Monday, January 27, 2014

Ultimate noir: The Paul Cain Omnibus

Just after finishing The Paul Cain Omnibus (edited by keith Alan Deutsch and published by Mysterious Press), I picked up a copy of the original text (before substantial alterations at the galley stage) of Faulkner's Sanctuary. It's interesting to see how two very different writers deal with the conventions of noir, each taking the genre to its limits. Sanctuary is a bit earlier than the Cain stories and his novel Fast One, but these are very much stories of the era of the formation of noir, the '20s and '30s. Faulkner disassembles pulp noir and reassembles the parts into an extravagant and dark novel of interiority, with the plot (of which there is a lot, by Faulknerian standards) mostly in the background.

Cain, on the other hand, is all about exteriority and plot. Instead of taking apart the conventions of the genre, he refined them down to their essence and applied his signature method: speed. The novel is a Fast One, indeed, with not even time for a definite or indefinite article in the title. I knew the novel already, but this collection adds several layers to Cain's career, including a useful introduction to the author and his work by Boris Dralyuk, all the noir stories, most of which were published in the classic Black Mask magazine (plus one that's a bit lighter that was published in Gourmet), and in addition, the original stories that were collected and edited to become Fast One (though Cain didn't edit as much as Faulkner for the final version, it's still interesting to see how he tightened an already tense tale into the uncoiling spring of the final text.

Of the other stories, there are some that don't hold up (including one that is barely more than a racist joke) but most of them are vivid glimpses of a hard era and the hard folks that lived there. Therr are a few cops, but it's mostly reporters, grifters, and people just trying to get by. The characters often have colors for names (Black and Red, for example), which suggests that Quentin Tarantino may have been reading Cain before he made Reservoir Dogs, but it's clear that Cain isn't aiming for style: he's naming his characters with short titles that don't suggest any backstory, they're just names. A few of the stories are funny (particularly one dealing with the film business, in which Cain also worked under other names), some contain racist and sexist language as well as violence against women that is aggressive enough to raise the issue of misogyny--but there are also a number of strong and sympathetic female characters.

All in all, the Cain Omnibus is a lively portrait of an era as well as a shining example of the basic elements of noir without any fluff or compromise. Plus they're crackling stories that move ahead so rapidly that any one of these brief stories has enough going on to fill out a movie version (and the exteriority of the telling plus the speed of the plots suggests film writing--but they're clearly products of the pulp magazine era (even Fast One) and as much as they reflect the standards and language of noir, they also hark back to a specific era of publishing and reading. It's a very interesting collection, for anyone interested in the history of crime fiction as well as anyone who appreciates stripped-down storytelling.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Monsters in Florence and Stockholm

Magdalen Nabb's The Monster of Florence and Leif GW Persson's Free Falling as if in a Dream are both about real-life, unsolved crimes, and both use the archive of evidence on those crimes, filtered through a fictional lens, to propose solutions. Persson's book even includes a considerable amount of material about Nabb's namesake, Magdalen (pronouced Maudlin) College in Oxford (or at least about a storied herd of deer that lives there). Both novels include one (or more) major character who remains unnamed throughout. And both novels conclude with a certain amount of ambiguity or uncertainty.

Nabb's monster is, of course, the notorious Italian serial killer (and Carlo Vennarucci has posted his interview with the author in which she explains how she became involved in that case, at his site: Nabb proposes that her detective, Marshall Guarnaccia, is appointed to a commission that is re-investigating the cold case, but his personal investigation goes against that of the prosecutor who is running the investigation, and much of the novel is concerned with the rivalries among prosecutors and police that wrecked the original and all subsequent investigations.

Persson's novel addresses the murder of Prime Minister Olaf Palme, through the lens of his ongoing character Lars Martin Johannson, now a senior policeman who is determined to go through all the previous material on the case before the statute of limitations runs out, and to do so he appoints a small group of detectives (all of whom we have seen in earlier Persson novels) to do the primary work. And much of the novel is concerned with the errors, rivalries, and security police interventions that wrecked the original and all subsequent investigations. Persson's involvement in the Palme case needs less explanation, since he is a former policeman, profiler, and prominent consultant and commentator on the Swedish police.

Both novels are very long (Persson's much longer), but both hold a reader's interest, if that reader is a willing consumer of police procedurals. Nabb's story is perhaps a little harder going, since key figures remain  unnamed and those have them sometimes have confusingly similar names, and since much of what Guarnaccia learns remains unspoken rather than literally given in the text. Despite its length and frequent repetitions of epithets attached to several characters and of snippets of internal and edternal speech, Persson's book is oddly gripping. One additional factor setting Free Falling apart from Monster is that the Swedish book has been filmed (as the framing device for the TV series made from Persson's Palme trilogy, En Pilgrims död, or The Death of a Pilgrim). Knowing the film, a reader will more or less know how the story turns out (though the filmmakers took considerably liberties in making the very, very long text of the trilogy into a four-hour series). Knowing the story's probable conclusion did not take away from the pleasure of the book, for me: I found it gripping all the way through, as well as comic in some sections, through the ironic and simultaneously arrogant and self-deprecating voice of Johannson and the appearance of the ridiculous detective in many of the author's books, Evert Bäckstrom (reportedly the lead character in a U.S. TV series to debut next year). I find Bäcktrom easier to take when he's a minor character (as opposed to the books such as Linda as in the Linda Murder where he is the central character) so I don't have very high expectations for an American version of him.

The unnamed character in Persson's books is a political advisor: I can't say what his role in the story is without giving too much away, but as with some other books by this author, the Security Police (called Sepo in the translation, though I think in Swedish they're known as Säpo) place a key (and obstructive) role that becomes apparent only very late in the story. Where Nabb's book displays a certain pessimism about Italian politics and police in Monster, Persson displays considerable pessimism about politics and police that those not intimately familiar with Sweden (or at least Swedish crime fiction) might find surprising (more of us know something about the frustrations inherent in Italian culture, even if we aren't familiar with the prosecutors and police that Nabb is dealing with).

In any case, Persson's newly translated and Nabb's newly published (in the U.S., though published much earlier in the UK) are among the very best crime fictions of the past and the upcoming year (Persson's book is scheduled for 2014), and more narrowly are both among the very, very best crime fiction novels that deal intimately with the details of an actual, notorious, unsolved crime. Both books propose plausible, credible, but in their different ways shocking solutions (Nabb's mroe disturbing on a psychological level, Persson's on a political and social level).