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.