Friday, April 30, 2010

Requiems for the Departed: New Irish Crime Collection

All storytelling relates in some way to the old stories, the myths and legends of a culture, and crime fiction in particular frequently has a clear relationship to the violence, fatalism, and darkness of some of the old stories. A new anthology of crime fiction, Requiems for the Departed (edited by Gerard Brennan, of the Crime Scene NI blog, and Mike Stone, forthcoming from Morrigan Books) takes full advantage of that relationship by linking the collection together with a thread of Irish myth. Each author explains the background to the story (and in most cases the particular myth evoked is pretty clear, so no worries about having to know all about Irish myth), and as the introduction makes clear these are not (for the most part anyway) “supernatural” crime stories, not even in the metaphysical/metaphorical/psychological sense of Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast. A few of the stories at the center of the collection are set in the era when the myths would have been current (and one, Dave Hutchinson’s tale of cops, clans, and linked distopia/utopia, is set about a generation into a bleak future—as well as in a place beyond time), but most renew the stories in modern contexts. And make no mistake, these are not fairy tales, they’re the hard stuff (both on the mythic and the contemporary end of the timeline), though some of them have comic touches. Neville’s story is one of the best in the collection, linking contemporary life to myth through universals of human emotion and behavior in the form of a tale of gender and crime-gang dominance.
The god-in-the-machine lying behind several stories is the no-longer-quite-contemporary one of the IRA and its politics and violence. Adrian McKinty’s tale is a particularly bleak evocation of the smoldering remains of this Irish history, told in terms of the much older story of Diarmuid and Grainne. A number of the stories, like T.A. Moore’s hard and fast tale of honor among thieves, are told from within the world of drug and crime gangs, others are told from the point of view of cops (such as one of the more supernatural stories, Tony Bailie’s tale of hermetic clues and mythic revivals). Only one, Sam Millar’s serial-killer re-evocation of the story of the Red Hand of Ulster, is a hard-boiled private-eye story. Horses and dogs figure in several of the stories. Arlene Hunt’s racehorse story owes as much to O. Henry as to Irish myth, but is anchored concretely in the lives of her characters.
One of the most vivid stories (and one that is most obliquely but graphically related to legend) is by Brian McGilloway, featuring his series character, Ben Devlin, in pursuit of a murdering fish poacher. The story has a neat punch in the last line. I’ve just finished McGilloway’s most recent Devlin novel, The Rising, which has a similar last-line punch, and will be posting about that soon.
Though I was a bit dubious about the overarching theme when I first received this book (as an advance pdf copy graciously sent by Gerard Brennan), the collection fulfils all the requirements of crime fiction (even noir fiction) as well as providing interesting glosses on the myths evoked. The theme, in fact, gives an unusual coherence sometimes lacking in crime collections with a geographic hook, and gives a glimpse not only into the work of writers whose work I did not know, but also a further glimpse into the talents of those I was already familar with. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why We Die, by Mick Herron

Why We Die is the third of the four Zoë Boehm novels by Mick Herron. Each of them (so far) is quite different. In the first, Down Cemetery Road, Zoë is not at the center of the action (which shifts from comedy to thriller), and in the second (The Last Voice You Hear), Zoë's somewhat morose inner voice sets the tone for a story that is ruminative until it, too, shifts into thriller territory (though with cops rather than spooks as the active agents in the shift). Why We Die has a good deal of meditation on death, as the title implies, but embedded in a story that combines Daniel Woodrell with Elmore Leonard. Zoë is still working (somewhat reluctantly) as a private detective and takes a case that she would rather turn down mainly because she suddenly owes back taxes. A jeweler has been robbed and wants her to find out who the robbers are rather than going through the police, since what was stolen was itself stolen property. Following the trail leads Zoë to a fence and his unusual driver and a trio of foster-brother-thieves, one of whom (the brains of the trio) is married to Katrina, who will play a larger and larger role in the story as it goes along (as will the crossbow that is the preferred weapon of another of the brothers). In pursuit of the brothers, and their money, there are numerous hair's-breadth escapes from death and several shifts in the story, all motivated by the personalities involved: the importance of character and the twisty story are very Elmore Leonard-like, with an overlay of the ruminations on death (which are not very Elmore-like). This is a very clever crime novel and the plot moves along much more quickly from the start than did The Last Voice You Hear. I've grown in the last few months to be fan of Herron's quirky style, and it is with some regret that when I get hold of a copy of the 4th Zoë Boehm book I'll not only be caught up with his published books but it will be the last of Zoë.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Deon Meyer's Thirteen Hours: A Fast One

Deon Meyer's new South African crime novel is in a genre more or less invented by Paul Cain in his only novel, A Fast One. The compression of time and action is so condensed (as in the title of Meyer's book) that the narrative is propulsive and addictive. Meyer's novel is not quite so bleak as Cain's, but it's pretty dark. Benny Griessel, who has been a major and a minor character in previous Meyer stories, is now an official "mentor" to a group of young black and mixed race police detectives (the new wave of police in the new South Africa), and is tiptoeing around his mandate to guide them without taking over their cases. One of the cases begins almost before the beginning of the book: a young American woman is on the run (literally, she's on foot) from a gang of thugs that we know little about except that they have killed another American, whose body is discovered and reported to the police. The other case begins with a corpse of a man shot to death and discovered by a housemaid, lying next to his drunken wife. As Griessel oversees both cases, shuffling his limited resources between them and dealing with the anxious police hierarchy, he's also anticipating a meeting with his wife, who had kicked him out of their house 6 months earlier and challenged him to stay sober for that length of time. He's sober now, but wondering what's to become of his marriage and his career under all the current pressure. There's violence, politics, social observation, police procedure, and vivid characters a-plenty, each serving to delay momentarily the speed that is the major factor in the reading experience. We know that delay, not resolution, is the real skill of the novelist (particularly the crime writer), and Meyer displays plenty of that skill here, along with his vivid evocation of place and personality in contemporary Cape Town. While one plot drives forward with motion rather than mystery, the other is more of a puzzle, and the cops involved in these separate tracks use quite different techniques and skills in the pursuit to which they are assigned, another testament to Meyer's command of the material and the genre. Thirteen Hours marks Meyer's returning once more to the police story from which he had departed in several recent novels, and yet another indication of his stature in the field is that he mixes up genres and strategies from book to book and within each story. While not every one of the books is to my taste, I'm happy to follow Meyer wherever his stories will lead, and I'm happy that his success has meant that his books are easier to get in English than they were when I first discovered his books in a Cape Town bookstore almost 9 years ago.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Denise Mina, Still Midnight

I finished Denise Mina's newest crime novel, Still Midnight, a few days ago and don't quite know what I think of it (I'd love to hear other opinions). Her heroine here is a police sergeant in Glasgow, a woman in her 30s with some family difficulties and life experience. But especially in the early chapters, she seems insecure, floundering amid the male-dominated police force and more concerned with rivalries than focusing on the job. Later, her character solidifies a bit, but she seems very much in the mold of the Paddy Meehan character in Mina's previous series rather than someone with the career of a police sergeant already established personally and professionally. However, as a police procedural Still Midnight is interesting and unusual (in who gets killed, among other things), and Mina's handling of a family of Muslims at the center of a kidnapping is very nuanced and effective. Each member of the family emerges as an individual, with his or her own relationship to the family, the faith, and their country (most were born in Scotland, after a complicated family trajectory leading from Pakistan to Uganda to Glasgow). The ending (I promise I'm not giving anything away) has something of a fairy-tale quality, something like the end of the 1993 Tony Scott film True Romance (written by Quentin Tarrantino--a noir (and violent, though not on the level of Reservoir Dogs) classic, something to look for if you aren't familiar with it, and with a distinctive conclusion). I'm left with an ambivalent feeling about Still Midnight--I enjoyed it, but with some reservations about the central character's oddly immature character. Thoughts, anyone?

Friday, April 16, 2010

A forgotten book for Friday, plus: Love, death, and ostriches: Mick Herron's The Last Voice You Hear

Mick Herron says in an interview that he began his second novel, The Last Voice You Hear (set in Oxford, London, small town and semi-rural England, and transport systems between), with an idea about "a man who insinuates himself into the lives of lonely women, promising them love, but removing all hope of it instead. And the woman investigating this would be someone for whom love had become a forgotten language; one she had to learn again along the way." (see Shotsmag interview here). Sounds like a serial killer novel, and in part it is. But he also says that three ostriches were part of his original idea, and they do indeed, in the last quarter of the novel (their role is partly what you might be expecting when you get to that point, and partly not). There is a second plotline, having to do with solidarity among cops who are inclined to ignore the law: a plot element that is carefully prepared for in early chapters and provides much of the narrative drive in later chapters. In fact, the novel develops slowly, mostly from the point of view of private detective Zoë Boehm (a minor character with a major effect in Herron's first book), mostly in interior monologue. Boehm is following (without a paying client) the aftermath of a previous case (which we see in progress in the flashback first chapter), concerning a teenager's fall from the 14th floor of a housing block. The boy's death gets little attention because the body of a gangster who had evaded prosecution is found on the same day, grabbing all the headlines. Boehm's paying customer is a businessman whose longtime secretary jumped or fell under a subway train: the client wants Boehm to find a boyfriend who entered the secretary's previously loveless life in the months before the event. Some of Boehm's ruminations have to do with love and the lack of it in women's lives, and with the kind of man who might provide relief from that lack for a woman in middle age. Some have to do with the case involving the teenager, his grandfather, and her lingering guilt due to her treatment of the boy during the earlier case, plus the facts of the gangster's life and death. Those thoughts develop slowly alongside Boehm's pursuit of the very slim leads in the secretary's death, until she treads on some toes and the narrative shifts into action and dialogue. The two-part structure has something in common with Herron's earlier Down Cemetery Road, but in the first novel the early sections are comic (at least in part) and the shifts in plot and narrative abrupt (to good effect). In the second novel, the early sections are more melancholy and the shifts, though still dramatic, are less frequent and less abrupt. The result is that the second novel lingers a while in a more literary fictional realm that is very effective but perhaps not to every crime reader's taste (I mentioned Kate Atkinson in connection with Down Cemetery Road, and that comparison, as well as another, to the novels of Sophie Hannah, also apply to The Last Voice You Hear. But when the narrative kicks into high gear, in its thriller sections, the novelist I though of was Stanley Ellin, a master of crime fiction (too little known today--and that brief mention is my "forgotten books Friday contribution) from a couple of decades ago--specifically a siege thriller that I think is called Stronghold. Herron's siege holds up very well in comparison to Ellin's, as well as carrying forward the unconventional serial killer story that Herron is telling. A different and rather more straightforward book than the others by Herron that I've read, The Last Voice You Hear has definitely shoved the followup (featuring at least two of the same characters) to the top of my reading pile.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mick Herron's first: Down Cemetery Road

I liked Mick Herron's most recent novel, Slow Horses, a lot and have been looking for more of his writing. I found Reconstruction at the local library, and though I didn't like it quite as much as I did Slow Horses, it was very good. So I thought I should go after his other books in order of their writing, partly because the first three are a sort-of series. The first, Down Cemetery Road, begins with a prelude suggesting a conspiracy novel, but then shifts into a very funny satire of suburban life in Oxford, beginning with a dinner party hosted by Sarah and Mark with guests including a hippy-esque couple with ridiculous names and an obnoxious plutocrat whom Mark is courting as a customer at his investment bank. The dialogue at this mismatch of a party is nasty and funny, up until the explosion. It's hard to guess how much of the plot to give away from that point forward--it's really better to know as little as possible of what is to come, in order to enjoy the twists and turns that the author is going to take you through (my advice is not to read the blurbs or intro copy on the dustcover, just dive into the book). Though there are some spoilers in it, the best description of the book that I've seen is in a Shotsmag piece by Herron on the source of his plots (see here). As Herron says there, Sarah is the center of the novel, and he's very good at getting into her head (the narrative is in the third person, though, and does stray beyond Sarah's point of view). The story shifts from domesticity with violence and private detectives (initially seeming something like Kate Atkinson's detective novels in both the quality of the writing and the lightness of tone) to something like Christopher Brookmyre at his best. Plus there is a vein of spook-fiction in everything I've read by Herron so far, post-cold-war spy games of a very entertaining and pointedly skeptical order. I'll be going fairly quickly to his second novel, already in hand, and the third and I'll report on them in due course. But judging from the three novels I've read, and the first in the sort-of series, Herron is a major writer of considerable wit and talent who should be better known.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Beijing Noir: The 2nd "Mei Wang Mystery" from Diane Wei Liang

The followup to Diane Wei Liang's The Eye of Jade from a couple of years ago is a more assured novel, but retains the mixture of family, politics, and melancholy from the first book. The blurb on the U.K. paperback, "Bridget Jones meets Val McDermid," has some truth, and in the early chapters I though Bridget Jones was coming out ahead. But when private detective Mei Wang (who can't call herself a private detective since that profession is illegal in China) begins a new case, searching for a missing singer/actress, the story gets more serious about its status as a crime story. The tone of the novel has something in common with another Chinese emigre crime writer, Qiu Xiaolong, and perhaps it is the approximation of Chinese culture and speech that is the source of the similarity. In the work of both, characters speak in a somewhat literal and stilted style, quite unlike Western dialogue, particularly in the hard-boiled detective vein. Once the reader gets used to it, the style is not distracting in the case of either author, though. Liang participated in the Tiananmen events in Beijing in 1989, and her books are colored by the massacre and subsequent crackdown. In Paper Butterfly in particular, Tiananmen lies behind the characters' stories and motivations. In addition to Mei's investigation into the missing starlet, a second narrative concerning a young man sentenced to hard labor after Tiananmen threads through the book, finally joining the other story in an unexpected way and providing the somewhat downbeat but not pessimistic conclusion. The second Mei Wang book is altogether more satisfying than the first, and holds the readers interest very well in the several sittings it takes to consume its fairly short (by current standards) length.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Michael Dibdin's Ratking reconsidered

I've never been a big Michael Dibdin fan, without quite being able to put my finger on the reason for my coolness to his writing. I'm generally attracted to crime fiction set in Italy, and am a fan of a diverse range of mysteries set in Italy by writers both Italian and not. I recently went back to Dibdin's first Aurelio Zen novel, Ratking, to try to discover why he has never appealed to me (and I plan to continue on to the last Zen book, published posthumously, End Games). After Ratking (and before reading End Games) at least some of the particular quality of Dibdin's writing is clear. The plot of Ratking is very noir, looking back toward Ross MacDonald among others: Zen, a policeman shunted into administrative tasks after his involvement in the investigation (or non-investigation) into the Moro kidnapping, is reactivated to deal with a very nasty family whose patriarch was kidnapped some months earlier. So far, so good: the Moro case has been the source of much good fiction and film from Italy. Zen is a perfect outsider, being a disgraced detective from Venice dropped into the insular hill town of Perugia. There is much cynicism on Zen's part regarding the family, the police, and Italian politics, and cynicism is always a good thing in noir fiction, and an attitude shared by Camilleri's Commissario Montalbano and Leon's Commissario Brunetti. But already in this first book, Dibdin indicates a key factor of the series: Zen is not anchored in his professional or personal life into a community (in neither a positive nor a negative way). He is always, as in this first case, "parachuted" in to various cities to deal with a situation. His girlfriend in Ratking, not a central character but an interesting one, dumps him at the end. His mother, who is a central character in spite of being mostly off-stage, is barely characterized beyond her motherhood and her isolation in a Roman apartment. And Zen drifts through the case in Perugia, among a cast of unlikeable (though believably so) characters among the family, the police, and the perpetrators of the various crimes that had already occurred before the beginning of the story and those that occur during its progress. When the solution is finally arrived at and a form of justice has been achieved (though in a partial sense that will be familiar to readers of Leon and Camilleri), it's difficult to care too much: neither the unmasked killer nor the victim and his family elicit much emotion from the reader, neither sympathy nor antipathy. Only in the final paragraphs does an event (carefully prepared for in early chapters) give a final twist that provides some satisfaction (and a considerable link to later books int he series). In other words, I found the book rather flat, though well-written, in spite of the considerable appeal of Zen himself. I have some sense that Dibdin's books are a bit of a throwback to an earlier era of crime writing, but I can't quite pin down where that notion comes from. Perhaps after reading End Games I'll have a different opinion (though the very slight, comic penultimate Zen book, Back to Bologna, reviewed here some time ago, didn't change my attitude toward the series). I'm sure there are vehement alternative opinions about Dibdin out there, and I'd love to hear them--I'd even love to be convinced that I'm wrong.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Mick Herron, Reconstruction

The title of Mick Herron's Reconstruction initially is a bit of metafiction: the narrator inserts himself briefly to announce that the text is a post-incident reconstruction of events leading up to a hostage situation in a nursery school in Oxford. But there are many other levels of reconstruction, of the past and of a particular nation, that resonate in the title. As with the more recent Slow Horses, the security service is involved (this time MI6 instead of MI5, and there are lots of twists and turns--though not quite as abrupt and not quite as much fun as the about-faces in Slow Horses. A young man with a Spanish name and a gun appears in a nursery just as it is about to open: only one parent, his twins, one teacher, and a cleaning woman are present, and the teacher heroically shuts down the school and chases away the arriving parents and children, then goes back into the school, in a heroic gesture (possibly) or from a sense of responsibility to her students still inside. Herron does a good job of keeping this claustrophobic situation tense and lively, with just enough action among the police and security service outside the school to broaden out the story. For my taste, though, the close focus on the schoolroom got to be a bit too much and it was a relief when finally the hostage situation ends, and the novel shifts for the final twists, having to do with both who the criminals are and who finds him or herself actually at the center of things (rather than egotistically imagining that they are at the center of things, one of the major themes of the book). The book is tight and enjoyable, but I think Slow Horses is better, tighter, twistier, and funnier. But on the basis of both books, I'm trying to get hold of Herron's earlier detective series, which promises something of the same pleasures but also something different.