Monday, April 29, 2013

Diego De Silva, I Hadn't Understood

In its bare bones, I Hadn't Understood, by Diego De Silva (published last year in English by Europa Editions in Anthony Shugaar's translation) is about a lawyer in Naples who is approached by the Camorra to represent one of their own, and the web that the criminal organization begins to weave around him.Vincenzo Malconico is an unsuccesful civil lawyer with a divorced wife who still sometimes visits his bed, a son and stepdaughter he sees occasionally, and an office shared with an assortment of similar failures

However,  Malconico's story is really a comic meditation on life today (especially in Italy), on the digressive potential of language, and on the current and future dangers of the criminal influence on daily life. He says at the beginning that he has a problem  controlling his sentences, and that is spectacularly true. Though the story moves inexorably forward, the progress is not in a straight line, in terms of either plot or the voice of Malconico, the narrator of his own tale. If you like a straight-ahead crime novel, maybe this isn't the book for you, but be warned that you will be missing a rich and rewarding experience.

De Silva avoids the cliche's of the usual legal thriller or cime novel: his family life isn't tortured (though his son is involved in a bizarre and dangerous investigation of his own), and the book is about (as much as anything else) his sudden success in both work and love (he unexpectedly finds himself the focus of the most attractive lawyer in the Neapolitan court system, for reasons everyone concerned finds somewhat odd). His sudden success with the Camorra is not unrelated, in terms of the source of his good (perhaps) fortune in that regard. The progress of his involvement with the mob progresses with both danger and comedy, proceeding toward a startling assessment of what the Camorra is and should be, in one of the later chapters.

I Hadn't Understood (Non avevo capito niente, in the original) is quite funny at times, and Vincenzo's voice draws the reader into both the comedy and the larger story. Each of the characters is three-dimensional, each in his or her own particular way. In the end, if Vincenzo doesn't quite achieve the heights he seems to be heading toward, his story ends in a way that is entirely suited to his personality, and also ends with a bit of hope for his future life. I didn't know what to expect from this book--in fact, I ordered a copy because De Silva was the author o one of the best stories presented in an Italian TV series, Crimini, but that story was quite different. But from the first page of this book, Vincenzo's digressive voice had me totally absorbed.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Timothy Williams, Another Sun

Timothy Williams's Un Autre Soleil, published in French in 2011, has finally arrived in English as Another Sun. Williams is the author of the excellent series set in Italy's north, featuring Commissario Trotti (and I hope that with the arrival of his new series, the Trotti novels will be brought back into print for new readers, along with the so far unpublished sequel).

Another Sun is set on the French island of Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean. The novel has classic elements of noir, including conflicts of race and family, hints of incest and jealousy, murder and unjust imprisonment, and so forth. But Williams's distinctive style carries these elements forward into something new.

Algerian-born French judge Anne Marie Laveaud has transferred to the French West Indies with her husband, a native of the island, and their young son. She is assigned to the case of a plantation-owner evidently shot to death by a man recently returned from imprisnment in the notorious prison islands that France maintained in South America. But Anne Marie doesn't believe that all the facts in the case are clear, and she ignores repeated pleas to forget the case.

Four factors that the Laveaud story shares with the Trotti books keep the reader on edge. One is the characterizations, which are sharp and particularized. Another is the dialogue (through which most of the story is carried forward): characters frequently talk past and over one another in a realistic indirectness that is frequently funny and sometimes frustrating (in a way that mirrors for the reader the frustration of Anne Marie in discovering the truth behind the case's facade). The third is the plotting, which always moves forward indirectly and toward unexpected directions.l Several times, we think we know what's going on and who killed the planter, always (until the end) nevertheless in the dark. And the social milieu is fully realized, including social and political realities that the characters themselves frequently seek to obfuscate.

Laveaud is more tenacious than her superiors expect, or want, her to be, and she discovers in the end a capacity for realism that her previous idealism has obscured. The full conclusion of the case and her new realism is left somewhat hanging, but not in a frustrating way. We may not know exactly how everything is playing out (and we may or may not discover more about these facts in the sequel, presuming and hoping that there is one), but Laveaud's presence as a personality provides a satisfying close.

The social aspects of the book include investigations of conflicts of race, revolution, colonialism, local and national politics, and New World vs. Old World worldviews. If that seems like a lot for a crime novel to carry, it's always in the service of the story and in the voices and attitudes of the characters. The book is quite different from the Trotti novels, despite the overlapping sensibilities, because Guadeloupe is quite different from Italy and Laveaud is not Trotti's female counterpart. Another Sun is a distinct, involving, and entertaining addition to the top rank of crime fiction.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Berlin Noir TV series

Im Angesicht des Verbrechens, which IMDB translates clumsily as In Face of the Crime (I've also seen it translated as Face to Face with Crime) is a 2010 series from German TV that is in the mode of HBO or BBC crime dramas, in terms of ambition, production, and style. The series is available with English subtitles (one reviewer at Amazon expressed skepticism about the subtitles when he saw the "In Face of the Crime" version of the title, but the subtitles are generally quite good).

There are 10 episodes, about 1 hour each. There's a good bit of repetition and flashback that stretches the story out a bit longer than is really necessary, but that's TV (there was a lot of repetition in the original Danish season of The Killing, even longer at 20 episodes). The story has several threads, each touching upon the Russian mob in Berlin, which has seemingly split in 2 segments that are tentatively at war with one another. One "family" concentrates on cigarette smuggling and legitimate business (such as the Odessa restaurant/club); the other branch is not only getting into prostitution, human traficking, and drugs, but also stealing the more "legitimate" branch's cigarette shipments.

Rather than all out war, the plot shows negotiations and maneuvering between the two factions, and caught in between are the two central characters: Marek, a cop whose Russian-Jewish family runs the Odessa (and the smuggling business), and Jelena, a young Ukranian woman (it's her photo on the DVD box) tricked into coming to Berlin and forced into prostitution. One ongoing thread in the story is Jelena's vision of Marek, while still in her Ukranian village, and the two of them passing one another as they criscross Berlin. The romantic aspect and her struggle against the life she's forced into add a human element to what is otherwise a pretty vicious bunch of characters.

Marek became a cop because his older brother was murdered in the street, and he's an outcast among the Russians, including his own family, who hate cops. He and his partner are ambitious to join an elite detective unit, and their successes and failures bring them in and out of the unit as the story progresses. Among the other threads of the story are a pair of cops who feed info to the Russian mob, Marek's sister, whose husband runs the Odessa, several Russian killers caught up in the maneuvering between the mob factions, and their girlfriends.

There is an interesting equivalence between the cops and the mob, each as ruthless as the other, but the cops are most often out-maneuvered by the criminals. Marek and his partner are more determined, luckier, and more motivated than the rest of the cops, but are frequently being used by one Russian faction against the other.

The result is a bit like The Wire, though Berlin is not quite as lovingly evoked here as Baltimore is in that earlier series, and with a more sincere romance at its center. The arc of the story and the atmosphere are definitely noir, as was The Wire, rather than the conventional TV crime/cop show kind fo thing. As I said earlier, it could have been shorter, but since there's not much German noir on film that's available with subtitles, the availability of this high quality show is a boon for English speakers (though the only version of it that I could find is Region 2/PAL, so if you're in the U.S. you'll need a region-free player.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Something to do with Montparnasse

Another twofer today, a bit more tenuous than the last one I posted. Cara Black's newest, Murder Below Montparnasse, and the newest translation from Helene Tursten, The Golden Calf, both have something to do with Montparnasse: Black's novel is set on the edges of the neighborhood, and Tursten's detective, Irene Huss, stays in a hotel on the edge of it when she has to take a junket to Paris in order to solve some murders in Göteborg. Plus both authors use a lot of detail about their detectives in the story (to very different effect).

Tursten first: The Golden Calf is one of the novels that has appeared in the Irene Huss TV series in Sweden (available with English subtitles), but based on memory alone, I'd say that in the case of this novel, the filmmakers have departed more from the book than they did with previous translations to TV drama. For good reason, in terms of the main plot, less so with respect to the detective's private life. For some reason the makers of the TV version (called Gold Digger in English) felt the need to create a mini-crisis in Huss's marriage; in the book, as is usual in the books, Huss and her husband, a succesful chef, get along just fine.

As to the story, we get plenty of atmosphere in both Göteborg and Paris, and lots and lots of detail about the financial and high-tech shenanigans of the circle of friends and business associates within which the murders are taking place (first one and then a pair of the group are murdered, along with the discovery that yet another has been missing for several years). In the book, the motive for the crime (as well as the identity of the killer) remains obscure until almost the end, and then is resolved in a "deus ex machina" fashion that involves the FBI. There's a lot of repetition of detail about the fraudulent financing of the group, and then a lot of detail about the motivations and background for the killers, coming all at once at the end. In the movie, the scheme and the resolution are better organized and more believable. All in all, I didn't think The Golden Calf was one of Tursten's best.

I get a little impatient with Cara Black's Aimée Leduc's books because somehow everything is always about Aimée, her associates, and her troubled family background, rather than about the crime at hand. That's certainly true of Murder Below Montparnasse, but her partner René is off to America at the beginning, for a change of pace and setting, and the detail about Paris is as always interesting. Because the series is set in the recent past and involves high-tech equipment, there's a bit of déjà vu in the revelations about new stuff (such as USB flash drives in this case), which is kind of funny. But the series lives or dies on the reader's relationship with Aimée.

In this case, a mysterious Russian tries to contact her, involves her in a possible murder, and then pulls away from her before letting her know what's going on (but not before implicating her mother in whatever it is). There's a painting (maybe a Modigliani) that would be a major discovery, if it exists, and the Montparnasse milieu of today blends with that of the painter's heyday throughout the story. There is a lot of back-and-forth movement across Paris (and California, while René is there), and considerable repeition (another link with The Golden Calf), but with a satisfactory resolution. I'd say that Murder Below Montparnasse is about on par with Black's usual standard.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Graveland, by Alan Glynn

Alan Glynn's new novel, Graveland, not only takes up where his most recent novels, Winterland and Bloodland, let off--it also takes up a theme of his first novel, The Dark Fields (made into the movie Limitless). I don't usually review U.S.-set crime fiction here, but since Graveland (set in New York City and upstate New York) is the third novel in a trilogy, and the first two novels are either set almost entirely in Ireland (Winterland) or mostly there (Bloodland), I'm making an exception.

Graveland doesn't continue the story in any literal way (as is the pattern of this trilogy): he simply uses characters that overlap the boundaries of the novels in various ways. The main character of Bloodland, Jimmy Gilroy, an Irish journalist, is a minor character in Graveland, and his mentor in the earlier novel, New York journalist Ellen Dorsey, is one of the main characters in the new book. In addition, the character who looms in the background of the first two books, the shadowy American financier and kingmaker James Vaughan, becomes even more prominent in Graveland.

The plotting of Graveland is one of its most interesting aspects. As in a lot of thrillers and crime novels (Graveland partakes of both modes), there are several seemingly unrelated plots at the beginning. An unemployed and divorced architect, Frank Bishop, languishes in a suburban retails store (selling high-tech game equipment, among other things), and is unable to reach his college-age daughter. On the heels of the world financial crisis, an investment banker and a hedge-fund manager are murdered on the street in New York. Vaughan is seemingly about to hand over the reins of his secretive private equity firm to his second-in-command, who's puzzled by both his boss's retirement and his health situation. And Ellen, who has turned her work on the failed presidential candidacy at the heart of Bloodland into a series of articles, has a nagging suspicion that the official story of the financial murders is incorrect.

Readers know in advance that these stories will come together. But Glynn keeps the plot fresh by seeming to head toward one sort of thriller plot and then veering off into something else. The shifts and surprises continue until well into the novel, and affect all the intersecting stories. An astute reader will figure out the final twist before the narrative makes it explicit, but not much before, and that reader will be pulled forward even more by the awful inevitability of what's going to happen.

Glynn keeps things moving rapidly forward, using dialogue and internal monologue rather than a more narrator-centric mode, keeping the story fresh and lively in the process. I found myself racing through the book's 383 pages. The resolution of the story not only ties up Graveland's plotlines, it also makes a fitting conclusion to the whole trilogy, without making any tedious attempt to replay the stories of the first two books, through Gilroy's brief appearance and the playing out of the Vaughan story. Winterland is about developers and politicians, Bloodland is about politicians and journalists, and Graveland is about financiers and journalists: but the whole set is really about money, and the pervasive and corrupting influence it has on contemporary life. If that's a lot for a few crime novels to carry, Glynn does it with flair, humor, and efficient but elegant writing.