Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Gun, Fuminori Nakamura

Fuminori Nakamura uses different strategies in each of his crime novels, but in each case his concerns are philosophical, rather in the manner of Albert Camus's The Stranger (I've also seen Nakamura compared to Mishima, but I don't know that Japanese author's work well enough to judge the aptness of the comparison). In The Gun, a character/narrator not unlike Camus's existential hero is not isolated socially but has a problem with attachments, perhaps a result of his childhood and adoption, but the problem seems so deeply rooted that it is perhaps simply how his brain works. He is a sociopath of a sort, with little or no empathy for the women he has sex with, his friends and neighbors, or the possible victims of his ultimate crime.

What becomes the focus for his attention and attachment is a pistol that he finds, next to a body (likely a suicide). Taking the gun muddles the scene for the police, who do not classify the case as suicide because no weapon was found. But for the narrator, the gun becomes at first simply the focus of his fascination: it is a beautiful machine that must be cared for, respected, and hidden. But gradually the function of the weapon also becomes part of his fetish.

Along the way, several encounters provide a counterpoint to the gun: his closest friend, a female fellow student, and a woman he meets for casual sex each demonstrate the narrator's daily life of little affect, ambition, or interest. He is in a way a blank canvas on which the gun has been inscribed.

The conclusion that the story seems to be inevitably approaching in the last half of this short book is suddenly subverted and twisted into a sudden explosion of violence of a different sort than the narrator had intended, providing a more satisfying portrait of the character and his situation than a more straightforward ending could have. This is an intense, claustrophobic, and effective noir/philosophical thriller.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Håkan Nesser, Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf, one of Håkan Nesser's Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series, isn't new (the English
translation appeared three years ago) but is only reaching Kindle format in the upcoming months (which is the impetus for my current review). the Van Veeteren books are set in a fictional "Maardam," something like Ed McBain's fictional Isola. Maardam is an amalgam of northern European countries, with place and family names that suggest Holland, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark (oddly, nothing sounds very Swedish except for some cultural references--perhaps in the author's original Swedish text, Swedish names wouldn't have sounded "alien" enough to create the sense of a new place/no place. Another distinctive feature of the series is that the central character, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, retires to help run an antiquarian bookstore, early in the series.

Hour of the Wolf is a first-class police procedural, with the team of detectives taking center stage, and Van Veeteren thrust into the investigation because his son is one of the first victims of a crime spree that begins with a hit-and-run accident. Van Veeteren's grief is a central motif of the book (though the cop and his son had long been estranged, something established at the beginning of the series); but the retired chief inspector also exhibits his intuitive method, as he shadows the police investigation and provides key insights.

The story alternates among the detectives, the retired chief inspector, and the killer, a skilfully handled kaleidoscope that ceases in the final chapters as the police are left with several difficult matters to sort out, leading to a strangely metafictional section in which the current chief inspector (rather than the retired one) travels to New York (which is of course the model for McBain's Isola) from the fictional Maardam. The effect is strange, but well handled--as is the final resolution, going beyond the mere identification of the killer.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Spies and revenge from Charles McCarry

Charles McCarry, The Mulberry Bush

Mysterious Press
Charles McCarry’s well regarded spy fiction is noted for the clarity and assurance with which he depicts not only the spy trade but also the them-or-us oppositions of historical and cold-war espionage (not for him the gray areas of LeCarre’s maze of spies and counter-spies). But his new stand-alone The Mulberry Bush (not a part of the multi-generational saga of must of his spy fiction) starts in full post-Cold-War mode, with the unnamed narrator and central character cultivating a spy in Argentina who is providing useless information about long-retired revolutionaries. But almost immediately the story shifts into another mode, one that has less in common with the range of current spy fiction and more in common with one of the classics of American intelligence, Roger Hall’s World War II era memoir You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger. McCarry has drawn a portrait of the training of intelligence agents that I recognize from my own very brief and totally undistinguished experience in counterintelligence: not since You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger has anyone so deftly portrahed the blend of the ridiculous, the momentous, and the self-obsessed that characterize the training and conduct of spycraft.

Hall’s 1957 memoir covers the final years of the World War II era OSS. The book, out of print for a number of years but brought back into the light of day a few years ago by the Naval Institute Press, has been widely read among CIA employees and was (when I was there) the most-circulated book in the library of the Army intelligence school. McCarry’s book shares with Hall’s a smart-ass narrative voice that is frequently comic but self-centered to an extent that the reader is wise not to take anything he says totally at face value. The narrators also share an ostentatious false modesty about their athletic abilities as well as a less than total dedication to the intelligence agency for which each works. Hall is simply not a professional spy. He ended up in the OSS for the same reason I ended up in Army Intelligence: it was a less unattractive option than alternatives like infantry. McCarry's unnamed narrator, though, has a more serious motive for becoming a spy. He wants to destroy the (also unnamed) agency that humiliated and expelled his father, who discredited himself as a spy by indulging in pranks that are very like the ones that Roger Hall gleefully remembers from his own career.

After his recruitment and training, the narrator spends five years in the field, as a special operations agent (that is to say, he's arranging assasinations rather than cultivating spies), but when it becomes obvious that his cover has been compromised he returns to Washington. Once there, he has little to do, beyond studying Russian (with an eye toward future assignments) and look for his estranged father. After a single encounter, before his father's death, he begins to plot a revenge on the unnamed institution that had betrayed him, in particular the Agency’s Headquarters staff. He finds the ammunition for his revenge plot in the very attractive Argentinian spy that we met in the opening pages, Luz Aguilar, who he thinks will lead him to the radical associates of her “disappeared” parents who may still be in contact with Russian intelligence agencies that, in the days of the Soviet Union, were the major support of left-wing movements throughout Latin America.

Having accomplished his goal of insinuating himself first with the Argentine left and thene with the Russians, the narrator shuttles back and forth among clandestine meetings in the major cities of Europe and South America, including Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Berlin, Bogotá, and Bucharest, but the city hs evokes most concretely is Washington DC (one of his clandestine meetings occurs outside a café I can see from my office window). This is not the Washington of high politics, but of the mundane life that can be so easily exploited as cover for the movements and actions of spies of all stripes.

If the story of The Mulberry Bush sounds complicated, it is. The narrator needs the assistance of Luz (who burns with her own heat of revenge), his handlers at the Agency (Tom Terhune and Amzi Strange, old hands implicated in his father’s failure), Luz's foster father Diego, a Russian spy named Boris (among other agents on all sides of the post-Cold-War map), and others. All in aid of a complex effort to discredit the Agency by means of the false defection of Boris (who may already in fact be an American “asset”). The book's plot is circular, rather than linear (as the title’s reference to a child’s song/game suggests: both the spy trade and the narrator’s revenge plot are enlessly circling games with no end point. Second, there's no such thing as a mulberry "bush," the mulberry is a tree; nothing here is what it claims to be. The narrator continues chasing the ghosts of his own father’s life in a tightening spiral that leads to a violent ending, echoing the fate of Luz’s parents and offering a final glimpse of what the narrator calls a “worldwide fellowship” of trators lying behind everything that has happened. All of the complexities leading up to this ending are deftly kept under control by the narrator’s clever and personable voice (not unlike Roger Hall’s), as if he were sitting next to you relating over dinner his jaundiced but entertaining vision of the world we live in and the intelligence agencies that use their intricate tradecraft to exploit our hopes and fears.

Monday, October 05, 2015

A new French crime novel (sort of)

Under the Channel, by Gilles Pétel, joins a number of recently translated French crime novels with a decidedly quirky tone and structure, by writers such as Jean-Patrick Manchette and Pascal Garnier. But Pétel's story is a police procedural that has little interest in the police or procedure. Under the Channel starts with a murder and moves quickly to a police investigation, but it's really about something else.

Lieutenant Roland Desfeuilleres is the officer in charge, after the bungled discovery of a body on the Channel-Tunnel train from London to Paris. The reader has witnessed the victim's progress through his last day in London and the first part of his train journey in the first chapter. An English couple upon discovering the corpse in a first-class seat sets off a comedy of errors among train staff and police at the Paris station, a situation that Roland must confront along with the disastrous dissolution of his marriage. Seemingly to escape Paris and his wife, he travels to London to pick up the murder investigation there. But once in London, his attention to the murder is less than intense.

Instead, he hovers around the sites and people related to the dead man's daily life, from gay bars to his real estate office (and an attractive female coworker there) to the abandoned apartment (a very attractive one, near the Pimlico office of the deceased). His police contact in London is at Interpol (which seems kind of strange--wouldn't he "liaise" with Scotland Yard instead?), but is not very helpful. What follows is an existential journey for Roland, with the solution to the crime provided eventually as a final quirk of the odd story, rather than a resolution.

Roland's last days in Paris with his wife are quite funny, in a painful way, but his stay in London is more sober (not counting the numerous pints he drinks in the same pub frequented by the victim), following a transformation of the cop's identity that is interesting if (to me) not quite plausible. Pétel, though, isn't after plausibility: this is a philosophical tale, and an amusing one, rather than a straightforward detective story. The author has four previous untranslated novels: I'd be curious about the quality (and the genre) of those books.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Brazilian noir

Patrícia Melo took the title of her recent book The Body Snatcher from Robert Louis Stevenson, but the plot is more like Jim Thompson. It sounds like pure noir: the narrator comes upon a crashed plane in the Paraguay River, with a kilo of cocaine and the pilot's body in it. He takes the coke and the pilot's watch, and from there the story set in a remote small town develops with a dark inevitability. He takes a job as a driver with the dead man's family and schemes to reveal the body's whereabouts to them (for a ransom), finds a distributor for the drugs, gets involved with his brother's girlfriend as well as a woman who works in the police morgue, and so on. Through it all, his voice is mostly matter-of-fact (except for some radio signals from his conscience). The book is short and fast, moving from one body to another, to threats from police and the dead pilot's family, and on to a conclusion that is distinctively inconclusive. Melo's take on noir is more philosophical than Thompson, though her narrator's voice is not that different from one of Thompson's first person characters. In Melo's work the crime story is less heated, even in its hottest moments, sharing a calm, somewhat distanced tone that she shares with some of the best European crime fiction (Jean-Pierre Manchette, for example). The inherent melodrama of classic noir is muted (unlike recent neo-noir such as the novels of Alan Guthrie, for example), as if at some level the narrator is reflecting upon the story rather than immersed in its violence. One approach isn't better than the other, but Melo's world, dark as it is, has a melancholy but almost optimistic tone quite different from the darkest and most pessimistic end of "hard-boiled" writing. Here characters, having suffered and struggled, have a final, tentative peace, something like the garden at the end of Candide, but with full knowledge of the violent world just beyond.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Timely South African thriller

Deon Meyer returns once again to his Alcoholic Afrikaans cop Benny Griessel in Icarus, which has a timely theme. A body is discovered in the dunes, and is discovered to be that of the CEO of a website called My Alibi, which provides not only verbal alibis but also documentation for affairs and liaisons (not quite the same as Ashley Madison, and so far that scandal has only produced the end of a CEO's career, rather than something more permanent).

Griessel has fallen seriously off the wagon, and his personal struggle leaves space for his partner, detective Vaughn Cupido, to step into the spotlight (continuing Meyer's promotion of secondary characters into more prominent roles). While Griessel sinks into alcohol-fueled depression and Cupido gains new self confidence, the son of a wine-producing family sits in a Cape Town attorney's office making a long confession involving his family history and the story of winemaking in South Africa, linked to the murder, obviously, though the reader will not know just how for quite some time.

The result is a less frenetic story than some of Meyer's recent books, but still a very involving one, and with a great glimpse of the very particular wine tradition in the country. The emphasis here is on character and narrative rather than pacing, an interesting shift and evidence that Meyer isn't settling into any pattern, not even his own previously succesful one.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lisa Brackmann 101

Review of latest Lisa Brackmann novel now at The Life Sentence.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

3 by

My review of the first three Camille Verhoeven books by Pierre Lemaitre is now live at

Monday, June 29, 2015


My new review of Heda Margolius Kovály’s distinctive Czech crime novel Innocence is now live at The

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Irish book and a Swedish movie

Ken Bruen's Green Hell seems at first to be a series finale, but by the end it leaves open the possibility of future entries focused on his melancholy former Garda Jack Taylor. There's a lot of metafiction in it: an American student becomes fascinated with Jack and abandons his research on Becket to write a biography of the Galway private detective, and a good part of the first half of Green Hell is his research on the project. Bruen himself makes an appearance as a customer/drinker in a bar, and Iain Glen, who plays Taylor in the TV series based on these books, also makes a cameo appearance. There is a crime plot, but it mostly takes place offstage. There are some interesting characters, including Ridge, the female cop who's a running character who has survived (many haven't) and a new Goth who seems a bit modeled on the dragon-tattoo-girl (that seems to be the source of the U.S. cover art fro the book). And as usual there are a lot of references to and quotes from crime fiction and crime TV series.

But all of the above is finally subsumed in the same pattern as has appeared in all the Taylor books. The evocative writing serves to set up Taylor's rise from the gutter and his ultimate descent thereto. A regular reader will know immediately upon the entry of a new companion (canine) what the animal's fate is likely to be. I've read most, but not all, of the Taylor books, but I find myself reading them rather rapidly (they're short books, but also easy to cruise through at high reading speed), and growing impatient with the persistent pattern. If this is indeed not the last of the Taylor series, it may still be the last for me.

Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead is an impressive crime story set on the Swedish island of Öland that gives a reader a lot in the way of interesting and rounded characters, plus echoes of a larger frame of reference that is mythic or nonrational (without ever abandoning realism). The movie recently made from it maintains the emphasis on character but doesn't manage to convey the fairy tale or mythic quality of the book (maybe that sort of thing is difficult in a film format, unless you go all the way into horror of fairy tale territory). The story develops slowly in both formats, following a double story of a post-World-War II crime and its consequences in subsequent decades. There's a final twist that would seem to upend the life of the cenral character, a woman who lost her child decades earlier and must now return to Öland to help her father (whom she has always blamed for her child wandering away) close up his house after he has moved into a retirement home. But a code gives some consolation, so that the story doesn't end without a note of grace.

All in all, Echoes from the Dead makes a good movie, though a little less distinctive and involving than the book on which it's based.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Donna Leon and Commissario Brunetti

My survey of the Brunetti series by Donna Leon (on the occasion of her new one, Falling in Love) is now live at The Life Sentence.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

New review, new magazine on-line

My review of Helene Tursten's The Beige Man is now live a the new crime fiction magazine and website, The Life Sentence: have a look at the new site! The url is (and beyond reviews, the magazine features interrogations and feature articles across the spectrum of noir, mystery, cozy, spies, thrillers, etc. The editor is Lisa Levy, until recently the noir editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Jake Needham, The Dead American

The third book in Jake Needham's Samuel Tay series finds the detective on administrative leave, following the suspicious (from the police force's point of view) shooting at the end of the previous book, The Umbrella Man. The always independent and skeptical Tay is approached by Emma Lazar, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, who wants him to help her investigate the apparent suicide of a young American software engineer who had been hired by a Singapore company developing a driverless car.

Tay is reluctant to help but becomes involved (he after all has nothing else to do right now) and becomes, as usual, involved in the complicated politics and bureaucracy of the hyper-nanny city-state. The danger to Tay and Lazar, and everyone else involved, plus the interest shown by Singapore's security establishment, make it clear that there's something going on besides cars without drivers, but the detective and the small team that he enlists to help him cannot penetrate the company's security to find out what's going on.

Needham keeps up the tension by keeping the focus on Tay, not a particularly charming man but a curious one who isn't easily intimidated (except for the ghost of his mother, in whom he doesn't believe but who nevertheless haunts him with advice about his life and the case occasionally). The ghost's presence is not as pervading as the ghosts in the Doctor Siri series by Colin Cotterill, Needham's style is realistic. And the grounding in the real provides a very powerful conclusion to the reasons for the company's secrecy and the murder(s), leading to the dark heart of a conspiracy that is linked to recent headlines and is all-too-believable.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Timothy Williams, new and reissued

Most dialogue in crime fiction moves forward smoothly, the speakers responding to one another and perhaps gradually revealing the truth of the events in the story. In the novels of Timothy Williams, though, the dialogue follows the patterns of life: the speakers are not really listening to each other and definitely not responding coherently to one another. The reader discovers, in the disconnected conversations, the truths that the speakers are hiding from each other, and even from themselves. His recent novel, The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe, follows this indirect method to its logical conclusion: has a crime taken place, and if so what crime? This is not a whodunit, it's a glimpse into the complex life of the citizens of a post-colonial, conflicted culture.

Soho Crime, which published The Honest Folk last year, has recently been reissuing Williams previous series, featuring Italian Commissario Piero Trotti. Trotti, a spiky character with fewer social skills than Judge Anne Marie Laveaud of The Honest Folk and the previous Antother Sun, suits Williams's style perfectly: He talks over people, goes his own way, and has difficulty with everyone in his professional and personal life. In his case, Trotti's investigations lead through some of the most difficult years of Italian history, from the "years of lead" onward into the 1990s, each of the five reissued novels tying local crimes to larger social patterns of violence, corruption, and chaos.

The five Trotti novels appeared originally along with some of the major crime novels set in Italy by English-speaking writers, including Magdalen Nabb, Donna Leon, and Michael Dibdin. Williams is less well known that some of the others, but his work is of the same rank and more specifically links the crime stories to specific facts and events (all of the writers deal with corruption, for example, but only Williams points to specific and specifically Italian corruption. His indirect style is particularly suited to the frequently indirect patterns of life and crime in Italy, without falling back on the more picturesque or charming qualities of life there for solace: his novels are darker, more grimly funny, and in some senses truer. Big Italy involves Trotti in a web of child abuse, conspiracy, and murder, just at the point when he's trying to retire.

The Laveaud books (originally written in French rather than English) show the range of Williams's writing: it's not the same kind of corruption or crime in Guadeloup, and the stakes are different. Laveaud, despite her family troubles, is a more open and social person, caught in the grinding gears of racial and political conficts, corruption of a more distinctively Caribbean sort, and a position in the legal system somewhat more viable professional position than Trotti, whose career is at a seeming dead end. The Guadeloupe books, because of Laveaud's personality and the tropical setting, are quite different fromt he Trotti books, while maintaining the author's quite distinctive approach to crime writing. Both series are highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Noir in new places: Nesbø and Temple

Some of the purest noir being written today doesn't come from the U.S., or France, or the U.K. Two recent novels by Jo Nesbø (of Norway) and Peter Temple (of Australia) show what can be done with the genre today.

Nesbø's Blood on Snow, a stand along novel, is perhaps the purest noir of the two, and much more pure noir than the author's series featuring Harry Hole. The hero, Olav, is a hit man mostly by default--it's the only thing he's good at, having tried all sorts of other criminal enterprises without much success. He's also something of a stalker, staking out the wife of one of his victims and holding off on killing another who is his current assignment, while he watches her. He has a sentimental streak that keeps him human, along with his love of reading (despite his dyslexia). Once he goes off the rails, defying his boss (a drug dealer) and trying to enlist the help of a rival gang, we descend along with him into a noir spiral as he attempts to escape his situation and save someone else along the way. The end is a contrast between a hopeful vision and a cruel truth.

Temple's Jack Irish books have always had strong elements of noir, in the lapsed lawyer at the center of the stories, who lost his wife to an angry client before the series started. And some of the broader elements of noir are also here: Jack works odd jobs (sometimes very odd) for a racetrack manipulator and former jockey (and his elegant but violent helper) and other shady characters. But Jack also has an avocation rather different from the average noir hero: he's learning high-end furniture craft from an artist of the medium, an emigre from Europe who is his gruff mentor and teacher in the trade. And Jack has an occasional love interest, a reporter, who is an on-again, off-again solace. Jack, unlike Nesbø's hero, is a smart-ass, like so many central characters in classic noir, and like them he is the frequent victim of more powerful and more violent enemies that he collects in his pursuit of clarity or justice.

In White Dog, he's hired to collect evidence yhsy might clear an artist who is accused of killing her former lover. In the process, Jack walks into a nest of powerbrokers involved in another of the classic noir tropes, property development. The ruthlessness of these developers leads to deaths, beatings, and an encounter with the nasty dog of the book's title. But the other elements of the story, including the revival of a lapsed racehorse and some elegant sounding furniture, give some respite to Jack and the reader (more so than Olav, who only has the solace of fanstasies of love and escape).

Blood on Snow is evidently set for film adaptation, involving Leonardo di Caprio. Somehow that doesn't seem too promising (let me know if you're more hopeful about the film). The Jack Irish series is the basis for a set of Australian films starring Guy Pearce that are in fact a pretty good version of the stories, with convincing performances by Pearce and the rest of the cast. As far as I know, White Dog hasn't yet been filmed.

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Mad and the Bad, Jean-Patrick Manchette

The Mad and the Bad is a noir fable, quite different from the previously translated Jean-Patrick Manchette books (which are mostly tight, terse tales of professional killers and the like). The Mad and the Bad has a young woman/orphan rescued from an asylum to become a governess, a monster living in a castle in the mountains, an evil stepfather (he has adopted the son of his wealthy brother after the brother and his wife are killed in an accident)--but also a hit man (who is himself dying) and his vicious (but not totally dependable) cohorts.

The book is as fast and entertaining as Manchette's other stories, while also being frequently funny, in a very dark way. If I'd read it without the author's name being disclosed, I'd have guessed it to be by another French writer, the very darkly funny crime novelist Pascal Garnier. Manchette and Garnier, both deceased, are a matched set of very skillful and entertaining writers along a spectrum from comic to bleak, and share the same approach to writing crime fiction, stripped down style, direct storytelling, and not taking up more space than necessary. The influence of Simenon, perhaps?

In any case, The Mad and the Bad, after the young girl/mental patient is installed as the orphan/nephew's governess, Manchette lets the daily routine of her new life play out for a short time before suddently shifting into a kidnapping plot (which isn't what it seems), an escape, several deaths, and a race across France with the hit-man in hot pursuit. There's no one writing them like this, any more (or if you know of another writer in this vein, please let me know!).

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ewart and Evert

I coincidentally read two Swedish crime novels by very different authors (Leif GW Persson and the writing team of Roslund and Hellström), yet there is some interesting overlap. Both feature an overweight senior cop who is not taking care of himself (and they have similar names, Ewart and Evert). Both include a lot of repetitive language, and both develop slowly over a fairly large number of pages. But the experience of the two novels is very different.

Anders Roslund and Borge Hellström often write about prisons, and their newest in translation (Two Soldiers) is no exception. The theme of the book is the birth and rapid development of a new gang, when the young men in a previous gang are spending time in prison. The first, long section of the novel is a claustrophobic vision of the inside of a prison: the encroaching walls are only part of the sensation of being closed in--the closed mind-set of the gang leader (Leon Jensen, who was actually born in prison) is more claustrobic in its violence and misogyny than the cells. In fact, I nearly gave up on the book as this section dragged on. But the normal "hero" of the Roslund and Hellström books, Ewart Grens, finally shows up, with his own narrow mindset and personal difficulties, and the contrast (and contest) between the gang and the cops at least opens up the story in a bearable way. Grens is a wreck, destroyed by the death of his wife and the loss (see the previous novels) of the music that he has been obsessively listening to (to the misery of his partners and collaborators).

Grens shifts his obsession to the danger of the developing gang (when they organize a joint prison break) and recognizes his own role in the life of Jensen (Grens had arressted his father and harassed his mother). The dual obsessions of the book are Grens's drive to stop the gang before it achieves the national reputation Jensen is seeking, and Jensen's drive to destroy whoever gets in his way. The other characters (police and criminals, as well as bystanders) offer a more rounded human portrait to balance these two monomaniacs. Along the way, there is a developing plot that involves Jensen's mother and a fireman and will once again implicate Grens in something beyond his knowledge and power.

Persson is a police expert who often appears on Swedish TV (and he gives a sly reference to that part of his career in the newly translated He Who Kills the Dragon). The "hero" is Evert Backström (and the new Backstrom TV series in the U.S. is partly based on this character and this novel). Backström has been told by a doctor that he has to clean up his life, in terms of healthy habits, and the detective takes it seriously for a bit before reverting to his gluttonous, drunken, corrupt, xenophobic, and misogynist usual self. The repetitiveness in this book is in the language that Backström uses to refer to almost anyone other than himself, uncomplimentary in all cases and in a very narrow range of vocabulary. There is a more rounded humanity here, too, in the other characters (though there is one female cop whose apparent sexual interest in Backström is totally incomprehensible).

Backström doesn't really have any talent as a cop. His self-interest and his luck frequently, though, propel him to achievements that he doesn't deserve. In this case, he is leading the investigation into the death of an old drunk who turns out to be not exactly what he seems, and the case becomes linked to some gang activity in various ways. Persson's writing is always lively and frequently comic, not only in Backström's personality but also in references to crime novels (Gunvald Larsson, of the great Sjöwall and Wahlöö series of the '70s, appears here as a historical reference). But a reader's appreciation of Persson's books that narrow in on Backström in particular will depend on how much tolerance he or she has to the nastiness of the character himself. At one point, in another fictional reference, he compares himself to Andy Sipowicz of NYPD Blue TV fame (though he actually more closely resembles Norman Buntz, an earlier character played by the same actor, Dennis Franz), but the TV character(s) are never quote as mind-numbingly negative as Backström can be to spend time with.  Part of the fun, I guess, is knowing that you don't really have to spend time with Backström in real life (if you do have to live with someone like him, the novel may hit too close to home, or on the other hand might be hysterically funny, I'm not sure which).

Persson does plot the story in a tricky and intricate way, so the development of events is interesting in itself, as well as Backström's ability to turn things to his advantage and escape the consequences of his real behavior. I have to say that I enjoyed He Who Kills the Dragon (and perhaps that title is also a sly reference to another book series) more than Two Soldiers, though the latter achieves a tragic stature by the end, leaving a reader with a more emotional and sociological aftertaste, both at the same time. About the Backstrom TV series, I don't have much to offer: the first episode didn't impress me much, it seemed like ordinary TV fare, with the character neither as repulsive nor as interesting as his literary model.

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Two by Parker Bilal

I've gotten a little behind on both reading and writing lately, and have 2 books by Parker Bilal to report on, Dogstar and The Burning Gates, the 3rd and 4th in the series featuring Sudanese refugee Makana, a former policeman who now ekes out a living as a private detective in Cairo. The series begins years before the Tahrir Square rebellion and its collapse into the current regime, and Dogstar ends with Makana hearing news that the World Trade Center in New York has been attacked. Burning Gates begins with a scene from the subsequent American invasion of Iraq.

I was struck in reading this pair of novels by how much Bilal (who also writes as Jamal Mahjoub) has created a modern, Egyptian equivalent of classic noir. Dogstar begins with kidnapping and murder of young boys, and suspicion cast on the Christian community; Burning Gates deals with theft of artworks and archaeological antiquities in which an Iraqi military man is implicated. Makana continues to be close to the archetype of the noir hero as described by Raymond Chandler in his famous essay on The Simple Art of Murder: the honorable loner in the mean streets of, in this case, Cairo. Makana lost his wife and daughter in their flight from Suday, and he continues to be haunted by that loss (a major factor in the plots of both the recent novels). He also remains, despite adversity, true to humanistic principles. The mystical overtones of the plot in Dogstar and the focus on corruption in the second add depth to  both stories.

Makana's room in a floating house, his landlord's family (especially the young daughter), and various running characters enrich the stories, but the voice is Makana's (though the stories are told in the third person). The vividness of the writing, the pessimistic portrayal of social and political conditions, and the dour Makana are the key attractions, in addition to some humor and a glimpse (from an outsider's point of view) at the distinctive quality of life in Cairo. These are not short books, but the story flows aloong in a compelling way: I highly recommend the whole series.