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.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Final Silence, by Stuart Neville

Given the very dark nature of the stories in Stuart Neville's Belfast novels (of which The Fatal Silence is the 4th), that title suggests a very bleak story indeed. And there's plenty of darkness in the tale that unfolds from the slow death of Raymond Drew (of natural causes) at the beginning. But there is a kind of open-ended, skeptical moment of optimism that provides a breath of hope.

Though before that, Drew's niece discovers and opens her uncle's journal, a true Pandora's box of evil deeds done in the past and evil consequences to come in the present. The whole Belfast series is haunted (almost literally) by the Troubles (each book in a different way). Here, the calm and prosperous surface of things fails to contain the eruption of violence that has its source in the politics of the past as well as the kind of violence that will always be with us.

The violence engulfs everyone touched by the diary, including the niece, her parents, and the still-surviving main characters of the series, the policeman Jack Lennon, his daughter Ellen, Ellen's mother's family (still striving to take her away from her father), Lennon's long-suffering girlfriend Susn, as well as a senior cop new to the series, DCI Serena Flanagan (whose strength as a detective is being sorely tried both by her contact with this case and by events in her private life).

Lennon has always had a problem as a policeman, since he's a Catholic on an overwhelmingly Protestant force (and being a cop makes him anathema to the civilian Catholics as well). His actions in a previous book have made him even more hated, especially by one specific cop who is now in a position to hurt him, and his involvement in the violence after the discovery of the diary cast him even more into the wilderness. What keeps the whole proceedings from being depressing is Neville's skill in both moving the plot forward relentlessly and  making the reader care about what happens (partly due to Lennon's redeeming virtues: his love for his daughter and his willingness to put himself on the line against a threat to his own little family or someone else being harmed  or threatened by dark forces old and new). The supernatural element of the series has gradually lessened, and is present here only in a suggestion of Ellen's second sight (not a major factor in the plot).

Neville's Belfast novels are some of the most powerful stories coming out of Ireland and Northern Ireland today, and that's quite an accomplishment given the high quality of so much crime fiction originating on the island now.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

A Spanish Saga--LARB

Looks like another review of mine is now live on Los Angeles Review of Books, on The Siege, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte:

Saturday, November 01, 2014

South African noir review

My review of two new books from Cape Town's Deon Meyer and Margie Orford is now live at Los Angeles Review of Books:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Peter Anderson, The Unspeakable

In The Unspeakable, set in the dusty northern provinces of South Africa in the last decades of Apartheid, Peter Anderson invokes a number of literary precedents, but one in particular, James Hadley Chase, whose novels are glimpsed in a roadside diner’s book rack, kept coming back to mind as I read the main narrative thread of the novel. There is a pulp-noir sexuality driving the story, as well as a cast of characters (the professor, his pretty young girlfriend, a cameraman who is her former lover, and a black sound technician and driver) whose interactions lead toward a violent blowup. 

The story is told in the voice of Rian, the cameraman, hired to record the professor’s documentary film on the origins of the human race, but the novel’s roadtrip through the South African wilderness also provokes Rian’s memories of childhood on an Afrikaner farm, and these reminiscences are vivid and evocative. Particularly in the longest of these flashbacks, dealing with events leading up to the father’s suicide in front of his young son, Anderson not only suggests some South African classics such as J.M. Coetzee but also America’s Southern Gothic fiction, with its folkore and racism. 

In the best segments of Rian’s adult story, the casual racism of the white people (Rian included) in contrast to the hardscrabble lives of tribal peoples encountered along the way suggests another South African precedent, the detective stories of James McClure, particularly in the direct portrait of lives violently twisted in mental and behavioral ways by Apartheid. 

But most of the narrator’s main story depends on a series of adolescent fantasies and absurd actions on the part of all the white principals, involving jealousies and overt sexual proposals that are necessary for the plot to move to its tumultuous conclusion, but are in themselves a bit hard to accept. Here again, a South African precedent comes to mind, in Tom Sharpe’s lampoons of an Apartheid-era police force, but Peterson’s characters are not drawn as broadly or with as much comedy, and the contrast to the other parts of the story is jarring. At one point, the professor (mostly portrayed as a buffoon) suggests the group abandon the archaeological documentary to film instead an interracial porn film featuring the girlfriend and the driver, which would be a dangerous act for the driver in that era. And several acts of violence seem arbitrary and unmotivated. 

At one point the author, through his narrator, suggests that the novel’s title refers to the possibility of addressing the unsayable by means of stories, but there is also an unspeakable act at the end, a chilling indictment of institutional racism (again reminding me of McClure’s evocation of Apartheid), flowing directly from both the naturalistic and absurd elements of the story, and its impact requires a reader to accept both at face value.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Fuminori Nakamura, Last Winter We Parted

Each of Fuminori Nakamura's novels published in English so far is quite different from the others. The newest, Last Winter We Parted (from Soho Press, translated by Allison Markin Powell), is a twisty noir thriller, with murder, false identity, sexual perversion, and revenge. The story alternates among several narrators, focusing on a photographer who is awaiting execution for the murder (by fire) of two young women. The first fire was thought to be an accident and he was burned in a possible attempt to save the first of the victims, the second, almost identical fire was most damning evidence against him (and there is some evidence that, instead of rushing to aid the women, he photographed their deaths).

A writer approaches the condemned man for an interview, intending to publish a book on the murderer and his crimes, but the killer deflects the writers advances in odd ways, as does the murderer's sister. And the writer discovers a subculture of lifelike dolls, created by a master artist who at first refuses and then agrees to model these dolls on living women (rather than lost wives or lovers).

The doubling (of the two victims, of the dolls and their living counterparts, and some other doubles that I can't mention without spoiling the plot) is essential to the story's exploration of identity and desire, and also essential to the sudden reversals of the story itself. The book is an old-fashioned house of mirrors, told in terse, mostly short chapters from various limited points of view that only reveal prismatic views of what's going on. Nakamura's book requires (but also rewards) close attention: it is in a way a Postmodern revival of some of the tropes of classic noir and hard-boiled fiction, with a specifically Japanese sensibility.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Tana French, The Secret Place

It's been obvious since her first book that Tana French's true milieu, as a writer, is adolescence: all her books include a substantial element of childhood or youth, and sometimes even the adults talk and act like teenagers. But in The Secret Place, adolescence per se is her subject, specifically the tiny worlds of tight adolescent friendships. There is an odd supernatural/telekinetic element to the story (though it's not a Irish ghost story), which is resolved near the end in a way that illuminates French's view of these relationships in particular.

The story revolves around a private girls' school in Dublin. There are two "tracks," a current investigation that takes place all in one day and a back story, looking at the girls through the lens of two cliques, rivalries of a sort. What we don't get much of is the "school" part of their experience: most of what the girls are shown doing is worrying about their friends, contemplating the opposite sex, and dodging responsibility for their minor crimes, as well as the big one: the murder that occurs at the end of the backstory, a year before the current investigation.

What sparks the investigation is the reunion of two characters from a previous French novel (she tends to daisy chain her novels, shifting the focus in a new book to minor characters from a previous book). Holly Mackey is one of the girls in the school. She has discovered a note posted on a "secrets" board at the school (a physical board rather than a website), with text stating that the person posting the note knows who killed a boy a year ago on the school grounds. She brings it to a cold-case detective she had encountered in that earlier book, Stephen Moran (who is the narrator of the current-day portion of the book). Moran would love to shift over to the murder squad, and he takes the note to Antoinette Conway, the officer in charge of the original investigation, hoping to get in on a reopened murder case.

Moran gets his wish (Conway's a pariah in the department, currently without a partner), and though the rest of his part of the story is a long day of chasing down leads within the walls of the school, in both sections of the story we get a very great deal of teen angst, conversation, and attitude. The teen interactions (with each other and with the detectives) mostly ring true, and are sometimes painfully funny (painful comedy having been an element in the previous book in which Holly and Stephen featured, Faithful Place, whose main character was Holly's father Frank). But the sheer amount of teen-dom is a bit daunting (possibly only to an outsider like myself). And, as I mentioned before, the adults can begin to sound childish themselves, wrapped in their own envies and jealousies.

Finally, the payoff at the end (not so much the discovery of the killer and the motive as the resolution of the metaphorical elements of the story) is good enough to make the book rewarding, even if you, like me, don't relish spending quite so much time in YA-land. French has staked out a particular territory, and continues to mine it succesfully--and this time the metaphorical level of the story is particularly effective in a melancholy manner.