Monday, July 29, 2013

Leighton Gage, In Memoriam

I like many others today am mourning the loss of Leighton Gage, whose death is announced here:
I was an avid follower of his Mario Silva series and had the good fortune to meet him when he was passing through the Washington DC area. He will be missed by his readers and also by all of us who have benefited from his participation in the crime fiction blogging community.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Two-fer Friday: from France

I've just finished two crime novels from France, courtesy of NetGalley: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, the most recent Adamsberg novel from Fred Vargas (translated by Sian Reynolds) and The 7th Woman, the first (and first translated) crime novel by Frédérique Molay (translated by Anne Trager). The two books are at opposite ends of the spectrum of "romans policiers," though  both deal with serial killers (and the authors share a first name, since Vargas's real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau).

The quirkiness of Vargas's writing is well known: of her 13 novels, 8 have been translated into English and have won a number of awards. In each case, her novels begin with a seemingly preposterous event drawn from history or fairy tales or myth (such as a revival of the plague, attacks by werewolves, or, in this case, the appearance of a ghostly army that "seizes" evil-doers and thereby predicts their violent deaths). And the plots wander indirectly toward a conclusion that is more or less drawn from everyday life, commonly having to do with unhappy families and disputes among members of small neighborhoods or towns.

Ordebec (the book is called The Furious Army in French, another of the terms by which the ghostly horde is known) includes several plots, ranging from attacks on a pigeon, on a housewife, on an industrialist, and on a disgraceful man in the small Normandy town of Ordebec (this last one being predicted by a young woman's vision of the horde). All the events begin at more or less the same time, and Adamsberg investigates them all, with the help this time of his recently discovered son (see the previous book) and a young firebug suspected of the murder of the industrialist. The text is lively, despite a good deal of repetition) but not in the ordinary vein of crime fiction. Vargas's readers enjoy the company of the motley crew of eccentrics that make up Adamsberg's circle and the circle around the crimes. Vargas's knowledge of archaeology and history makes the mythic aspects of the stories also very real and entertaining (she's an archaeologist among other things).

The 7th Woman is a more straightforward police procedural, and we learn a lot more about how the French police work in actuality here than in any of Vargas's books. But straightforward is mostly
what the book is, in spite of the lurid aspects of the serial killer being chased. Molay, like Vargas, has real-life experience pertinent to her tale (in politics) and the administrative aspects of the book are believable and vivid. But she has a tendency to "tell and not show," and for me none of the characters really had a spark that made them come to life. Crime fiction characters (and plots, for that matter) certainly don't need the more extravagant aspects of Vargas's style to come to life for a reader (this reader, anyway), but when I think of specifically French examples of the genre (by Dominique Manotti or Jean-Patrick Manchette, to cite just 2 examples) there is a liveliness in characterization, writing, and scene setting that I miss in Molay's writing. Molay has certainly amassed a lot of positive blurbs (and evidently sales), but I couldn't really engage with her writing. My loss, probably.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is published by Penguin, and The 7th Woman by Le French Book, which seems to be a digital only publishing house, something like Stockholm Text in its first incarnation. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Le French for future publications, but will have to be convinced taht another book by Molay should join my TBR pile.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fruttero & Lucentini: Il Palio delle contrade morte

This post continues my occasional series of reviews of Italian crime fiction not translated into English (as my Italian progresses to the point that I can read some of them). Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini are best know in the English-speaking world for two, books, The Sunday Woman (an excellent police procedural and social satire set in Torino) and The D. Case (which concerns a meta-fictional investigation and completion of Charles Dickens's unfinished detective story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood). One other book has been translated, as Enigma by the Sea, a sort of locked-room mystery that is also very good--though there are hints that a translation was at one time available for another book, Lovers of No Fixed Abode (a combination mystery novel, romance, and evocation of Venice). Il Palio delle Contrade Morte, though, is something different.

The book begins with a married couple from Milan, Enzo and Valeria, watching the famous Palio events in the center of Siena, but from separate balcomies and in the company of apparently intimate but recent acquaintances. One track of the novel follows their observations of the events leading up to the race and ultimately the race itself. The other track is a series of flashbacks explaining how the couple came to be here, and came to be on separate balconies.

Attempting to reach an agri-tourism farm owned by friends, the couple is diverted by a halestorm and their own nervousness and lack of definite directions into an aristocratic villa, whose denizens invite them to wait out the storm. They ultimately stay for three eventful days, in the company of seven Siennese: the elegant Guidobaldo (with whom Valeria is immediately impressed), the young and beautiful Ginevra (at first inattentive and then very attentive to Enzo), an older couple (or maybe not a couple), a jockey famous for his participation in the Palio, and two visitors from Rome (as well as an Asian couple and a couple of other servants and their families). The interactions among all these people are very entertaining, told in beautiful, breezy prose.

But there is a strange twist out of normality that begins with a shadowy creature biting Valeria on her rear in a perverse sexual assault, and it gradually becomes obvious that Enzo and Valeria have stumbled into a labyrinth of conspiracy, family rivalries, and the history of the Palio (including the Contrade--rival neighborhood guilds that participate in the race), and in particular, the six contrade banned since 1729 from participating in the race. The banishment of these groups is explained as being the result of either corruption among them or the political maneuvering of the rival groups.

The mysterious goings-on reach a height in a murder and an investigation that seems to lead nowhere. But the conclusion of the novel reveals less about who committed the murder than what the motives for the attack had been--motives that shift the novel out of the realm of either noir or romance and into a sort of ghost story.

The book might not satisfy the taste of a crime fiction purist, though it has all the elements, plus a bit of horror story and historical conspiracy (not quite Dan Brown, but veering a bit in that direction). But Il Palio... has several things going for it. Though it may not be Fruttero and Lucentini's best book, it still has their vibrant style and wit. For a non-native speaker of Italian, it is also mercifully short. And it reveals a lot of detail about Palio, without ever being didactic or attempting to be a tour guide. Instead, the authors use the hermetic environment of Siena and its famous race to explore the experience of an average couple, having some trouble in their marriage but nothing drastic (as there is nothing drastic in their lives, in fact) who are thrust into a realm of mystery, murder, romance, and even the gothic.

I won't give a spoiler here, but if anyone is interested, I can post a very short "spoiler post" with a sentence or two about how the novel (and the race) does (and doesn't, since there is not a neat tying-up-of-loose-pends) conclude.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Eva's Eye (Inspector Sejer #1), Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum's series featuring Inspector Sejer (in a small city in Norway) has been one of the most consistently outstanding of the Scandinavian Crime Wave. We finally have the first book in the series, translated from Norwegian by James Anderson, and in this case reading the story out of order is no burden. We get a little more of Sejer's backstory, but as is often the case with this series, we spend more time with the people involved (in one way or another) with the crime than with the detective. We also see a wider assortment of police on Sejer's team, which has been reduced in later books mostly to his assistant, Detective Skarre (who appears here in a minor role).

The tale begins with the discovery of a body, when an artist named Eva Magnus is out walking along the river with her daughter. Oddly, Eva pretends (to her daughter) to be calling the police while actually doing nothing to report the discovery.

As Sejer works to find the identity of the dead man in the river, he comes across another case with certain overlapping elements, concerning the death of a woman named Maja. So we have two deaths and a single mother and artist who is acting guilty--most of the novel is occupied in bringing to light the connections among these elements, first by following Sejer's investigation, alternating with Eva's daily life as a painter and divorced mother who is suddenly and inexplicably able to pay her past-due bills.

Sejer pays several visits to Eva, resulting ultimately in a long flashback to a time when the two murder victims were still alive and Eva was struggling to get by. The flashback is told in a third-person narrative, but it is set into the novel as her story, as told to Sejer. Fairly early in that narrative, the picture begins to come into focus for the reader, but Fossum is very good at keeping us engaged, as things become clear--and also very good at upsetting our assumptions after we once again join Sejer in the "present" of the novel.

Eva's Eye must have been a very auspicious beginning for the series, for those able to see it when it came out. There are some details of daily life that date the story, but Fossum's concern is with the characters, whose lives and options are fully contemporary. She is particularly apt in her portrayal of Eva, both as a mother and an artist who is convinced (against all evidence) that she is a great artist (a hubris that seems to be required for anyone to continue in that calling). Black Seconds remains my favorite of the Sejer novels so far, but I would currently rank Eva's Eye a close second.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Venice, by Donna Leon

Despite its title, Donna Leon's My Venice and Other Essays doesn't consist of one essay titled "My Venice" along with essays on other topics: it is instead a collection of occasional articles for various publications, some of which deal directly with Venice while others deal with Leon's family, her house outside Venice, her love of opera, etc. One topic it deals with only indirectly is the writing of crime novels, though there is an essay on teaching writing.

But the book is rich in something that illuminates Leon's novels: her indignations at incivilities, hunters, and other topics and her experiences with the difficulties, pleasures, and annoyances of living in Venice. What her detective deals with in her books, she addresses more directly here, though seldom illuminating any specific incidents in the books. She is often very funny, not least when she is venting her anger or bafflement over topics like the tendency in the field of classical music to emphasize the sexuality rather than the talent of some performers.

For a glimpse into the thoughts and life of Commissario Brunetti's author, or into the experiences and opinions that lie behind the detective's stories, My Venice is quite interesting. But more important is that Leon is interesting and entertaining to spend some time with, and her voice here is open, illuminating, and engaging.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Two-fer Friday: Anne Holt and Massimo Carlotto

It's hardly possible to imagine two crime novels as far apart (yet still in the genre) as Anne Holt's  Death of the Demon and Massimo Carlotto's At the End of a Dull Day. Everyone in Holt's book reaches out for the reader's sympathy; everyone in Carlotto's is deeply flawed and basically (to anthropomorphize) could not care less what the reader thinks of them. Both deal with delicate subjects (homosexuality, the child welfare system, and damaged children as well as murder in Holt's book; sex slavery, corruption, murder and domestic violence in Carlotto's). But Holt deals with the delicate subjects delicately, and Carlotto throws them naked in our faces. The trouble is, as despicable as we may find all the characters and the deeds contained in it, Carlotto's is a better book (though perhaps only for those with a devotion to noir).

Death of the Demon, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce and published in the U.S. by Scribner, is in Holt's Hanne Wilhelmsen series (I believe it's the third or perhaps fourth to be translated from this series). Hanne has recently been promoted to a leadership position and is finding it difficult to step back from actual police work (learning that lesson is a big part of the book). The book begins with a long section about the arrival of a "new boy" in a group home run by the Salvation Army for children of troubled homes. The new boy, Olav, is very large and perhaps brain damaged at (or before) birth. He has problems controlling behavior and emotions, and we see a good deal of the book through his eyes. As he adjusts to his new life (or doesn't adjust) an event throws everything into chaos: the director of the center is murdered. Olav disappears (and is on the run for much of the book, though no one thinks he's the murder--since he's 12).

Hanne and her team spend most of the novel going back and forth among the staff and various other involved parties, making little progress until the end (which, by the way, I didn't find very convincing). The book is a traditional mystery, oriented toward the accumulation of evidence and the unveiling of the perpetrator. One of the distinguishing features of the series is Hanne's difficulty in acknowledging her ongoing homosexual relationship with her life-partner (not a cop), something that doesn't quite cohere with our idea of the liberalism of Norway,

At the End of a Dull Day (translated by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions in their new World Noir series) is about Giorgio, who is a monster. He's a reformed terrorist and gangster, if by reformed you mean a restaurateur who also runs a prostitution ring involved in sex slavery as well as catering to corrupt politicians and abusing his wife (he's a control freak). We have met him before, in The Goodbye Kiss. He is double-crossed by his bookkeeper and most of the book is about him getting deeper into trouble and finally working out his revenge. He is casually violent, and dominates not only the other characters but (in an extreme way) his wife and mistress. And we see the whole book through his eyes.

But he gains some sympathy by not being in the Mafia (in any of its guises) or actually being a corrupt official, the two poles of the novel. The book is in many ways a dark commentary on Italy today. It also looks back to the roots of noir in books like Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, and Giorgio mentions that his favorite TV series is Justified. Carlotto totally inhabits Giorgio and his world. The book is written in the swift, no-nonsense style of first-person noir and is a considerable achievement in that genre. But not for everyone, obviously.