Thursday, January 17, 2019

Laura Lippman, Sunburn

I recently read, or rather heard, two audiobooks by Laura Lippman: her current standalone novel Sunburn and a previous book in her Baltimore private detective series (Hush Hush). The detective novel worked OK as an audiobook, and having read several earlier books in the series, the story offers a new investigation as well as updates on familiar characters and settings. But Sunburn particularly shined in the audio version (though I can imagine it is also satisfying as words on paper). Lippman has turned noir inside-out in her reimagining of the genre as practiced by James M. Cain and other pioneers of small-town, truckstop noir. Lippman begins with a stock scenario, two strangers in a bar, who've stopped as they passed through this small town in lower Delaware, a town not close enough to the beach to be prosperous. Their interaction is relayed in both their points of view, in alternation (as is much of the book), and their voices tell the story as much in what they leave out as what they tell: the key events in the story, murder, arson, fraud, conspiracies of several sorts, occur in the in-between spaces, referred to obliquely rather than portrayed directly. The effect is a tightening web woven by the characters out of their own personal lives and struggles. Sunburn is a departure for Lippman, both from her detective series and from her previous standalones, which are psychological thrillers. Sunburn, on the other hand, is a satisfying plunge into purest noir, told through the spiralling voices pulling the characters through twists and revelations toward the sort of final crash that not everyone can survive.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Three short takes from Norway, Italy, and Alaska

Catching up on a few recent books of note. First, Anne Holt's In Dust and Ashes, the 10th and purportedly last in the series featuring brilliant detective Hanne Wilhelmsen--and to my mind the best of the series. Hanne has usually had a colorful sidekick, and for this novel it's a young, bright detective trying to claw his way up out of the autistic spectrum--among her sidekicks, I think he's the most interesting. The case at hand involves a cold case (and since Hanne is retired, she now only deals with cold cases), a recently released convicted killer, the suicide of a right-wing blogger, and the kidnapping of a young girl. The story includes a twist on the lcked-room mystery as well as the trope of the brilliant investigator who rarelly leaves her home, but the novel is unique in the way it draws all the threads and the tropes together.

Valerio Varesi's series featuring Commissario Soneri is set in Parma, a foggy city on the Po river in the north of Italy. An older woman comes to the Questura seeking Soneri, but he doesn't see her--and a complex set of events is set in motion that takes the Commissario back to his yuoth in unexpected and unpleasant ways. He discovers the landlady of the boarding house where his deceased wife had lived before they were married, and for the rest of the novel, his wife's life before he met her, the boarding house, and the later denizens of the building haunt Soneri, as he wanders back and forth through the past and present of a city much changed. Although the story can seem a bit static at times, the musings of the detective and the story that emerges slowly are fascinating.

Stan Jones has been publishing a series for some years based in the small town of Chukchi in rural Alaska, featuring policeman Nathan Active, who though a native Alaskan was raised int he white community in the city, and is an outsider in both communities. The latest installment, written with Patricia Watts, is The Big Empty, alterntes between the vast interior of Alaska, a setting that Jones has always been effective in portraying, and the gritty small town at its edge. After a plane crash taht had been declared caused by pilot error, Active is persuaded to investigate what turs out to be murder and the novel follows his pursuit of the truth from a unique method of killing through a web of revenge, guilt, and troubled families (including his own. As with all the Nathan Active books, this is a great read and a fascinating look at an environment (both town and wilderness) that few of us have the chance to experience.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Gianrico Carofiglio's new The Cold Summer

My review is live at The Los Angeles Review of Books:

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Forthcoming: Tana French, The Witch Elm

Tana French's milieu is groups of young people, families, school groups, and the like. My favorite among her Dublic police novels is Faithful Place, which is focused on an adult cop, but a substantial part of the novel is flashback to his teen years. Similarly, her acclaimed first novel, In the Woods, centers around an incident in the main character's childhood, and her second novel (less succesful, to me,), The Likeness focuses on a group of college students, which the main character infiltrates. The series is about cops, but in The Secret Place one of the main characters is a cop's daughter, and the main setting is her school.

French's new, standalone novel, The Witch Elm includes both present-day interaction among a group of cousins in their 20s and the youth that they remember (or not, or misremember). There are still cops (the Guards, in Ireland), but they're not at center stage, most of the time. Instead, we're trapped in the mind and narrative voice is Toby Hennessey, who is violently attacked toward the beginning, and musst confront new challenges from within the limitations of the head injury that he suffers in the attack.

The result is a classic "unreliable narrator" story, and the chief contrast in the telling of the tale is between his interior monologue (remembered from a future point of view) and the conversations he has with his cousins, two different teams of detectives, and other family members and friends.The result can be frustrating, and the twists and turns of the plot are considerably delayed by the slow pace of this oblique storytelling.  I miss the sometimes funny, sometimes nasty family relationships of Faithful Place: The Witch Elm has more in common with The Likeness or The Secret Place, in that the reader is embedded in the interplay aong the young people in the novel, for better or worse. The result is classic Tana French, with a bit of metafiction added to the mix toward the end, turning the narrative back on the narrator's mental state.

The twists in the plot, when they arrive, seem satisfyingly inevitable in the way they transform the story, with an emotional charge that will be familiar to readers of French's series novels. But the cops in this story, as central to the telling of the tale as they eventually become, are not as fully drawn as those in the seires, and I miss that element in her work. The Witch Elm will certainly satisfy her fans, but I still think of Faithful Place as my favorite among her books, collowed by In the Woods.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Jake Needham's Don't Get Caught

Narration in a novel, maybe even more so in a thriller, isn't about moving the plot forward. Most plots are simple enough that a short story would be plenty of space; and most plots are so simple that keeping a reader's interest for even a few pages would be a challenge. The telling of a story is about delaying the tale more than telling it, drawing it out and postponing the conclusion, whether the outcome is a surprise or a standard resolution. Jake Needham's narrator in the Jack Shepherd novels, Mr. Shepherd himself, is a master of delay: his storytelling is a conversation with the reader, twining around the plot itself, retelling key points so we don't get lost even if we put the book down, and leading us forward inexorably toward what is to come. And, as I've observed before, Shepherd is good company all along the way.

In this fifth Jack Shepherd novel, the lawyer and financial crimes expert is still living in Hong Kong, but gets pulled back toward Bangkok (the two cities are the twin poles of the series). The evocation of both places is concrete and vivid, though frequently not coplimentary (crime fiction at its best takes us to new places, but without resorting to tourist brochure promotion). We see the Asian setting throughh the eyes of an outsider, a white man who, no matter how long he resides in these places and no matter how well he knows them, will never be an insider there. He provides an ideal guide for those of us who don't know the cities at all, and I expect also for those who do know them

Shepherd is working on a high-stakes financial investigation, in which the Malaysian government and the Chinese Triads are involved. That scenario might seem dangerous enough, but a former acquantance from Thailand lures him into an even more risky one: rescuing a deposed prime minister whose life is threatened by the General who has taken over the country. Shephered is no super hero, and is reluctant to take on the new task, but he's a loyal friend, and the former prime minister (the first woman to hold the job) is indeed a friend, and almost, perhaps, except for intervening circumstances, a lover.

Once the final stages of the story kick into gear, events move rather quickly, some according to Shepherd's plan and some that twist out of control. The ending is at once a surprise and the logical outcome of the intersection of the events and the characters. Don't Get Caught is an essential contribution to the new Asian noir, and fortunately for readers, there's another new book by Jake Needham, the latest in his series featuring the dyspeptic Inspector Samuel Tay of Singapore (another interesting city for noir fiction, despite its reputation for being clean and calm).

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two by Gunnar Staalesen

Amon the originators of nordic noir, Gunnar Staalesen has not fared as well as some others in being translated into English. His ground-breaking Varg Veum series includes 19 novels, published at regular intervals since the '70s in his native Norwegian, but only 9 have been translated for English-speaking readers, sometimes with gaps of 8 or 9 years between translations.

Varg Veum is distinctive in a number of ways, perhaps not least because he is, to my knowledge, the only fictional private detective whose background is social work. And the novels frequently involve threatened children (as do, directly or indirectly, the two most recently translated). Plus Veum is ageing, closely tracking real time. By the second of the two new books he's 61, and showing the physical strains and limitations of his age (including slower recovery from the beatings that private detectives in noir fiction seem prone to get).

In Wolves in the Dark, Veum has been struggling with the sudden death of his lover. He has mostly been a more or less upright citizen, though living at the margins of Norwegian culture in his home town of Bergen, but in Wolves, he. has plummeted down and out . He had indulged in acquavit to the extent of experiencing numerous total blackouts, and his detective work has suffered. Now, in the frame of the novel, he has begun his recovery, largely through the help of a new relationship, but he stands accused of a terrible crime and must revisit some cases he had taken on in his drunken days to look for who might have framed him. These cases, and his own flight from the police back and forth across Bergen, are a civic and cultural portrait as well as a very complex story (whose various threads are finally more or less drawn together by the end). His flight from the police adds a breathless quality to the narrative which is not typical for this series (though there are always passages of danger and threat in the books).

Big Sister is a quite different story. Now that he is back on his feet, Veum is surprised by his new client, a long-lost half-sister, whose existence he was aware of but whom he has never met. She wants him to find her missing god-daughter, a college-age woman who has vanished. Veum dives deeply into several cases of sexual and physical abuse as well as drugs, plus unexpected strands of his own family history, as the book moves slowly toward a final surprise that seems a bit cinematic. Along the way, he has to contend with a biker gang (bikers are a particular staple of Scandinavian crime fiction) and a host of reluctant witnesses.

Veum's voice as narrator of his own stories is unfailingly self-aware, and grounded in both ethical standards and genuine concern for children and young people. His unique voice is one of Staalesen's major conributions to Scandinavian noir.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Black Swan Rising, by Lisa Brackmann

It says right on the cover that a black swan is "A highly unlikely event that has massive impact, and which seems predictable in hindshght," and Lisa Brackmann's new Black Swan Rising illustrates the idea in detail. the novel is part political thriller and part cautionary tale (of the dystopian sort), part "ripped from the headlines" and part vision of the near future. There are two central characters: first, Sarah Price, who has assumed a new identity to escape on-line harassment in her past and is now working as an intern for a congressman from San Diego who is running for reelection. The second is Casey Chang, a TV reporter who was the victim of a mass shooting and is trying to reestablish her life and her career.

The novel alaternates betwee the two threats, shooters in real life and haters on-line. and sets out the real and fictional threats from both arenas vividly, not only in the threats against the two leading women, but also against the electoral system and the society as a whole. This is a thriller that hits much closer to home than the average book in the genre: what is happening is not only credible, but as the book's title suggests, inevitable in the current political and social toxicity. The on-line threats described are simply reflections of what is happening in the cybersphere every day, every minute. The active shooter threat is an extension of what we see every day (in schools and on the streets and specifically in the social movements brought out into the light by the encouragement of our current political leadership--and we shoudl remind ourselves that it's not a single person who has encouraged these hate groups now, it's a large segment of the right both in power and around the country.

But Brackmann's novel isn't only dark and foreboding, it's also human and humane. The characters take us along this difficult journey through their compelling personal engagement with what's going on. And the action of the novel doesn't indulge in the cliches of the genre: The twists and turns of the plot are uniquely Brackmann's.

Brackmann's previous two series, one set in the gaming and art worlds of China, the other a more straightforward pair of noir novels set in the drug trade of Mexico, the southern and western U.S.,  establish the writer's conversational narrative voice, which continues in Black Swan, but the new novel has more urgency and more contemporary impact, as if this is a novel that Brackmann had to write. I don't know of any other book that captures the actual social and cyber threats to democracy in the U.S. so effectively. We can hope for more, whether a sequel or a new angle on our times in future books.