Sunday, December 18, 2011

Johan Theorin, The Quarry

Johan Theorin's third novel to be translated into English (by Marlaine Delargy, for Doubleday U.K.--it's not available in the U.S. yet) is the third novel in a trilogy organized around the seasons and set on the Swedish island of Öland. It's spring on the island and Theorin's running character, Gerlof, is moving out of the assisted living home that he moved into in earlier novels. He's moving back to his cottage near the island's quarry, to live alone but in proximity to an interesting group of the island's part-time, warm(er) weather residents.

Theorin continues here to pull off an unusual structure (for a crime novel at least). Among the Scandinavian crime novels to have appeared in ever larger numbers in English, Theorin's are perhaps the most focused on ordinary people's ordinary lives. There is what I have elsewhere called a "dailiness" about the books, with no hint of criminal conspiracies, international incidents, or big-time mobsters. Yet, on the other hand, there is a supernatural element, also told in the most ordinary way, as if the elves and trolls who are a very palpable presence in this novel are among the ordinary residents of modern Öland.

The other constant in the series (apart from Gerlof, who is in any case not a central character in the novels' mysteries) is the overlay of the past and the present. In The Quarry, it's the past of Gerlof's marriage, the youth of a spring/summer resident of the island, Vendela Larsson, and another part-time resident, Per Mörner. Vendela was raised on the island, but in peculiar circumstances and with frequent interaction (in her imagination at least) with elves who seem to be granting her wishes when she places offerings on a stone with a mysterious presence.

Per's past on the other hand, invokes a subject that was the international profile of Sweden in the 1970s and '80s but as far as I know not the subject of any of the other Scandinavian crime novels to have appeared (at least in translation): the porn industry. It's the decline (for various reasons) of the porn business that provides the tensions that finally shift this novel of ordinary live into high gear thriller territory (at least, almost).

There are many other elements going on in this novel stuffed with ordinary (rather than high pressure) incidents and emotions. Per's daughter is mysteriously ill. Gerlof has found his wife's diaries, which speak of an odd "changeling" who had visited her only when she was alone. Vendela is descending into a dangerous psychological state and is stuck in a marriage with a manipulative egotist. Ordinary lives, but with extraordinary twists.

Theorin is one of the least conventional of all the translated crime writers, and although his books are certainly not everyone's cup of tea (being probably as far from that Tattoo series as it's possible for two series in the same genre to be), his distinctive writing deserves close attention. Some reviewers have expressed some disappointment in The Quarry, given the high expectations that Theorin's first two novels created. I found it to be a valid continuation of the series, with a bit less tense a tone overall, and with a less intense presence of both nature and the supernatural. It's a further development of his style, though, and unfailingly interesting.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Jo Nesbø, Headhunters

Headhunters, published recently by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard in Don Bartlett's translation, isn't a Harry Hole book and is in fact quite different from that famous series. First, it's fairly short (and the Hole books are real doorstops). Second, the main character is a somewhat unreliable narrator named Roger Brown (he's Norwegian, but his father was English). Roger is a corporate headhunter (though other kinds of headhunters do crop up) and he's very impressed with himself and his record of getting businesses to hire his candidates (in fact, his only shortcoming, in his eyes, is that he is indeed short, by Norwegian standards).

Roger has the perfect job and the perfect wife (the only fly in the ointment being that he has refused her request that they have a child). His reason is that he doesn't want to share her with anyone, not even his own child (and the flaw in that reasoning comes back to bite him). She runs an art gallery, and during a private viewing for a new show she introduces Roger to the perfect candidate for a job he (and several other headhunter agencies) is trying to fill.

So far so good--but warning: spoilers ahead. I hate the blurbs on the backs of paperbacks, because they frequently (and in this case) give away what would have been, for an un-forewarned reader, a pleasant discovery in the story. So my recommendation is: Don't read the back of the paperback, don't read the blurb on Amazon or elsewhere. Come to the book as unprejudiced as possible, to best enjoy the twists and turns (of which there are many). Before going on, I should only warn prospective readers that there is some disgusting stuff in the book, not so much violence (of which there is some, but less than in the Hole books), and more scatology of various sorts (disgusting aspects of human bodies).

So: on to the story. Roger has a hobby. He gets his clients to tell him, during interviews, what sort of art they own, and if he finds what he hears desirable, he steals it. His partner in crime works for an alarm agency frequently used by Roger's clients, and he arranges for his partner to turn off the alarms and cameras at convenient times. But Harry's day job, his night job, and his marriage all come clashing together and create a mess that it doesn't seem like he can crawl out of (a bit of the mess is telegraphed in the prologue to the book, in which Roger and several others are trapped in a wrecked car, upside down in the woods).

Setting aside the disgusting parts, Headhunters is very cleverly plotted and a fun read. Roger is not a nice person, but as a narrator he's good company, and he withhholds just enough information to allow the reader some surprises (only a very alert reader will catch some of them in advance). So for Harry Hole fans and others who haven't discovered Harry or don't fancy him, Headhunters is highly recommended. There's supposed to be a movie coming out, but so much of the book is in Roger's head, it's hard to imagine what might be preserved of the pleasures of the story (leaving only the action, including the nasty bits).

Monday, December 05, 2011

Different kind of crime novel from Ireland

An Irish Solution, a crime novel by Cormac Millar (pseudonym of Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin, a translator and a professor at Trinity College Dublin) was published by Penguin in 2005, and is little acknowledged among the current generation of Irish crime novels and novelists. Millar, who is the son of the late Irish author Eilís Dillon, frustrates all expectations with An Irish Solution: it's impossible to talk about the book without giving something away. Even the pitch made by the publisher, that it's about Seamus Joyce, newly appointed head of a new Irish Drug Enforcement Agency (iDEA) is misleading. And it seems to be the beginning of a crime fiction series, but that isn't quite true either.

Millar manages to constantly twist the plot away from cliche and into surprise, right up to the ending. At the beginning, a reader may think he/she is reading one sort of book, only to discover after a few chapters that it's really another sort of book, centered upon different characters than at first seemed central to the story. I kept trying to find comparisons with other recent Irish crime writing, but the closest I could come would be a mash-up of Alan Glynn's Winterland and M.S. Power's Children of the North trilogy (though Millar's book is more complicated and more cynical than the former and less mystical than the latter, and also without the latter's focus on Ulster and the Troubles).

Seamus Joyce is indeed newly appointed as head of the iDEA, but he's a bureaucrat, not a policeman. The police under his nominal command are into a great many things that he doesn't know about. Also featured are a pair of schoolgirls moonlighting in a pub, a hapless former schoolteacher, a few drug dealers, a senior nun, an international Institute of vague principles, and Seamus's hospitalized wife (and we can't be confident even in the stability of this last-mentioned character with relation to Seamus and others).

The book is often quite funny, in both turns of phrase and twists of plot. It's also quite enjoyable, once you leave your expectations at the door. Allow yourself some time to get into the book and you'll see whatI mean. There's a sort of sequel that I'm trying to get hold of now, and if it's half as good it will be well worth the trouble

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Another Swedish noir discovery?

Has anyone run across The Girl With The Sturgeon Tattoo, by Lars Arffson? Published by St. Martin's Griffin in the U.S., it features hacker Lizzy Salamander and blogger Mikael Blomberg. I suppose it was inevitable (and purportedly it's pretty funny). Anyone seen it yet? It includes references to a new novel called The Vices, by American author Lawrence Douglas, whose image bears a striking resemblance to the photo of Lars Arffsen on the Sturgeon Tattoo...

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Vine in the Blood, Leighton Gage

The fifth Mario Silva novel by Leighton Gage is a cracker. Each of his books takes on a different segment of Brazilian society, and in this case it's a middle class enclave inhabited by sports stars and lesser humans as well.

I'm not a fan of football/futbol/soccer, and the fact that A Vine in the Blood is based on the kidnapping of a football hero's mother (apparently to put him off his game just before a World Cup prelim match against arch-rival Argentina) gave me a little pause--but I needn't have worried. The book is in part about the social phenomenon of football, but not really about the game (in the same way that Vazquez-Montalban's olympic book isn't really about the Olympics).

Silva's crew is pressured on all sides to find the mother before the kidnappers kill her. The kidnappers aren't revealed until the end, but when the plot is finally detailed, it's a heist-story in itself (I can't reveal any details). There's only a brief glimpse of the kidnapped mother in captivity, and the rest of the story is with the cops, chasing one false lead after another.

When the final break comes, it's a perfectly believable insight rather than the strained coincidence that we sometimes see in crime fiction. All in all, the Silva series just gets better and better.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Budapest Noir

Budapest Noir, by Vilmos Kondor, is a Hungarian novel that is scheduled to be published in English translation next year (I received a digital copy via NetGalley). The central character is Zsigmond Gordon, a crime reporter in Budapest in the 1930s. At the same time as the prime minister is being eulogized (having died while out of the country), a young woman is found dead on the street in a rough area of town. But the girl seems to be from a high class background and is carrying a Hebrew prayer book, and Gordon glimpses a nude portrait of the girl in a powerful policeman's desk drawer (while snooping). All in all, Gordon suspects that there is more to the story than a casual murder of a prostitute.

But no one else seems to care, not the police and not her family (when he finds them, he discovers that they've disowned her--and the motives for that act are at the center of the story). But as Gordon digs further, he stirs a hornet's nest in the underworld, and brings violence and threats upon himself, his artist girlfriend, and his grandfather (a retired cop who retired to Budapest and took up the making of fruit preserves).

The time frame, the underworld dealings, and the East European setting suggest a comparison with Marek Krajewski's excellent series set in pre-war Breslau, but Kondor avoids the downright strange storytelling and structure of Krajewski's series (though that's no slam on Krajewski, whose weirdness is extremely compelling). Unlike Krajewski's detective, Kondor's reporter has positive relationships with both his girlfriend and his grandparent, and though there's plenty of kink in the tale (among the brothels and in the city) it's more a straightforward thriller and crime novel (while Krajewski's books are more like nightmares).

There's a lot of classic noir in Budapest noir, in fact. Kondor gets it right without striving for exact equivalence to the American noir ambience. His Budapest is striking and his story is compelling, dealing with ordinary human venality as well as heightened versions of it that will become more virulent in the years just after this book's timeframe (though distinctly forshadowed in the story of the young Jewish girl, whose murder, though, takes the reader less in the direction of Nazi horrors than into the noir territory of Ross MacDonald and (more recently) Declan Hughes. The distinct strains of noir continue to intertwine in the hands of talented writers like Kondor (or Krajewski, for that matter) who are finding new vitality in the genre.

I'm pasting in the U.S. cover as well as a small image of the Italian translation and the Hungarian original. All in all, I think I like the Hungarian one best: more atmospheric.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Death and the Olive Grove, by Marco Vichi

I haven't read the first of Marco Vichi's Inspector Bordelli novels, Death in August, and beginning with the second book in a series is frequently not a good idea, I realize. There have been frequent references to Agatha Christie in the p.r. and reviews of the Bordelli books, but at least in the second book, Death and the Olive Grove, any reference to Christie could only be useful to mark Vichi's novel as "cozy" rather than "noir", though perhaps neither sobriquet actually applies. The novels are set in Florence, not quite a big city but certainly larger than a country village, and most of the crime novels set in Florence do have a lighter tone than other Italian and Italian-set mystery fiction, and the setting is mid-20th-century rather than more contemporary times.

Death and the Olive Grove doesn't feature much mystery-solving, and much of the narrative is about Bordelli's personal life and in particular his World War II experiences (according to the review, there's a lot of World War II in Death in August as well). Bordelli is an interesting character, and lively enough to be around—though I personally got a bit tired of the constant reference to the War, rather like being stuck at a dinner table next to someone who can't talk about anything other than his war experiences.

Death and the Olive Grove is really not a police procedural either: Bordelli doesn't really figure out what's going on, he stumbles on facts or is presented them on a silver platter by one or another of the numerous (and somehow quaint) underworld figures that he has cultivated, and whose crimes Bordelli is inclined to overlook.

The case begins with a corpse (reported to the Inspector by a dwarf who is one of those informants) that has vanished by the time Bordellii gets to the scene (the olive grove of the title). That's an interesting beginning, along with the hazards that Bordelli and his temporary sidekick encounter in the grove, but the book is really about a series of child murders. Bordelli and his partner, a Sardinian (whose father Bordelli knew in, wait for it, the War) pursue leads and lock onto a prime suspect, but that suspect is under surveillance during the later murders, thus provided with an ironclad alibi.

So there's plenty of mystery, as well as mayhem, but the pace is very leisurely, frequently interrupted by Bordelli's reminiscences, depictions of his own and his partner's love lives, and the cooking of various of Bordelli's acquaintances among the restaurateurs and criminals of Florence. There's a curious parallel in Bordelli's private life with the plot of Temporary Perfections, the most recent Guido Guerrieri novel by Gianrico Carofiglio: Both Bordelli and Guerrieri have a friendship with a former prostitute of their own age, and a sexual relationship with a much younger woman (in Bordelli's case, 30 years younger, a woman involved in Nazi hunting, which becomes a substantial element of the plot). Some reviewers found Guerrieri's behavior to be problematic, to the point of putting them off Carofiglio's books, and I'd be curious to know how readers react to Bordelli's behavior.

I'd be interested to read more of Vichi's books, but his depiction of the criminal class as a misunderstood economic minority is a bit quaint, given what Italian crime already was at the time the novels are set. To be fair, though, some of Magdalen Nabb's excellent crime fiction set in Florence has a similar pattern. And Bordelli's war experiences neatly sidestep the Fascist era of Italy's participation in the war, casting Bordelli as an irregular fighting the Nazis, rather than a soldier fighing for Mussolini. The Florence of Bordelli's day is evocatively described, and I'd prefer to hear more about that setting and less about Bordelli's War.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The latest (and first) K.O. Dahl crime novel from Norway

Lethal Investments, recently published in a translation from the original Norwegian by Don Bartlett, is the 4th of the novels featuring detectives Frølich and Gunnarstranda to be published in English but is in fact the first novel in the series. A young woman is murdered in her apartment, just after a man (a one-night stand) has left her. The detectives pursue the one-night stand (identified by a peeping tom across the street from the murdered woman's apartment) as well as her workplace, a decidedly odd software company full of suspicious characters.

What keeps the Gunnarstranda and Frølich novels lively is the conversation and inner monologues of the two detectives (one a short man toward the end of his career and the other a large man at the beginning). Neither detective is a typical crime-fiction policeman, though they share some characteristics with the standards of the genre (Gunnarstranda's wife has died, leaving him alone and lonely, and Frølich's relationship with his lover has its ups and downs), and the book is solidly within the tradition of the police procedural. But the two cops are not cliche partners, their relationship is decidedly spiky, and their dialogue is often realistically indirect and allusive, surely a challenge for a translator, but brought off very well by Bartlett.

What's going on in the software company will be more obvious to a reader now than it might have been some years ago when the book was published, but the story isn't otherwise dated or stodgy (it's just that there have been so many frauds exposed in real life in the past few years). Corpses begin to pile up, and there are some coincidental sightings of suspects as the cops drive around Oslo (on duty and off), but everything is brought off with naturalistic and believable style. The detectives remind me just a bit of the odd couple featured in Roslund and Hellström's Swedish crime novels, but without some of the extremes of those characters and Dahl's plots are more varied and more focused on ordinary crimes and everyday lives of contemporary Scandinavians than is the case with Roslund & Hellstrom's books (which frequently deal with international crimes and prison situations).

K.O. Dahl's novels are among the very best of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the author has a voice that is distinct from the rest.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Fatal Touch, by Conor Fitzgerald

The Fatal Touch is the second crime novel set in Rome, by Irish writer Conor Fitzgerald, featuring an American detective in the Italian police. International enough? Someone is mugging tourists, and in the midst of that investigation, the body of an old man is discovered on the street, perhaps murdered. He turns out to be an Irishman known for art forgery and a partner in a dodgy art gallery. Alec Blume, the lead character in the series, is mentoring a woman recently transfered into his department, and her relationship with the other members of the team isn't going very well. On the other hand, Blume is inept in his dealings with everyone, from witnesses to cops to friends.

In fact, Blume is the most difficult personality in Italian-set crime fiction since Timothy Williams's irascible Commissario Trotti, and as in Williams's novels, Blume's character sets the tone. The story is complicated, with frequent digressions into the forger's story as revealed in his journal. Those digressions are in a way a separate story, going back to the old man's youth in Ireland: some readers find the alternate narrative engrossing—to me they were interesting but distracting from the main story, making the book seem longer than it needed to be.

But the plot intricately intertwines this backstory with several threads in the here-and-now, without resorting to cliche in bringing the story toward a coherent conclusion. Fitzgerald is not afraid to deal harshly with some of the series's more interesting characters, a trait he also shares with Williams (whose characters frequently move away from the unnamed setting of the series or get killed). There's also a vivid villain in the novel, in the person of a corrupt and ruthless Carabinieri Colonel who takes over the investigation from Blume and lurks behind everything that happens in the story from that point on.

The spiky central character, eccentric plotting, and the capacity to let bad things happen to good people give the Blume books an authenticity and immediacy that a more reticent writer might not achieve. And the Roman milieu is vividly evoked here, perhaps even more so than in The Dogs of Rome, the first in the series. Plus the reader learns in the new book a lot of fascinating information about the trade of art forgery.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Good Thief's Guide to Venice, plus Fatale

Chris Ewan has produced "Good Thief's Guides" to several cities already but the book set in Venice is the first one I've picked up. The books are not, of course, tour guides or thievery guides, but clever crime novels. The two covers illustrated here, from the U.K. and the U.S., illustrate the two halves of this book: the genuine appreciation of the city of Venice and the comic approach to the crime novel (the U.K. cover seems to be designed to capitalize on the cover's blurb from Colin Bateman, in fact).

But Ewan's novel is not as funny as Bateman's books, at their best. It's not so much a comedy as a light-hearted crime novel. Charlie Howard is a professional housebreaker who has sworn off his life of crime to pursue his other profession, writing crime novels featuring a housebreaker. There are a few times when the book becomes "self-conscious" or a "metafiction" in a comic way, but for the most part, the story is told straight, in Charlie's own voice.

Charlie's voice is self-centered but also self-critical, and he's good company. He's wakened in the middle of the night by a female burglar who steals only his prize possession and the magic talisman that keeps his writing on track, a framed, signed first edition of The Maltese Falcon. She leaves clues that lead finally to her challenge: she'll give the book back if he returns a briefcase to the home of a wealthy Venetian count; and he's forbidden from opening the case.

There are surprises and twists in the plot, but the point is not really the danger to Charlie, his agent Victoria (who's staying with him in Venice), the count, the book, or the burglaress, any more than the various threats are the point of, say, The Pink Panther (and Ewan's Guide is in a way a throwback to that sort of comic crime).

Charlie's a bit obtuse about some things, and in some ways hardly seems to rise to the level of "master thief" that is ascribed to him (maybe that's more well established in the earlier books). Charlie's meanderings around Venice are interesting glimpses of the city, and the story is entertaining, while not being either laugh-out-loud funny or serious about the genre. Given the light tone, I found the book to be a little long.

Fatale, on the other hand, is very short. Jean-Patrick Manchette is a revered French crime novelist, two of whose books have already been translated, Prone Gunman and Three to Kill, both of which I liked. Fatale, though, seems artificial or contrived, a thesis novel more than a fully realized fiction. It's about a female hitman with a very complicated way of doing business that's only gradually revealed.

She's the center of the story, but isn't much fun to be around. Her skills are employed ruthlessly until things start to get complicated in her last job, which is mostly the subject of Fatale. But I found it hard to care much about her, the job, or her victims. I have a sense that Manchette didn't intend for us to get too involved: he's not so much telling a story as a fable or parable. I don't know whether this is more obvious here, with a female heroine, than it was in the other two novels, both of which centered on men: I may go back and re-read the others to see if that's the case.

However, it's an intense book in the mode of classic noir, a descent into hell without any redemption. For that alone, the book is well worth reading, and the shortness of the text makes that easier to do. But prone gunman is, as I remember, a more fully rendered hitman story.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gianrico Carofiglio's Temporary Perfections

The new Guido Guerrieri novel by Gianrico Carofiglio (translated by Antony Shugaar) is a lot of fun, in spite of the dark-toned plot. I've been mulling over the differences between character-driven and plot-driven crime fiction lately, and Temporary Perfections is decidedly character-driven. Guido is a first-person narrator, and he's clever, introspective, full of interesting digressions, and generally fun to be around. The plot moves slowly forward, frequently interrupted by those digressions, up to a point near the end when suddenly things start to happen, after Guido achieves a particular insight.

The Guerrieri novels are mostly set in Bari on Italy's east coast, but Guido goes to Rome a couple of times in the new book, for a couple of different reasons. So we get a flavor not only for the provincial city but also the capital, both from a legal and a non-legal perspective.

Guido is asked by a friend to help a couple whose college-age daughter has disappeared. The Carabinieri, in charge of the case, have stopped looking and are about to shelve the case, because there aren't any leads and because the daughter is of age and may well have simply decided to disappear.

Guido goes about his usual legal business while also interviewing the detective in charge of the original investigation and several of the daughter's friends, without really breaking any new ground. Along the way, he develops relationships with two women, one close to his own age (the owner of his favorite bar) and the other much younger, one of the daughter's friends. The bar owner's dog will also play an indirect role, but the younger woman begins to take up more and more of Guido's time and interest, along with his deep misgivings about consorting with a woman almost half his age.

Though the mystery is interesting and its solution is complex and moving, the novel stands or falls on Guido's voice, and fortunately he's a delightful character, someone that we'd love to be sitting across a dinner table from. Though there are running characters in the series, it's basically a one-man show. There is a stark difference between Carofiglio's stand-alone novel, The Past is Another Country (made into an interesting film) and the Guerrieri stories, though in fact the stand-alone deals with a lot of the same people and issues as Temporary Perfections. The difference is Guido, who is our window on the dealings of young people veering into crime and vile behavior, while in Another Country, all we have are those same young people. By means of Guido's voice, we have both a clearer view and in the end more sympathy with these people whose behavior eases from self-interest into sociopathy.

There are different publishers and different covers for Temporary Perfections in the U.K. and the U.S. The U.K. cover (the one posted at the top of this review) is both clearer and more specifically atmospheric than the U.S. one (which suggests Rome, an important but after all secondary setting) more than Bari, though I confess some bias toward the U.K. edition's publisher, Bitter Lemon, who brought the Guerrieri series to the world originally.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Outrage from Iceland

Outrage, Arnaldur Indridason's newly translated Icelandic crime novel, is a departure from the series featuring the dour detective Erlendur, while still being part of the series. Erlendur has gone walkabout, in the fjords where his brother was lost, his body never found, in a storm many years before (the event that has marked the rest of Erlendur's life).

In his absence, Elínborg, Erlendur's female colleague, steps to the foreground of the series (Sigurdur Óli, their other colleague, also features in the book, but in a smaller role than Elínborg). Crime writers have often shifted focus from one running character to another, but rarely has it made such a dramatic difference in the mood of a book: Elínborg is not exactly cheerful, but she lacks Erlendur's gloomy outlook, and her family (all of them alive, not so common among fictional detectives) is constantly in her mind.

The case at hand involves rape and roofies (the date rape drug). In a preface we see a young man on the prowl in a club. But when the police arrive at a crime scene (spoiler alert) in the first chapter, it's a man's body that's found, not a woman's, and he's wearing the T-shirt that the predatory male's potential victim was wearing in the preface. In addition to a difficult case, Elínborg is dealing with (in her own family) a hostile teenage son who's a bad influence on a younger son, an exceptionally intelligent daughter, and a foster son who has abandoned the family that took him in.

Elínborg's passion for cooking (noted in earlier books in the series) is also a strong thread in the story, not only in her own home (where she seldom has time to exercise her talent) but also in the case (where subtle odors play a major role). As in the books featuring Erlendur, the shift away from traditional Icelandic culture to a more homogenized modern one is an important theme, but the shift from Erlendur's point of view to Elínborg's provides a less gloomy and reactionary perspective on the phenomenon.

The subject of rape is investigated in some depth, with special emphasis in the damage that the crime does to the victim's life and mental state. Elínborg claims no special insight because she's a woman, but perhaps the author chose to bring her to the forefront in this case because of her more possibly more sympathetic attitude toward the victims. Yet she does not hesitate to pursue the possibility that the victim of the rape at the center of the story may (when she finally finds her) be the perpetrator of the murder. Other actual and potential victims of rape and murder are offered, giving shades of emphasis about the crime, the victims, and the attacker.

It's always puzzled me that Arnaldur (Icelanders actually go by their first names rather than patronymics, a fact that gives the stories an interestingly informal quality) emphasizes Erlendur to the detriment of his other, quite interesting, police colleagues: perhaps he was thinking the same thing, since Elînborg, when given free rein to dominate the book, is indeed quite interesting, fully the equal of other female detectives in Scandinavian fiction (by male as well as female authors). While I'm curious to know what is happening with Erlendur (there a very few clues, none of them very positive, in Outrage), I'd also be glad to read more about Elínborg in the future (Sigurdur Óli seems not quite so interesting: a more impulsive than intelligent detective).

Outrage follows the pattern of the subgenre of police procedurals, though perhpaps less completely than in Dregs, reviewed here recently. There is a mystery at the heart of Outrage for which some clues are supplied to the reader and the detectives, and we may guess at some aspects of the facts of the case (some of which will be upturned by the development of the tale), but still Elînborg's skill is supplemented by her unique insight perhaps more than is the case with William Wisting of Dregs, whose talent is in organizing the investigation and remaining open to new facts rather than in any special insight. Just goes to show that two excellent books in the same sub-set of crime fiction can demonstrate quite different approaches. I hope that it won't be too long before we get another installment in this series, no matter which detective takes the main role.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Dregs: Norwegian police procedural

Dregs, by Norwegian crime writer Jørn Lier Horst, is a first-class police procedural. Horst has had some time to perfect his craft: this is apparently the 6th in the series featuring Detective William Wisting, and his 8th novel, but the first to be translated into English. Though it's always preferable to start a series with the first book (to my mind), Horst does a good job of keeping the reader informed about the characters' past, so we English-speakers won't get lost.

The book is set in Stavern, in southeast Norway (near the city of Larvik, where Horst is himself a policeman). Wisting is called to the shore where a left-foot running shoe has washed ashore, with the foot still inside. This is the second recent Scandinavian crime novel to feature a foot-washing-ashore (Swedish writer Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles arrived a bit earlier), but apart from that and the fact that both are police procedurals, the books don't have a lot in common. Horst's book is a bit more straightforward, while Eriksson's ranges quite far in time and geography. Plus in Horst's book, the reader sees only a few brief scenes that either Wisting or his daughter Line (a journalist) don't see (there aren't scenes from the viewpoint of the killer or victims).

In Dregs, too, more shoes come washing ashore, all for the left foot (which is also present). Wisting and his team quickly align the case with the disappearances of a group of old men and two women, but no one can figure out what's going on, or why the missing people's feet (rather than whole bodies) keep showing up. Simultaneously, Line is in town (she normally works in Oslo), working on a feature article about released prisoners. One in particular has captured her interest, and eventually his story becomes intertwined in the investigation—but not in an obvious way (nothing about the story is obvious).

Wisting is a very interesting character (and the novel is more character-driven than plot-driven, unlike a couple of other Scandinavian crime novels I've read recently). Wisting is feeling his age and waiting for results from a doctor's visit. Like many other fictional detectives, there's a tragedy in his past (the death of his wife and Line's mother), but unlike many others, he has partly moved on and is now in a positive relationship with a woman in the town. Line, as well, is in a relationship, but one that her father is not entirely happy with.

All in all, it's a very realistic story, focused on the characters and the slow progress through the investigation (leading through spirals of information, going through the facts again and again from various newly discovered angles—as in any good police procedural). It's not a puzzle mystery, since neither the reader nor the police are in possession of the information necessary to solve the case until well into the story. The police procedural format is more satisfying to me than the puzzle mystery, for reasons I don't fully understand. But the pleasures of the procedural are very much in evidence in Dregs.

The title works very well, too—various shades of meaning of "dregs" surface at various points. Horst is one of the best writers of the current crop (a new Scandinavian crime wave in English translation): nothing like the books of Stieg Larsson, and actually not much like those of Henning Mankell either (though they share the procedural format). Horst's style is low-key, but very involving, vivid, and persuasive.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog

I'm not sure if it has already run in the U.K., but the TV series based on Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels is about to be shown on public television in the U.S. And I also don't know if there are plans to film Atkinson's latest (and so I've heard, last, for a while at least) Brodie novel, Started Early, Took My Dog. It's hard for me to imagine a film or TV show based on the book, but then it's hard for me to imagine any film adequately dealing with Atkinson's fictional universe.

Started Early, Took My Dog is full of parellelisms and coincidences, in a story based in Yorkshire and mostly in Leeds. There are parallels everywhere, within the "present-day" plot and between that and the flashback plot (set in the mid-'70s, with many references to the Yorkshire ripper, whose spree was just starting. But this is no thriller, and no Red Riding either, to cite that other Yorkshire crime novel/series that is bound to come up in any discussion of Started Early, Took My Dog. Atkinson's novel is instead a book of dazzling surfaces and profound depths, which constantly (through those parallels and the brilliant writing, calling attention to its fictional nature.

There are several kidnappings, beginning with a retired policewoman abruptly deciding to "buy" a child from a prostitute/junkie who is abusing the kid. Jackson, for his part, takes a small dog away from a man who is abusing it, establishing comic (and not so comic) parallels from the beginning. There's also kidnapping the the '70s plot, in an incident that provide much of the plot and links most of the characters. A third main character is an aging actress, succumbing to dementia, whose links to the kidnappings are tenuous until the very end.

Atkinson has a talent for combining lively writing with careful characterizations. A reader not only knows these characters very well, but ultimately cares about them. And Atkinson doesn't abuse the reader's concern (I won't explain for fear of revealing too much plot). The various characters and the intertwining plots (through the two eras of the story) hold the reader's interest all along, and in the last half of the book the pace picks up with new twists on various kinds of chases, retiring gangsters, police corruption, speeding trains (a parallel to an earlier Brodie book), TV cop shows, and damsels in distress. She also provides a child character who is affecting without being cloying, true but also comic: both a literary device necessary for the story and a lively element of the story (though she doesn't say much). Child characters are difficult (not to mention that dogs are a crime fiction cliche), but Atkinson pulls off these elements of the story as effectively as the "bigger" aspects of the novel.

One element tying the whole Brodie series together is Jackson's monologues with Julia, a character in the series from the beginning, who now serves as a kind of chorus as well as an idiosyncratic character in her own right. Atkinson wisely anchors Brodie's melancholy with Julia's flightiness: we need them both, even when Julia isn't really part of the story. Started Early, Took My Dog isn't perhaps for every crime reader, but it does reinforce a reader's convicion that genre isn't everything. Atkinson gives us the elements of the crime genre, sometimes turned inside out, but without ever condescending to the genre itself. It's a structure, much like all those parallels, that enables a good story and in this case a very good book.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stefan Tegenfalk, Anger Mode

Stefan Tegenfalk's Anger Mode (recently published under the new Nordic Noir imprint in translation by David Evans) is sort of like a combination of Jussi Adler-Olsen's Danish crime novel The Keeper of Lost Causes (aka Mercy) and the novels of Swedish crime/thriller writer Leif GW Persson. Like The Keeper of Lost Causes, Anger Mode starts with a horrific car crash and proceeds according to the revenge motive of a survivor. Like Persson's novels, Anger Mode shifts from one set of characters to another and plays off the regular police against Sápo, the security police (and as in Persson's work and for that matter Stieg Larsson's, Sápo is both stupid--or at least so narrowly focused that they can't see the truth--and ruthless).

Anger Mode also has, like Adler-Olsson's novel, a detective who relies on unorthodox methods and a character from Syria whose name is a running joke (the Danish novel features a mysterious police contractor named Hafez el-Assad and the Swedish one has a criminal informant named Omar Khayyam). But like the most recently translated of Persson's novels, the detective has a young female partner who both struggles against and disproves the sexism of the police force.

The strength of Anger Mode is the plotting, which is devious and avoids the obvious (right to the end, which points to a pair of sequels). The writing (or the translation, and perhaps some Swedish speakers can help us here) is sometimes a bit wooden, especially in the dialogue (sometimes stiff and over-explaining rather than natural). The diverse characters have a bit more life and considerably more backstory than Adler-Olsson's, their individuality indicated by the narrator's comments but only revealed fully more slowly, by their actions. There's one character, a villain, whose total package of personality traits seems a bit strained to me: one moment he's an ideologue, the next a scheming embodiment of greed: it's not impossible that those elements could be combined in one character, but the shift from one to the other is a bit abrupt (and perhaps the two strains will join together later in the trilogy).

Anger Mode is long-ish (about 470 pages) but reads quickly (except for some of those turgid dialogue passages, and skimming over those speeds things up, after all). It's a worthwhile addition to the translations of the Nordic crime wave, though not among my top-ranked novels (and perhaps those who rejected my previous negative comments about Adler-Olsson will find even more to like in Tegenfalk's writing than I did). I'm simultaneously reading (or rather listinening to) Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog, which is very well written and contains totally natural, believable dialogue--but in which things happen glacially rather than rapidly. I don't fault either Tegenfalk or Atkinson for their different aims and approaches, but perhaps there are some writers out there who combine their virtues?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alan Glynn, Bloodland

The sequel (sort of) to Alan Glynn's Winterland is set for release by Picador in the U.S. in January (I think it's already out in the U.K.). It's more of a thriller than a straight crime novel, but the thriller aspect is quite different from the usual novel of that genre. There's a lot of tension and plenty of threat, but most of the story takes place in the ordinary streets, apartments, hotels, and boardrooms of today's society.

The link to Winterland is Larry Bolger, now the former prime minister (Taoiseach) of Ireland, and not comfortable being out of the loop of power brokers who had put him into power in the first place. There also some shadowy American plutocrats that played a role in the previous novel and loom even larger here.

The young, unemployed journalist who is the closest thing to a central character in Bloodland summarizes the story at various points as being about a helicopter crash, a UN inspector (dead), an actress (dead), a village massacre, and a presidential candidate. There's also scandal, despair, PTSD, burnout, debts incurred and called in, and several unhappy families. Other than the journalist, Jimmy Gilroy, and Larry Bolger, we get the story from the point of view of a couple of those American plutocrats (one of them the brother of that presidential candidate), some of Bolger's former associates, an Irish developer ruined by the collapse of the Celtic tiger.

Jimmy, who has managed to get an assignment to write the actress's biography, is steered away from the project and toward a bio of Bolger, but in the process he snags onto a thread that links the massacre, the crash, the plutocrats (American and Irish), and some very ruthless people who work for a private security company. Jimmy is a likable innocent caught up in forces way beyond his control, and ends up in New York with everyone on his tail. It takes a while to sort out the cast of characters, but Glynn gradually gives each of them a full portrait through their inner and outer dialogues.

The tone is fast and lively, but not frenetic. It's quite enjoyable to see the plotlines converge, and the characters are fully alive (even the ones moving swiftly toward their deaths). The major difference between Winterland and Bloodland is that, beyond the developers, politicians, power brokers, and moneymen that the two stories share, Winterland also involved gangsters and a woman determined to find the truth about her murdered brother. Jimmy doesn't quite have the personal motivation that she did, at least not until his own life is at stake, and the gangsters anchored Winterland in a gritty urban milieu, in contrast to the boardrooms. Bloodland is anchored instead in a fast-sinking middle class watching jobs and investments and businesses disappear before their eyes (again in contrast to the denizens of the boardrooms).

It's interesting to see Glynn make such a substantial shift between two novels that are in other ways closely related. He's showing the common ground between crime fiction and thrillers, and twisting both genres into his own particular style. The cover of the U.S. edition makes it look like this is a New York story, and it partly is. But at its heart is an Irish story, but anchored in new global economic, political, and social realities. Among the very talented crop of Irish crime writers on the scene today, Glynn has the most global outlook. He's also the author of a semi-scifi thriller made recently into the movie Limitless, but if you're not into quasi-Blade Runner/Phillip K. Dick tales, don't let that association put you off Winterland and Bloodland. They're very vivid stories of today's low and high crimes, and very much tied to a base in contemporary Ireland (while also believably portraying American, Italian, and African milieux).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jussi Adler-Olsen's Danish crime fiction

An Engish translation of Jussi Adler-Olsen's Danish crime novel arrived in the U.K. last spring under the title Mercy and is about to arrive in the U.S. with the title The Keeper of Lost Causes. The U.K. title (and cover) suggest a major plot line concerning the kidnapping and imprisonment of a woman who is a politician and the caretaker of a disabled brother. The U.S cover mimics the U.S. covers of the Tattoo trilogy, and otherwise suggests the plot obliquely. Neither, however, does much to suggest the major characteristics of this book and the series which it inaugurates, which deal with a "cold case" squad in Copenhagen called Department Q.

Department Q is started partly as a means of getting a troublesome detective, Carl Mørck, out of the way, and partly to leech some extra cash out of the government (a substantial part of which will not actually to to Department Q, an ongoing element of the story). Mørck has been wounded in an assault that killed another detective and crippled a third, and Mørck might be expected to have some "PTSD" and guilt feelings: but except for a brief moment in an encounter with a therapist (whom the detective visits mostly because she's attractive), Mørck is mostly a straightforward egotist, loudmouth, obnoxious, and effective policeman.

That "straightforward" in the previous sentence indicates a certain lack of enthusiasm on my part. Neither Mørck nor his erstwhile assistant (whose very name, Haffez el-Assad, is a running joke) are really fleshed out. Merete, the kidnapped woman, is a little more substantial, but her story is mostly given in the extreme situation of her imprisonment, so that what we see of her is mostly alternating determination and despair. Her determination, in particular, is very interesting (given the usual use of the kidnapped woman in crime fiction), and we have her life story in some detail, but for me she remained, like the detective, a character more on paper than in the flesh.

The story is moved forward mostly in narration (partly from inside Mørck's head) rather than dialogue. And up to the end, it's mostly Merete's misery and Carl's gradual progress in the investigation (aided very substantially by his mysterious assistant), as well as in his occasional work on the homicide squad's other cases (and the other cops are mostly foils for Mørck (he's the only one who seems capable of actually detecting anything). And the villains, as they are gradually revealed in the second half of the book, seem inadequately motivated, veering from mad science to petty vindictiveness without revealing much else.

I don't mean to say that this is a bad book. It's just not as three-dimensional as another recent Danish crime novel, The Boy in the Suitcase, or as the best of the Scandinavian crime wave (Theorin, as just one example). I don't know what Mørck's name means in Danish, but the "murk" of the English homonym suggests something of the character: he seems to be mostly lazy, though more capable than his colleagues; even his relationship to his estranged wife seems perfunctory, as if he can't be bothered to be much more than mildly annoyed with her. And Assad, as he's mostly called, is almost cartoon-like, revealing hidden talents at every turn but always falling back into a jokey "immigrant" style of speech and character.

The Keeper of Lost Causes reminded me a bit of another book (which I haven't reviewed yet) that disappointed me, the much shorter Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. All of Manchette's translated novels are a bit flat in tone, taking a philosophical, noir approach rather than a fleshy, full-bodied approach to crime fiction. But I liked Three to Kill and Prone Gunman, whereas I found Fatale a bit tedious, the characters flat and not rounded. It's a "thesis" book rather than a full story, to me. I have been listening to an audio book of Ian Rankin's The Complaints while reading Fatale on paper and The Keeper of Lost Causes as a pdf (from Netgalley), and though the Complaints may not be Rankin's best book, the characters are certainly fully fleshed out, and the story natural and not forced. Perhaps the other two novels suffered from comparison to the vivid quality of Rankin's prose.

I'm happy to be contradicted, if others got more from the book: Adler-Olsen is well respected in Denmark and has been well reviewed around the world. Perhaps the Department Q series will grow on me. In the meantime, I've started Alan Glynn's Bloodland, which is certainly lively and engaging so far.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Leif GW Persson and Swedish noir '78–'84

Bo Widerberg's 1984 film The Man from Mallorca is taken from Leif GW Persson's 1978 novel Grisfesten (Pig Party or Pig Roast), which seems to be the first appearance of the central characters from several later novels, Detectives Jarnebring and Johansson (who were at that point in their careers working in Vice). Several other characters who are at least referred to in later books also put in an appearance (and you may recognize Sven Wollter as Jarnebring in the photo pasted in here, from more recent crime fiction TV series, if not Tomas von Brömssen as Johansson).

As a movie, The Man from Mallorca is very close in style to Widerberg's The Man on the Roof, taken from a Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel (The Abominable Man). The story is presented without commentary, in short scenes that are sometimes confusing until the story starts to come together about halfway through (and the style is in the end very effective).

The story concerns a post office robbery by a clever and capable thief: Jarnebring and Johansson ar ethe first on the scene and, having let the thief get away, they become involved in the investigation. The thief proves to be not only ruthless but well-connected. A persistent theme in Persson's later books is already in evidence: the conflicting interests of the police and the security police (whose methods and aims are a constant source of tension, criticism, and even comedy for Persson). The thief's costume is also quite funny (I'm not going to explain--not exactly a plot spoiler, but...), and the fact that the robbery takes place during a Lucia celebration gives a very Swedish slant to the scenes (not quite the Swedish Christmas of Bergman's Fanny & Alexander, but close).

Viewers may find the ending of the movie rather cynical, though it is absolutely consistent with Widerberg's style and Persson's story (don't know if the book's ending is the same, since it hasn't been translated—though if I could find a copy my Swedish is probably just about adequate to tell if the ending is substantially different--anyone who's read it is invited to step in with a comment).

It's interesting that a movie from an earlier Persson novel has been available with English subtitles for years, while Persson's writing is only now appearing in English--possibly Widerberg's post-Elvira Madigan international rep is the reason... In any case, it's quite a good movie, and an interesting insight into the characters' early careers (with interesting ironies for those who've read about their later careers).

P.S., did you recognize Sven Wollter from his recent TV-detective role?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Leif GW Persson: Another Time, Another Life

Another Time, Another Life, by Leif GW Persson, is scheduled to be published in the U.S. in March, 2012 (by Pantheon, in translation by Paul Norlen). The novel is a sequel to last year’s Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, and both have the subtitle, “The Story of a Crime,” which inevitably suggests the great Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (especially in the Swedish context). But Persson is doing something different from S&W, at least in these first two volumes of what is said to be a trilogy: he is dissecting a particular crime with national and international consequences, brought into the perspective of the daily routines of the investigating police (who are portrayed warts and all). S&W were focused more closely on the lives of ordinary citizens stressed by the tensions of the welfare state of the 1970s in Sweden. But Persson's writing shifts back and forth between an almost documentary style and a fictional form, drawing the reader along seamlessly through story and history.

The earlier book led up to the assassination of Olaf Palme, and this newly translated one begins with the bombing of the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975 by factions of the German radical movement that’s generally lumped under the heading “Baader Meinhof Gang.” There are several jumps forward from the year of the bombing to the late ‘80s (and the fall of the Soviet bloc) to the late ‘90s, when a murder in the ‘80s comes into focus with the embassy bombing. Along the way, Persson depicts the security establishment of Sweden is less-than-flattering terms, while also repeating to the point of comedy the policemen’s assessment of one another as a “real policeman” and their work as “real police work.” The same pattern is to be found in the earlier book, as well.

One of the interesting things about reading these two books is the way they interlace the history of modern Sweden and the lives of the characters who appear in both.

But in the second book there is a new twist. Many readers have remarked on the sexism of Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, with some wondering whether Persson was portraying accurately the macho attitudes of the police of the time or was perhaps himself betraying his own attitudes. The new book doesn’t answer that latter question, but here he’s playing with the sexism/machoism in a blatant way. Jarnebring, the lead detective of the first sections of the book keeps referring to his new female partner but both he and the narrator refuse to give her a name. She turns out to hold her own, though, forcing them to recognize her as an individual. And soon after, a contrast is drawn with an old-line male pathologist and a new female one who is far more knowledgeable and professional than the male (though one running character in Persson’s books, Detective Bäckström, refuses her conclusions and goes to the old man for confirmation of his own prejudices about the victim.

Those prejudices (and Bäckström’s other sins) come back again in an amusing way in the last pages of the book, while the story has shifted to a squad made up of Jarnebring’s friend and now superior officer (Johannson) and three hyper-competent female detectives. But neither the narrator nor the police environment has suddenly become enlightened on the topic of gender: the police and others continue to utter disparaging remarks about women in particular and specific female characters as well. If the sexism hasn’t disappeared, it’s at least interesting (and often funny) when thrown into the stark contrast that Persson accomplishes in Another Time, Another Life.

And Another Time is indeed an accomplished work of crime fiction, holding my interest easily through it’s 400-plus pages and offering a subtle and complex payoff at the end. Persson is, we’re told, a leading expert on crime in Sweden and a criminal profiler much in demand. He has experience and authority in his portrait of the police (in a way that begs comparison with the past master of the police story in the U.S., fictional and documentary, Joseph Wambaugh--also known for the comic elements of his books). In addition to the trilogy, it looks like all of his books recycle the characters in the two translated books, leading me wish for more translations beyond those apparently planned at the moment (at least one film based on his books, The Man from Mallorca, had international distribution some years ago).

As a point of disclosure but also an explanation of the cover pasted into this review, I received an advance galley of Another Time, Another Life from Pantheon, its U.S. publisher: the galley was bound in a plain yellow wrapper, but inside was a possible cover that more or less matches the style of the U.S. cover of Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, but I haven’t been able to find an image of it anywhere--hence the Swedish one that shows up above--which I actually prefer to the U.S. covers anyway because it ties the story to the historical event (without being quite as explicit about the violence of the event as another cover published for the book in Sweden).

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan

Irish crime writing was already booming before the economic bust in that country, but the collapse seems to be supplying even richer material for the writers there. The gritty realism of Gene Kerrigan seems to have anticipated bad times, as if his style of noir has only now found its proper environment.

His new novel, The Rage, is a very good book that very effectively evokes the decline in the Irish economy and sense of national identity. Bob Tidey is a detective who is determined to the right thing for the victims and their families, and his efforts lead him into a professional and personal quagmire. Vincent Naylor, recently released from prison, is a hard man who's trying to control his impulses, not to go straight but to make the risks of his actions match his possible gains, especially in the complex and daring robbery he has in mind.

The strength of Kerrigan's writing is that the cop and the thug, not to mention Tidey's obstructive bosses and Naylor's criminal associates, are fully human. Tidey struggles with his duty and his conscience and his relationship with his former wife. Naylor struggles with his anger, his impulsive older brother, and his sense of justice (which is fueled by the rage of the book's title). Naylor seems on sounder footing in his relationship to the new woman in his life, a better match than he deserves. One minor character who is essential to the plot, a nun, gets more and more complex as the story goes along, drawing in the traditional virtues (some of them no longer seeming so virtuous) and recent failings of the Irish church. She in particular could have been less interesting and more of a bit player in the hands of a lesser writer, and sh adds a lot to the depth of the story.

The plot is subtle and thoroughly believable, with a lot of killing but without using death as a casual plot device. I've been a fan of Kerrigan's since he started writing fiction (I haven't read his nonfiction crime writing, but I understand it to be highly regarded), and like Maxine over at Petrona-land, I found his third book, Dark Times in the City, to be very good but not quite as darkly effective (emotionally and dramatically) as his first two novels. But The Rage is very good indeed, and I found in it some of the grim poetry of the first two books (which Maxine found less evident in this book), as well as a very original approach to crime writing, responsive to both the demands of storytelling and the truth of a realistic portrayal of a very specific social milieu.

I'm pasting in two covers, the one that seems to be the official Harvill Secker cover and one that seems to be an alternate (it shows up only on a couple of Australian sites—perhaps an official Aussie cover?). The Aussie or alternate one is closer to the actual story, but the official one is more tensely ambiguous. But neither really evokes the power of the story that they purportedly depict.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

All Yours, by Claudia Piñeiro

All Yours, Argentine writer Claudia Piñeiro's second novel to be translated into English (in this case by Miranda France), is really more a satire than a crime novel, and it's sometimes quite funny, in a dark way. While that's also true of her first book, Thursday Night Widows, that novel is a bit more complex and realistic. All Yours is more like a novella, with a plot that takes a couple of twists and is narrated in several voices but is much more straightforward that the earlier book.

Ines overhears a phone conversation between her husband, Ernesto, and a woman, and suspects betrayal. She follows him and witnesses a confrontation between Ernesto and his secretary: he shoves her and she falls against a tree stump, breaking her neck. Ines sneaks away without confronting Ernesto, and what follows (mostly in her voice but also briefly in his and occasionally in what seem to be police documents) is a tale of self-deception and revenge and a final twist.

Interspersed with the main story is the story, mostly in dialogue, of Ines and Ernesto's teenage daughter, who suffers from typical teenage angst and a few more serious problems. But her story veers off from the main plot without really reconnecting to her parents' tragedy. I don't know if the book would have been better if her story were more developed or simply left out, but it seems underdeveloped and not that relevant as it is.

But All Yours is a quite interesting social satire, making fun of middle-class suburban life in a more straightforward way that Thursday Night Widows. It's a quick read and remains light and entertaining. In a way, it's the flip side of the social portrait given in Ernesto Mallo's dark novels of the military dictatorship and its aftermath. Piñeiro's world is the shallow bourgeois social miasma that has followed a more overtly dangerous political past. The cover, by the way, is very effective as an image, and suggests the sexuality inherent in the story but isn't otherwise very much related to the plot.

Friday, August 26, 2011

China, thrillers, and a "forgotten friday" entry

Rock Paper Tiger, by Lisa Brackmann, is more of a thriller than a crime novel. There are probably or likely murders, but no corpses; lots of violence and many threats, but not much effort to solve a mystery. What it reminded me of in an odd way is a wonderful book from the 1960s, Lionel Davidson's The Rose of Tibet. The Rose of Tibet was much praised when first published and has been revived from time to time, but it's still worth reminding people about a book that is in part a throwback to the great adventure novels of previous centuries, updated to the 20th century's global politics.

First, Rock Paper Tiger: the story revolves around Ellie Cooper, an Iraq-war veteran and former medic who saw a few too many things during the war that now threaten her psychological balance, her marriage (to another Iraq vet), and even personal safety. She finds herself adrift in Beijing, having left her husband, sent there by a security company (sort of a small-scale Blackwater). He found a Chinese girlfriend and she left him, having already left the Christianity that was (besides the war) about all they had in common.

Ellie has fallen in with some fringe groups she drifted into while studying Chinese: some Internet role-game-players and some artists, in particular. On a visit to an artists' compound (a vivid glimpse into the overheated world of Chinese contemporary art and its conflicts with a suspicious and paranoid government) she briefly meets a Uighur who may be a freedom fighter or a terrorist (depending on your point of view) who is apparently on the run. Then her artist friend disappears. Then she's invited into the different but possibly overlapping worlds of art collectors and game players, while simultaneously being pursued by various threatening groups (sometimes hard to tell apart) from various governments and interest groups, all of whom want something from her (it's not too clear exactly what) and all of whom are willing to exert violent force to get it.

What ensues is a wild ride back and forth across the new China, with glimpses of the old China. It's in these sections that the resemblance to The Rose of Tibet occurred to me: in that book, an Englishman who had come to Tibet to look for a missing brother is thrust into the role of protector for a young boy and a beautiful woman, with whom he travels in haste across the mountains, with the Chinese army in hot pursuit (it's during the Red Army's invasion of Tibet). Davidson's story is marvelous, a wild, sometimes funny, sometimes erotic, sometimes even spirtual quest or flight that never lets up. Don't listen to me, go read it. Graham Greene meets H. Rider Haggard, as reviewers have remarked. Or Eric Ambler (another writer unjustly gathering dust) meets Edgar Rice Burroughs. There's nothing quite like it (even among Davidson's other, in different ways also excellent, books. It would have made a great movie, if anyone managed to do it right, though it's probably impossible to do it now (special effects would kill the story).

Brackman's novel is almost as intense, a good trick given how vague the threats to her and the goal she is supposedly seeking are. the book has a bit of a cyber-punk edge (in the gaming and its devotees) as well as some serious consideration of the extent to which both repressive and supposedly democratic governments will go in the era of globalized terror and global paranoia. I enjoyed the story and its propulsive motion, and also felt a not-unpleasurable sense of having been conned, when the threats against Ellie more or less evaporate. The real point of the story, I suppose, is Ellie's growth, her shift from a passivity that even predates her PTSD war experience. Her voice is paramount, and Brackman's chief achievement is that the reader never doubts her and remains interested in her and in her voice.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Norwegian noir: The Shadow in the River, part 2

The Shadow in the River, a 2005 Norwegian crime novel by Frode Grytten, is classic noir with a wry edge. It could almost be Chinatown, with the incest changed to adultery and the water rights manipulation motivated by development changed to industrial theft motivated by globalization (there's even a sly reference to the movie). It's a Jim Thompson novel with a political theme (the same racism and xenophobia recently used as an excuse by a deranged Norwegian nazi) and a bit of Samuel Beckett's absurd comedy.

Grytten vividly evokes a grim post-industrial landscape and its citizens (some winners but most losers as their town dies). The narrator and central character, Robert Bell (I wonder if the anglo name is itself a noir reference) is the pessimistic wise-cracking anti-hero of noir, this time a reporter on the verge of losing his job rather than a down-and-out detective.

The plot is not complicated. A young man has drowned in the river, his car forced off the road. He had been fighting with some Serbian immigrants, and everyone is happy to assume that the foreigners are guilty of the crime. In the first half of the novel, Robert lethargically investigates the crime, which has attracted national attention, while occasionally seeing his brother, a police detective, around town and in press conferences.

The brother finally appears directly in the second half, first to ask Robert to accept a TV station's invitation to appear on a news show to discuss the investigation from their different points of view and then to confront Robert about the fact that has become the central tragedy of Robert's life: he is in love with, and having an on-again off-again affair with, his brother's wife.

There's murder, racial hatred, adultery among brothers, plus blackmail, manipulation of the town industry's bankruptcy…plus the worldy and wry voice of the narrator—all the elements necessary for first-class noir. Plus an element of the absurd in both the plot and Robert's attitude, as well as globalism, to bring the story up to date.

Grytten has written a series of short stories based on Edward Hopper paintings, certainly a noir topic, but no other crime fiction that I'm aware of. I had been putting off reading The Shadow in the River because I'd read reviews that made it sound grim and self-consciously “literary,” but the book is winning in its style and its development of the noir form. If you're in the mood for something dark but funny, downbeat but vivid, I'd highly recommend it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Frode Grytten's The Shadow in the River, part 1

Split my review of a short book into two parts might seem odd, but this is an odd book in some ways. The reviews I'd read of The Shadow in the River (translated from Frode Grytten's Norwegian by Robert Ferguson) mostly emphasized the dark and grim qualities of the book; to be honest, it didn't seem very inviting, and it was pretty expensive every time I looked for it, so I forgot about it. Recently I noticed an ex-library copy on-line that was cheap enough to give it a try.

The beginning is indeed a bit dark and grim, concerned with a reporter, the discovery of a body in the river, and small town pettiness, and the style is clipped and indirect, not pursuing the crime so much as portraying the reporter in his own voice. But once it gets going, the book has a lot of bitter humor. Especially toward the middle, where I am now in my rapid progress through the book, with the swarm of national newspapers descending upon the small, decaying, formerly industrial town of Odda, the comedy is quite broad, though still dark (almost Evelyn Waugh-like in tone, and Waugh, too, took on the press).

The humor reminded me of a line repeated a few times in Jan Costin Wagner's The Winter of the Lions, not a book (or a series) much noted for its humor (though th odd sense of humor of somoe of the characters is referred to occasionally). In a book whose characters are called Kimmo Joentaa, Ari Pekka Sorajärva, Tuomas Heinonen, Kai-Petteri Hämäläinen, etc., every time the name of an emergency-room doctor is mentioned, Valtteri Muksanen, some one says "Funny sort of name" or something like that. Does anyone recognize if that's a joke (to a German or Finnish reader)?

More about the plot of The Shadow in the River soon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Winter of the Lions, by Jan Costin Wagner

Structurally, the third Kimmo Joentaa novel to be translated into English (by Anthea Bell (from the German original of author Jan Costin Wagner), is a straightforward police procedural. Joentaa, still finding it quite difficult to cope with the death of his wife (a major theme in the first of the novels, Ice Moon) is called out to a crime scene where one of his team's own crime techs has been murdered savagely. The attack came while the man was cross-country skiing, early on a winter morning (just before Christmas, a season where a number of recent Scandinavian crime novels have been set). Christmas in Finland is evoked quite vividly by Wagner.

Another attack suggests a direction for the investigation, confirmed by a third, but there are no clues to work with. It's a bit unusual for police procedurals to concentrate on a mere detective, not the head of his unit or team. Joentaa is very much the eccentric outlier, doing what he's told but then moving off on his own tangent (which he frequently finds it difficult to explain to his colleagues). H latches onto an idea and slowly works through it until he finds some kind of thread to unravel.

The slowness of the investigation's progress and Joentaa's constant memory of his wife (particurly her last moments) give the book a melancholy, even poetic quality. The narrative sticks with Joentaa for the most part, but shifts into the head of a troubled woman who seems to have something to do with the crime, but her relation to reality is vague, and we get little sense of who she is until Joentaa begins to clarify for himself what has happened. The reader is pulled in by impressions rather than events: the interest is more in how te crimes happened rather than who is the killer. The charaterizations are somewhat quirky: some characters are fully fleshed out and others are sketched simply with a few elements of personality or their relationship to someone else.

The selection of covers (from the U.K., Germany, and France) is telling: The U.K. cover suggests a frozen forest, when most of the story actually takes place in the cities of Tuku and Helsinki, and a good deal of it happens in the context of a TV talk show rather than a forest (though admittedly the first crime scene is adjacent to a forest), and the film industry in Finland plays an important role in the story. The window looking out on an icy scene (the German version) is more closely evocative of the book, but the French version, of a woman peering in a window, suggests in its use of contrasting haze and clarity more of the psychological realities that the novel turns upon.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Manuel Vazquez Montalban at the movies

Last weekend, I watched the only film version of one of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Pepe Carvalho novels that I've been able to find with English subtitles, Rafael Alcazar's 1993 film El Labirinto Griego (The Greek Labyrinth, taken from the novel published by Serpent's Tail in English translation as An Olympic Death). There are several other movies and at least two TV series based on private detective Pepe Carvalho and on Vazquez Montalban's novels, but all made for a Spanish audience and not available with subtitles.

But oddly, for El Labirinto Griego, even though Vazquez Montalban was involved in the screenplay, the character's name was changed from Pepe Carvalho to Juan Bardón, and certain other facts about the novel and the life of the detective are changed (plus several of the more colorful running characters are left out). Does anyone know why the name was changed? Copyright problems, given the other film and TV companies that have bought the rights to the Carvalho books? There's also not much about food in the movie, a big departure from the books.

In any case, An Olympic Death/Greek Labyrinth is a somewhat odd book turned into an even odder movie. The plot twists and turns without much logic, leading the detective on a merry chase through a Barcelona that is being transformed by the upcoming Olympic Games (and not for the better, to listen to the detective and other Barcelona natives in the story): In particular, Pueblo Nuevo/Poble Nou (correct me if I have the name or spelling wrong, please), a working class and industrial neighborhood being razed to build the dormitories for the teams. Along the way, the detective and his clients are threatened and the detective is in trouble with the police.

The plot is loosely wound around a man and woman from Paris who hire the detective to find her husband, a Greek painter and artist's model who has run off with a new lover. She keeps justifying her search by saying he is the "man of my life," the title of another book in the series (a much later one). Bardón/Carvalho leads this pair through a tour of Barcelona at night at this specific time in history, visiting a decadent artist's party, a few bars, a warehouse where a couple of theatrical events for the Olympics is being rehearsed, and an abandoned warehouse where the painter has been living. There are a few surprises when the painter is finally found (a bit predictable, though, and tied to the time of the writing and filming), but mostly the story hinges on the emotional experiences of the characters, the detective included. His daughter (I don't remember a daughter from the book, but someone can perhaps let us know if that's a character invented for the movie) is played by a very young Penelope Cruz (her first film, at least that's what's reported in the film's reviews), and the style of filmmaking is visual rather than narrative (sometimes to the point of annoyance, in my opinion, sapping some of the narrative motion). I thought the actors were well chosen, though (even the Galician/Catalan detective is actually played by an Italian).

But this is the one we have if we don't speak Spanish. I'd love to see the TV series (one from the '80s, I think, and one from the '90s, and there are perhaps others), if anyone has a source for subtitled version or can encourage the distributors to subtitle and release them. Some basis for comparing the Laberinto film to the other versions of Pepe Carvalho would be very interesting.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles

I've been a fan of Kjell Eriksson's crime fiction since his first book featuring Uppsala detective Ann Lindell and her colleagues (The Princess of Burundi) appeared in English translation a few years ago. He has a distinctive voice that separates him from most of the Scandinavian crime wave authors and might make his books less likely to be made into TV or theatrical films.

The distinctive quality of his books, very much in evidence in The Hand That Trembles (published recently by Minotaur in Ebba Segerberg's translation), is a what I think of as a "dailiness." These books are not thrillers, they focus on the everyday lives of people (some of them cops) who happen to be involved in crime, in one way or another.

This new novel features several overlapping plots, beginning with the early and recent history of a man who grew up in rural Sweden, near Uppsala, and ultimately shifted from a career as a plumber to one on politics, as a socialist county commissioner. Most recently, he has vanished from Uppsala and reappeared under an assumed name in Bangalore, living a humble life as a gardener and sometime English instructor in a local school. Why he undertook this journey and why he vanished is a major aspect of the story.

Back in Sweden, in a winter that is a radical contrast to Bangalore, Ann Lindell reluctantly takes on the case of a foot discovered along the shore: reluctantly because the site of the discovery is near the home of her former lover, the father of her young son and, and her longing and loneliness are major factors in this book and the series.

During the investigation, she discovers an almost "locked room" situation, a group of houses apart from the mainland, where a few older people and some middle-aged bachelors live, as well as a younger woman who is a painter (and whose hands are among the trembling ones of the title).

Ann is also involved tangentially in the cold case that her former mentor is investigating, as he recovers from brain surgery, the unsolved murder of an old man in Uppsala who turns out to have been a Nazi sympathizer. While the case of the severed foot moves forward slowly but relentlessly (as Ann and a local colleague speak to the "locked room" houses over and over again), the other threads of the book move along in sudden twists and turns, as threads from Spain, India, and Sweden intertwine. Though there's little likelihood of a reader discovering who severed that foot much before Ann does, there are considerable surprises elsewhere in the story.

So The Hand That Trembles is a police procedural, but also a close-up portrait of a group of people as they live through ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, navigating lost opportunities, regrets, longings, and everyday responsibilities. None of them are stock characters, and it's that "dailiness" that is the prime experience in reading the book, transported though we are to a small city in Sweden and a garden in India.

Eriksson's books relate much more closely to the everyday realism of Swedish crime writing that goes back to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and that is sometimes evident in Henning Mankell's writing, rather than to the thriller writing of Swedish authors from Stieg Larsson to Liza Marklund. Though I enjoy the thrillers, I am myself more drawn to the quieter, more reflective, and more character-driven works by writers like Eriksson.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ernesto Mallo, Sweet Money

The sequel to Ernesto Mallo's remarkable Needle in a Haystack, Sweet Money, is scheduled to be published in the U.S. in October, in a translation by Katherine Silver (published by Bitter Lemon Press). Every reviewer of Needle in a Haystack remarks on the surprising fact that there could be a sequel, since "Perro" Lascano, the central character in what we are told is a trilogy, lies dying in the gutter at the end of the first novel.

But Mallo is not engaged in the kind of magic or comic realism that characterizes the life-after-death of the central character of the detective novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II of Mexico. Mallo's detective is nursed back to health under the protection of a dishonest but wily policeman who is arranging to become the chief of police in Buenos Aires after the end of the military government--and who needs an honest cop like Lascano. But just as Lascano is achieving his recovery, his mentor is shuffled off the stage by a cabal of corrupt police who not only don't need Lascano, they target him for murder.

At the same time, a smart bank robber is released from a prison and follows a plan for his future that quickly falls apart, leaving him in need of cash. His solution is a robbery that has several unfortunate aspects, including a killing, an arrest, and the hidden source of the money stolen. Lascano, hiding from the police, is offered a lot of money to find the surviving robbers and the money before the police do. Lascano needs the money to escape from the police who want to kill him but also to find the woman who got away, his lover from the first novel.

The style of the writing in the series is direct and straightforward, with dialogue presented in blocks of italicized text, with no indication of who is speaking. A reader quickly gets used to the odd presentation of dialogue, and immersed in the multiple pursuits that make up the plot. The charactrers and the story are quickly but vividly drawn, but what Mallo is after isn't so much plot and character as a wider portrait of a society so poisoned by the violence of the military dictatorship (portrayed in Needle in a Haystack) that the new democracy is characterized less by freedom than by greed and corruption. A pervading theme is the kidnapping of dissidents' children, "adopted" by members of the ruling military.

Sweet Money is a grim but not heavy story. Mallo makes us care about the characters and about their shattered social milieu. And the blow that Lascano receives at the end is a final twist that, again, makes a sequel seem unlikely and at the same time inviting.