Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Wyatt sequel, by Garry Disher

A couple of years ago, after a long-ish hiatus, Garry Disher published a new novel about his character Wyatt, under the title "Wyatt." The novel contained several homages to an obvious model for Disher's series, the Parker novels by "Richard Stark," alias Donald Westlake.
Wyatt was published in the U.S. by Soho Crime,  which subsequently released two older Wyatt novels, Port Vila Blues and the new Fallout, which is a sequel to Port Vila Blues.

Though Wyatt is a newer book, it is in many ways a throwback to the earlier books, with Wyatt as a cool and solid character, almost a sociopath in his distance from normal social interaction. Port Vila Blues and Fallout seem to be from later in the thief's career: he is looking for a last score, and feeling both his age and his isolation.

Port Vila Blues introduced a female character (not that unusual in the Wyatt books) but in this case she reappears in the sequel, which is unusual. Liz Redding is a cop running after both Wyatt and a crooked cop, and (spoiler alert for those who haven't read the earlier book) she ends up allied with Wyatt, personally and professionally. Fallout begins as Wyatt abandons her on the yacht, on which they sailed away from Port Vila.

Actually that's not quite true: the novel opens with another thief, called the bush bandit by the press, who is robbing small banks across the countryside. His name is Wyatt, too: he's the older Wyatt's nephew Raymond. The family link provides us with more information about Wyatt's past than we have hitherto seen, both before and after uncle and nephew are reunited (in crime, of course). The appearance of his nephew, a felt connection with Liz, Wyatt's failure to achieve any permanent financial security despite a more or less succesful life of crime, and the pressure of a lifetime on the run are all weighing on him

But Fallout maintains two of the most distinctive features of the series: the dark dedication to noir and the naturalistic plotting. The plans of all the characters develop in a way that suggests a straightforward, linear story, but the plans are repeatedly undermined in ways that twist the plot away from what the reader expects and also away from any neatness. The Wyatt novels are messy, like life, and Disher's distinctive style stays away from any sort of artificial plot devices.

Which is not to say there's no structure. Especially in Fallout and Wyatt, the overarching structure is a parrallelism between Wyatt and another violent man, someone engaged in the same line of work as Wyatt but in subtle and not-so-subtle ways less sympathetic to the reader (although Wyatt doesn't himself try all that hard to be sympathetic). In Fallout, it's a prison escapee who has early history with Wyatt and becomes involved with him again (in ways I won't telegraph). These conflicts are resolved not in any super-hero sort of way, but through different styles of thinking and planning.

Fallout involves the jewel robbery of Port Vila Blues as well as the jailbreak, an art theft, a complex confidence game, and related violence and mayhem. But as usual, it's a short book, and a fast one. Disher's other series, about detectives in the Peninsula region of Australia, is perhaps a deeper and more complex set of stories, but the Wyatt books (and Fallout in particular) are extremely well done, and a wonderful homage not only to Westlake but also to the roots of noir fiction.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New Gothic noir from Prague: Milos Urban's Seven Churches

I picked up a copy of Milos Urban's Seven Churches before traveling to Prague, since a crime novel is often a good guide to the streets of a strange city. Urban's book pays off in spades in that regard, though it isn't exactly a crime novel. The cover claims that the author is the Czech Republic's answer to Umberto Eco, which isn't an exact comparison: but Urban's novel is a philosophical potboiler, somewhat in the fashion of Eco's novels.

The lead character and narrator of Seven Churches is (or was) a policeman, but a failed one. When the novel begins, he has been disgraced, but happens upon a grisly crime: a man has been hung in a bell tower by his heel, swinging back and forth with the motion of the bell. The hanged man survives, and through the investigation of that crime, the narrator's career is somewhat redeemed, as the case becomes linked to the death of a woman he was supposed to be protecting, before being kicked out of the force. Other gruesome deaths follow, in an extravagant, neo-Gothic fashion, but the bulk of the novel isn't about the police case.

There is an early digression into the narrator's youth (I'm not giving his name because the name itself is a comic and dramatic point in the plot), and at critical points, the narrator falls into a trance and has visions of the city of Prague in Medieval times. The book, in fact, is more than anything else about the layers of architecture and history in the city, as waves of styles (Renaissance, Baroque, modern) literally overlay the Gothic origins of the city and its churches, as well as Gothic revivals that attempt to restore the original while in fact simply adding another layer. These styles are, of course, intimately intertwined with the religious and political as well as architectural history of Prague.

So the book is indeed a very stylized tour guide to the city, especially the "new town," where a good deal of the action takes place (not so much the famous Wenceslas, or Vaclav, Square as other squares and churches of Novy Mesto (and the book points out that, unusually for a major square in a European city, there are no churches on Wenceslas Square).

Added to the Gothic architecture and the narrator's Gothic deliriums are several phantasmagoric episodes and an overarching conspiracy: altogether a Gothic atmosphere in both the architectural and the fictional senses.The narrator is as much involved with a mysterious pair of men, one large and aristocratic, the other gnome-like, who are investigating the city for their own ends. The detective story serves mainly to anchor the plot in a rationality that is at odds with the narrative's strangeness. The arc of the story is increasingly tied up in conspiracy, rather than the police investigation, as the narrator drops in and out of the investigation and in and out of contact with the conspiracy. And at the end, the story veers off into something else entirely, a kind of Gothic enclave within the modern city.

Prague is a fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious city, and Seven Churches evokes all those aspects, though the book can be a bit frustrating in its repetitions, digressions, and extneded discussions of history and architecture. I recommend it for anyone interested in Prague or in neo-Gothic storytelling; For anyone whose interest is in traditional detective stories, the book will be very frustrating, but if you persist, there are considerable (if sometimes odd) rewards.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The first Harry Hole: Jo Nesbø's The Bat

I had seen several reviews of The Bat comparing it not altogether favorably with the later Harry Hole novels by Jo Nesbø, but when I had the chance (via NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday) to see a copy i jumped at the chance. And I thought The Bat was very good, showing both Hole and Nesbø at an early stage of what has become one of the most succesful Scandinavian crime series.

The Bat begins with Harry's arrival in Sydney, Australia, where a Norwegian woman has been murdered: he has been sent both to aid the Sydney police and to redeem his own career (already disgraced by his alcoholism). The book takes a while to get going, as Harry makes contact with various police, friends of the dead woman, and other denizens of Sydney, including members of an underground that includes prostitutes, pimps, and performers in a touring circus and a boxing circuit.

When the book starts to pick up momentum, all the characteristics of the later books are present: Harry's self-destructive behavior, violence (meted out to Harry himself and to victims of what turns out to be a serial killer, another characteristic of the series), and the pain of love. There are segments that are not as fully exploited for maximum effect as we can see in some of the later books, but overall the story is not only promising, in terms of projecting the effectiveness of later books, but also an enjoyable story on its own.

And a bonus is considerable information about Harry's early life and formative years, some of which is reflected in later books, but never in as much detail. Some of these episodes slow the story a bit, but for fans of the series the digressions are definitely welcome. We learn in particular about Harry's family and his first love, who is a lingering influence on his life and the subject of most of his dreams and reminiscences in The Bat.

WE also learn a good deal about Aboriginal culture, which lies behind the book's title. These passages are perhaps not as completely integrated into the story as is the case with some contemporary Australian crime fiction (particularly that of Adrian Hyland), but is still well done and essential to both the atmosphere and the plot. Sydney is also very evocatively portrayed; I don't know how much time Nesbø spend in the city, but the setting is very convincing.

I read the book as a digital galley on an iPod touch, which can be a bit challenging, particularly with a very long book--fortunately The Bat isn't quite as long as some of the later books in the series, and the story moves along quickly enough that I didn't find the small screen and the constant page-turning any obstacle to the pleasure to be had from the book. Whatever your reading method, The Bat is well worth reading, whether it's a flashback (for devoted readers of the Harry Hole books) or a first introduction to the series.