Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Lisa Brackmann: China series

A Dystopian China (Lisa Brackmann 101)

Recent news that the Chinese government has allowed the artist Ai Weiwei to exhibit his work in China for the first time in years has an echo in the most recent (and probably last) installment of one of crime fiction’s most successful portrayals of China and the Chinese art world. Lisa Brackmann’s trio of Ellie McEnroe novels are not murder mysteries, though there’s plenty of murder and mystery in them. They’re more like exotic adventure novels or dystopian fantasies rooted in the everyday life of contemporary China. Each of the novels, Rock Paper Tiger (2010), Hour of the Rat (2013), and the new Dragon Day (2015), follows a similar pattern, within an overall story arc. Ellie McEnroe is an expat American, a wounded, PTSD-suffering Iraq-war veteran (having been a National Guard medic) who follows her husband to China and then, after a contentious separation from both the husband (who works for a Blackwater-type security company) and the Christian faith that they had shared, finds herself drawn into an underground culture of artists and video gamers.
The narrative is entirely in Ellie’s conversational, hip, obscene, and occasionally paranoid voice, and the novels depend entirely on the fact that her voice remains compelling and entertaining through the whole series. She’s not an action hero, she’s an ordinary woman who faces ordinary problems as well as extraordinary ones: when her landlady doubles the rent on her apartment in Beijing, it’s “more than I can afford, even if I could sell…Zhang’s art again. On my craptastic disability pension? I could maybe afford the bathroom. But hey, at least my landlady isn’t trying to kill me or have me arrested, right? At least not so far as I know.” The narrowing of point of view to Ellie’s own is also a key element in the portrait of contemporary China: she is an outsider, curious about and sympathetic toward the people and the rapidly transforming culture but always at its fringes.
Because of her character’s perspective, Brackmann’s trilogy is quite different from the other prominent crime series set in China, Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, set mostly in Shanghai. Ellie is based in Beijing but travels frequently to Shanghai and other Chinese cities and villages, but Chen’s view of the country and his city are from an insider’s perspective (albeit an insider not comfortable with the role he has been assigned, a policeman enforcing the power of the Party). Each of the Chen novels uses the story of a crime to portray not only contemporary life in China but also the inner mechanisms of the Communist Party as it exerts its power and control over individuals and the masses. Through Ellie’s eyes, however, we see only results, with the Party itself hidden behind the erratic harassment that Ellie, the artists she works with, and others suffer at the hands of the shadowy security services. The limiting of the perspective to Ellie’s own gives Brackmann’s novels a more dystopian and paranoid tone, while Qiu’s stories are more descriptive or sociological, if also a bit pessimistic about the Chinese system.
Ellie becomes an assistant and (maybe) girlfriend of an artist with a foot in both the art world and the gaming world, Zhang Jianli (whose independent attitude suggests that Ai Weiwei is a model for the character, though Ai himself is also referred to in Dragon Day). Because of that association, she finds herself on the run across China, uncertain of which of the people she encounters are friends and which are enemies — and which are possibly both at the same time. Her paranoia and the (to American eyes) exotic locales through which she passes drive the sense of both threat and adventure in the story, while the overarching government surveillance she encounters and ambiguity of good and evil, friend and foe, and contrast between reality and pretense power the dystopian surveillance and terror underlying everything that she experiences. As she walks toward a subway stop, she says, “when the door of the black Buick parked with two wheels up on the curb opens in front of me, my first reaction is just to step out of the way. Then two guys get out, two muscular guys with short haircuts and nondescript clothes. My heart pounds in my throat. Not this again. ‘Qu lioaotianr,’ one of them says. Let’s go for a chat. ‘Just for tea,’ the other says, smiling.” She’s not being arrested, just interrogated about Zhao, who has himself not been charged with a crime: “That isn’t how things work in China. First they decide you’re a threat. Then they find a label for it.” When the cops remind her that “your status here can change at any time,” she tells herself this could just mean “We’re revoking your visa and kicking you out of the country” or “We’re throwing your ass in jail. An official prison or a black jail, off the books.” Her China also takes on some of the qualities of the science-fiction end of the adventure/dystopia spectrum, in the strange landscapes and otherworldly cities she passes through. In the new book, for example, she describes a view of Shanghai’s “old, restored European buildings, science-fiction skyscrapers lurking behind them like invaders from another planet, obscured by mist.” Later, searching for one of the many art spaces popping up in Beijing’s outskirts, she sees a devastated cityscape: “The sky looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, all yellow, an alien planet. A plastic bag floats by like an airborne jellyfish.” The shadowy policemen who keep inviting her for “tea” fit right into these landscapes, and Ellie’s constant state of anxiety is in keeping with both the interrogators and the atmosphere.
The first book in the series, Rock Paper Tiger, is set into motion by a dissident from the Uighur community who is on the run from the government, and Ellie’s encounter with him puts Zhang and herself at odds with the Chinese police and security services. Zhang remains in hiding for most of the rest of the trilogy, hunted by the government and reachable by Ellie only within a Second-Life-like online game of his own design. Book two, Hour of the Rat, begins with a request from a former Army buddy to find his missing brother, leading Ellie into the investigation of the ecological horrors being visited upon the Chinese people and environment, and she is battered back and forth among the pervasive government security forces and the corporations and the activists who are at odds with each other over the environmental destruction.
Throughout the series, her role as the missing artist Lao’s official representative gives her a certain cachet among both the art community and rich collectors. She is also constantly threatened and/or rescued by a shadowy Chinese cop she calls “Creepy John,” whose motives for following her may arise from an official assignment or his own interests, as well as by violent and unscrupulous security contractors associated with her former husband. Ellie’s mother, only a voice on the phone in the first novel, arrives in China for a visit in the second and stays, adopting a Chinese boyfriend and complicating Ellie’s life because she needs to protect her mother from the forces, public and private, that hover ominously over her own tenuous life in China.
Dragon Day begins with Ellie obligated to a wealthy man, Sidney Cao, whose mania for art collecting as well as his capacity for ruthlessness were a big part of Hour of the Rat. Cao wants a piece by Lao Zhang, but the artist, still in hiding, refuses to sell anything (because the government may be building a case for tax fraud against him, a strategy that the government has indeed adopted in its attacks on artists: again, Ai Weiwei is the most prominent example, though the government has recently restored Ai’s right to travel). And now Cao also wants Ellie to give an opinion of the sleazy and sinister Marsh Brody, an American entrepreneur who is gaining influence over Cao’s overprivileged son, Gugu. In the process, she encounters Cao’s other overprivileged children as well as Uncle Yang, the father-in-law of one of them, an influential, conservative party member who is worried about changes that may come in the next party congress, and therefore responds with aggression to Ellie’s attempt to infiltrate the family.
From Cao’s ghost city, a millionaire’s dream with as yet no population, to movie studios in the south (where Gugu is trying his hand as a filmmaker), to upscale clubs and restaurants in Shanghai and Beijing, and through the contrasting neighborhoods of still-preserved traditional houses and soulless concrete developments, Ellie tries to get a fix on two deaths that occur in the circle of Cao’s children, while also trying to be certain about the motives of the slimy Brody (since she knows that if she reports her suspicions to him, Cao is fully capable of having him killed). Plus Zhao announces that he’s coming out of hiding, complicating her relations with both her wealthy patrons and the representatives of the state, from Creepy John to the police to Uncle Yang’s thugs.
After the first of the McEnroe novels, Brackmann published a stand-alone thriller, Getaway, which follows a young widow who travels to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and her getaway vacation turns into a getaway of a different sort when she finds herself caught between an attractive stranger and a violent gang. It’s an effective adventure story, of the innocent-abroad sort, but its location (while exotic) lacks the paranoid intensity and political edge of the conflict between the Chinese surveillance state, the rapacious capitalism, and the artists and ordinary citizens Ellie encounters in the trilogy.
The plots in the trilogy can meander a bit, as Ellie travels from place to place and becomes exposed to one threat after another, and her ongoing concerns (with her safety and with access to the Percocet she depends on to alleviate her war wounds) are in her thoughts and her interior monologue repeatedly, but the rambling plots and the repetition hardly matter: the point is Ellie’s voice and her view of this rapidly changing, sometimes oppressive, sometimes permissive culture. She is absolutely convincing, both as a character and as a witness to an unpredictable realm where past, present, and future constantly collide.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stuart Neville, Those We Left Behind

--> [Since the reviews I published at the late, lamented site The Life Sentence, edited by Lisa Levy, are no longer on-line, I've decided to republish a few of them here. Here's the first one; I posted here a review of Neville's next novel, a sequel to Those We Left Behind, and it appears below.]

 Stuart Neville is one of the most distinctive of the new crime writers from Ireland and Northern Ireland. His debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast (2009), was a sort-of ghost story, featuring a former Republican hitman, Gerry Fagan, who is haunted by the 12 victims of his own political killings. In the UK, the novel was released as The Twelve — perhaps the memory of Britain’s own ghosts of Belfast dictated the change. Neville is among several current crime writers (Deon Meyer and Tana French, for instance) who use a rolling cast of characters, with a minor character in one novel emerging as the central character in the next. Gerry Fagan is still around for the second book, Collusion (2010), but the central focus has shifted to policeman Jack Lennon, whose disastrous personal and professional life plays out in the next two books as well, Stolen Souls (2011), and The Final Silence (2014). Those We Left Behind, the fifth book in the series and Neville’s sixth novel (Ratlines is a standalone historical thriller dealing with escaped Nazis in Ireland after the war published in 2014), shifts the central focus to DCI Serena Flanagan, who was dealing with the fallout of Lennon’s last case and with her own breast cancer diagnosis in The Final Silence.

On the day Flanagan returns to work after her cancer treatment, she is sidelined to desk duty but also asked to meet with Paula Cunningham, the parole officer for Ciaran Devine, being released from prison after serving time as a juvenile for a brutal murder committed when he was 12 years old, a case in which Flanagan was deeply involved. She was removed from that case before the trial (for reasons we witness during a series of flashbacks to the investigation and interrogation during that case), but was convinced that Ciaran had confessed to protect his older brother, Thomas, who would have been sentenced as an adult.

Ciaran and Thomas are entwined in a destructive (to them and to others) folie a deux, the younger brother emotionally dependent on the older, who controls him with emotional and physical abuse. After their father died in an accident and their mother succumbed to drug abuse, they were put in foster homes. The crime for which they both went to jail (Thomas for a shorter sentence, as an accessory) was the murder of their foster father.
As the flashbacks illuminate the facts of the original case, the present-day story follows Flanagan and Cunningham as they attempt to deal with the socially inept Ciaran, damaged by his time in prison, his terrible upbringing, his near-total dependence on his brother, and perhaps some degree of disability akin to autism. The reader is witness to Ciaran’s own struggles as well as the rage for revenge on the part of the murdered foster father’s surviving son. While Cunningham is trying to manage Ciaran’s parole in the face of Thomas’s reassertion of control over him, Flanagan is caught up in both her difficulties of adjusting to her status as a cancer survivor (which presents difficulties for her at home and at work) and her unprofessionally close relationship with Ciaran, who bonded with her at the time of the original investigation as a sort of mother-substitute but with troubling overtones.

The plot of Those We Left Behind follows an arc that it shares with some of Neville’s earlier books, descending inexorably toward a final confrontation. But the social situation that dominated the earlier books, the continuation of remainder of anger and violence after the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, is replaced here with a more universal problem: the damage inflicted upon the most vulnerable, the children, in the collapse of troubled families. That is not to say that the children are portrayed as innocent in any way: Neville is far too subtle a writer to rely on any simple view of human nature. No one in this story, in fact, is without guilt. The resolution occurs in an appropriately barren location from the brothers’ past, in the spectral shadow of their dead mother, in a barrage of violence precipitated by Ciaran’s discovery of the limits to his festering relationship to his brother.

There is an important subplot dealing with the apparent suicide of Flanagan’s friend from a cancer support group that provides a coda showing the DCI’s investigative skills in a more favorable light than is the case in the main plot; the subplot also provides a coda that, if not positive, at least provides an example of a conventional variety of justice, something that is not possible in the case of the Devine brothers and their crimes. If their family name has echoes with any sort of divinity, it is with the old gods and the Old Testament, where stories of fraternal violence and harsh retribution abound.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Tana French, Los Angeles Review of Books

My review of The Trespasser, by Tana French, is posted on Los Angeles Review of Books, as of this morning:

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Blood Crime, by Sabastià Alzamora

At first glance, Sabastià Alzamora's newly translated Blood Crime sounded interesting: a crime novel set in the Spanish Civil war, written in Catalan and based on a massacre that occurred in Barcelona. Then I read this sentence in the blurb: "Narrated by a vampire who thrives in the havoc of the war." A historical vampire thriller; not my kind of thing, really. But I was flying off for a work meeting in another state, and needed something to read on the plane, so I took it with me.

From the first, this is a different kind of vampire. Then, he actually only narrates a few sections of the book. And what comes between, though still dealing with vampires, especially in the first half of the book, is quite interesting. Not only war and vampires, but massacres, a fantastic automaton, a history of monsters (including the vampire), and various horrors of a war that (based on this book) most of us outside Spain have not understood very well.

At times, the book reminded me of V., Thomas Pynchon's first novel. Blood Crime is not as kaleidoscopic as V., but they two novels share a grotesque sensibility and a sexualized cruelty that is sometimes overt. Pynchon goes further in that direction (as anyone who has read V. will clearly remember) but Blood Crime has some of the same theatricality and horror.

The plot does begin with a vampire attacking a monk and a young boy (told through the monster's eyes), and then shifts to the policeman investigating the crime, alternating with passages from inside a sort-of hotel where other monk's in the same order (Marist brothers) are hiding, to a cloister whose mother superior is the big sister of one of the revolutionaries who are beginning the systematic murder of clergy and other religious. Plus a judge and a coroner (also something of a historian of vampires and other monsters) who are engaged in a bizarre enterprise of their own, various members of the revolutionary party, a bishop, and a young nun tasked with writing a musical score beyond her abilities. And all with the government (Franco's crowd) raining bombs down onto Barcelona. The effect is something like hell being opened up by the violence of the war.

It's a fascinating book whose strangeness overcomes the lack of a single central character or novel. It's more a tapestry of awe and horror, man-made and possibly beyond. It's not really a mystery (since we know who committed the crime, though we don't know for a time who the vampire is), and not a police procedural (since any sane procedure has broken down in the maze of corruption and violence of the war, and it's not a thriller of any ordinary sort. The more generic "crime fiction" certainly applies though, and Blood Crime twists the genre in new and interesting ways.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Mystery and Tragedy: Neville and Fossum

The new novels by Karin Fossum of Norway and Stuart Neville of Northern Ireland have little in common (except for being works by two of the most prominent and accomplished crime novels working today). Both, however, demonstrate an inevitability in their motion toward a conclusion, and a tragic sense of character that determines the story.

Neville's So Say the Fallen continues the story of Belfast detective Serena Flanagan, the central character in two of his previous books. This time, she reluctantly takes on the case of the apparent suicide of a wealthy car dealer who was the victim of a car crash in which he had lost his legs. He and his wife had also in the recent past lost their young child in a swimming accident while on vacation in Spain, death and disaster seemingly following them around.

But details of the crime scene make Flanagan uneasy. Among the witnesses she interviews is the minister in whose church the dead man had been active, and Flanagan begins to gravitate toward him in her personal search for a way out of the miseries of her own life. As she comes closer to the preacher, we also learn the real circumstances of the death, in the portions of the narrative from the minister's point of view, and the alternating perspectives on what is and has been going on enlist the reader as a witness to a tragedy of ambition, deceit, ruthlesness, and despair. Flanagan herself navigates a difficult and finally dangerous path through the collapse of the lives of everyone involved.

Fossum's Hell Fire is also a split narrative, offering three perspectives on the murder of a single mother, Bonnie Hayden, and her young son, Simon, in a caravan parked on a corner of a Norwegian farmer's property. Inspector Konrad Sejer, Fossum's usual policeman, has no clues and simply keeps dogging the case and reinterviewing possible witnesses, hoping for a breakthrough.

The other two narratives follow the seemingly disconnected stories of the mother, who is working as a home help assistant, and another mother and son, Mass Malthe and her seemingly autistic (though the word is never mentioned) son Eddie, in his twenties but still living with his mother and almost completely dependent on her, through his own laziness and antisocial character and her indulgence of his habits.

We follow Bonnie on her rounds as she takes care of her sometimes troublesome and sometimes friendly clients, and we witness Eddie's on-again, off-again on-line search for the grave of the father that abandoned him and then died in a foreign country. The tragedy here also has an inevitable quality, but the emotions and personality traits that drive that inevitability are more subtle and claustrophobic than those in Neville's novel. We don't know what the circumstances of Bonnie's and Simon's death were until late in the novel, but from the beginning there is a sense of fatal loss and social failure that give the novel its tragic character. Fossum's novels don't adhere to a single structure, and Sejer is a more important character in some of them than in others (among those in which he's a character at all). Here he's a stand-in for the reader, a helpless witness to the catastrophe of two families.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Parisian noir

Frédéric Dard was a prolific crime writer in the 20th century who had a major series (173 novels) about about the invincible Detective Superintendent Antoine San-Antonio, and also other novels, some of which fit into the French noir category. One of these is Bird in a Cage, recently published by Pushkin Vertigo in David Bellos's translation.

Bird in a Cage is a twisty tale of a concentrated, tense return to a Paris suburb by an ex-con (the narrator), who has learned that his estranged mother has died. He stays in her apartment, visits a restaurant that had been held up by his mother as the height of elegance and expense, and there encounters a young mother and her daughter. He more or less follows them into a movie theater, and there begins a tentative relationship, assisting her with her sleeping child when they leave the cinema.

From there, the narrator is plunged into a labyrinth of a disappearing corpse, clues and even rooms that appear and vanish, and a tightening web in which he finds himself trapped. The novel ends with mysteries finally cleared up but destinies left hanging (we know what is probably going to happen, but not absolutely).

This is a classic crime novel in the French mode, reminiscent of film noir and dripping with the atmosphere of the mid-century era of noir's birth. It is claustrophobic, puzzling, and satisfying, a great quick read.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Dead Joker, by Anne Holt

The latest Hanne Wilhelmsen novel by Anne Holt is one of the most intense. Cecilie, her life-partner, is ill, and Hanne is confronting uncomfortable realities at home and at work. When a prosecutor phones the police to say that his wife has been decapitated while he was forced to watch, a series of events is set in motion: the man whom the prosecutor saw murder his wife turns out to be dead, a suicide some time before the murder. With a deceased suspect, the attention of the police naturally turns to the most logical alternative, the prosecutor himself. What follows is an unconventional puzzle mystery that will involve another murder, a murderer who is also a victim of child abuse, a ring of abusers and a ring of vigilantes, and a reassessment by Hanne of everything and everyone in her life.

Holt's novels are more focused on the lives, both inner and social, of her police characters than some in the Scandinavian crime wave, and sometimes the personalities of the detectives can be a bit distracting, imho. But in Dead Joker, the puzzling case and the personal disasters of the lead detective (though in no way parallel) add up to more than the sum of the parts. The end is in some ways inconclusive, but in its emotional truth, entirely satisfying.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

A detective's beginnings

Cara Black's Aimée Leduc series has delivered, in 15 volumes, interesting characters, enticing views of Paris, intricate plots, and thrilling conclusions. In the 16th, Murder on the Quai, she delivers all that plus Aimee's "foundation myth," the story of the origins of her profession, her partner Rene, her dog Miles Davis, and her fraught family history--plus the wartime resistance, Nazi gold, and more.

Aimée makes a charming gamine-detective, just at the beginning of developing her skills as a detective. We also see her father firsthand, and get a glimpse of the story of his death, frequently referred to in the series. Plus we get a brief glimpse of Aimée's mother, also a frequent source of internal conflict for the detective throughout the series. But in all cases, the shift in perspective from the recent past (all the Leduc stories are set some 10 years or so before their publication date, giving the key source of her detective agency's income, data protection and computer security, an air of quaintness) to the birth of the running plotlines of the series.

And in a series of further flashbacks, we see firsthand what Aimée glimpses in her research into the execution-style murder of an old man on a Paris quai: a wartime story but not the usual tale of the French resistance. This tale is not of heroism but of greed, jealousy, and opportunism. The resolution of Murder on the Quai is not so much a "whodunit" reveal but the sordid revelation of the continuation of those sleazy human traits into the present-day of the novel.

If you already know the Leduc novels, this one is a must-read. If you don't, it would be an entertaining intro to the series, though you will miss a good deal of this book's charm, which resides in the discovery of a familiar character's origins.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Of fire, sex, and the blitz: Henry Green's Caught

Henry Green's 1942 novel Caught has all the elements of a thriller: a volunteer fireman in London at the start of World War II, the kidnapping of his child, the scenes of bombing and destruction. But Green (not his real name, but he was indeed a fireman in London during the blitz) undercuts the heroism and thrill at every corner. He tells the story in scraps beginning with the end of the kidnapping, when Richard Roe's son is rescued from a mentally ill woman by her brother. Unfortunately for Row, the brother turns out to be his superior officer in the firehouse, later.

But later and sooner are all mixed up, as the narrative moves back and forth through the first year of the war, before the blitz, leading up to a final conflagration and death that are not at all what a conventional novel would provide. Green, though, was not at all a conventional writer. His books (most of which lack dramatic events such as those that frame Caught) dissect sex, class, and daily life in twisted prose and oblique dialogue that together create both comic effects and a tapestry of the everyday.

Sex, one of the constants in Green's work, is a key element of Caught, as the fireman, stuck in a waiting pattern, find solace where they can, with women quite willing to find their own solace in the absence of their husbands or lovers called up for the fight. Neither the sex nor the loneliness (or even the love) are romanticized: Green has the jaundiced eye of a satirist, but he does have sympathy for his characters. The cruel end of Caught, in which the beginning of the bombing is told second-hand by Roe to his wife, sent down to the country with their rescued son, with an inadequacy that he fully recognizes and a cognitive dissonance that he doesn't. The cruelty isn't in the turmoil of war, which from Roe's perspective is thoroughly disjointed and unheroic, but rather in his insistence on telling his wife (an unwilling witness), and in the manner of his telling. Even the sympathy we may have for this unheroic hero is undercut, in Green's dark view of human interaction (dark but funny, in prose that somehow manages to be both heavy and light at the same time). Green was a unique writer, and Caught is a unique novel of war, love, conflict, and human interrelations.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Killer Deal, by Sofie Sarenbrant

Killer Deal is a new Swedish crime novel, the first in an apparently popular series to be translated into English. The setup is interesting (a family is in the midst of separating, and becuase of that selling their house. After an open house the husband is found dead. There's also a nice twist at the end, creating an unexpectedly open conclusion. However, I just could not get into the book--it's too suburban, almost small-town cozy. There's too much intertwining of the detective's life and the people involved in the case, as if everyone in this part of Stockholm is separated by considerably fewer than six degrees. 

The writing is OK, geared more to best-seller than literary status, and the characters are believable. But there are lots of subgenres in crime fiction, and I guess not all of them appeal to all of us. And it's definitely a window on a suburban way of life quite different from the setting of a lot of the Scandinavian crime wave.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Two by Lola Smirnova

Lola Smirnova's Twisted and Craved, the first two novels of a trilogy, apparently, offer enough crime, misery, drugs, alcohol, sex, and even occasional pleasure for a dozen crime novels, but these are not really crime novels (despite the excess of crime, especially crimes against women, in them). Instead, Smirnova has constructed an episodic fictional memoir by Julia, who with her sisters Natalia and Lena, depart from a difficult life in Ukraine into an even riskier world of sex work, primarily nude dancing and sometimes prostitution. They are not being trafficked, they are entering into contracts more or less with their eyes open. And the sisters, each in her own way, are looking for a home life, with or without romance--in some ways the novels are the antithesis of romance fiction.

The story begins with an S/M scenario and then flashes back to the beginning of Julia's story. The sisters travel first to Luxembourg and then to Turkey, encountering many, many unpleasant men, across a range from customers in a strip club to rapists. Julia descends into drug addiction, and her sisters try to save her and eventuall succeed, returning to Ukraine and decide to start a new life as entrepreneurs, starting, with their mother's help, a beauty salon.

Craved, the second book, begins with a new temptation to leave their new life (the salon isn't doing all that well) for Cape Town, South Africa, for a new gig as dancers. At first, they find the new situation easier than their European experience: prostitution is now assumed to be part of their job, though that practice lurks always below the surface as the underside of their work. Each sister finds a patron, even in Lena's case a husband (something she has been searching for all along) but love is not part of the equation at any point. But while Julia finds her own patron in a seemingly kind Arab prince, things begin to spiral out of control for all three: even the truths that they had assumed about their parents and each other start to dissipate. By the end of Craved, things are very bad, and a sequel will need to dig Julia nad her sisters out of a very dark place.

There's a lot of sex in these books, but nothing even remotely sexy. But Julia's tale is compelling, and the story moves quickly along, pulling the reader into the net into which the sisters have themselves become entangled. This is a new kind of noir, not following any of the rules of the genre but conjuring up the true core of noir fiction's vision of contemporary life.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Two important Norwegians

The principle characters of two of the most prominent Norwegian crime writers, Anne Holt (author of the Hanne Wilhemsen series, set in Oslo) and Gunnar Staalesen (author of the Varg Veum series, set in Bergen) in a recently translated novel by Holt, The Lion's Mouth, when Wilhemsen runs into her old friend Varg in a cafe. It's only a passing moment, a kind of homage from one writer to another, as we can see in The Lion's Mouth and in Staalesen's recently translated We Shall Inherit the Wind.

Holt's novel is immersed in Norwegian political machinations and scandals when the prime minister, scarcely 6 months after she had taken office, is found dead in her office. The investigation, not by the senior cop Hanne, because she is in America on a sabbatical until almost halfway through the novel, but by her friend Billy T and, of course, everyone else in the Norwegian police and security services. There is also a three-decades-old scandal, uncovered recently and under investigation by a commission headed by an old friend of the prime minister, dealing with an unusual number of babies who died in the year 1965.

At times, this is a political thriller something like that other giant of Norwegian crime writing, Jo Nesbø, or perhaps the Swedish writer Leif GW Persson, but the tone of Holt's writing is quite different. She alternates gritty and hard-nosed investigation with some light-hearted, even childish, behavior on the part of Billy T and others, injecting a bit of the atmosphere of a cozy mystery into this otherwise more noir and urban tale.

Staalesen's hero Varg is a private detective whose career started as a social worker, and he often investigates the disappearance of children (as in the case he mentions when he runs into Hanne), but in We Shall Inherit the Wind he is asked to find an adult male who has disappeared just before finalizing a deal to build a wind farm on a prominent site above a fjord. We learn a lot about the politics of clean energy (rather than Norwegian national politics) as well as the machinations of families involved in one way or another with the site of the proposed wind facility.

The book begins with Varg's girlfriend, near death in a hospital, and circles back to the story in which she is led to that hospital bed. The tone is very dark, due in part to that framing device, but there is also a lot of violence, threats of violence and even a crucifixion, lending an apocalyptic air in line wih the Biblical title of the book. But Varg, who is also the narrator in this series, is an affecting example of the tragic hero outlined by Raymond Chandler's famous essay on hard-boiled fiction, while also being humane and vulnerable (very much in character with his original profession). 

It's appropriate and amusing for Hanne and Varg to meet, in Holt's bit of metafiction, but they otherwise don't have a lot in common: Varg is immersed in the dark side of urban life, with rarely a moment of respite, while Hanne diverts her (and the reader's) attention with more settled relationships in her own life and in the lives of those around her. Between the two writers, they describe the whole range of the rich vein of Scandinavian noir that is unique to Norway.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Harri Nykänen's Behind God's Back

Harri Nykänen is one of the most prominent Finnish crime writers, with two series that have begun to be translated into English: one features Raid, a hit man (and the basis for a widely-shown TV series), and the other features Ariel Kafka, a Jewish cop in Helsinki, in a police force (and a city) with a small Jewish population. Both of the Kafka books published so far also feature elements of cultural and police interaction between Finland and Israel.

Kafka doesn't actively participate in the Jewish community, but is drawn back into it when a prominent Jewish businessman is assassinated in the doorway of his house, to which he has retreated in fear of some unknown party that has threatened him. The Jewish connection is not the only focus of the investigation (and not the only reason Kafka is assigned to the case), but ensuing discoveries and events continue to reveal connections to the community and to Israeli politics (as well as to Ariel's own brother, whose business is implicated in a shady load obtained by the dead businessman).

Nykänen's Kafka books lack some of the dry wit that characterizes his Raid books (which are in part a migration of tropes of Westerns to contemporary Finland), though some of it remains (in, for instance, one of Ariel's coworkers who is obsessed with Native American culture, a sort of crossover with the Raid series). But Ariel's narration is a lively rendition of the police procedural mode, and the occasional chase scenes (one involving a killer escaping via kayak), shooting incidents, angry witnesses, and violent encounters are all lively events taking the reader momentarily out of Ariel's monologues.

I'd like to see more of Ariel's work with broader themes in Finnish culture and crime, but perhaps Nykänen has something new for Ariel in the pipeline.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Gianrico Carofiglio, A Fine Line

The series of legal thrillers set in the Pugliese city of Bari, by Gianrico Carofiglio, depend more upon the voice of the central character, Guido Guerrieri, than on plot or mystery--fortunately Guido is fascinating. He's a lawyer who's not too certain about his profession but comfortable in his life, his city, and his relationships with co-workers, his ex-wife, and his evening companion, Mr. Punchbag (Guido is a former boxer who keeps his hand in both in the gym and with his in-home punching bag, with which he sometimes carries on one-sided conversations).

In the new novel, he begins by discussing with a police friend a recent scare caused by the false diagnosis of a fatal illness. But the shadow of that experience is quickly set aside when a judge who is a former law-school classmate approaches him about a suspicion that the judge is being investigated for corruption. Guido accepts the case, and a double plot ensues. While Guido goes through the labyrinthine Italian legal system (which we learn a lot about ), his investigator (a young woman named Annapaola Doria, who is a former cop, a motorcycle enthusiast, and a source of attraction for Guido, something he is ambivalent about).

Carofiglio's skill as a writer is evident in his ability to hold the reader's attention without resorting to weapons, corpses, and other typical plot tropes of the crime genre. Here we have only the judge, the shadowy (and mostly off-stage) world of organized crime, from which the accusation of corruption arises by means of a criminal informant, and Guido's careful manipulation of the legal options open to him. Guido is not only good company, as a narrator, he is also an effective conduit for the forces at play in a social realm that includes many dark paths among the pleasing vistas of Puglia as he travels from Bari, where he and the judge are based, and Lecce, where the legal case will be heard. This series is not a travelogue/crime novel, though. The Italian setting is important, it is not as much a part of the novel's core as is the case in, for instance, the Camilleri novels. Instead, the reader gets a vivid sense of a fascinating character and the milieu in which he operates as an attorney. I highly recommend the whole series and the most recently translated episode is up to Carofiglio's high standard.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lisa Brackmann's latest

I enjoyed Lisa Brackmann's China-based series of postmodern thrillers, but I've also been waiting Getaway, set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Getaway is a pure noir thriller about an innocent abroad, a widow whose husband turns out to have been a crook, and whose getaway to a resort town leads her into a breathless getaway of a different kind.
impatiently for a sequel to her

The sequel has finally arrived: Go-between, and I hesitate to say anything at all about the plot because the twists and turns start immediately and carry on until the final pages. Most of the book is set in Houston, and Texas is an appropriate setting in many ways, not least because some classic noir (including some of Jim Thompson's stories) has happened in Texas (the fictional as well as the actual state).

Go-between features a range of topics and backdrops, from a northern California riddled with marijuana dealings of legal and illegal sorts, airplanes (also a factor in Getaway), for-profit prisons and state-run ones, nonprofits that may or may not be sinister fronts for corporate greed, and the failure of wealth and privilege to protect against the encroachment of violence and misery. Brackmann sets up a series of threatening situations from the beginning of the book, and the plot unravels from there as the heroine attempts to salvage something of her life. The pace is fast and the threat palpable, though some readers (one spoiler alert ahead) might find the last few pages a bit anticlactic after the considerable build-up of tension.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

On Danish authors Kaaberbøl and Friis

The power of the series: the authors’ creation  of one of the most distinctive  characters in contemporary fiction.

My review is Here.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Argentine Queen of Crime

Betty Boo is Claudia Piñeiro's best book to be published in English so far. Like Nurit Iscar, her heroine in this novel, Piñeiro is the "Argentine Queen of Crime," but unlike her heroine, Piñeiro has not turned away from crime in favor of "serious" fiction. Instead, she is exploiting the norms of crime fiction to investigate serious issues of not only crime but also the contemporary way of life in her homeland and the wider world.

Betty Boo is in part a satire of the decline of newspapers, exemplified by a Jaime Brena, a writer who has been supplanted on the crime desk of his paper, El Tribuno, by the "crime boy," whose idea of investigative journalism is to do a search on Twitter and Google. When a prominent citizen is murdered in the gated community of La Maravillosa, his throat cut in much the same way his wife had previously been murdered, the editor El Tribuno (and Nurit's former lover) convinces her to move into La Maravillosa and send daily posts to the paper from within the community that is the scene of the crime.

So Brena the supplanted crime editor and Nurit, the former crime novelist (she gave up writing when El Tribuno published a damning review of her "straight" novel), along with the crime boy and Nurit's circle of friends are swept up in a widening spiral of murder, influence, and privilege. The resulting story is frequently funny and always compelling. Piñeiro has worked some of these same themes in her previous books, but here all of her interests come together in a story that is both satirical and engaging. Betty Boo is hands down the best book I've read so far this year.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Stan Jones, Tundra Kill

The most recent novel in the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones, set in the town of Chukchi in the north of Alaska, offers a lot of native culture and Arctic life. Jones's books always use native language and the distinctive quality of life in a small town of blended native and outsider peoples (and Nathan himself, adopted out of the culture as a child and now returned as a cop, is thought of locally as half-native, but learning. He's now attached to Grace Palmer, the emotionally wounded woman from an earlier novel, as well as her adopted daughter.

What Tundra Kill adds to the mix is aother artifact of Alaska's history and culture: a female governor with national ambitions and a folksy style: not Sarah Palin but a later (and current) governor cut from the same cloth. There is considerable Palin-esque satire in the earlier segments and in the governor's Palin-esque language throughout. But the plot actually turns on the death of a local man in a still-frigid incident: he was apparently run over by a snowmobile. Afte rthe discovery of the body, the plot actually moves back in time, to a visit by the governor, who asks for Nathan, now the chief of the newly reconstituted local police (he was formerly a state trooper), to be her bodyguard as she tours the area (her original home) on the occasion of her husband's participation in an annual dog-sled race.

The governor and Nathan get stuck in a snowstorm when their plane is forced down (the plane incident is a thrilling piece of writing, I suspect Jones has some knowledge of flying in the Arctic). When we return to Chukchi and the investigation of the death-by-snowmobile, the threads of the plot begin to tighter around Nathan, constricting his ability to conduct his search for the killer as well as his job and his relationship with Grace.

The result is an effective combination of crime story and satire, which moves surprisingly deeply in a sexual direction, because of Grace's difficulty in achieving a normal sexual relationship with Nathan (because of her past trauma) but also for other reasons related to the current plot. The Nathan Active stories are always lively and interesting, as well as offering plots wholly consistent with the Arctic location: plus they have not come along frequently enough--one can hope for another new one before too long.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Helsinki Homicide: Darling

I haven't read all of Jarkko Sipila's Helsinki Homicide series, but the current one (Darling, translated ably by Katriina Kitchens) is focused less on Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamӓki than on his team (in comparison to the ones I have read). The result is very good, right up to the end (which I found a bit rushed and a bit more brutal in a casual way than anything that had come before). I kept thinking of Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct books, in the way that Sipila handles the shifting point of view and the broadened focus on the characters.

The cops are interesting and well differentiated from one another, and along the way another interesting character, defense attorney Nea Lind, also becomes an important aspect of the story. The plotting is also off-beat in an interesting way. When a mentally handicapped adult woman is found dead, the police focus in on a group of men (including the caretaker in her apartment building) who hang out together in the Alamo Bar; each in turn had been exploiting the dead woman sexually. But the police focus in on the caretaker, who quickly confesses, but also asks specifically for Lind as his attorney. The case seems closed early on, with the police simply  consolidating the evidence.

But Lind and a reporter who reluctantly picks up the story, at her editor's insistence, begin to pick away at the case, leading up to the violent conclusion (which is, as it happens, what it takes to convince the police about the truth in the case).

A quick and entertaining ride, if a bit bumpy at the end (imho). 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mick Herron, Real Tigers

My review of Mick Herron's Real Tigers is up at Los Angeles Review of Books:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Divorce Turkish Style, by Esmahan Aykol

Esmahan Aykol's Istanbul novels featuring Kati Hirschel, crime fiction bookseller and amateur detective, are a bit unconventional. Kati occasionally speaks directly to the reader, and her narrative is full of details about Istanbul and its citizens, of all classes (that detail is one of the most striking things about the series), but the crimes and even the investigation can be a bit difficult for the reader to pin down. I the newest, Divorce Turkish Style, there's a dead woman who was perhaps (and perhaps not) murdered; there's a Thracian separatist group and rapacious industrialists at odds over the pollution of a Turkish region; and there are several very complicated families (not least the unofficial "family" of Kati, including her roommate, the Spanish Fofo and her cop friend Batuhan).

Kati insinuates herself into the dead woman's family as well as into the lives of other people associated, sometimes tangentially, with the victim (who was an environmental activist), frequently in cafes around the city. The puzzle of the crime doesn't develop slowly toward a resolution: the situation remains totally fuzzy until it is clarified rapidly toward the end. This structure might be frustrating or boring in another writer's hands, but Aykol brings it off effectively through her attention to Kati's voice. Kati is never totally serious, always uses crime-fiction references in a way that is only half-serious in her pursuit of the truth, and always has her personal life on the front burner (she's currently without a lover, but keeping her options open, for example) and always in pursuit of the particular pleasures that keep her in Turkey rather than in her ethnic homeland, Germany.

The series isn't exactly cozy nor is it noir. Kati is always front and center, and a reader will know immediately whether he or she wants to spend a few hundred pages with her (as I have done with each installment). And the covers, by the way, are beautifully designed.