Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Garry Disher's Wyatt

The latest Garry Disher novel to arrive in the U.S. is a continuation of his Wyatt series (about a dispassionate thief) rather than his police-procedural series (better known here). Wyatt recalls the noir end of Donald Westlake's oeuvre, and in fact Disher offers an homage to Westlake in two names that appear in the book (Stark, one of Westlake's several pseudonyms, and Parker, one of his longest-running characters). Disher's Wyatt has some of the same profile as Parker, a master thief for whom things are always going wrong. But in the new novel, Wyatt is confronting problems that Parker didn't have to: money that moves electronically rather than physically, new security systems, and the constantly rising surveillance of our world today.

The characters in the Wyatt series are pretty much stock characters, interesting in their own way but reduced to their relevance to Wyatt (though the narrative does depart from the central character a good deal of the time). And Wyatt himself is always guarded, always careful, never emotional. He is a particular sort of sociopath: without empathy or even interest in his fellow humans; he's almost high-functioning autistic.

There's a telling passage in which he is attracted to the central woman character (who is one of the most interesting characters, as she veers from normal life into Wyatt's world and then into Wyatt's point of view). He feels the attraction but doesn't quite know what to do about it. Wyatt is super-competent in other ways, and his inability to understand affection or to act on attraction keeps him human, in an odd way. He isn't vulnerable, but he's damaged.

But the plotting is the outstanding characteristic of the Wyatt series. Through the twists and turns, Disher manages to manipulate the standard tropes of the noir-heist story in lively ways, much as Westlake did (though without the overt comedy that Westlake often employed). Disher's Wyatt (the novel and the character) are as dark as they come, but engaging and involving for the reader. Wyatt seems in some ways to be a posthumous tribute to Westlake, and is definitely both an excellent novel in its own right and the best "post-Westlake" take on that master's style that I've read.

Continuing the discussion of covers: here are the Australian (from Text Publishing) and U.S. (from Soho Crime) covers—the Australian original by far the best, to my eye.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Leopard, Jo Nesbø

The eagerly awaited sequel to Jo Nesbø's previous Harry Hole novel (The Snowman) has arrived in English (translated by Don Bartlett). The first question that the book raises is "serial-killer-porn," because of the manner of death of the earliest and some other victims of an unknown killer who ultimately becomes known as "Prince Charming": a torture device with interesting links to the colonial excesses of Europe's African adventures: a device whose lethal power is described at length at the beginning of the novel.

I can't pretend to present any illumination for the sadistic aspects of most serial killer fiction, or Nesbø's particular use of the trope, but I can reassure potential readers that the viciousness of the early passages of The Leopard do not make up the largest part of the novel. If the sadism had continued, it would have been difficult to continue with what is overall a very well written, well constructed crime novel, fully on par with Nesbø's best work.

What does make up most of the story is Nesbø's talent for deploying the usual elements of crime fiction and then undermining and twisting them, so that the reader is continually kept off balance. Throughout the books over 600 pages, an easy or typical resolution looms at the edges only to disappear with a surprising turn of events. Through this process and through Nesbø's writing, the reader is fully engaged in this very long police procedural.

Harry has hit bottom in Hong Kong, where he fled after the traumatic events of The Snowman (a story that haunts this book). He is pulled back to Oslo unwillingly, as a new serial killer is on the loose and the Crime Squad is in disarray, threatened with losing its access to murder inquiries by police politics (the creation of a new national "major case" unit) and by the ruthless ambition of another of Nesbø's complex, ambitious policeme bureaucrats, Mikael Bellman.

The story includes a couple of passages that stretch credulity a bit (including the aftermath of an avalanche, though what do I know about escaping from an avalanche...). But the story pulled me along strongly enough that I've been toting around this large, heavy hardback all week.

Concerning the covers: I'm pasting in the U.S., French, and German versions. The U.S. is probably the weakest graphically, but has the most to do with the actual plot—but the American version is marred by the predictable but irritating "next Stieg Larsson" nonsense.

Friday, April 15, 2011

crime, cricket, murder, and marriage

A few weeks ago, an Irish cultural organization in Washington DC set up a table near my Metro stop (at the office end of my commute) and gave away books by Irish writers all day. I looked over the offerings on their table a couple of times during the day, and finally carried away a copy of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, a 2008 novel about New York after 2001 but also about marriage, separation, childhood, and despair. But it's also, as the blurb on the back of the book says, "a paen to cricket and a murder mystery," according to the Sunday Telegraph. So it's at least partly a crime novel, and as book by an Irish writer about a Dutchman (Hans van den Broek) who emigrates first to London and then to New York where he becomes involved with a Trinidadian gangster and cricket promoter, the story is sufficiently "international" to qualify for this blog, and since it begins with the discovery of that Trinidadian gangster's body in the river (two years after his disappearance), it's also a crime story.

But Netherland is primarily about van den Broek's descent into a tepid middle-class version of hell. New York is vividly evoked (and the writing is poetic and suggestive and frequently funny), but the city is metaphorically a post-apocalpytic backdrop for Hans to experience the despair and dislocation of being abandoned by his wife.

But what primarily marks the difference between Netherland and crime fiction is that once the Chuck-the-Trinidadian's murder is evoked as the foundation of the story, Hans, as the first-person narrator, spends the rest of the book telling how he, Hans, reaches the point of hearing about Chuck's death, rather than how Chuck got there (or why). The criminality of Chuck's life or his death are only part of Hans's trip down and out (out of his apartment in lower Manhattan when the area is evacuated after 9/11, out of marriage and a comfortable life, out of contact with his young son, out of the upper-middle-class and into a netherworld of the denizens of the Chelsea hotel (a transvestite Turkish angel among them) and the petty criminals of Brooklyn.

Hans becomes drawn into a support system based around his childhood sport, cricket, which is played in New York mostly by Carribean and South Asian immigrants on inadequate grounds with no audience. Hans is a very personable and likable tourguide for this world and for his own life's journey, but the narrowness of the focus on Hans gets to be a bit claustrophobic. That perhaps is the difference between the common literary novel and the average crime novel. I'd have liked to hear something about what Chuck was actually up to, who some of the characters that surround him actually are, and what Chuck's own family life is all about (all of which are only suggested). Not that I'm putting a value judgment on it: I am myself, though, drawn more to the expansive view of crime and the city rather than the use of bath simply to illuminate the corners of the narrator's psyche.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Brunetti #20: Donna Leon, Drawing Conclusions

I'm pasting in three cover images: the U.S. cover (with the blue sculpture), what seems to be a U.S. alternate cover (a view over the rooftop domes of San Marco), and a U.K. cover (moon over Piazza San Marco). The official U.S. cover is very attractive, but somehow a view of Venice is much more so, and the U.S. alternate seems both more effective and ultimately more related to the story than either of the other two. Maybe that one will be revived for a paperback edition.

In any case, Brunetti's 20th novel is an understated tour de force, with all the usual elements of the series (the insufferable toady Vice Questore Patta, the resourceful Signorina Elettra, Commissario Vianello, and Paola, Brunetti's wife--still preparing lunches that Brunetti doesn't get home for). The children and Paola's parents are in the background this time, as Brunetti focuses on a puzzling case that isn't officially a case at all.

When a neighbor discovers the body of a woman in her apartment, neither the police nor the medical examiner find a definitive reason to classify the death as other than natural, though there is evidence that she fell or was pushed, hitting her head on a radiator. Brunetti, though, can't leave the case alone, pursuing leads down two tracks that deal with the protection of battered women and the sometimes brutal honesty of the elderly.

Those familiar with the Brunetti novels know that increasingly there is little on the surface that we might call action. Instead, the important events are ethical and emotional in nature—and the ethics are always ambiguous, given that Leon's overarching theme is the ethical quagmire of contemporary Italy. Plus the listing of the running characters that I gave above suggests a less sophisticated delineation of characters that is actually the case in Leon's work. For example, Brunetti here displays something close to brutality in his questioning of and attitude toward one character; and a character who appears to be a thug (and is referred to as such) turns out to be something else entirely by the end of the book.

As usual, the city of Venice, in all its fading glory, is a vital element of the story. Leon doesn't so much describe the city as saturate her story with the lives still intertwined intimately with this place teetering between collapse and Disneyfication. Drawing Conclusions is perhaps quiter and even more melancholy than some of the other Brunetti novels, but is as well written, as involving, and as powerful as the best of the series.

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Magician's Accomplice, by Michael Genelin

I'm catching up a bit late with the third volume in Michael Genelin's Bratislava-based Commander Jana Matinova series, The Magician's Accomplice (the next volume is about to be released, in fact). In The Magician's Accomplice, Matinova is handed two murders at the very beginning (and fair warning, in order to talk about the book at all, some spoilers are inevitable): one is a student who tries to get a free hotel breakfast and is assassinated for his trouble (was he the target, or was it the actual hotel guest whose place he was taking?). The second murder is her lover, a lawyer in the state prosecutor's office, who is blown up by a telephone bomb.

But Matinova is quickly steered away from both, naturally enough, because of the death of one so close to her. She's in fact shipped out to the Europol office in The Hague, where her duties seem to be mostly busywork. Her predecessor in the Slovak "chair" at Europol disappeared, and she begins to investigate, unofficially, eventually enlisting the help of some of her colleagues. And all the while, she intends to investigate secretly the two cases from which she was removed.

What results is a wild ride across The Netherlands, Vienna, Prague, and points between, in which Matinova is accompanied by an elderly former magician, the uncle of the student killed at the beginning, who has followed Matinova to The Hague. The story pulls the reader along without revealing much of what lies behind the murderous conspiracy that ties everything together, a testament to Genelin's skill in bringing together character, plot, and exotic settings.

But the thriller-like plot begins, for me, to seem a little formulaic at times, and one important element of the plot turns on a pretty extreme coincidence that I expected to be more fully developed somehow, more integrated into the story than it was. And Matinova's skill in the violent encounters with bad guys verges on 007 standards, a bit of the "last woman standing" sort of thing. The magician, too, seemed to be developing into an interesting plot device (as well as character) but then wasn't, quite.

Nevertheless, these quibbles won't keep me from progressing fairly quickly to the fourth installment in the Matinova saga. I'm interested to see how her character might deepen after her loss and its violent consdquences in The Magician's Accomplice—another example of the author's skill in drawing in the reader.