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.