Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Hunting Game, by Helene Tursten

I've read most of Helene Tursten's Irene Huss novels, and seen the Swedish TV series, so it was interesting to see that she has a new lead character for a new series: Embla Nyström of the mobile unit of the Gothenburg police--younger, single, and a boxer instead of a jujitsu champion. I regret to say that I lost patience with the novel itself, Hunting Game. The setting is an annual moose hunt on private property, among a group of residents and guests who indulge in this hunt during the season every winter. But other than Embla, I didn't find the characters terribly compelling, or perhaps it was the claustrophobic environment of the cabins and the hunt itself that caused my problem.

Another reader of many of the Huss novels has gotten tired of the soap opera of Huss's family life, and Embla certainly solves that problem. She is independent, and though part of a team, this novel isolates her from the other cops because she's part of the hunt and knows a lot of the people involved. When the cops do get involved, after one of the hunters disappears, she is still on her own most of the time, right up to the high-threat conclusion.

Another difference from Irene is Embla's willingness to doctor the evidence and bend the truth (not that that sort of proffssional deception is beyond Irene, but Embla is particularly blatant in an incident I won't describe since it would be a spoiler).

So I enjoyed Embla, and the set-up of the moose hunt was interesting, but ultimately I didn't sympathize with the hunt or the other characters--more Embla please, but please, not out in the forest hunting game...

Monday, February 19, 2018

Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard

One of the reviewers of the original South African edition of Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard,
called the author "the Afrikaans Stieg Larsson," but the comparison is way o ff the mark. Even the author's own tribute to Deon Meyer, the most prominent Afrikaans crime writer, doesn't really illuminate Weeping Waters very much. Brynard's novel made me think of both Zoe Wiomb's David's Story (for its evocation of the Khoi-San people of South Africa) and Gillian Slovo's Red Dust (for its examination rural post-apartheid South Africa): but Weeping Waters doesn't imitate either of thos ebooks.

Brynard uses the form of the police procedural rather loosely, as one element of her lengthy (just over 500 pages) story of a family torn apart by illness and misunderstandings, of the indigenous people of South Africa (a very complicated story, examined at lennth in various passages of the book), of fear and racism among the white farmers underthe new regime, and of a lonely cop exiled into a rural town that he has difficulty understanding or coping with.

There is a violent murder (and references to even more violent murders, white supremacist preachers and farmers,  there's traditional culture and history, and there are the murder victim's haunting paintings. The central characters include the cop, the victim's journalist sister, the victim's farm-manager (of indigenous background), and various other cops, farmers, devvelopers, farmhands, and others. The story can be repetitive, but never drags: the repetitive elements spiral toward a violent conclusion that highlights the country's struggles with inequality, history, and rapidly changing society afte rthe fall of apartheid. Of the substantial number of crime writers in the new South Africa, Brynard is one of the most ambitious in scope, but her style is straightforward, always focused on the reality of the characters' lives.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

2 by Mick Herron

Mick Herron has two new books out, both dealing (as is usual for Herron) with the British secret services, though (as is also usual for Herron) in unusual ways, especially in one of the new books. The more usual of the two is London Rules, the latest entry in the "Slow Horses" series, featuring a band of disgraced MI-5 agents working in a seedy building far removed from the security services headquarters By now, we know the pattern of the books in this series, and London Rules fulfills our expectations: from the atmospheric opening to the twisty plot, the disdain with which the headquarters stff regards the "slow horses," in the Slough House exile that gives them their name, and in the ultimage though costly engagement of the slow horses with the current threat. The formula is still enjoyable, though the twists and turns are to be expected now (the surprises were a major part of the enjoyment of the first novel, Slow Horses), and Lonodon Rules has a bit of a suggestion that the series may be drawing to a close soon, not least in the unlikely reappearance of one of the most appealing characters from Slow Horses.

The other new novel, This is What Happened, is rather different, not least in how the secret services figure in the plot. There is an unexpected kidnapping wiht an unexpected outcome, a dystopian tale, a dogged investigator without any official portfolio, and a claustrophobic atmostphere that remains regardless of the sudden shifts in point of view (and the sudden shifts in the reader's realization of what actually is going on). Though not as comic as the Slow Horses series, this stand-alone is vintage Herron, and an interesting departure from his usual style, not least in the closed-in quality of the setting of a good part of the book.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Two recent Japanese crime novels show a double view: American genres seen through the distinctive lens of Japanese culture.
The first, Seicho Matsumoto''s A Quiet Place is in an old-fashioned psychological noir mode like some of Patricia Highsmith's non-Ripley novels. A husband discovers, on his wife's death, that she has been frequenting a hotel that is nowhere near her usual territory. Investigating, he becomes obsessed with the idea that she has been having an affair, and then obsessed with the supposed partner, a man whom he begins to follow. The violent consequences and the psychological weight of the violence are inevitable, and the inevitability is a big part of the narrative. That's pretty standard territory for noir fiction in the U.S. in the '50s and 60s, but the dated quality of the plot is compensated, for a Western reader, by the glimpses into the distinctive qualities of Japanese culture, such as the dizzying series of obligations and debts surrounding a funeral, funeral gifts, etc.

The other, Tetsuya Honda's Soul Cage, is a police procedural in the mode of Ed McBain, though the lead character is a woman, an ambitious cop who struggles with the hostility and/or affection of the other cops in the elite murder squad. The tone is light rather than heavy, with the cops' banter and jealousies takeing up a large part of the narrative, but the crime itself is distinctive and interesting, traced back through a series of flashbacks with a distinct flavor of Japanese culture (particularly in the construction business and the gang world). Again,  one of the most interesting aspects of the novel is the day-to-day portrait of Japanese life--for instance, when the cops need to rush off to a crime scene, they almost always go via public transportation...

A glimpse into other cultures is not the only reason to read international noir, but noir is an excellent genre for getting glimpses like these. The intensity of emotions in books like A Quiet Place offer more than superficial character portrayal, and the street life of books like Soul Cage give a better view of the larger culture than a domestic drama can.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Motion, in three recent novels

I've recently read three crime novels that have a lot of movement, back and forth across Paris, Galway, and the Italian peninsula. In two of them, the motion is a bit dizzying, and in the third it's punctuated by conversations that are perhaps more dizzying than the physical movement.

Cara Black's Aimee Leduc is frequently portrayed in movement, across the particular arrondissement of Paris in which her current novel is set. But
in Murder in Saint-Germain, the crisscrossing of that neighborhood and across several plotlines seems to be motion for its own sake, rather than activity that keeps the plot moving. Still, for fans of detective Leduc, the book has its charms, as well as some forward motion in the overarching plot of Aimee's personal and family life.

The movement in Ken Bruen's The Emerald Lie seems more gratuitous. Bruen's plots sometimes meander, for sure, but this novel seems more to lurch. The murders and murderers are quickly dealt with and then the perpetually down-and-out private detective and former Garda Jack Taylor veers off toward another one--without influencing the action very much himself. What The Emerald Lie has to offer is Bruen's distinctive voice, his constant references to other crime writers, several distinctive characters we meet along the way, and what pleasure the reader may take from seeing how the author can manage to take Taylor even further on the road to dissolution.

The Second Day of the Renaissance is a belated sequel to Timothy Williams's excellent series of novels set in northern Italy, featuring irritable Commissario Piero Trotti. In the new novel, he's retired, but a series of events brings some of the cases in the earlier novels into the story. Trotti travels from his foggy home town to Florence (where he meets a young girl at the train station, an encounter that has repercussions later), Siena (where he has a long and often oblique conversation with a Carabiniere officer who tells him that there's someone trying to kill Trotti), to Rome (where his god-daughter and a former colleague are getting married) to Bologna (fleeing from a killer but inadvertently leading the violence toward his own daughter). There's a lot of dialogue in the story, much of it indirect (Trotti is not an easy person to engage in a conversation), along with considerable discussion of Italy's troubled past (particularly the "years of lead," when the international rebellions of 1968 threatened to spiral into terrorism, in the north, and  the mafia was resurgent in the south. No one would say that Trotti is good company, through all this, but the reader will nonetheless care about him and his fate as well as that of all those who are near him. And the reader will also learn much about the Italy beyond the monuments and tourist attractions.