigue and suddenly fascinated by the history and literature of Georgia and its relationship to Germany. What Kettenbach is up to is not a Le Carre sort of thing, not even the post-Cold War Le Carre. His novel brings down the big-issue politics, the still active intelligence apparatus, and murderous crimes to the living room, to now, to the schoolroom, and to the bedroom and to the interior of an ordinary man's dialogue with himself.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Matt Beynon Rees, The Samaritan's Secret

Matt Beynon Rees is on track to construct a "Comédie Humaine" for Palestine in his series featuring Bethlehem school teacher and amateur detective Omar Yussef Sirhan. Volume 1 introduced us to Palestinian Bethlehem, Volume 2 to Gaza, and Volume 3 to both the dangerous city of Nablus and to the remnant of the Samaritan culture, which is partly based near there on the community's sacred mountain. In all three novels Rees demonstrates the corruption of the Palestinian Authority, the destructive competition between Fatah and Hamas, and the pervasive and oppressive (mostly offstage) presence of the Israeli army. The key problem of The Samaritan's Secret is the Hamas-Fatah violent competition for supremacy, with considerable energy also around the contrast of wealth and poverty and the tension between stricter and more liberal (or even secular) versions of Islam. In Nablus with his family for the wedding of Sami, a policeman we encountered in the previous novel, Omar Yussef becomes involved in the increasingly complex circumstances of the murder of a young Samaritan man (and we learn a great deal about his obscure culture). The strength of Omar Yussef (and also his Achilles heal, in terms of "getting along" in Palestine, and in Nablus in particular) is his empathy and humanity: he refuses to turn away from the Samaritan man's tragedy or to look away from the corruption that lies beneath not only the murder but daily life in the city. Omar Yussef is the furthest thing from a hard-boiled detective: he feels too much of the pain of individual victims in his splintered, unstable society. It is precisely the contrast he provides to the indeed very dark, hard-boiled, noir (whatever term you choose) environment in which he lives that gives the series its edge. His friend the Bethlehem police chief not only is cynical about politics and religion, he can casually kill a man for what seems to be convenience. Only Omar Yussef is troubled by that sort of thing, and even he remains loyal to his friend, fully aware of his character and his past (even more ruthless) deeds. The mystery is solved in an almost archaeological fashion, with numerous missteps and red herrings along the way (Omar Yussef is no ratiocinative detective, he's more intuitive and impulsive, a character trait that constantly troubles his family). He is only momentarily chastened when his actions endanger his favorite granddaughter, who has insisted on going out for a local sweet (which sounds indeed cloyingly sweet). Rees give us a couple of chase sequences that are nonetheless exciting for Omar Yussef's lack of speed and agility--and are not simply amusing or "cute" as has been the case with some elderly detectives over the years of the genre. There is humor (as always in this series) but without condescending to his characters--it is their own humor, which we are privileged to share in, their comic response in the face of the despair and terror of their seemingly endless situation. Rees provides insight and also a satisfying crime story.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Death in the New Republic, by David Dison

There’s a blurb provided by the publisher of David Dison’s Johannesburg crime novel, Death in the New Republic, comparing the book to Jeffrey Archer’s thrillers. I’m afraid I don’t get the comparison, which would be at the least very misleading concerning Dison’s subtle, complex story of betrayal, murder, disgrace, and solidarity in the politics of the new South Africa. Dison’s narrative progresses in alternating short sentence fragments, long complex sentences, and interior monologues, with frequent Johannesburg slang and bursts of Afrikaans and Sesotho, the African language most familiar to Dison’s hero, Jerome Michael Nossel, known to everyone as Nossel. The complexity of the text echoes the complexity of the story and its political background. I recently reviewed an older book by Gillian Slovo, The Betrayal, written just as the apartheid regime was ending. Slovo drew some of the faultlines in the anti-apartheid struggle (and the apartheid regime itself) that extend and branch in various directions in Dison’s story. There are the people Dison calls “struggelistas,” former activists who seem not to have moved on from the struggle; the black ascendancy (a new middle class, a few wealthy plutocrats, and the powers-that-be of the government; the new immigrants, living at the fringes of the society; unrepentant white supremacist cops operating independently within the new police force; and others who have accommodated one way or another to the new reality of the country. Nossel himself, whose Jewish family has been in South Africa for many generations, moved from the struggle and exile into the national intelligence service, only to be disgraced and suspended because of a trap laid for him by forces within the government. He is called upon to help a government minister’s family when their son is about to be arrested for drug possession and dealing, and then he stumbles upon a murder. Neither the white narco-cops who want to arrest the minister’s son nor the black cops who show up to investigate the murder seem to be completely above board, and Nossel becomes involved in intertwined plots that ultimately reveal not only the perpetrator of the murder but also the hopes and despairs of current South Africa, from AIDS and corruption to democracy and equality. There’s a negative review of Death in the New Republic in South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper by Kwanele Sosibo (see here) and a positive one by Maureen Isaacson in Crime Beat @ Book Southern Africa (see here), demonstrating a healthy range of opinion in Dison's home country concerning a book that is ambitious in its reach both in political and crime-novel terms. For myself, I found it to be a subtle and moving story that in which the main character investigates his own character as doggedly as he pursues the truth concerning the murder and the other criminal acts in the book. Death in the New Republic is very different from other recent South African crime novels, closer to Slovo's The Betrayal than to the novels of Deon Meyer or Margie Orford. Surely that's an encouraging sign of healthy diversity in the crime fiction of a country with both great hopes and great troubles.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Brian McGilloway, Bleed a River Deep

The blurbs for Brian McGilloway's third Inspector Devlin novel, Bleed a River Deep, suggest a story that in lesser hands would have been a generic thriller: an American right-wing former Senator (and former IRA supporter) arrives in Ireland for the opening of a new gold mine run by an Irish-American company, and in spite of the senator's own protection and the efforts of Devlin and the gardai, the American celebrity is shot at. Shades of international incident and conspiracy? Not in this case. The hints of sensational thriller plot are only small elements, just some of the threads among others that focus on illegal immigrants, cross-border smuggling, and eco-activism, all in along the border of Northern Ireland and Donegal on the verge of the Celtic Tiger's collapse. And rather than a supercop, Devlin is constantly in hot water when his mistakes make things worse for the immigrants, the gardai, his old friends, and himself. His new boss is on his case, and he gets suspended early on in the book; for a good deal of the story he's acting more like a private detective than a copy (almost as if McGilloway is preparing a career change for him). It is Devlin's empathy and conscience that make the books interesting and give them depth beyond the average police procedural (and Devlin's home life is shockingly normal, for a crime-novel cop). The ccomplications of crimes and criminals crossing back and forth between police jurisdictions adds particular interest, taking advantage of historical tensions as well as more normal jurisdictional disputes. McGilloway is unafraid of events that change his cast of characters (as has been seen in previous novels) or of unresolved plots. Bleed a River Deep's conclusion is satisfying to the reader without being satisfactory for Devlin and a number of other characters. McGilloway deserves the attention he has been getting for his Devlin novels: he's stretching the boundaries of the crime novel without condescending to the genre, and his novels deserve even wider recognition among crime fans and general readers. A question for those who know better than I what's happening in the translations of the new Irish crime wave: are readers outside the English-speaking world getting access to the fine crime fiction of McGilloway, Declan Hughes, Declan Burke, Gene Kerrigan, etc?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

New Finnish Noir

It is perhaps unfair that I'm reviewing Harkko Sipila's Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall right after reading and reviewing Garry Disher's Blood Moon. In contrast to the Australian novel, the characters in Sipila's Finnish police procedural are rather flat. The plot is very good, in the hard-boiled, no nonsense tradition (more on that in a minute) but the characters are so little delineated that it's frequently hard to tell one from the other (hence the list of characters in the front of the book, which is helpful and perhaps necessary). Most of the cops simply blend together, except for Detective Lieutentant Takamäki and undercover cop Suhonen, who are at the center of the story and are boss-and-subordinate but other than that little differentiated from one another, despite some amusing banter among the cops, as well as collegial irritation about some of Suhonen's tactics. The same is true of the bad guys, who seem to be little differentiated except by categories: thug, prison gangster, narc, boss, and within categories they can be hard to tell apart. As I said, perhaps Disher's skill at making characters (even minor ones) come idiosyncratically alive proves to be an unfortunate contrast when considering Sipila's novel. The flatness of the characters actually suits the plot fairly well, reinforcing the noir/pulp quality of the book (and that's not meant in a derogatory way, I like noir/pulp fiction). This book could be an updated version of those straight-to-paperback tales of the 1950s, Jim Thompson included. The mystery aspect of the plot is undercut about 2/3 of the way into the story when the reader is informed by the narrator about who the killers are, long before the cops figure it out. Again, that's not really a problem for me--one of the most interesting aspects of the story is a double-dealing plotline concerning a mid-level gangster who's ripping off his boss and covering his ass--one of the most interesting characters and plotlines, and one that requires the mystery aspect to be set aside. The plot winds around, coming back to the seemingly unrelated prologue just as the story picks up speed and everything comes together for an effective twist-and-turn conclusion something like Elmore Leonard’s realistically quirky plots, but at the same time reminiscent of the comic mayhem of the amazing Finnish TV series, RAID. The best part of the book, though, is its palpable sense of the winter cityscape of Helsinki and the street-level history of the city (such as a corner where a famous cop-killing happened). For that alone, I can recommend the book, though it’s pulp-y, plot-heavy quality puts it in a different category of the fleshier novels. Sipila and his brother have set up a publishing house, Ice Cold Crime, to bring his own and other Finnish writers to English-speaking audiences—including, I understand, something by Harri Nykänen, the author of the books upon which the aforesaid RAID series is based. So please, go buy this book (despite my own reservations): we should encourage publishers who bring more crime writers to our attention from countries like Finland! It is, by the way, an attractive book in a nice, small-ish format, easy to carry back and forth on the Metro train while commuting, as I can attest. To read Barbara Fister's more positive view of Sipila's quick character sketches, and of the novel as a whole, click here.