Monday, January 30, 2012

Glasgow and Paris:Two dark tales

I haven't been posting much lately, since I've gone through several books recently that I found disappointing enough that I wasn't inspired to write anything about them. Then I got started reading two books simultaneously, which slowed me down a bit, and also provided a contrast that didn't necessarily do one of the books any favors. The two books were Denise Mina's new The End of the Wasp Season and Cara Black's Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, set in Glasgow and Paris respectively.

Both books are from a series, though Mina's is a new one (this is the second book in the series featuring DS Alex Morrow) and Black's is the most recent of the 12 Aimée Leduc series (Leduc is a security consultant who acts like a private detective). Mina's book surprises at every turn: when we think she's writing one kind of story, we discover that it's actually something else entirely. Black's book is a dependable entry in a good series, in this case continuing a theme begun in her last book, in which the story follows the unfortunate love life of the two strongest minor characters in the series, Morbier and René.

It's partly that contrast between the unpredictable and the dependable that made Black's novel less rewarding for me, when experienced in parallel with Mina's. Aimée once again explores for us a quartier of Paris that we, as tourists, wouldn't be able to experience, in this case several distinct Chinatowns, each, though, tied up in the same illegal-immigrant-and-snakehead problem. The villains are mostly offstage, and mostly just what you would expect them to be.
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Mina's book, though, follows a case concerning a young woman brutally murdered in the house of her recently deceased mother. We see the build-up to the murder and then the police investigation after the fact, but not the act itself. Then we follow several parallel threads, including Morrow's investigation, the life of a former friend of hers who gets caught up in the investigation, and a teenager who was involved in some way that seems clear, then not so clear. It's that narrative concerning the teenager that keeps surprising the reader. I was getting ready for a young-thug-from-a-slum narrative, and it's not that at all—the polar opposite in fact (yet not quite the spoiled rich brat either). Toward the end, we think we know what has happened, and then a coda twists us back to the beginning, to rethink the whole crime (I found myself rereading the first chapter with new eyes).

Mina's prose is clear, if her narrative style is somewhat indirect in a way that's usually interesting. Morrow is an unconventional detective in an unusually realistically drawn squad. She's pregnant with twins, so she'll be on maternity leave soon. The squad is caught up in a power struggle that isn't about rank (in fact, the culture of the squad enforces an interest in not gaining rank, only in protecting their current positions). Morrow's own social background is problematic, for a cop (not too different from that of the central characters in her other series, so her tale is not a total shift away from her own previous books). But she is livelier, more present in the story, somehow, than in the previous book, though she's offstage a lot of the time. And the story is full of nice images and parallels (such as the life cycle of wasps) that bring together the whole novel in a satisfying way that reinforces not only the telling of the story but its significance for the reader as well. Some books undermine the whole "genre" business separating crime fiction from "mainstream" or "literary" fiction, which I suppose Kate Atkinson does from one direction and Mina certainly does from another.

Mina's book is in one way a straightforward example of a series novel about a police detective, and in another way it's simply a novel about the damage that families do to one another, and how some people escape and others don't. Though if I saw that description (from an author I didn't know and with no mention of the books genre structure) I would almost certainly not have picked it up from the library (where I got the copy I read). It would have been my loss.

So I can recommend Murder at the Lanterne Rouge to Cara Black fans, even to newcomers to the series, without being able to say too much about it. And I can recommend End of the Wasp Season to anyone who's interested in the more advanced (in terms of both the writing and the story) end of crime fiction.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Korean and American: Mr. Kill, by Martin Limón

One of the pleasures of reading international crime fiction is the glimpse of other cultures through the stories of crime, criminals, police, etc. martin Limón's series featuring George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, detectives with the 8th Army CID in Korea in the post-Korean-War era, offer insights into two cultures: South Korea and the U.S. Army. Sometimes one predominates in a particular novel, sometimes the other. The new Mr. Kill is a balance between the two.

A Korean woman is raped on a train by what appears to have been an American soldier, and the detectives are called in, without much enthusiasm on the part of the brass because they want to downplay any possible U.S. involvement. At the same time, Bascom & Sueño are ordered to investigate the theft of equipment from an all-female Country & Western band touring Korea for the USO. The detectives shuttle back and forth between the two assignments throughout the book, with the band offering Bascom plenty of opportunity for philandering, one of the primary aspects of his character.

But at the same time, Sueño is particularly horrified by the crime on the train and a subsequent even more brutal assault, in both cases in front of a young mother's children. His sympathy and determination are major drivers of the plot (and of a reader's interest). The addition of a Korean detective, whose name (Gil) sounds like "Kill" to an American ear, giving rise to his nickname and the title of the novel) is also very interesting, since Kill is both effective on his own and a big support for the detectives when the Army hierarchy is resisting their investigation.

All the shuttling back and forth across South Korea (as the band travels the USO circuit and the detectives pursue leads concerning GIs that may have been off base during the crimes) gives perhaps a better overview of Korean society than any of the previous Sueño/Bascom books. I was not totally convinced by some of the plot twists late in the book, when the story shifts to hot pursuit of the rapist, and there's a third subplot that seems to be there mostly to set up the next novel in the series. I would also have liked to see more of Mr. Kill (and it seems he may have a role in the sequel. But overall, it was a brisk and interesting read, and the Army CID elements are a consistently interesting twist on the police procedural/detective story model.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Declan Burke's new novel and anthology

The trope of fictional characters having a life of their own has a considerable precedent, from Flann O'Brien to Raymond Queneau (whose fictional author left the MS by the window and a breeze blew the characters into the street), to Felipe Alfau (whose characters hang out in a cafe awaiting employment by authors), to Gilbert Sorrentino (who acknowledged his considerable debt to O'Brien), to the experimental writer Christine Brooke-Rose and the Italian crime-writing duo of Fruttero & Lucentini (and even back to the second half of Don Quixote). We can now add to that estimable list a further entry, Declan Burke's Absolute Zero Cool (and one of the virtues of Burke's book might be to send fans of his comic fiction back to some of the lesser-known purveyors of characters independent of their authors).

A writer who shares some biography with Declan Burke is ensconced in a writers' colony, trying to meet a deadline for the delivery of a new novel, when a character from a manuscript he had earlier abandoned shows up demanding attention. Not shows up in his imagination, shows up in his living space. Karlsson, who now insists his name is Billy (and is sometimes referred to simply as K), wants to be liberated from limbo and begins to collaborate with the author on the completion of the novel.

Karlsson's story involves blowing up a hospital, and also the editorial process of "killing babies" (cutting out passages, characters, etc., from a novel in progress). As the author tries to work on his new novel (and also conduct his life with his wife and young daughter), he gradually becomes implicated in Karlsson's story and Karlsson's narrative becomes more dominant as he takes over authorship. Who is writing whom becomes unclear, with disastrous, even tragic, results.

The narrative thus shifts between the author's ordinary life to Karlsson's rambling monologue, peppered with quotations that suggest a broad deep acquaintance with Western philosophy (or perhaps, as the story suggests, a judicious use of Google). Karlsson's voice itself begins to suggest another associate suggested by the author, Patricia Highsmith--not only in her a-moral Ripley stories but also some of her stand-alone novels featuring sociopathic or at least gloomy characters. Among the many crime fiction references, it's Highsmith that resonates most with Absolute Zero Cool (for me).

The tale is comic in its structure, though frequently dead serious in its monologues and in its violent conclusions (the final one being a more or less absolute denial of a continuation of the story's telling). It is to Burke's considerable credit that he keeps the reader's interest without pandering to our craving for thriller plots or compromising in the depth of K's philosophical ramblings. It's in part the characters who keep our interest, not only K and the author but also K's love interest, Cassie, and the author's family.

Burke has also recently edited a valuable anthology on Irish crime fiction, Down These Green Streets, which mixes interesting commentary with new stories, all by practitioners and critics of a genre that has become one of the country's important exports. Between the valuable anthology and the innovative novel, Declan Burke has cemented his central position in the current wave of neo-noir and contemporary crime fiction.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Jake Needham, Laundry Man

I've reviewed a couple of Jake Needham's books (The Amassador's Wife and The Big Mango) but Laundry Man is the first of his Jack Shepherd series that I've gotten my hands on. Needham's books have mostly been available only in Asia, though his current publisher, Marshall Cavendish, is now making some of them available in the U.K., including Laundry Man, and several of the books are also available as e-books.

Laundry Man is a caper novel (sort of) about money laundering. The unique device of Laundry Man is that the caper is going on offstage while the narrator-hero struggles to figure out what's going on and why everybody thinks he's involved. Jack Shepherd is a banking specialist who moved from the Washington DC area to Bangkok and has a teaching job (and a wife who's a respected painter) there. A supposedly dead voice from his past calls him and asks for a meeting, setting in motion a wild ride through international banking scams featuring a colorful panoply of Asian and Western characters. There are, in fact, a lot of characters, but Needham does a good job of keeping them straight for the reader.

Another thing the author does well is explaining the technical details of banking and money laundering, which he does in Needham's voice as well as in conversation with several members of the legal and illegal establishment of Bangkok. In addition, the novel gives a very good portrait of the city (as well as glimpses of Phuket and Hong Kong). No other Bangkok novel I've read gives as vivid view of the Thai capital.

The story is, for the first 3/4 of the novel, mostly Jack stumbling around in the dark, exploiting his various contacts to try to figure out what's going on. Then some of his contacts start turning up dead, and the story shifts into thriller gear. But Jack (thankfully) does not suddenly transform from a banker and professor into a neo-Rambo. When he ends up with a gun in his hand, it's with reluctance and without the amazing shooting technique that mars some other ordinary-guy-in-extraordinary-circumstances sort of book.

Also, unlike some o.-g.-i.-e.-c. stories, Jack's narrative voice is consistent and entertaining, whether he's talking to his wife, his students, a guy who claims to be FBI, a top Thai cop, or any of the other spectrum of characters (and whether he's facing an offer of information or a threat of violence). It's Jake's voice, in fact, that is the key to the novel's entertaining quality, and the quality that will send me to the other Shepherd novels, when I can get hold of them (in fact, I already have a digital copy of the next one, Killing Plato, in my tbr virtual pile).

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Night Rounds, by Helene Tursten

After a protracted gap, SoHo Crime has begun issuing more of the novels in Helene Tursten's Swedish crime series featuring detective Irene Huss of Göteborg. The TV series based on the novels, produced for Swedish television but made available with English subtitles by the independent public television station MhZnetworks in the U.S., has run past the previously published Huss novels, so that in fact I had see the film of Night Rounds before I had access to Laura Wideburg's translation, forthcoming next month from SoHo.

Reading the book after seeing the movie was quite interesting. The TV version accented some aspects of the story (a ghost story, though fairly prominent in the text, is highlighted by its visual presentation in the film). Some of the changes veer toward TV cliche and because of that, I'd recommend the novel over the movie, if you have to choose. There are several more cops in the team in the original book, giving some opportunities for interactions (positive and negative) not possible with the more limited crew in the film (though the characters that do survive the transition are very true to their literary forebears).

Two plot elements central to the story were changed, though. One takes a passing attraction that Irene feels toward one character, a doctor who is also the owner of the hospital where first one nurse and then another is found dead, and turns the attraction into an almost-affair that I found untrue to Irene's character even before reading the book.

The other big change is in a backstory that, in the film, combines the history of that doctor with that of a homeless woman, transforming these threads of the tale into a new character in the film, a mentally challenged caretaker at the hospital. The change lessens the impact of the doctor in the story, leaving him to be mostly a failed administrator and a womanizer rather than a more interesting figure. There's also a denoument in the film that transforms a believable struggle in the doctor's home in the book into a melodramatic scene in the spooky hospital attic in the movie.

Back to the book itself, though: Night Rounds takes advantage of the author's medical background to create an interesting scenario around a private hospital, giving an interesting window onto the Swedish medical system and class structure. The plot closely follows the police procedural format, mostly but not totally focused on Irene, with a sidetrack regarding the detective's family (a chef-husband and two twin, but seemingly not identical, daughters) that's interesting in itself and gives the author the opportunity to show another (not totally honest or legal) side to Irene's character.

The Huss series was one of the earliest of the Swedish crime series to appear in English, thanks to SoHo, and the publisher deserves praise for continuing to translate Huss's novels. Night Rounds shares a supernatural aspect with another Swedish writer, Johan Theorin, but with a lighter and more urban flavor that is less spooky but more contemporary (not a slam on either author, just a different approach).