Friday, December 24, 2010

Helsinki Homicide II, Jarkko Sipila's next Finnish noir

Jarkko Sipila's Helsinki Homicide series (the new volume's title is Helsinki Homicide: Vengeance) is traditional noir in a lot of ways. The style of the writing is very direct, mixing dialogue and narration in about equal parts. That's a significant fact for Vengeance, which reminds me in some ways of the biker-gang novels of Canadian crime writer John McFetridge, except that McFetridge moves the story forward almost entirely via dialogue (and the Canadian writer's wit is frequently in evidence, whereas the humor in Sipila's books is very dry, in a laconic, somehow Finnish style).

Sipila's main character, Suhonen, an undercover cop, sets things in motion simply by seeing a suspicious driver, whom he follows. The driver meets a Russian-Estonian whom Suhonen discovers has ties to drug trafficking between Estonia and Finland, but the plot twists away from that revelation toward the just-released-from-prison leader of the Skulls biker gang, Tapani Larsson, who bears a grudge against Suhonen.

For me, the book began to pick up speed and to compel my interest as the character of Salmela becomes more important. Salmela is a low-life, brain-injured former prison inmate, as well as childhood friend of Suhonen. Salmela's attempt to do one drug deal to provide enough cash to get him out of the criminal life pulls him into the Skulls' orbit and a dangerous assignment from the police.

Sipila avoids cliches throughout: as Salmela spirals downward, his story never takes the obvious turn, and as his situation becomes more desperate, the tale tightens and compels the reader (this reader anyway) forward. Looking back at the first Sipila novel to be translated, which I reviewed here in a rather lukewarm fashion, I like the series more than I indicated then. I mentioned the link to McFetridge, and in the earlier review I mentioned a similarity to Elmore Leonard's casual, realistic plotting as well as to the Jim Thompson school of noir.

What I realize now is that Sipila's style is naturalism. He doesn't strain for effects or play up his hero as a flashy crime fighter. When Suhonen and Salmela are stranded in a tight spot, the outcome isn't determined by flashy martial arts skills or mind-bending feats of detection (or mind-stretching coincidences0 but by a very ordinary aspect of modern life. Sipila is giving a straightforward and believable portrait of conflict in the streets of Helsinki, and giving a gritty portrait of the city as well as a truly noir reading experience along the way.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Peter Temple, Dead Point

I recently heard the audio version of Peter Temple's Dead Point, which I believe is the latest of the Jack Irish novels (correct me if I'm wrong, please). The Irish novels normally have three plots, coinciding with Jack's three careers (as a lawyer, a fixer for a circle of horse-racing enthusiasts, and an apprentice woodworker). The pattern holds here, with Jack involved in the aftermath of a failed betting scheme (and a couple of thefts from people after succesful betting schemes), in a missing-person case involving a bartender, and in the installation of a high-end library in a wealthy woman's house. Parts of the cases become related, but it's primarily Jack himself who ties the book together.

Jack is, in fact, good company. And his first-person narrative works very well in an audio version. The plot moves inexorably forward, but the primary interest is, as usual, the characters, not just Jack but important and even secondary characters throughout the book.

The denouement is complicated, as usual, and so is Jack's love life, as usual. The violence at the conclusion of the missing-person plot is perhaps less extreme than in the previous books, but is a very complicated incident, mechanically. I won't explain more, but Temple renders an almost Rube Goldberg series of events in a believable way.

The Irish novels are perhaps more pure entertainment than Temple's other recent books, but no less interesting for all that. I need to go back and read some of Temple's early books, most of which I missed—any recommendations?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Irene Huss videos, 2-6

I reviewed the first Irene Huss TV film, from Helene Tursten's series of crime novels set in Göteborg, a while ago, I'm just getting around to reviewing the rest of the first season because the disks I originally received were mislabeled, creating a bit of confusion as to what I was watching. All cleared up now.

The remaining films are 2. The Horse Figurine, 3. The Fire Dance, 4. The Night Round, 5. The Glass Devil, and 6. The Gold Digger. Of these 5, two (in addition to The Torso, already reviewed) are taken from novels already translated into English. SoHo Press has assured us that more of the novels are being translated, but I haven't heard which ones, yet.

The Horse Figurine was actually taken from the first novel to appear in English, translated as Detective Inspector Irene Huss, dealing with a wealthy man who falls from a balcony in the city, while his wife witnesses his death from a nearby taxi. The investigation leads to biker gangs, and to an apartment directly across from the fateful balcony, and along the way Huss's family is threatened.

The Fire Dance deals with serial arson, the stabbing death of an old woman, and an unsolved case from Irene's early career. The Night Round is a kind of ghost story, dealing with a murder on the staircase of an old hospital, murky goings-on among current staff, and the hospital's murky history.

The Glass Devil deals with religion, piety, satanism, and the murder of an entire family. The Gold Digger takes on propoerty developers, on-line poker, investment bubbles, and a possible affair on the part of Irene's seemingly model husband (a professional chef).

Translated to the small screen, all the stories are interesting, but all seem a bit too much like conventional TV cop shows (more so than the books, for some reason). Perhaps the things that make the books distinctive (Irene's very ordinary home life, struggling with two working parents, adolescent daughters, annoying neighbors, etc.) veers into sit-com or stock cop-show territory when produced for TV. Though all the secondary characters among the police get a certain amount of face-time, and all are characterized individually, the focus on Irene herself is also a bit more prominent when visualized for us on-screen.

Those are not major complaints, though—especially if compared to the rest of TV crime fare. Angela Kovacs as Irene is pitch perfect (not exactly how I imagined the character from the books, but better realized than my imaginary version), and the rest of the cast, including Bjarne Henriksen, Dag Malmberg, Eric Ericson, and Inga Landgré, is also very good, though working with material (in terms of their characters) that will be a bit familiar from cop shows around the world. A starring character is also the city of Göteborg and its surroundings, seen here not as a tourist mecca (which is may in fact not be) but as a gritty port city.

So: compared to Swedish TV crime series that rise far above the genre, Irene Huss perhaps gets 4 out of 5 stars. 5 stars would go to the original Martin Beck series starring Gösta Ekman, taken from 7 (I think) of the 10 novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö (I think they never filmed the Laughing Policeman or the Locked Room, and The Abominable Man was filmed for the big screen by Bo Widerberg as Man on the Roof); 5 stars would also go to the original Wallander series for Swedish TV, starring Rolf Lassgård. The later Swedish series based on Beck and Wallander, starring Peter Haber and Krister Henriksson, as well as the U.K. Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh, fall into the 4-star category for me, along with Irene Huss—so the Huss stories are definitely in good company (and highly recommended). The 5-star films are able to sustain a mood to a higher degree, and reach for (and mostly grasp) a wider scope than the 4-star ones, to me.

I'm happy to entertain other opinions about either set of rankings though—anyone have any thoughts? My only final thought is that I'm anticipating the translation of further Huss stories into English, whether they've been filmed or not—the novels are in the first rank of the Scandinavian crime wave.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dogs of Rome, Conor Fitzgerald

Halfway through, Conor Fitzgerald's Dogs of Rome shifts from a fairly straight police procedural (featuring a somewhat unusual cop--more on that in a minute) to noir/Elmore Leonard territory. It works very well, except for an ending that seems a bit tacked on (concerning a woman and a dog), though perhaps it helps set up the characters for a series. The lead character is Alec Blume, an American who was orphaned in Italy and stayed there. He's now a Commissario in the flying squad, and there is some cultural friction between the American and the Italians (peanut butter is a significant plot point). There's also a quite different tone (more Irish, perhaps, since Fitzgerald is actually an Irishman living in Rome, rather than American, giving the book a tri-national character) from contemporary Italian crime fiction. There are some kinds of jokes, some language, and that Elmore Leonard quality to the plot of the second half that give the story an international, if not specifically Irish or American, quality.

The story concerns a break-in resulting in a murder (events that the reader witnesses), assigned to Blume's team, but they are hedged in by political implications (the victim's wife is a politician and he himself was an animal activist). There is a TV documentary about dog fights (thankfully not depicted directly, though there is some animal cruelty), a connection to professional gangsters, and cops feeding information not only to the press but to suspects and crime lords.

There's also a knowing young girl (a victim's daughter), an FBI lawyer (and potential girlfriend for Alec), and lots of internal police politics. Some aspects are standard fare for crime fiction, but overall the tone and style are fresh, whether compared to the Anglo-American or the Italian realm of crime writing. Of the several books I've read (or heard) recently, this one was the best written and the most fun to read.

Which cover do you prefer? I like the graphic one, though photos of Rome are never a bad thing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Tourist (no not the movie)

I'm hoping to do some catching up over the next few days, and to get back to posting more regularly. To start with, I recently heard the audio version of Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist, a spy novel unrelated to the recent (poorly reviewed) Hollywood movie. Steinhauer's tourist is a member of a secret black-ops CIA team based in New York (each member is called a tourist, the department is called tourism, etc.). Steinhauer is very good at depicting the characters as human (rather than as types), and he gets an effective sense of the gray moral areas of the contemporary spy trade. There's even some sly humor. But as a reader who has grown to expect the spy thriller to have a clockwork-like structure that surprises with its final but (looking backward) revelations, I didn't quite get what I wanted from The Tourist (there's a sequel that's well-reviewed--maybe I just haven't reached the end of the story yet). And maybe The Tourist suffers from my having read Mick Herron's Slow Horses first--that's a book that delivers the clockwork structure, the surprise, the irony, and considerable humor.

Milo the tourist has a fateful encounter in Venice, just before 9/11/01, in which his mentor is killed, and then time shifts forward to 2007 when Milo, now on administrative duty, is thrust back into black ops by the appearance of an assassin he has been tracking. But it's not the assassin that provides the tension, it's the consequences within the Department of Tourism, the CIA, and Homeland Security (as well as Milo's own family) that provide the impetus for the plot.

I liked this better than I liked the one of Steinhauer's East European novels that I read--and it provided enough interest and entertainment to get me through a 12-hour drive that I needed to make. It just didn't excite me in the same way that Slow Horses did when I first discovered it. Anyone read the sequel, The Nearest Exit? Does it provide completion for the story?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Finnish Noir: Raid and the Blackest Sheep, by Harri Nykanen

"Raid," pronounced like "ride," is a Finnish TV series (and a later movie) about a scruffy hit man whose nickname relates to the bug spray ("kills indoors an outdoors" is one version). The series is very entertaining, wryly funny, and follows the strain of crime fiction that flows from Western, cowboy fiction. Raid and the Blackest Sheep is the first of the Harri Nykanen novels (on which the series was based) to be translated into English by the new Ice Cold Crime imprint.

The book is essentially a road novel rather than a mystery, though there are some revelations at the end. Raid is helping a career criminal named Nygren who has returned home to Finland for a kind of farewell tour, settling scores and making amends. A hard-nosed detective is trying to find out if Nygren is planning a last heist, and Raid's friend on the police force, Lieutentant Jansson, is lured out of a rehabilitation center (where he's supposedly losing weight) when Raid calls him.

The result is a wild ride across Finland, with colorful characters among the police and the criminals very much in evidence. Raid himself is a curious combination of laid-back friendliness and ruthlessness, with a dash of very dry wit. Nykanen's writing is quite unlike anything else in Scandinavian crime fiction (even the other Finns), with perhaps more in common with neo-noir writers like Alan Guthrie. The book also has something in common with the dour and off-center comedy of the leading light of Finnish cinema, Aki Kaurismäki.

Ice Cold Crime also publishes the Helsinki Homicide series, by Jarkko Sipila, the second volume of which is in my short stack tbr pile.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mari Jungstedt, The Killer's Art

Maybe it was just that I was reading it under difficult (family) circumstances, but I thought Mari Jungstedt's 4th "Anders Knutas" book was the weakest of the series as so far translated from the original Swedish. Gotland, the island setting, is portrayed in vivid ways, but the story wavers back and forth among several strands without getting much of anywhere (in spite of the sensational elements of the story), and Inspector Knutas seems incapable of dealing with the investigation or even problems on his own staff (his favorite detective wants to leave). The running subplot of the series, concerning reporter Johan Berg and his true love Emma, puts them in threat (again) and builds up their relationship mainly to crash it down.

The story sounds interesting enough in summary: an art dealer is found hanged from a city gate, with no clues about his killer or a motive. Though secrets are discovered about the dealer and his wife, none get the police very far along in their investigation. The plot moves on to the theft of a famous Swedish painting, Dardel's Dying Dandy (which I think has featured in more than one Swedish crime novel), homosexual prostitution, obsessions revolving around family succession, and the summer homes of 19th century aristocrats and bohemians.

To me, the solution to the crime seems to come out of nowhere, and the concluding sentences reach for dramatic resolution not really justified by the story. Norm liked the book more than me (see here), and I'll bow to his judgement, considering the circumstances I mentioned above, which stretched my reading out over a longer-than-usual period and involved several airplane journeys and hospital bedsides. I'll read the next Knutas novel with hopes for a more positive experience. I have some catching up to do, blog-wise, and will try to post a few times in the upcoming days.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bandit Love, by Massimo Carlotto

The most recent of Massimo Carlotto's Marco "Alligator" Buratti novels to be translated (and a much more recent novel than the other two already translated), Bandit Love (translated by Antony Shugaar) plays out almost as a picaresque. The plot, based in Padua but going quite far afield, twists and turns without ever reaching a pat conclusion.

In this book, Buratti and his two friends/collaborators leave behind the bar and the private (unlicensed) detective business that they have been operating. Rossini, the gangster of the trio, discovers that his girlfriend, Sylvie, has been kidnapped, and as the team looks for her they realize that the crime relates to an event in their past, when they murdered a man who had been trying to involve them in investigating a theft of drugs from the police lockup. Their frantic search for Sylvie

There's much discussion of changes in Italy, with regard to the new and old mafias, the economic crash, and the loss of a local culture in the northeast, giving the whole book a melancholy (as well as noir) character. There are also various version of the love and loyalty between outlaws and their female partners, though Buratti himself has (mostly) lost his own love, Virna.

Like most of the books published by Europa Editions, Bandit Love is short, compact, and tightly packed with characters and incidents. [warning: partial spoiler ahead] Just when you think that the book is about to achieve a violent, final act of retribution, it veers off into an indeterminate future—possibly a sequel or possibly an end to the series that carries it forward into its own mythical future.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Bad Intentions, Karin Fossum

One of the distinctive features of Karin Fossum's Inspector Sejer series is that they're not formulaic. A couple of them are straight police procedurals, but others are told more from the point of view of the characters than the police. Bad Intentions (published in the U.S. this year by Houghton Mifflin in a translation from the Norwegian by Barslund) is different as well, beginning with an incident that seems to be a crime but then doesn't. Fossum also has in several books led the reader to certain expectations about the story that she proceeds to undermine, and that is also true of Bad Intentions. What we might take at first to be a murder among friends turns into an intense story of collective guilt, sociopathic behavior, and loss.

The novel is short and intense, not perhaps my favorite among the Sejer books (but then I'm partial to the police procedural form, which is not the most important part of Bad Intentions). We learn a bit about Sejer, though, now that he is aging, his daughter is not close at hand, and his Sharpei is his closest companion (Skarre, his partner, is on stage only a few times). What I like best about Bad Intentions is the quiet tone, which emphasizes ordinary human feelings and failings, offering in the end a glimpse of hope (or at least coping): this isn't about international conspiracies, criminal gangs, or serial killers. It's a very closely observed, economically constructed story of the needs and bad choices of ordinary people.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Camilla Läckberg, The Stonecutter

Camilla Läckberg's The Stonecutter, which arrived in the U.S. this year, is about the miseries that parents visit upon their children, and vice versa. Many permutations are given, and almost everyone in the novel is guilty of something (so there are lots of suspects). This is the third book featuring Patrik Hedström, a detective in a small town in southwestern Sweden. His partner Erica, has just had a baby (and the baby is making her miserable in the ways that babies do). A young girl's body is brought to the sea's surface, caught in a lobster trap, and Patrik is thrown into the investigation of her disfunctional family and various possible perpetrators.

Along the way there are other, less dire crimes, and occasionally Erica's sister puts in an appearance--though more in a way that seems to be continuing her role in previous books and preparing for her role in a subsequent book than in any way directly relevant to the present book). A parallel story concerns a stonecutter in the area in the 1920s who falls under the spell of his employer's daughter, Agnes. Their story begins as a sort of reversed Elvira Madigan (a great Swedish romance directed by Bo Widerberg who also did the Martin Beck movie most praised by Maj Sjöwall), but Agnes is a particularly poisonous character and I found myself growing tired of this historical aspect of the mystery (a reader will probably figure out along the way what the relevance is to the present-day mystery.

There are a couple of crimes of opportunity that seem a bit contrived (a character is at the perfect place, and with the necessary "equipment" at a perfect time), and there's a good deal of fumbling around by the less effective detectives on the small-town force, along with the requisite incompetent boss--who also has a subplot that is relevant to the parents-and-children theme but not to the story per se.

I heard the Audible recording of The Stonecutter, rather than read the book on paper, and I found myself getting a bit impatient. If I'd had pages in front of me I might have started skipping ahead. Still, the story is well constructed, and its "cozy" setting is nicely contradicted by some of the family horrors concealed behind closed doors. Läckberg is not my favorite of the current crop of Scandinavians, and this book could have used a bit of trimming, in my opinion, but I'll still line up for the next one.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Friday Forgotten (or at least hard to find) book: new John Brady

"Subtle" may not be an adjective that pops into your mind when reading most crime novels, but it does describe John Brady's new Matt Minogue novel, The Coast Road, so far accessible only from Canadian sources. Dublin Inspector Minogue has been sent to a new "cold case" sort of squad, charged to review unsolved cases, and his former colleague Tommy Malone is to be his assistant. Malone, as anyone who has followed the series, has a lot of baggage, and adds to it at the start of this book with a suspicious encounter with the gangster who had his twin brother (who was also a gangster) killed. And the background is post-Tiger Ireland, with all its still current difficulties, as well as the revelations of abuse by the priesthood.

But Minogue and Malone's survey of cold cases is derailed immediately into a review of the murder of a homeless man who had roamed the east coast of Ireland. The investigation leads to a nun who runs a shelter, a dodgy wannabe journalist, and a reluctant sister. But most of the book is told in conversations and interviews that circle around the facts and the plot rather than approaching them directly. What is actually going on, much less what led to the murder, lies beneath this surface for the reader as well as the detectives.

Fortunately, the dialogue is lively (all the more so because of the wit of the detective and the skill of the author). Minogue is dealing with some change in his family, not only with his emigre children but with his wife's involvement in a group that seeks religious renewal (Minogue himself has little sympathy for the Church).

A major theme is generational differences, particularly between urban Malone, not interested in the Irish language, and Minogue and his cohorts who were raised speaking (at least a little) the language. Among Minogue's generation, the regional differences (particularly in dialect and accent) of Ireland are important markers and the source of much slagging among the cops, while Malone is more of a European. The plot also turns on changes among the criminal community, including international participation.

Anyone who has followed Brady's work will be delighted to discover that there's a new book that is easily up to the standard of his earlier novels. Anyone not familiar with Brady could well start with The Coast Road, and if you have a taste for something quite different from the straight-ahead thriller sort of crime novel risks becoming the kind of fan that eagerly searches through used book sites and stores for the other books.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: crime in Singapore

Not so much forgotten as inaccessible: Jake Needham's The Ambassador's Wife was published in Hong Kong in 2006 and is about to be reprinted in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish Editions; but there hasn't been, and evidently will not be, any circulation outside of Southeast Asia.

The Ambassador's Wife features Inspector Samuel Tay of the Special Investigations Section of Singapore CID, but it's really about Singapore more than Tay. In fact, Tay is in a way a personification of Singapore: Westernized and somewhat insecure, but very efficient and dedicated to his job. Tay is in fact wealthy, but stays with the police rather than lapsing into a life of leisure.

He's presented with a puzzling case when a woman's body is found in the Marriot Hotel, in a room that was not supposed to be occupies. She is battered, sexually abused, and posed, but the scene has been thoroughly cleaned. When she eventually identified, the American embassy becomes involved (I won't say why, unless spoilers are requested) and Tay is assisted and/or obstructed by an FBI agent and a security officer from the embassy.

The case presents few leads but ultimately leads Tay on a deadly trip to Bangkok. In a way, the book is a Bildungsroman, leading Tay toward a maturity that, despite his years, he has not previously achieved. By the end, his attitudes toward the case and those involved has shifted considerably, and his own insecurity and ambivalence is at least partly cleared up. What starts as a somewhat dark but conventional detective novel darkens and deepens considerably by the end. There are a number of false leads and a few loose ends, but the conclusion makes sense in terms of Tay's personality and his personal journey.

But the city state of Singapore (and to a lesser extent Bangkok) is the main character: there have been only a few Singapore crime novels available in the West, including one by Hwee Hwee Tan, a couple by Gopal Barathan, and the most recent in the series featuring Inspector Singh, by Shamini Flint. None of those gives quite as comprehensive view of the city and its citizens as Needham gives here. The Ambassador's Wife most closely resembles Flint's books, among the Singapore crime novels, but the Singh stories retain a cozy quality that Needham steers away from, into noir territory.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The third Qurke, by "Benjamin Black"

Elegy for April is the third book about Dr. Quirke, Dublin pathologist in the 1950s, by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. The book is very well written, allusive and involving. The story relies on a good deal that a reader will know from Christine Falls, the first Quirke book, and will perhaps baffle someone who picks it up cold.

The plot, which is fairly static for the first 270 of its 293 pages in the U.S. edition, concerns April, a friend of Phoebe, Quirke's daughter, who has not been heard from by any of her friends in several weeks. Most of the book is Phoebe and Quirke going around together or separately inquiring of April's relatives and friends and looking around April's flat.

There's no investigation to speak of (unlike other fictional pathologists, Quirke's job isn't exploited by Black/Banville for plot potential), though Quirke involves his friend Inspector Hackett, and there are a few sexual encounters to liven things up. But mostly the book is Banville's prose, elegant in its flow and incisive in its particular images. The book as a whole is curiously both heavy and light, though perhaps not quite heavy enough for literary ambitions but too light for a crime novel, really.

When a sort of resolution is reached (by means in part of a very specific automobile that has been lurking in the plot, waiting anxiously for its moment of pertinence), it involves the same kinds of damaged families as inhabit the contemporary crime novels of Declan Hughes, but passed over quickly in those final 23 pages. Elegy for April is a quick read, probably of most interest to people who got involved in Quirke's character and story in the first two books (and who will be interested to discover his hesitant steps out of intoxication and into a relationship), and to lovers of efficient and lively prose (more efficient and certainly lighter than Banville's books under his own name).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Åke Edwardson, The Shadow Woman

The first of Åke Edwardson's Erik Winter crime novels to be translated into English, Sun and Shadow, was apparently the sixth in the order of the series's original publication in Sweden. That was followed by translations of the seventh and eighth books in the series, and then by the translation of Death Angels, which was actually the third in the order of first publication. Now the fourth in the series (right after Death Angels, whose Swedish title actually means Dance with an Angel) has now been published in English by Penguin, translated by Per Carlsson: The Shadow Woman, whose Swedish title, Rop från långt avstånd, actually means "cries from far away."

But all that confusion shouldn't put anyone off The Shadow Woman, which is a first-class police procedural. The investigation is a particularly frustrating one, which concerns the disccovery of a body near a lake. Winter and the police cannot discover who the woman was, and a parallel narrative about a young girl who is taken from her mother during some sort of getaway from a crime, gives the reader a sense of the anxiety that will befall Winter and his team later in the book (though not in quite the way that the reader may think).

There are several other plot lines int eh background, most of them concerning biker gangs, evidently a big factor in Southern Swedish crime (and even bigger in Denmark, where Winter eventually needs to go for answers).

My only quibble with the book is that one clue that unravels the final elements of the story is withheld from the reader in a way that other clues are not (Winter knows about that clue but we don't). Not a big deal, but in a story that is about the frustrations of a police investigation that has too few clues and too little information, withholding that one clue grates a bit.

Still, The Shadow Woman is a compelling story, and one of the best of the Erik Winter series. I was not a huge fan of Åke Edwardson after reading the first couple of books to appear in English, but I'm convinced now—he's in the first rank of Swedish crime writers. One question for dedicated readers of Scandinavian crime: I can think of a number of Swedish crime novels in which the detective travels to Denmark during the investigation, but I can't think of a single time when the detective travels to Norway (except for a chase scene in The White Lioness in which Wallander crosses the Norwegian border in pursuit of the killer). Are there trips to Norway that I'm not aware of?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Forgotten Friday: from Wales

On the occasion of the arrival in the U.S. of the new Robin Llewellyn book by Welsh writer Robert Lewis (Bank of the Black Sheep), I thought I'd say a few words about the first book in the series, The Last Llanelli Train, about which I haven't seen much discussion in the blogosphere (all of them have been published by Serpent's Tail). The Llewellyn books are a saga that marries the noir of Jim Thompson to the bohemian depths of down-and-out writing from Knut Hamsun's Hunger to Charles Bukowski to Irvine Welsh: but Lewis's writing is funnier than Hamsun's (which doesn't say much, but there's indeed a lot of very dark humor in the Llewellyn stories) and the books have more in common with Welsh than Bukowski. And each volume is remarkable for a fact that Lewis shares with at least one other writer, Argentina's Ernesto Mallo: at the end of the first book, the first-person narrator and hero has fallen so far that it's hard to imagine the possibility of a sequel (and at the end of the second book, Swansea Terminal, it's impossible to imagine—lending an additional temptation to see how Lewis manages the third book). A character tells the detective, "you're not going to sink any deeper than you are already I simply can't believe that's possible." Lewis seems to take the comments as a challenge.

Llewellyn (pronounced as "Lou-Ellen" by several people he meets) is a private detective in Bristol whose alcoholism occupies more of his life than his job (the later books will take him back to Wales, where he's from). Locked out of his apartment after a typical day's binge, and attempting to sleep it off in his office, he gets a phone call from a woman who wants him to entrap her husband into a sexual encounter to give her ammunition for a divorce. The price he asks for the job is matched by her demands for video documentation, and the entrapment proceeds slowly through successive drinking bouts, encounters with people to whom he owes money, and intermittent attempts to find a suitable prostitute and the equipment necessary for the job.

The plot twists several times in the last half of the book, not least in revelations about Llewellyn's past (details of which are more pertinent to subsequent novels). Who the woman who hired him turns out to be, who's really paying the bills, and what the plot is all about lead up to a conclusion that's satisfying in its unconventional approach to the genre. None of the Llewellyn books are for the faint of heart, though the darkness is leavened by the humor of a character who seems to have nothing left to lose, and then loses more (which is why, I guess, the books have been aptly compared to Beckett).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi

I seem to be going back and forth between Italy and Sweden these days, watching the Irene Huss TV series, continuing to catch up with the Commissario Trotti series by Timothy Williams, with new books by Åke Edwardsson, Conor Fitzgerald (Dogs of Rome), Mari Jungstedt, and Massimo Carlotto waiting impatiently on my table (a little excursion to Ireland possibly, in addition to the Conor Fitzgerald homeland, since I have a copy of the newest "Benjamin Black" from the library). I've just finished Valerio Varesi's River of Shadows, set in Parma and the Po Valley and featuring Commissario Soneri.

The book's first chapter is a bravado piece of writing set in a boatmen's club along the Po during an impending flood. Amid the conversation among the boatmen, a barge docks and then drifts away, and as the barge flows downstream they get intermittent radio reports on its seemingly unguided trip downriver, as it collides with a bridge and then runs aground. The chapter reads almost like a play, with the action restricted to the clubhouse and its immediate surroundings and the action reported in conversations and radio reports.

With the second chapter, we meet Commissario Soneri, a detective who's not fond of new technology (even cellphones, much less computers) and who tends to abuse his coworkers with his sometimes contradictory instructions, delivered frequently by telephone as he wanders around his domain not so much investigating as absorbing the environment. Most of the policemen are sketched in effectively but not in depth, with the exception of the long-suffering forensics specialist and a melancholy maresciallo of the Carabinieri. The boatmen in fact take up most of the space of the story, as Soneri spends a lot of time among them, asking questions or just listening and watching. One of the most lively characters is Soneri's girlfriend Angela, who's quick to be angered by Soneri's thoughtlessness and to be excited by risky sites for sexual encounters.

Soneri's investigation concerns an old man who fell (or was pushed) out of a hospital window and his brother, the captain of the runaway barge. Along the way, we learn a lot about the river and the towns along its banks, about the food and wine in the bars near the boatmen's hangout, and about the history and politics of the area (particularly the lingering effects of partisan/fascist conflicts at the end of Mussolini's reign and about the later history of the Communist Party in Italy (also a factor in the Trotti novels).

River of Shadows, though, is not a book of facts but of impressions and emotions, which are as murky as the mists along the river. Soneri discovers some of what has been going on but can prove little of it, and seems to make his discoveries not by logical reasoning but by sensory impressions of the people and the setting. He travels back and forth between Parma and Torricelli (the town where the boatmen live) and to some mysterious places along the way (including a ghost town submerged in the river after the war). The solution to the crime is also more effective in its emotional truth than in a solution to a puzzle.

Varesi's book is notable for its difference in style and tone from the other Italian mysteries that have been translated (and indeed from English and American crime fiction). Though some readers may be frustrated by the repetition inherent in Soneri's constant trips along a limited path and his return over and again to a small group of terse watermen, those who persist will be rewarded by a story that achieves more than the sum of its parts. I'll be very interested to see more of the series, to experience how Varesi's style changes (or not) when the river mists are less of a metaphorical and physical presence. And to see what Angela comes up with next, too. Translated by Joseph Farrell and published by MacLehose Press.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday

I've been working my way through the overlooked Commissario Trotti series by Timothy Williams, and this week I'm only going to give some highlights of Black August, the 4th novel in the series, which holds up the high standard that the author set in the first 3.

this one zeroes in even more closely on the irritable Trotti himself. Evidence of a possible suicide by drowning have appeared, and then an old friend of Trotti's (from the first novel) is discovered murdered in her apartment. Trotti's daughter, Pioppi, is expecting her first child (in Bologna) and the detective is anxiously awaiting news. He's warned off the murder investigation (since he's not part of the new Murder Squad) but continues to pursue it in his own way, giving evidence of why the Questore (sort of a police chief) doesn't trust him.

Trotti rides roughshod over his assistants, other cops, witnesses, and informants—getting to the truth but at considerable cost. Black August takes Williams's investigation of this difficult character to new levels. The city (more or less Pavia) is evoked in detail, and some of Italy's ongoing social problems (in particular immigration and the lack of facilities to care for the mentally ill) are a major focus.

If you haven't discovered the Trotti books, and if you're willing to do some work (Williams doesn't spoon-feed readers, and a lot of the dialogue is indirect in an interesting but oblique manner), all of them are highly recommended (if you can find them). Crime fiction publishers are missing a bet by not picking up the series (especially since Williams says that a sixth, unpublished novel is finished).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From Ghana: Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods

Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods has a lot to recommend it. Darko Dawson is a
detective in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He's sent to a small town where an
AIDS volunteer and medical student has been killed—the same town where his
mother's sister lives and where his mother disappeared without a trace years

There's a lot of local color in the language, the setting, and the action, which
concerns several traditional healers and a general belief in spells and witches,
as well as common ordinary adultery and crime. There are also striking elements
to the story, in particular the portraits of crimes against women (enslavement,
rape, the very provocatively evoked "wives of the gods," and more).

I suppose my impression of the novel is colored somewhat by the books I've been
recently reading, which have been carefully but obliquely constructed, leaving
much more than the identity of the killer for the reader to figure out.
Quartey's novel makes it much easier for the reader: in that way it's more of a
cozy, though there's certainly nothing cozy about the outlines of the story.
Darko several times exhibits rash and violent behavior such as isn't found in
the usual cozy, as well.

But the good guys and the bad guys (including cops) are mostly clearly
separated, with shades of gray only in a few characters, including Darko
himself. Several nasty characters (particularly a cop and a fetish priest) are
caricatures of destructive behavior. An interesting dilemma is raised, regarding the urge to preserve indigenous traditions while at the same time providing effective medical care, but the indigenous medical practitioners are not given much respect here (and Quartey is a better judge than I as to whether they deserve any, as he is both a doctor and a native of Ghana).

Family is a big part of the story. Darko is happily married but his son is ill,
having been born with a heart defect. His mother-in-law takes the boy to a
traditional healer, against the boy's parents wishes and with bad results. The
detective is personally drawn into the story not only by that event but also by
the fate of his mother and by the reunion with his aunt during the murder case.

The spectrum of current African crime fiction (mostly from South Africa, though there's a promising new Nigerian book, Adimchinma Ibe's Treachery in the Yard, that I haven't gotten hold of yet) runs from Alexander McCall Smith at the cozy end to "Michael Stanley," and, increasingly noir, to Jassy Mackenzie, Deon Meyer, and Roger Smith. Quartey's story falls somewhere between Smith and Stanley, dealing with terrible and dark events but in terms of family and ordinary human motivations (rather than extreme situations and emotions, however common those may be in a violent society).

A noir novel could certainly have been written (not to mention a lurid one) from the materials that Quartey assembles, but perhaps the crimes against women and the anti-modern religious atmosphere are more clearly evoked against the quotidian background that Wife of the Gods provides. One interestign fact-let: the cover used on at least the hardback of the U.S. edition uses a kinte-cloth pattern, rather than the symbolic pattern that actually plays a part in the story, while a cover that I see on-line (the first one shown above) uses a more appropriate pattern (but I can't find anywhere that the book has so far been published with that cover).

Friday, October 08, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Overlooked Italian crime

Timothy Williams's third Commissario Piero Trotti novel was called Persona Non Grata in the U.K. edition and The White Audi in the U.S. (continuing the trend of the U.K. publisher going with the author's title, one that has something intrinsic to do with the story, and the U.S. publisher plucking out an automobile incidental to the plot as a "hook" for the series). Once again, the taciturn and somber detective is portrayed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, in dialogue among characters who are talking past, rather than to, one another and in terse but elegant narrative that moves forward in slanting leaps rather than pedantic plods.

The 11-year-old daughter of Trotti's former driver (when both were stationed in Bari) has been attacked with a knife while she slept, and her father (now a taxi driver) gives a description (based on a glimpse of the fleeing assailant) that seems to match her older sister's boyfriend.

But other things are going on simultaneously: an abandoned newborn is discovered, after the mother shows up at the hospital in distress, and a priest appraches Trotti about murders related to Trotti's own brother's death during the fighting between Fascists and Partisans in the '40s.

Trotti is assisted now not only by the long-suffering Pisanelli (who has advanced in the ranks and doesn't actually work for Trotti now) and his new driver and assistant, a female officer who gives Trotti as good as she gets in the dyspeptic interchanges typical of his relations with his subordinates (and even superiors, witnesses, and everyone else). There is a pattern in Trotti's relationships with women that deepends as the series goes along (his wife is now completely absent, and his daughter is studying in Bologna).

There is a sadness in the book that goes beyond Trotti's usual melancholy (for reasons I won't go into), and the social background here is Fascism (as the Moro kidnapping lay underneath the story of the first Trotti book and the "years of lead" did the same in the second). Trotti has become "persona non grata" even in his own department by the end, but it is his insight and persistence that draws the elements of the plot into a conclusion that isn't quite justice but is, for all that, reflective of the critical eye that Williams casts on the Italian social landscape.

Highly recommended, as with the first two in the series, and I'm currently reading the fourth (Black August, for which there was no U.S. publisher, hence no automotive title), which is just as good.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Irene Huss video #1: The Torso

The first film in the Swedish TV series based on the Irene Huss novels of Helene Tursten is The Torso (The Tattooed Torso in the original Swedish, apparently). The first book in the series, Den krossade tanghästen or, in the English version, Detective Inspector Huss, was filmed out of order: not sure whether the film people wanted the more sensationalist story of The Torso as a lead-in, or perhaps the "tattoo" links to a certain other tattoo of international fame.

The film is in some ways a rather typical cop show, with a villain stalking the investigators and ultimately threatening the detective's family. But the factors that make the books interesting also apply to the film: Irene is not a gloomy alcoholic, she's a happily married (to a chef) professional. The police team is actually almost (but not quite) gender balanced, with three women important to the series (I wonder whether that's typical of the actual police situation--the various books and films lead us to believe there are senior cops more prominent in Sweden than elsewhere).

It has been a couple of years since I read The Torso, but the film captures the characters and scenes very much as I had imagined them. The actor playing Huss, Angela Kovacs, is not quite how I had pictured the detective, but (once having seen her in the role) she becomes Irene in much the same way that Luca Zingaretti has become Commissario Montalbano for those who have seen that excellent Italian conversion of books into TV films.

There are 6 Irene Huss films that have made it into circulation with English subtitles, three taken from the books that have been translated. So one of the virtues of the DVDs is that three of the untranslated books are available in film translations rather than language translations, since apparently SoHo Press is not translating any more of Tursten's books. Perhaps the availability of the films (and the link to that other tattoo, as well as to the film company that filmed THAT series) will encourage SoHo or someone else to get moving on Tursten translations. It's one of the best of the Scandinavian series, not least because Irene is so normal (rather than tortured or spectacularly flawed).

Thursday, September 30, 2010

foreign forgotten friday: Hugo Hamilton's Headbanger

Ken Bruen is not the only, or even the first, to create a sad poetry of Irish life in crime fiction. In the late ‘90s, just before Bruen’s Jack Taylor first appeared in The Guards, Hugo Hamilton wrote two novels (Headbanger and Sad Bastard) about a complex cop named Pat Coyne. The language of the books is allusive, poetic, brutal, and often funny, more narrative than dialogue, and the action is based on Coyne’s personality, which has some elements of OCD and Aspergers (he collects facts compulsively, especially about nature, and spouts them as a substitute for conversation or social interaction)

He’s trapped in his own head, in terms of making any real contact with other people; he’s good with his kids, though. The melancholy tone and poetic language suggest a range of writers, Irish and otherwise, from Beckett’s early novels to Donleavy’s Ginger Man to the lyrical noir of Jerome Charyn’s too-little-known Isaac Quartet, four novels that the New York Times described as “like a series of subway stops on the way to hell. ”

In Headbanger, Coyne is a uniformed patrol cop, a Garda, in early-Tiger, rapidly changing Dublin, and while dealing with petty crime on the streets, he fixates on a petty criminal, Joe Perry, and a big-time gangster, Drummer Cunningham, who is in the process of legitimizing himself and thereby insulating himself from police retribution—which just makes Coyne angry. Coyne’s wife, Carmel, is just coming into her own after having three kids, delighting in her newfound talent as a painter, and Coyne can’t drag himself out of his antisocial ways and his obsession with Cunningham.

Meanwhile, Cunningham is murdering witnesses, appearing at charity events, and opening a new night club. While Coyne is pursuing Cunningham, against the express orders of his boss, Perry keeps crossing his path and causing mayhem. All the threads of the story come together in a spectacular climax.

Coyne is a man who just can’t stop himself from going too far. The sequel is a kind of coda, extending the sadness and comedy, but Headbanger is complete in itself.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The second Commissario Trotti book by Timothy Williams

It's difficult to say much about the plots of Timothy Williams's Italian crime novels, first because the narrative is very indirect, requiring the reader to do a certain amount of work in tying together the story, and second because a lot of what's interesting about the books is more fun to discover than to be told about in advance. The second of Williams's Piero Trotti series, published in the mid-'80s, is called The Puppeteer in the U.K. and the The Metal Green Mercedes in the U.S. I can't even explain why the U.K. title is more appropriate without giving away a key plot element (linked to a famous Italian scandal that most of us outside Italy will have forgotten, but which resonates in Italian life and politics to this day).

The Trotti books are set in Pavia, near Milan, but a good deal of the action in The Puppeteer takes place on Lake Garda and in Milan. Trotti's wandering wife is in America (in connection with her work for a pharmaceutical company) and their daughter Pioppi is suffering from overwork (for her college courses) and anorexia. Trotti is visiting a family villa near Garda when a man standing next to him at a bar is shot, a professional hit. In seeking to determine whether the intended victim was the dead man or himself, Trotti discovers connections to an odd bank robbery, an attempt to publicize corruption at another bank, and echoes of a famous murder case from the beginning of his own career.

Among the distinctive features of this series is that members of Trotti's team move on (in a manner also adopted by John Brady in his Matt Minogue series) but are drawn back into his orbit when he needs their help. The characters are richly delineated and the plot is carried forward in alternating passages of vivid visual storytelling and realistic, oblique, and frequently darkly comic dialogue. If you find Williams's style difficult to follow at first, you will be rewarded for persistence in his deepening portrait of the crime, the cops, and the citizens implicated in the events.

Don't expect neat resolutions, though. Like Donna Leon, Williams refuses neat endings and portrays even more definitively than Leon the corruption that forecloses justice in Italy. What Williams does, at least in the first two books, is to tie Trotti's investigations into the big picture of Italian politics and society, through Moro's kidnapping in Converging Parallels/The Red Citroën and a pervasive social plague that I won't mention (just remember that "Beta" is the second letter in the alphabet when it crops up in the name of an organization) in The Puppeteer: The title of the first book in the U.K. refers to a speech by Moro, and the title of the second refers to a phrase uttered by a darker figure in Italian history.

A 2004 interview with Williams at the excellent Italian Mysteries site ( indicates that there is a new Trotti book in the pipeline, featuring a now-retired Commissario. I hope the publication of that book moves forward promptly, as at the rate I’m going I’ll have run out of Trotti books in a few weeks…

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tana French: Faithful Place

Faithful Place is the best of Tana French's three crime novels but may disappoint some who appreciated the college-adolescent, closed-circle ambience of her previous book, the Likeness. Though in fact a minor character in that book, Detective Sergeant Frank Mackey of the Dublin undercover squad, is the main character and narrator of Faithful Place (French has been daisy-chaining her main characters like that through all three so far—and there's an interesting cop in a minor role in this book that we can take bets about, as the lead of a future book; his name is Stephen Moran).

Faithful Place takes us into Angela's Ashes territory, which Mackey himself recognizes. He is drawn back into a family he fled 22 years earlier, in the working class Liberties area of Dublin, when the girl whom he was to have run away to England with (but who never showed up at the rendezvous) suddenly seems to have been murdered rather than to have had second thoughts about Mackey. Mackey repeatedly refers to his family in extreme terms, though to me they seemed only a little less horrible than many a family I've had contact with. And Mackey, who was a senior, respected figure in The Likeness, seems to have regressed to young adulthood here. In fact all the males in the book seem like arrested adolescents (perhaps French's point), and her female characters are a lot more interesting as people, and more believable as disappointed-but-get-over-it adults.

Readers will have figured out well before the end who the murderer is, and Mackey is less a cop here than a member of a domestic-Gothic scenario. He, of course, is forbidden to investigate a crime he is so close to, but, of course, manages to do so anyway (fitfully, at least: it's not really his investigation that breaks the case; he's handed the solution by a couple of unlikely figures, but French pulls off the unlikelihood without stretching credibility).

Ireland is here perched just on the verge of economic collapse, and only one person really seems to see it coming (and he seems to be yearning for the disaster). The fact that we know more about that than Mackey as narrator adds a level of melancholy to an already mournful book. There is some leavening humor in the dialogue among the characters, which ranges from civil to mad-attack-dog to pub banter. Faithful Place (named for a street on which most of the action takes place) is not a pleasant book, but it's a truthful and poignant portrait of a cop and a family under extreme stress (from several different sources).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Overlooked Italian crime

A few weeks ago, author Timothy Williams posted a comment here and asked whether anyone remembered his Italian crime series, which features Commissario Trotti, set in a unnamed city that is apparently Pavia, near Milan, on the Po. I confess that I had never heard of the series, five novels published between the early 80s and the mid-90s. I've learned a bit more about them, and finally yesterday got hold of the first in the series, called The Red Citroën in the U.S. and Converging Parallels in the U.K. (more about the titles in a minute).

Williams is almost exactly the same age as Michael Dibdin and Magdalen Nabb, and in the same generation as Donna Leon, and his novels began to appear at about the same time as those three most prominent English-speaking crime novelists specializing in Italian crime. And Williams's series (based on what I've read about the series and on my not-quite-having-finished the first novel) is the equal of those but is, if not forgotten, at least overlooked.

Is the lack of attention based on there being only five Trotti novels? On the fact that the city of the books is not named, thus cutting a nostalgic tie that visitors to Florence or Venice might feel for the works of Leon, Nabb, and sometimes Dibdin? I can't say, but the un-named Pavia of the series is vividly evoked, as is the whole Italian scene (physical, cultural, and social).

In fact, Williams is a very visual storyteller, in brief descriptions of setting and action between the realistic conversations and Trotti's own somewhat melancholy inner dialogues. The characters are not types, they are fully realized, and the setting is solidly anchored in Italian social history: Converging/Citroën concerns the kidnapping of a young girl, but the incident overlaps with the murder of Aldo Moro (in the background here rather than the full subject, as in Leonardo Sciascia's wonderful documentary novel). The Moro kidnapping by the Red Brigades, as well as the very prominently portrayed and discussed local (Communist-dominated) politics of the city, broaden the story out to become much more than a mystery-entertainment.

The U.K. title, Converging Parallels, comes from a phrase used by Moro to describe the "Compromesso Storico," the historic compromise that brought the Communists into political legitimacy. The U.S. title refers instead to a crucial plot point. For some reason, the U.S. publisher chose to "pitch" the novel as a conventional mystery, while the U.K. publishers were unafraid of the author's larger ambitions. Perhaps the American publisher was afraid of putting off readers, especially 15 or more years ago, with any hint of Communism as something other than a menace.

Judging from my first exposure to the Trotti stories, Williams's series is a bit of Maigret (especially in Trotti's team and the way he uses them) but livelier and a bit of Montalbano but without the overt comedy. Trotti's home life is troubled, with a wife who goes wandering but a solidly grounded daughter, so he doesn't have the family respite that Donna Leon provides to Brunetti. Trotti has his own troubles with the hierarchy in the Questura, and has reason to be as cynical about Italian justice as Brunetti, but Trotti pushes perhaps a bit harder against the social lethargy and under-the-table understandings that frustrate Brunetti. To keep the comparisons going, Williams differs from Nabb in that his detective has returned to his home region (rather than remaining an outsider, as does Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia), and thus has a network of relationships (sometimes distant, but beyond those he has encountered professionally) on which to call. And Williams's writing is far superior to a couple of other Italian crime novelists reviewed here earlier, such as Timothy Holme or Grace Brophy or Christobel Kent. Of the newer non-Italians writing about Italian crime, perhaps Tobias Jones's The Salati Case most resembles Williams's style and quality.

I'll be posting again about Williams, since I also got hold of the second book in the series and have ordered the third (the last two have proved a bit more elusive on this side of the Atlantic, thus far). But I'm delighted to have discovered (thanks to the author himself) the Trotti series and wish that perhaps his new series, written in French and set in Guadaloupe, might find a translator (perhaps the author himself) and a U.S./U.K. publisher.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Crime in Saudi Arabia: Zoë Farraris's Second Katya/Nayir novel

City of Veils, by Zoë Ferraris, is a sequel to the highly praised Finding Nouf, but City of Veils is even better. The world it describes seems almost like those science fiction tales in which a single aspect of the recognizable world is changed, and the result is an alien environment: here, it's not Islam but the status of women that is the factor that shifts the world of experience into the Other, and as with that genre of science fiction, the effect raises difficult questions about our own (Western) experience of reality.

A young woman's body is discovered on a beach near Jeddah, and the investigation falls to Osama, who thinks of himself as separate from the excesses of radical Islam but will ultimately discover the limits of his secularism when his wife begins to take control of her own life. The forensic tech who featured in Finding Nouf, Katya, takes a further step in her profession as she becomes involved in the murder investigation, and she involves Nayir, her collaborator in Finding Nouf as well. Katya is stretching the limits of the role of women in Saudi, and Nayir is stretching the limits of his own devout beliefs, and their relationship stutters on those difficulties. Miriam, an American married to Eric, a bodyguard who has taken a job in Jeddah, arrives back in the country from a month's holiday in the U.S., is stuck by restrictions placed on women first in the airport, when Eric fails to pick her up on time (stranding her in an office set aside for "Unclaimed Women" and then in her apartment when Eric suddenly disappears.

These threads of the story interweave along with the family of the dead girl, whom Nayir is instrumental in identifying. But at every turn, the burqa and all it siginifies is a key element in the story. Katya risks losing her job because she had to claim to be married in order to work. Miriam keeps tripping on her enveloping robe and can't see through the veil's narrow slit when she tries to go out on the street (where she risks attack or arrest by the religious police). Nayir yearns to ask Katya to marry him but is trapped in the inappropriateness of their current relationship.

The investigation ultimately leads to a disastrous sandstorm in the "Empty Quarter" of the desert that is right out of an Arabian adventure story, but the solution to the crime leads back to universals of family, money, and ambition. There is a great deal of detail in Ferraris's evocation of Jeddah, Saudi, and Islam as they are today and as they reflect their historical background. But there's no sense of preachiness or pedagogy: the narrative, the background, and the characters all combine to move the story forward. This is not a screed against Islam or Saudi: Western attitudes are portrayed as even-handedly as Near-Eastern ones, and both are implicated in the crimes. Ferraris obviously knows Saudi Arabia very well and her respect for the culture is as obvious in her portrait of Nayir as her criticism of attitudes toward women are in her portrait of Katya, to take only the two most obvious examples. Regardless of your knowledge (or lack of it) of Arabia, Islam, or Saudi law, and regardless of your familiarity with Finding Nouf, City of Veils is a very good book, and its ending teasingly suggests further developments in a sequel.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Overlooked French crime

I thought I had reviewed Chantal Pelletier's Goat Song here a while back, but when I went looking for the review, there wasn't one. In fact, I could only find one review of the English edition on line (Sharon Wheeler's April '05 review at Reviewing the Evidence, republished at the Eurocrime site). If not quite forgotten, then, Pelletier's only book translated into English (so far) is unjustly overlooked, so Goat Song is a good candidate for Forgotten Friday.

Goat Song was in the first wave of translated crime novels published by Bitter Lemon Press, along with some now-better-known names (Friedrich Glauser, Tonino Beacquista) and has perhaps been eclipsed by some even better known names in Bitter Lemon’s subsequent publishing history (Gianrico Carofiglio, Leonardo Padura) and by the popularity of some other French crime writers (Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti). Goat Song also shares a milieu with Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc series (the sixth of which is set in Montmartre, as is Goat Song), but I think Pelletier is a more interesting writer.

Inspector Maurice Laice is just returning to work from his father’s funeral and is confronted with the intertwined corpses of two employees of the Moulin Rouge, the lead male dancer and a youg female dresser. Maurice, who has become disgusted with sex, is also tormented by his boss, who calls him more-is-less (a bilingual pun on the Inspector’s name) and who forces descriptions on him of her own vivid sex life. The investigation winds through the cabaret scene, Corsican culture, drug dealing, and disastrous families and liaisons.

Maurice (or Momo) is a fascinating and witty character and Pelletier’s language is lively and quirky, turning with comic rapidity from an observation to an image or a train of thought leading in a completely different direction. Not having seen the original French text, I can only imagine the difficulties that translator Ian Monk must have faced, but the result is an excellent and creates a refreshingly different style for noir writing. And noir it is, given the setting and Maurice’s melancholy frame of mind. The inspector’s wealth of personal and professional experience saturates the narrative, though it is told in the third person.

With the news that Jean-Patrick Manchette will soon have a third book in English translation, perhaps this is a good time to seek out a very different French style of crime: Pelletier shares little with Manchette’s very political but classic noir or Manotti’s hard-edges police procedurals; perhaps her Inspector has a bit more in common with Vargas’s idiosyncratic Chief inspector Adamsberg, but with a more melancholy (yet comic) and less intuitive approach to life and police work. Goat Song is short but with plenty of plot, vivid language, bloody murder, and sensual evocation of the Parisian scene.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand

There's plenty of what John O'Connell calls Adrian McKinty's "brutal lyricism" in Fifty Grand, which was published last year (after the international success of McKinty's "Dead Trilogy). Fifty Grand is told in the voice of Mercado, a female detective in the Cuban national police, who makes a revenge journey to the U.S. (through Mexico) after her estranged father (who left Cuba years before) is killed in a hit-and-run auto accident in Colorado. The first two sections, a "flash-forward" to the final revenge scenario and a rape attempt along her coyote-route into the U.S., are more brutal than lyrical, and then the novel settles down into Mercado's attempt to infiltrate the local scene in Fairview (think Telluride) Colorado, home of a vicious sherrif, a pimp-drug-dealer who also brings in unauthorized immigrant labor (including Mercado, masquerading as Maria, who is assigned a job as a house cleaner when she refuses to work as a prostitute), and a crowd of movie stars, would-be movie stars, and Hollywood hangers-on (including Tom Cruise, and you can decide which category he fits into, though he's never "on camera" in this book).

The long middle section, in which Mercado works as a maid, meets some of the actor-crowd, befriends a fellow indentured laborer (Paco from Nicaragua), and investigates surreptitiously the possible drivers of the car that hit her father, is a bit slow--perhaps seeming so to me because I listened to the audio version of the book (courtesy of the digital branch of my local library) rather than reading it. The reader, Paula Christensen, is very good, obviously a Spanish-speaker with a slight Canadian lilt to her English, and is good at voices. But a spoken-word novel takes longer to hear than a print novel takes to read, and when the action gets slow the "heard" novel is slower. There's also a funny multilingual pun that I think is inadvertent: one of the Hollywood types refers to someone else as a "Playa with a capital P," which Christensen pronounces as in Spanish for "beach" rather than in its "Gangsta" pronunciation.

When the action gets started back up, the revenge seems both not well enough motivated (though her father was left to die, he wasn't deliberately murdered, after all) and oddly unsatisfying (a lot of unpleasant people get killed, but perhaps not the right people). There's also a coda, taking Mercado back to Cuba, that is more interesting in some ways than the Colorado sections (which are satirical in their portrait of Hollywood but not that incisive about the U.S. as a broader culture). The intermittent flashbacks to Cuba and the final sections do give an interesting portrait of where Cuban society is in its current state of change (and the anticipation of even more change to come).

Fifty Grand (the title refers to a bribe that sets the value of a lost life) has received good reviews, but it was a bit flat to me (my brother, a big fan of the Dead Trilogy, also obtained the audio version and was not motivated to hear it to the end). Mercado is interesting but she does a lot of dithering in her investigation, and some of the other characters are a bit two-dimensionsl (though to be fair, they're satirical "types" more than full characters). It would be interesting to read about Mercado again, in whatever social/national context she might find herself (a changing Cuba maybe?), but Fifty Grand didn't fully live up to my expectations.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Birthdays, statistics, and dithering on a slow afternoon

I ran across Uriah/Norm's 4th Birthday post at Crime Scraps the other day (Happy Belated Birthday, by the way!), and today I decided to go back to see how long this blog has been going (obviously I don't have enough to do this afternoon). As of a couple of weeks ago, this blog is 5 years old. Also in the not-enough-to-do category, I looked at my statistics at Blogspot and Sitemeter: internationalnoir has 469 posts, and has had 84,000 visits and 127,000 page views. According to the ranking of popularity calculated by Alexa it's the #1,449,267th most visited site on the web, and (more encouragingly) as of a minute ago, it was #43 in Technorati's "Top 100" books blogs (4 places behind Kerrie's estimable Mysteries in Paradise) with a Technorati Authority of 760 (whatever that means—if anybody has any idea, please let me know). Now the question is, what do all those numbers mean...other than reflecting the blogosphere's fascination with statistics.

Jakubowsky collection of International Crime Fiction

The Mammoth Book of the World's Best Crime Stories (in the U.S.) or Best International Crime (the U.K. edition) is Maxim Jakubowski's collection of crime stories from around the world. I don't know about "Best" but it's certainly "Mammoth," the brand of the series that it is a part of. I had high expectations for this collection, hoping to be introducted to many heretofore-untranslated crime writers from around the world. In the end, I was disappointed and, occasionally, irritated by the collection. First, the irritation: there is no biographical or bibliographic info on any of the artists, who are identified in the Contents only by country (and even that doesn't appear on the title page of the story, so that a reader has to constantly flip back and forth to the Contents to identify a writer by even that scrap of information).

The U.S. and U.K. writers, Jeffery Deaver, Ian Rankin, etc.) are the usual suspects, giving their usual style and even their usual series characters (except for Ruth Rendell, who gives her usual style but not her series characters).

Of the international writers who have already been translated, there are some stories that are disappointing (Jo Nesbø's in particular, in my opinion, which has a surprise twist but otherwise not much interest for me, And Camilla Lácberg's, which trails off in manner that suggests young-adult writing rather than crime-writing), and some that are definitely up to their usual standard, though brief (Dominique Manotti, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Leonardo Padura).

But the gems I was expecting among the writers whose names I didn't recognize were few. The best story in the book (for me) is German writer Juergen Ehlers's "Elevator Obstructors," which is a sharp, funny, and vivid tale of an ex-con and his tribulations (and those of people who encounter him) when he gets out of prison. Italian writer Diego De Silva's story, one of the longest in the book, starts well but trails off into a sort of ghost story.

The length of the stories, in fact, may be the problem for me—short stories are a specific genre, they're not just short novels. A few of these stories, like Ehlers's, use the brevity and concentration of the form very effectively. Others seem drawn to cliches of the form, including the aforementioned surprise endings. I'm not much drawn to short stories, generally, and this collection didn't convince me to seek them out.

I'd be curious to know if other readers found this collection to be more satisfactory, though there don't seem to be many reviews in the blogosphere—perhaps a passive judgment on the reception of the book. I, for one, am still looking for an anthology that will open a window upon the world's first-class crime fiction (of which there is a great deal, considering the quality of translated novels that are making appearances in English these days).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Postcard Killers, by Liza Marklund and that other guy

I just finished Postcard Killers, by Liza Marklund and James Patterson, which I read as a digital galley from NetGalley, courtesy of Little, Brown. The plot is a bit sketchy, told in Patterson's patented short chapters, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional. The story, though, comes alive when Dessie Larsson, a young Stockholm journalist, is on stage. Dessie shares a lot with Marklund's Annika Bengtsson (from her own crime series), especially in the early stages of Annika's career (as in the first of her series's prequels, Studio Sex or Studio 69).

Dessie specializes in petty crimes both in her academic background and in her current work for a fading tabloid newspaper and becomes involved in a serial killer story by being picked out by the killers themselves to receive their message when they arrive in Sweden. The killers have been active in cities around Europe, sending postcards and, later, photos of their victims, to selected journalists.

The victims are carefully posed to mimic the poses of characters in famous paintings, and the plot gets into the world of contemporary art in a way that is not altogether inaccurate (though some aspects are more than a little sensationalized).

One of the earliest victims was the daughter of a New York cop, Jacob, who is now pursuing them across Europe and inserts himself into the Stockholm police's investigation of the first murder in Sweden, as well as into Dessie's life and career. Jacob isn't an unbelievable character, but he's not fleshed out enough to carry the story on his own.

Dessie isn't as fully realized a character as Annika, and her biography is quite different, though there's some common ground. Dessie is from the far north of Sweden, and her family turns out to be very colorful (I won't say more), whereas the shady aspects of Annika's past are more her own personal traumas. But when Dessie is at the center of the story, the narrative and even the setting become more vivid. Stockholm and the north of Sweden are depicted in a lively and detailed fashion, much more so than the several other settings of the book.

I have no idea which sections were written by whom. There's some speculation in the blogosphere that Marklund must have written all or most of the book, perhaps filling in an outline supplied by Patterson. In fact, some chapters read more like an outline than a complete story. But in fact, the sketchiness of some chapters adds to the forward momentum (or at least make it easier to read quickly through them to get back to Dessie's story).

While not quite up to Marklund's usual standard (I have no idea about James Patterson's usual standard, knowing his work only by reputation), Postcard Killers is a fast and enjoyable diversion, and while Dessie seems a bit callow in comparison to Annika or another young journalist-detective, Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan, she's lively enough to carry this straightforward tale in the absence of any mystery. The killers are thoroughly introduced early on, and though the police have doubts even after the murderers are identified, the reader knows who they are. The killers are oddly uninteresting, given the lurid nature of their crimes (and their personal and professional lives); other minor characters, including several detectives (one of them Dessie's former lover) are more fleshed out and believable.

Dessie's family name might have been an hommage to that other Larsson, but Postcard Killers doesn't rise to Dragon Tattoo or Annika Bengtson level, But it's sometimes interesting, it moves along quite well, and I'm glad to have had the chance to glimpse Dessie and her urban and rural milieux. I'm also interested to see Marklund's forthcoming Annika story (the first, apparently, to carry the character's career beyond the first novel, The Bomber), after reading Dessie's story, and I'm also curious to see whether Marklund and Patterson produce further collaborations.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: From Hungary, Cobblestone

This week, because I've recently read two of the Marek Krajewski novels about Eberhard Mock of Breslau, I've been reminded of one of the most remarkable crime novels I've read, Cobblestone: A Detective Novel, by Peter Lengyel, a Hungarian writer better known for science fiction than detective fiction. But Cobblestone is and is not a detective novel. It's a massive story of the beginning of the 20th century, ranging across Europe but centered on a pursuit through Budapest's streets and brothels: a master detective pursuing a master safecracker.

And at the same time it's a meta-novel taking Hungarian history from the end of the 20th century back to the beginnings of the universe. Not only are there layers and layers to this tale, there is also a sudden shift at the middle of the novel that is unlike anything else in any other novel, detective or otherwise—I won't give it away, but it is either a masterstroke or the most irritating device ever attempted in fiction.

But back to the detective story, the tale is a fascinating mosaic of the underworld of Budapest, as well as a fantastic heist story. It unreels like at atmospheric movie, but it is decidedly a novel, not really filmable at all. If anyone's interested, I can give more details. It's not easy to find, but it's not out of print.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Marek Krajewski, The End of the World in Breslau

There isn't anything else in crime fiction quite like the Breslau series by Polish author Marek Krajewski, including the second book, The End of the World in Breslau, translated by Danusia Stok and published in English by Quercus. The most distinctive characteristic of the series is its main character, Eberhard Mock (other than the fact that it begins with the end of Mock's career and works backwards, at least for the three that have been translated so far). Mock is very interesting and very flawed, not a role model for anyone (police or otherwise). His career as a cop depends mostly on the blackmail material he has accumulated on politicians, policemen, and the good citizens of Breslau in the first four decades of the 20th century (Breslau became the Polish city of Wroclaw after WWII).

Mock also has a sadistic streak and a sort of alcoholic manic-depression. In The End of the World in Breslau he is married to a much younger woman, Sophie, toward whom he is alternately attentive and abusive. An extremely sadistic series of murders is taking place, tied to both historical events in the city and a current apocalyptic preacher, but though the crimes are vivid, Mock's pursuit of the murderer is intermittent and more oriented toward historical research than pounding the pavement in search of evidence, and the murderer himself is hardly a figure in the novel at all. Mock's methods of pursuing the criminals and discovering the truth are, as he himself recognizes, neither conventional nor up to legal standards.

Instead, the foreground is occupied mostly by Mock's tenderness, guilt, jealousy, and rage at his wife, who takes revenge on him by plunging into a demimonde of orgies, gambling, and ultimately self-loathing. The result is a fascinating neo-Expressionist tapestry of the city of Breslau in the Weimar era, with Hitler a peripheral presence in German politics. There is plenty of decadence, and no moral center at all, making for a delectable vicarious experience for the reader.

The language and manner of the storytelling match the Expressionist content and Mock's own mental processes. There are frequent leaps and disjunctures in the story, and in the indirect, allusive, and sometimes scholarly prose there is considerable very dark comedy as well as narrative velocity. I'm tempted to delay acquiring the third novel in the series, The Phantoms of Breslau, because once I've read that one, I'll have to wait for the translation of the next one...