Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Every Bitter Thing, by Leighton Gage

Every Bitter Thing, Leighton Gage’s 4th “Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation” is his best book yet. The language is lucid, it’s informative about Brazilian life and culture (the reader even finds out how Rio de Janeiro got its name), the characters are well-defined (and their interaction is natural and often comic), and the plot moves along inexorably and rapidly. It is a story that is closer to the kind of crime novel I’m most interested in as well: the first three Silva stories dealt with big issues (organ theft, human trafficking, disparities of social class and property ownership) and often with torture, organized crime, and extreme violence. Every Bitter Thing, on the other hand, deals with murder and revenge at a personal level, committed not by professional criminals but by more-or-less ordinary people under extreme pressure (which could also be said of the victims of the crimes). There are, I should say, some vividly mutilated corpses, though.

It’s also a police procedural in the best sense of the term: each member of Silva’s team is a three-dimensional character, and each has his or her separate role in the investigation. The investigation ranges across Brazil, but is focused more on Brasilia (where Silva’s federal police team is based) than the previous books as well. The nose-to-the-ground view of the investigators at work gives a quite different focus, in comparison with the first three Silva books, which showed a lot more about the crime and the criminals: Every Bitter Thing, as a result, is far more of a mystery or procedural. Though a reader may figure out what’s going on before the end, the investigators are figuring it out at about the same time (and both readers and investigators will be by a final twist or two).

The plot begins with the mutilated body of a Venezuelan politician’s son, discovered in his Brasilia apartment. The detectives, joined by the local police, first focus on the son’s private life, but when similar crimes are discovered, in other cities and towns, the race is on to find what these victims shared in common. Just after reading Every Bitter Thing, I heard a recorded-books version of the classic Sjöwall/Wahlöö “story of a crime,” The Locked Room, and Gage’s book bears up well to comparison with that book, as a procedural, a mystery, and a portrait of a society (in fact, The Locked Room contains a lot of editorializing on the authors’ part, and Gage includes his social criticism more integrally, in the dialogue among the characters and the facts of the crime).

Though there are some threads running through the plots of all four Silva novels, there’s not so much that a reader will have difficulty picking up the series with Every Bitter Thing. I highly recommend it—my only quibble is with the cover image, which I found a bit puzzling (though it’s an effective graphic).

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A forgotten post for forgotten friday: A bit of German noir

Less than a month after I started this blog, just over five years ago, I mentioned a couple of distinctive German novels in the noir tradition. Since my original post is surely forgotten by everyone by now, I'm reviving and adapting it a bit for Foreign Forgotten Friday, and including several covers for the two books, since the various covers are unusually evocative. So here goes:

There are a couple of very dark non-detective novels of post-unification Germany: Rain, by Karen Duve, published in 1999 and in English translation by Anthea Bell in 2002, is a gloomy, grotesque tale of a loser who agrees to ghost-write a gangster's memoir, and takes his beautiful wife to a cabin in the former East, where he can live cheaply while working on the book. Rain, damp, and ensuing slugs (lots and lots of them) and other horrors intervene in his plans, resulting in a grotesque, skin-crawling allegory of postmodern life in general and German life in particular, post reunification. The tale is gross, comic, disgusting, and fascinating.

One of the German reviewers invoked Elmore Leonard to describe the deadpan dialogue, and the U.K. publisher (Bloomsbury) invoked Carl Hiassen to describe the comedy, but Duve's comedy goes beyond both of those estimable models with muck, slugs, a central character as slimy as the slugs, a dangerous case of writers' block, an impatient gangster, and a pair of odd avenging spinsters.

So far as I can tell, Duve has only one other translated novel, This is Not a Love Story, which sounds like a creepy black comedy about an overweight heroine, and unapproachable love interest, and an infamous England-Germany World Cup match.

A less compelling but more pleasant dark comedy can be found in Christoph Hein's Willenbrock, which deals with crime and ultimately murder, but in a flat, laconic style more geared toward a literary audience than a genre crowd. Willenbrock is a former Easterner making a go of it as a used car entrepreneur in the new Germany, but confronted by social ills and tensions that are both new and age-old among the Germans.

Most of the novel and most of the comedy is in the mirroring of everyday life in the used car business, which is also the source of the threat and the crime. Willenbrock might be a good way to ease your way back into normality after the excesses and grotesqueries of Rain: but it's probably Rain that will stick in your mind (whether for its pleasures or its disgusting bits).

Of the covers I've pasted in here, the two on Willenbrock show the cinematic and the quotidian aspects, and the two on Rain suggest the disgusting bits. All are effective.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Frozen Moment, by Camilla Ceder: a new Swedish procedural

Swedish crime writer Camilla Ceder's debut novel, recently translated into English by Marlaine Delargy and published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, is much more in the mode of Henning Mankell (who is mentioned in passing) than Stieg Larsson (though there's a hit of Larsson in the name and the past (revealed late in the novel) of one character. The story is a police procedural, skillfully told through a series of characters, including Detective Christian Tell and the members of his team as well as glimpses into the points of view of several witnesses and others involved in the story.

The main thread occurs around Christmas, 2007, near Gothenburg, after the operator of a rural auto repair shop is discovered murdered, shot and then run over with a car repeatedly. Seja, a young woman who is at the crime scene but lies to Tell about why she's there becomes entwined in the story through her increasing personal involvement with Tell as well as her desire to become a journalist. The dogged investigation goes off in one direction, only to turn suddenly with the discover that another man has been murdered in similar circumstances, and then to turn again when a key fact of the first murder is discovered.

Each of the twists is prepared for not by a single brilliant deduction but by several people working together and separately, increasing the collective quality of the story as well as the realism. In fact, the realism is vivid and consistent, except for one very large coincidence (and coincedences do occur in reality of course).

The second thread of the story is 10-12 years earlier, intermittently following a young woman's troubled life as she flees a difficult home life, enrolls in a residential school, finds a lover there, and travels home to visit her mother and brother. Just as that thread is beginning to seem tedious, an event occurs that suggests to the reader what the connection between the two threads of the story might be, and from there the threads converge effectively.

One of the most effective aspects of the novel is the fully realized cast: each of the detectives has a distinct character, and each has a moment in the foreground that clarifies his or her personality as well as his or her value to the investigation (even the most annoying detective, seemingly there for comic relief until his moment comes). The minor characters, detectives as well as witnesses and bystanders, are more fully and effectively portrayed than in most crime novels.

The rural location of most of the story and the collaboration of the detectives suggests a link to the Wallander stories, but Ceder surpasses those landmark Scandinavian novels, in my opinion, by closely focusing on ordinary people (the cops, witnesses, and perpetrators are well within the recognizable range of people a reader might encounter in his/her own home town or in a casual trip to southern Sweden--no international masterminds, aristocratic CEOs of huge firms, etc.). IN that way, Ceder's book is closer to Kjell Eriksson's excellent series set in Uppsala, and though I particularly liked Eriksson's first (first translated, anyway) book, The Princess of Burundi, Frozen Moment is a more completely realized (and longer) crime novel.

As Frozen Moment moves beyond its first half, it takes on an inexorable motion and pulls the reader along toward a final confrontation that is in some ways a cliche, but is so well handled and so understated that it works. Having just finished the novel, I'm very curious about how Ceder will follow it up (whether with Tell and the other characters from this book, or not), and once again frustrated that translation and publication takes so long with international crime fiction.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Neapolitan Streak, by Timothy Holme

Timothy Holme's series about Italian detective Achille Peroni isn't a candidate for a "forgotten friday" book, though the first in the series, The Neapolitan Streak, was published in 1980: it's back in print, and is listed in the excellent resource on Italian "gialli" or crime fiction (by and about Italy) at italian-mysteries.com. But The Neapolitan Streak is first of all, for a reader in the present day, a reminder of how much excellent Italian crime writing is accessible in English now. We might have, in 1980, needed to settle for an OK novel, set in Italy, by a knowledgeable non-Italian (but Italian resident, as Holme was). Now we have better options, though the Peroni stories have their charms.

My impulse to read the first in the Peroni series came from discovering the city in which it is set: Verona, a city that I visited some years ago, and which I found to my surprise that I liked a lot. I was expecting the tourist scene there, but not the native charms of the place (the Roman ruins, still used for concerts--as the Neapolitan Streak shows, the Adige river raging through town, the pleasant ambiance of the old city). I hadn't discovered crime novels set there, previously, and was disappointed that Holme felt obliged to concentrate his plot on Shakespeare instead of the less kitschy aspects. (Holme also references Dante briefly, once explicitly and once in the names of two star-crossed characters, Paolo and Francesca, and more emphasis on an Italian literary precedent might have made a better book, for me).

The Neapolitan Streak does involve much contemporary historical material, including the Red Brigades and the rise of neo-fascist nationalism in the north of Italy. All of that would have been stronger elements of the plot if Romeo and Juliet hadn't intruded so much. It's not badly written, but at times it's a bit cute (Peroni's niece and nephew have a penchant for solving his crimes for him, and he constantly is referred to as "The Valentino of the Italian police": a comic element, since Peroni is a very vain man, but still irritating after the fifth or sixth use of the epithet.

Astute mystery readers will have figured out the final twist before it arrives, and will also perhaps be a bit irritated that another twist (which readers will also have anticipated) turns on Peroni's sense of a psychic aura within a place, rather than a more concrete clue. Peroni, in fact, dashes back and forth a lot, without really accomplishing much, as the plot goes on in the background. The central and very disfunctional families (both aristocratic, but at opposite ends of the Italian political spectrum) in the story suggest a story that Michael Dibdin might have done more with.

It's probably overkill for me to complain so much about Holme's book--it's an adequate mystery, especially for the era in which it was written. It simply lacks the authenticity of contemporary crime writing by Italians, or the full humanity of the characters in Magdalen Nabb's or Donna Leon's books, to mention two other non-Italian, Italian-resident authors that have been more succesful at evoking Italian cities. For writing about Verona, Tim Parks is very good, but not really a crime novelist (despite the crimes and criminals in his novels, and perhaps because his non-fiction better evokes Italy than his fiction).

If there are dissenting opinions about Holme, please give them--and if anyone knows of other crime novels set in Verona, please let us know about them, too. The cover image I've pasted in here is from the current edition, though the version I read was the original U.S. edition (I couldn't find a jpg of that cover). The new photo-based cover is better than the illustration on the old one anyway.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday (the Pattinase 18-23 Challenge)

Patti Abbott challenged everyone to write this week about a “Friday Forgotten” book that we read in college, or between 18 and 23-ish. I reached back into the memory pile and pulled out a peculiar book that has, at least, stayed in my mind since my first encounter with it at university—appropriately enough, since it’s a book about memory and time, if not quite a crime novel per se.

The French "nouveau roman" of the 1950s and '60s often used crime fiction as a model, usually with little concern for some of the imperatives of the genre (such as resolving the plot, or even showing whether a crime has actually taken place). But how and why they chose to use the crime genre is interesting in itself. It's a commonplace in crime fiction reviews to say that the setting or the city is one of the main characters--and it's a commonplace in the current crime-fiction reviewing that noir and mystery novels are excellent sources of information and atmosphere about foreign cities. In Michel Butor's 1957 Passing Time, it's literally the case that the city is a character, and the crime novel as a guidebook is a central theme of the story. The novel is the journal of Jacques Revel, a French clerk who has traveled to the industrial city of Bleston (a fictionalized Manchester, where Butor had spent time) in the north of England to translate letters for an English firm. The journal covers his year-long stay, but he arrives in October and doesn't start the journal until May, and he relates his earlier and current experiences in no particular order, causing a jumble of time (reflected in the margins of the book, which give the month of the writing and of the event related).

Upon his arrival, in the middle of the night, Revel is thrust into a strange city without any guide or assistance. Ultimately he discovers a crime novel, The Bleston Murder, that depicts the city in such detail that he uses it as his map and his guide, more so than even the characters that he becomes involved with. And Revel’s narrative is full of explicit walking and bus directions, explorations of monuments (in particular a cathedral), and other concrete evocations of the city, in the fashion of a very “placed” crime novel—Butor even includes a map, a feature of some recent Scandinavian crime-wave books. He discovers that the murder depicted in The Bleston Murder may be a version of an actual crime, and that the real murderer may not have been identified (and that the writer may have obscured his identity from fear of retribution). So far, it sounds like a conventional mystery novel. And the plot thickens when the real murderer is (maybe) trying to kill the author, plus there is a series of mysterious fires. But Butor is more interested in the splintering of time and perception than in seeking a resolution to the story.

But there are interesting meditations on the genre by the pseudonymous author of the novel-within-the-novel, J.C. Hamilton, interspersed here and there in the journal. Hamilton says that there are two murders in a detective story, "of which the first, committed by the criminal, is only the occasion of the second, in which he is the victim of the pure, unpunishable murderer, the detective, who kills him not by using…a silenced shot or the twist of a silk stocking, but by the explosion of truth." He also points out that "in detective fiction the story goes against the stream, beginning with the crime, the climax of all the dramatic events which the detective has to rediscover gradually…in many respets more natural than the narrative proceeding without a backward look, where the first day of the story is followed by the second and then by subsequent days in their calendar order," which is of course the orderliness that Revel and his author, Butor, are explicitly not following in Passing Time (though also not following the reverse orderliness of the detective).

The 1960 English translation by Jean Stewart has gone through a number of different editions, though I believe it's now out of print (and the nouveau roman is indeed not in fashion in academia as much as it was when I was in college and first encountered Butor, Alain Robbe-Grillet, et al.). The original French title is L’emploi du temps, both the English and the French inevitably evoking Proust’s “lost time.” But Butor’s book doesn’t set up a hurdle for the reader with sheer length (like Proust) or intellectual pretension. Passing Time takes the crime genre, and its particularly close attention to place and time, very seriously, in the fashion of the nouveau roman’s very literal and “objective” approach to writing; then he splinters time, place, and plot, and serves up a delectable, if frustrating, conundrum of a story that is disorderly, like life while dissecting the orderliness of fiction, the reverse-order of detective fiction, and the artificial order of memory.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Badfellas (originally titled Malavita) translated from the French by Emily Read and published by Bitter Lemon, is the fourth of Tonino Benacquista's neo-noir comic novels to make it into English. It's a funny book, transplanting a Sopranos-like family into rural Normandy by means of the Witness Protection Program, and each family member accommodates to the new environment in his or her unique way (perhaps the funniest part of the book). There are some very French jokes (for instance, the school where the son and daughter are enrolled is called the Jules Vallès Lycée--Vallès is famous in France, and not so much outside it, as the 19th-century author of a very funny autobiographical book about a boy who is bored and abused in school, as well as at home, translated recently as The Child), as well as, I'm sure, many others that I didn't get.

The structure of the book is a bit disconnected. Imagine the memoir-in-progress of a gangster, destroyed in a conflagration; scraps of the text saved and pasted together with text by someone else, and then, post-fire, finished by the gangster. That's not the premise of the book, but it's how it's constructed. Each family member gets a turn in the limelight, giving a somewhat episodic quality to the book. There's also the comic saga of the school newspaper that travels around the world and ultimately gives the New Jersey Mob a clue as to the whereabouts of the family (a bounty on their head because of the father's testimony, extracted in exchange for his quasi-freedom in Witness Protection). And then there's the family dog, Malavita, who is not the bulldog featured on the U.S. cover...

And the final, Western-style duel between the family, their FBI protectors, and the Mob hit men sent to kill them is a bit distanced, as if seen through smoked glass. The mobsters memoir takes over, and he relates the incidents from memory, almost as if at second hand, removing some of the violence to a safe distance but also muffling the effect a bit--though to give the author full credit, it's really the mobster's voice that's the heart of the book, not the battle.

Like Rob in his review (at http://theviewfromthebluehouse.blogspot.com/), I found some things in the plot to quibble about, but I enjoyed Badfellas (and look forward to the possible translation of Malavita encore, which is apparently a sequel). It's not as funny as his first book, Holy Smoke, nor as noir as his other two already translated, Framed and Someone Else, but it's a more expansive story (traveling around the world with the school paper, importing the American Mafia to Normandy, satirizing the residents of the town, etc.) and is an enjoyable book in its own right.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Decadent Noir from Wroclaw: Marek Krajewski's Breslau series

The first of Marek Krajewski’s Eberhard Mock novels, Death in Breslau, appears to begin at the end, both with the novel itself and the series (the English translation, by Danusia Stok, was published in 2008 by Quercus). The novel begins after World War II in an asylum where inmate Herbert Anwaldt is screaming every time he sees a cockroach. The scene then shifts to a rail car in Breslau (the German name for the now Polish city of Wroclaw in 1933, where lie the bodies of two women, their torsos slashed open and crawling with scorpions. Criminal Director Mock is in charge of the puzzling investigation, but the book is not really a police procedural and Mock is not a conventional detective. He’s more interested in protecting his career, beset by the rise of and conflicts among the Nazis and by the secrets of his own past.

Mock also has a stock of information on other people’s secrets, and uses that archive to control people at all levels of society, from brothels to secret policemen to the nobility. He allows himself to posthumously convict the Nazis’ candidate for the perpetrator of the murder, and then is faced with finding the real killer, by means of his new assistant, Anwaldt, brought in from Berlin to conduct the investigation in secret.

Ultimately the story spans centuries, from the crusades to the 1950s, from Turkey to the U.S., and along the way there is much decadence, long-pending revenge, political intrigue, and violent retribution. Anwaldt is actually more at the center of it all than Mock, and he is battered and tortured by all sides, moving the story more by blundering into difficulties than making discoveries. At every stage there is cruelty, corruption, and prostitution. Mock himself has a highly refined and somewhat comic sexual habit that is catered to by a brothel under his protection.

According to the information that’s available regarding the next two books in the series, Krajewski is going backward in time, toward the earlier stages of Mock’s career—certainly a unique approach to a crime series—but then this series is unique in a number of ways, suggesting the heights of Expressionism and the depths of human nature. Death on Breslau is a self-contained novel, carrying forward the story of Mock and Anwaldt to a conclusion that wraps up the strange story in a way that would seem to prevent a sequel: so it will be interesting to see how the “prequels” already translated and future novels in the series that may arrive in English develop Mock’s career and the crime scene in Breslau. Death in Breslau on its own is a bizarre and self contained story that will be of interest to anyone looking for a different kind of crime novel (it reminded me just a bit of an even more unconventional book, Péter Lengyel’s Cobblestone, set in early 20th century Hungary, but Krajewski’s story is more accessible).

It's interesting that the Polish versions of Krajewski's novel show moody historical photos, the French ones show erotic images, an the U.K. ones feature graphic images in stark black and white evoking decadent prints from the early 20th century.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday (part 4): Per Wahlöö

The last installment of my "forgotten" series about the solo novels of Per Wahlöö, all of which are out of print in the English translations by Joan Tate (and several of which are attributed, in the original English editions, to "Peter Wahlöö).

The Assignment presents Manuel Ortega, a minor diplomat from an unnamed Latin American country that sounds like Argentina, who is at the beginning posted to his country’s Swedish embassy. Ortega is presented with a dilemma, in the form of an offer to take over the mission of a murdered General, who had been sent to the south of the home country to mediate between landowners (backed by the army) and rebels purporting to represent the landless poor. If he takes the job, it would advance his career, but both sides in the region have sworn to kill him. The situation in which he finds himself, when he takes the job, is depressingly familiar from news stories of Latin America today, in broad outline and even in some of the details (as well as sharing some common ground with Mario Vargas Llosa’s two crime novels, reviewed here some time ago). He is assigned a secretary, Danica Fernández, who travels with him from Europe and who proves to be one of the most interesting female characters in all of Wahlöö’s work (including the Beck books).

In that and other respects (the arc of the plot, the dialogue, the setting) The Assignment is the most fully realized novel among Wahlöö’s solo efforts. Ortega is determined but frightened, inspired by his predecessor and frustrated by the roadblocks put in his way by the landowners’ militia and others. The heat, inertia, fear, and frustration are palpable, and the threat and opportunity (for Ortega and the country) are delicately balanced in a way that pulls the reader forward. Though it has elements of the thriller genre, the story meanders rather than races; though there’s plenty of crime in it, the worst offenders are not individuals but groups (local and national); so it’s a genre-bending book, something like Graham Greene but more political, and like Vargas-Llosa but less literary in style. When the climax of the plot comes, the cynical reader may see it coming (and may not see how some of the characters failed to see it coming), since it depends on the trust with which one may endow one’s political leaders. Nevertheless, there is a final twist based on character that will leave the reader re-playing the whole story in the light of the ending.

By the way, two of the current paperback, Swedish editions of Wahlöö's solo novels, The Steel Spring and The Lorry (see the covers in previous posts here) are plot spoilers--things that I would not mention in a review. They both make good covers, though--and perhaps the books are so well known in Sweden that the plots won't be a surprise to anyone who picks up the "stamp-licking" or the "fish with guns" covers...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

foreign forgotten friday part 3 (of 4): Wahlöö

Continuing the focus on Per Wahlöö for forgotten friday this week, here is post 3 of 4 (the final one tomorrow). See yesterday for the first two books I'm reviewing this week. Two of the other three novels by Wahlöö that have been translated into English have a Hispanic theme, one set in Spain (the author was deported from Spain in the Franco years) and the other an unnamed in Latin American country. The fifth is The Generals (1965), a trial novel--in fact a trial transcript, entirely in dialogue, of a kangaroo court or show trial in a post-coup island nation, once a paradise and now a totalitarian state. The novel deals with torture, personified by the defendant’s deterioration, with horror and dark humor: he ultimately is in a coma, though still present in the courtroom.

The earliest of his translated novels is The Lorry (1962), published in the U.S. as A Necessary Action, which takes place in a port town and a small hill village on the Catalonian coast of Spain, in the first decades after World War II. This and Wahlöö's next book, The Assignment (1963), are more realistic novels than the Jensen books, and The Lorry shares two characteristics with the Martin Beck stories: Long sections (perhaps the most interesting parts of the book) depict the interrogation of a German painter by a Spanish civil guard sergeant; and Wahlöö's tendency to refer in the narration to characters by their whole name rather than part of it (the German, Willi Mohr is always Willi Mohr, never Willi or Mohr, just as Martin Beck is always Martin Beck).

The elements of The Lorry gradually become clear in the interrogations and the narration of Mohr's life in Spain, including the murders of a Norwegian couple with whom Mohr had been living and of a local fisherman, the bloody suppression of a miners' strike and a related resistance movement, and Mohr's intermittent pursuit of the Norwegians' killers. The book is skillfully constructed and very "noir," to the extent that none of the characters is likable, and (fair warning) there's some casually depicted animal cruelty. The overall point seems to be the distortion of character and society under a Fascist state's dominance, and overall it’s reminiscent of a number of other dark and pessimistic portraits of Franco-era Spain.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday (all week, part 2): Per Wahlöö

Per Wahlöö, as I said in the previous post, can hardly be called a forgotten writer, since the 10 Martin Beck novels he co-authored with Maj Sjöwall continue to be held high in the crime pantheon, but all five of his solo novels are now out of print in English and seldom referred to in surveys of Swedish or international crime fiction (outside Sweden anyway).

The Steel Spring is a dystopia-nightmare (and ultimately a zombie/vampire story), but one thoroughly anchored in social realities and in Wahlöö's political ideals. The Steel Spring also shares some common ground with Stieg Larsson, not only for its politics (and for the often direct political diatribes attributed to the characters) but also for the similar portraits of a secret-police shadow government. The real subject of the book, though, is false consciousness: the population's failure to recognize the true power behind the supposedly benign nanny government that has taken over. The elements of this society that were portrayed as the background to The Thirty-First Floor become the main plot elements of The Steel Spring: the government is adding an aversion drug to the alcohol that it sells, in order to discourage drunkenness (practically the only crime still being committed), and is also planning a sham election designed mostly to create social solidarity. Jensen (who is sick throughout Thirty-First Floor) goes out of the country for a liver transplant (in a country that seems to be in the Middle East) and when he returns, something has gone badly awry. What's left of the government sends him into the capital to find the truth about a disease that has ravaged the country, bringing first chaos and then ghostly, apocalyptic silence. His investigation is a grim portrait of social engineering, authoritarianism, fear, and the "after death" stage of the disease.

Foreign Forgotten Friday (all week)

I'm breaking up this week's post for "forgotten friday" because I'm reviewing several book. So here's part 1, part 2 will be posted in a few minutes, and the rest will be posted tomorrow or Friday.

Per Wahlöö can hardly be called a forgotten writer, since the 10 Martin Beck novels he co-authored with Maj Sjöwall continue to be held high in the crime pantheon, but Wahlöö wrote a number of other novels, five of which were translated into English before and during the U.S./U.K. publication of the Beck books—and all five are now out of print and seldom referred to in surveys of Swedish or international crime fiction (outside Sweden anyway). It doesn’t help that a number of them were originally published in English under the author’s name Peter Wahlöö (so that one has to be careful when using Bookfinder or other search engines). One further general comment: Wahlöö's translator for his solo novels, as well as for the Wahlöö/Sjöwall books, is Joan Tate, who did a marvelous job of rendering his sometimes lucid and sometimes quirky language.

Wahlöö's two novels featuring Chief Inspector Jensen (Murder on the 31st Floor, 1964, published in the U.S. as The Thirty-First Floor, and The Steel Spring, 1968) are often referred to as science fiction, or as taking place in the "near future." In fact, the country in which Inspector Jensen lives is a sort-of Sweden (not that different in kind from the sort-of Sweden of Håkan Nesser's novels, but more exaggerated or stylized). The setting is a realistically portrayed but distorted version of Sweden's social-democratic "utopia" of the 1960s-70s (the setting for the Beck novels), a version perhaps closer to the neo-capitalism of Sweden today than to a sci-fi alternate reality or even to Martin Beck’s Sweden. In fact, the society portrayed is very recognizable from a contemporary point of view. The state has a monopoly on liquor sales, but drunkenness is illegal, even in your own home. The suicide rate is high and the birthrate low. The government is an amalgam of the Socialists, the Trade Unions, and business interests, a "Compassionate Conservatism" with the “best interests of the citizens” at heart. Murder on the Thirty-First Floor

deals with a publishing empire that has consolidated the country's entire press establishment in a single operation (as Berlusconi or Murdoch have only dreamed of doing), publishing hundreds of magazines and newspapers that offer nothing that would upset anybody: wholesome family fare (the weeklies sound rather like People magazine in fact). The focus on publishing (and the ultimate murderous resolution of the plot, which hinges on a more combative approach to journalism) share a setting and perspective with the Millennium Trilogy of Stieg Larsson, though Wahlöö exhibits the same terse style (even more terse in fact) as appears in the Martin Beck novels rather than the more emotional style of Larsson. Both Wahlöö and Larsson have a tendency to be tendentious, in The Thirty-First Floor by means not only of the grim social portrait but also the social/political analysis provided toward the end by a "rogue editor" of a sort.

The directors of the huge publishing enterprise receive a bomb threat aimed at their 30-storey headquarters building, and the dour Inspector Jensen (frequently described as expressionless) is to head up the crisis team at the time of the supposed bombing and then the investigation after there is no explosion. Jensen is an intriguing character, affectless and officious, following laws and rules with little empathy or even any concern that the rule serves any useful purpose. He was portrayed effectively (but in a costume more suited to his own films than to Wahlöö's story) by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in the German film of Murder on the 31st Floor, released under the title Kamikaze 1989.

There is a bit of comedy leavening the dry narration, something that also characterizes the Martin Beck books: partly in the very humorlessness of Jensen (which is typical of both books about him). Some of the suspects that Jensen visits in The Thirty-First Floor are satirical social types, offering a bit of comic relief (something not found in the very grim sequel).

Who or what is on the 31st floor of a 30-storey building is part of the mystery. And who will be murdered is another. The answer to those questions is abrupt, and provides Jensen's only moment of clarity in an otherwise tedious investigation, and also provides a considerable impact and a clear image of what Wahlöö’s story has been leading up to.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

foreign forgotten friday: Australian private eye

Almost simultaneously this week I noticed Kerrie’s “Looking for Australian crime fiction?” post at Mysteries in Paradise (http://paradise-mysteries.blogspot.com) and, while rummaging through a box of books that I hadn’t looked through in a long time, I uncovered an Australian crime novel. So fate has determined, I guess, that this week for “foreign forgotten” I should talk about an Australian crime novel that I didn’t know I was looking for, a book that I, at least, had forgotten: Caroline Shaw’s Cat Catcher. While the book seems to be in print (from Serpent’s Tail) the rest of what is apparently a series (the second of which is called Eye to Eye) have never appeared in the U.S. or U.K., as far as I’ve been able to determine.

Cat Catcher’s premise sounds like a cozy: Melbourne-based Lenny Aaron is a former cop who now runs a detective agency specializing in finding lost cats, and when one of her lost-cat customers asks her to find out about threatening letters she’s been receiving, Lenny uncovers a murder. But the cat aspect of the story is almost a parody of the many cute cats in crime cozies (sorry, I couldn’t resist the alliteration): Lenny’s relations with the animals ranges from indifference to antagonism, and the cats themselves are frequently less than cuddly (in fact, Shaw characterizes the species and individuals within it very acutely).

And there’s a rich damsel-in-distress client and a run-down office next to a porn shop, in true hardboiled style. But it’s Lenny herself who brings the story out of the cozy and into the hard-boiled detective genre. She’s damaged physically and emotionally by the encounter that ended her career in the police, and she’s always popping painkillers (aspirin, for a change). She’s compulsive and emotionally reserved, and her quick wit is evident in the narrative (even through the intermediary of the third-person voice). She’s working with a counselor, but he’s a Japanese jingoist zen teacher rather than a shrink, and she’s “relaxing” by training Bonsai trees and watching cricket matches.

And in true hard-boiled tradition, the subject of the novel is a rich and dysfunctional family, as with Declan Hughes’s neo-noir Dublin detective novels. Shaw’s story is lighter in tone, though, since Lenny is more of a smart-aleck thatn Hughes’s Loy. There’s a monstrous character (I won’t tell you who it is), an orphanage, an unacknowledged child, and twins: all practically Dickensian, but then hard-boiled stories often are. Lenny is one of the more appealing detectives I’ve encountered, in fact, and it’s curious that there are no women writers among the currently prominent (in the U.S. and in the blogosphere) crop of Australian crime writers (see Kerrie’s list for some of the women crime writers from down under).

Lenny’s gender and personality, the noir plot, and the comic tone are sufficient reasons to revive Caroline Shaw’s books (and for a bonus there are a number of interesting characters involved and at the periphery of the story) and also to get some more of them published in the Northern Hemisphere (are there any publishers listening?).

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Case Closed, by Patrik Ourednik

Case Closed is a delightful and puzzling short novel (143 page in the English translation by Alex Zucker, published by Dalkey Archive) by Patrik Ourednik (I can't reproduce the Czech orthography--see the cover pasted in here for the proper spelling of his name). In a normally quiet police precinct in Prage, there is rash of crimes: a 40-year-old murder, two fires in a retiree's apartment, a rape, and a rash of graffiti, all being investigated by Inspector Vilém Lebeda and a couple of other detectives. The subject of the novel, though, is really post-Communist Prague in the 21st century--and for that reason (and through the similarity of some of the crimes) Case Closed has some common ground with a Polish novel recently reviewed here, Zygmunt Miłoszewski's Entanglement. Though both of them use the conventions of crime fiction with considerable satirical and playful intent, Ourednik stretches the norms quite a big further. His unnamed narrator sometimes addresses the reader about the book in his/her hands, and the short chapters jump around from one character and story line somewhat capriciously. Ourednik's narrator also addresses, with bitter comedy, the current state of Prague society and culture more directly than does Miłoszewski.

But don't think that Case Closed is dry literary matter that simply purloins the forms of crime fiction (the sort of thing we've seen repeatedly in recent decaded). Instead, Ourednik's novel is light, funny, and involving. Frequently a plot element is taken up and dropped, so that we the readers know more than either party in a police interrogation (and we might be provoked to shout at the detective to get to the point). Numerous dangerous situations turn out to be dreams on the part of a traveler whose biography we know (including mysterious links to Inspector Lebeda).

The story begins with a dyspeptic retiree, Viktor Dyk, on a park bench who deliberately misdirects a young woman who asks him where the Academy of Fine Arts is located, with ill consequences. Then another retiree tells Dyk that a woman they know has been killed, run over by a car. The meandering conversations (hysterically funny) among the old folks on the bench, and their subsequent thoughts as they go on their way are a substantial part of the narrative. Chapter 8 (of the 40 short chapters) introduces the unique detective, whose personality is at least as much the focus as his investigations. His idealistic childhood and subsequent disappointments have left him no less idealistic but far less prone to speak about it to anyone.

Lebeda is one of the most likable and perhaps also one of the most unsuccessful of literary detectives. And Case Closed twists the detective genre like a wet dishrag. The book is an excellent "vacation" from more realistic, straightforward crime fiction, and reading it will give some perspective on the form as well as a different approach to social criticism, comedy, crime, old age, and any number of topics that are genuine grist for the noir mill.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

French noir: Pierre Siniac, The Collaborators

The English title of this recently translated 1997 novel by Pierre Siniac (winner of the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1981) is The Collaborators, which plays on various elements of the plot, including literary collaboration, conspiracy, and the World War II Collaborators with the Vichy government, a continuing scandal (perhaps at t his point even a scandal-cliché) in France. In French, the title is Ferdinaud Céline, a character's name and also a reference to the nearly obsessive repetition of references to the famous author Ferdinand Céline, a pardoned collaborator. The Collaborators is a "deconstruction" or even a parody of both crime fiction and the French literary world, a difficult kind of thing to keep up in what is a rather long novel(489 pages in the translation).

But I found myself entrapped, fascinated first by the ridiculous situations and characters and then by the slow development of the crime plot. At the beginning, a homeless drifter and his co-author, a former butcher and publisher, are being interviewed on TV on the occasion of the spectacular success of their recently published novel. On the way home from the interview, the 2 authors begin to argue, and we learn that only one is really the author, Dochin (the drifter), and that the fraudulent co-author has some undisclosed hold over the true author. The story then reverts to the past, showing Dochin years earlier looking for a place to stay in rural France. He is repeatedly turned away from hotels who don't like his appearance (an ongoing theme in the book) and is taken in by the patroness (Ferdinaud Céline) of a motel catering to outcasts and freaks.

From here on, the major theme of the book is that Dochin is convinced that the novel he is writing is crap, without any style, interest, or value, while Ferdinaud and ultimately two Parisian publishers tell him again and again that it's a masterpiece, the equivalent of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's sudden appearance on the literary scene with Journey to the End of the Night. The reader knows something is going on beneath the surface, and when one of the publishers engineers a murder we think we know at least part of the secret. Then when the novel is about to be published and the "ARC"'s have been sent out, critics who announce their dislike for the book begin dying in mysterious circumstances: and we the readers begin to get some more ideas about what's going on. But when the revelations finally come, we are thrust back to the beginning, forced to reconsider everything we've been living through in our reading.

The structure of the book is a blend of literary comedy and crime thriller, tilted for a long time in the direction of the literary half of that blend--perhaps too long for some crime fiction fans. There are some Anglophone crime novels that have a similar combination of literary comedy and noir thriller (from Charles Willeford's Burnt Orange Heresy to Wyndham Lewis's Lavender-Hill-Mob-like Mrs. Duke's Million). If you know a bit about French cultural life and literary history, The Collaborators is not only a lot of fun but expands the glimpse into French crime fiction that expand our view of that field beyond what we in the English-speaking/non-Francophone world have hitherto had access to.

The Collaborators was published in Jordan Stump's lucid translation by Dalkey Archive Press, which specializes in literature from around the world that is a bit off-center and frequently comic (the name of the press is taken from the work of Flann O'Brien). Another Dalkey Archive book that verges on crime fiction, from the Czech Republic, is next on my reading list.