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.

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: