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.



Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Locked Room

I was a big fan of the Maj Sjowall/Per Wahlöö Martin Beck novels when they were first translated in the 1970s in the U.S., and at the time my favorite was The Locked Room, the 8th of the 10 books. I had reread all of them a few years ago, but recently had occasion to listen to the audio version of The Locked Room recently and was surprised how funny it is (at least when listened to)--sometimes int he ironic way that all the Martin Beck books are funny, but also in a broad comic way. This is one of the most tendentious books in the series, in terms of its indictment of the Swedish so-called "welfare state" of the time, with the narrator occasionally veering into invective against the injustice and neglect that elsehwere is effectively potrahed in the crimes, victims, and even criminals (sometimes) in the series.

The set-up is straightforward: A woman proceeds toward a bank in Stockholm, robs it, and kills a bystander almost by accident. The reader will not revisit this bank-robber until very late in the novel, though the police will focus on a couple of other bnnk-robbers at length.

Afte rthe robbery, we turn to the return of Martin Beck to active duty, after the senior detective of the national homicide squad had been shot in the previous novel (Man on the Roof, very effectively filmed by famed Swedish director Bo Widerberg in 1976--inientally, The Locked Room was not included in the excellent Swedish series based on the Martin Beck books, only appearing on film in the '90s in the German film Beck: De Gesloten Kamer).
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Beck is assigned what everyone thinks is a lost-cause cold case, to give him something to do: A classic locked-rom murder (everyone except Beck thinks it's funny that Beck, who never reads crime fiction, has been assigned such a classic mystery novel premise). At the same time, the rest of his squad is investigating the bank robbery from the novel's first pages, but they pursue the notion that a gang of robbers that they have previously been unable to catch (but whose identities they well know) perpetrated this crime as well. One of the results of their pursuit is the spectacularly failed raid on the gang's hideout, a comic catastrophe that is more Keystone Kops than police procedural.

When the solution to both crimes finally arrives, the criminals don't exactly come to justice, at least not in any conventional manner. But the novel's conclusion is satisfying in several ways: in its ironies, in its endorsemenet of the lives of those at the bottom of Swedish society, and in the private life of the usually doleful Beck. In the end, this is no longer my favorite Beck novel (perhaps The Fire Engine That Disappeared currently holds that title), but is a reminder of the very high standard that this series set for  crime fiction in Scandinavia, and indeed everywhere else.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Swedish noir: The Tunnel, by Carl-Johan Vallgren

Most of the Scandinavian crime wave is made up of thrillers and police procedurals, only occasionally reaching the bleak potrayal of life in the streets that is typical of noir. Carl-Johan Vallgren reaches for noir, basing his two (so far0 novels featuring ex-junkie Danny Katz in a difficult landscape of heroin, disfunctional famiies, life on the streets, sexual deviance, and exloitation. The Tunnel, the second in the series, also focuses (almost equally) on two former friends of Danny's, from his junkie days, Eva, now a prosecuting attorney, and Jorma, a career criminal.

The novel actually begins with a failed armored car heist, in which Jorma is involved. Jorma spends most o the rest of the book seeking who is responsble for the betrayal that led to the robbery's failure and the murder of a friend, also involved in the robbery. Danny, a computer expert and former intelligence office, is involved in both the investigation of his own Jewish background and in the murder of a friend (a drug dealer) and the disappearance of the dealer's girlfriend. Eva becomes involved when Danny asks her for information relating to the drug dealer.

But Eva has her own demons, including a failed marriage (and her failure to be an adequate parent), her addiction to casual sex, and a difficult (to say the least) relationship with her boss. As all the threads are slowly drawn together (int he first two-thirds of the book) the stage is set for a violent, sexually twisted (~a la 120 Days of Sodom), and breathless rush to a consculsion. Finally, at the end. Dany once again confronts his family history and Jewish roots, and the story (and perhaps the series) comes to an emotionally crashing conclusion.

This book is a difficult read, first because of the shifting perspectives, second because of the disgusting sexual violence lying behind muh of the plot. But for fans of Swedish crime fiction who have been craving something darker and tougher, this will be an essential novel.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Icelandic noir TV series


Iceland hardly seems like a breeding ground for noir fiction, since it’s a small country that the rest of the world knows mainly for its volcanic activity, hot springs, and cold climate. But the country has a famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn (though he was executed in 1596) and has in recent years experienced some of the conditions that foster noir: rapid change and increasing instability and inequality. In fact, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in E
urope until, during WWII (known afterwards to to Icelanders as the Blessed War), it was invaded and occupied by foreign powers (England and the U.S. At the end of the war, the occupiers left behind considerable infrastructure that began the modernization and enrichment of the country--leading up to the financial crash in 2008 and the slow rebuilding since then.

There has been a flowering of crime fiction from Iceland in recent years, beginning with Arnaldur In∂ridason’s dark police procedurals featuring Erlendur, of which Jar City (written in 2000) was the first translated into English (in 2005)  and made into an excellent film in 2006 by Iceland's most famous director, Baltasar Kormákur. A number of other writers, mostly natice Icelanders, have followed Arnaldur into globalcrime fiction circles.

a trend that has in more recent years resulted in a suddenly visible crime television boom, several series having become available on streaming services in the U.S.and beyond. One of them, Lava Field, even refers to that 16th-century serial killer. Lava Field deals with murder in a remote location, near a small town in which the lead detective has roots. There are a lot of interesting characters, not the least of whom is a woman who is a former athlete and new cop who becomes a key investigator in the case. There are also many views of the country's bizarre landscape. Lava Field was, at least until recently, available on Netflix

One of the factors in Lava Field that is typical of Icelandic nor TV is an emphasis on both the troubled personal lives of the main characters and the pursuit of the criminals. A series known both as Court and Case (the former in its first season, available on Walter Presents, the latter in its third season, which was available on Netflix and will perhaps show up again as a new season on WP), develops largely in the disastrous rise and decline of a lawyer, once unjustly jailed, then gradually undercutting his successes in the law with alcohol and bad personal and professional decisions. Both available seasons are excellent, but the version known as Case
on Netflix, is particularly compelling.

Baltasar Kormákur. is the force behind Trapped, a claustrophobic series based in a fishing town int eh far north of the country (the BBC ran the series, and it was, and may still be, available on Viceland in the U.S.). Trapped deals with a ferry that arrives in the northern town at the same time as a headless corpse, and the police sequestration of the ship in order to investigate the murder leads to multiple unfortunate consequences, for the police chief, the mayor, the boat captain, and many others. The series is beautifully made and features intense and impeccable acting.

Another Icelandic series, Cover Story,  (also known asThe Press) is available (2 seasons so far) on Walter Presents int he U.S. This one, despite the serius crimes and turbulent lives of the main characters, is not quite as heavy as the other three mentioned above. The scene is a newsroom, which provides some opportunity for comic moments largely (but not entirely) missing from the other series. In this one, the main character is a woman reporter trying to raise her two kids mostly alone, while becoming more deeply involved in murder, financial crimes, and anti-immigrant violence.

IN early 2017, the murder of 20-year-old Birna Brjánsdóttir as she walked through Reykjavik late at night after a night out, brought home to Icelanders that the blossoming of noir in their country is not an entirely fictional phenomenon--though it's still a safer country than its fictional output would suggest, the seeds of noir have taken root in real conditions and crimes.
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Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A brief word about Anita Nair's A Cut-Like Wound

Some time ago, I reviewed Anita Nair's second novel in the Inspector Gowda series, Chain of Custody, not having read the first in the series, the acclaimed A Cut-Like Wound. Chain of Custody seemed to include any explanaations necessary, so that it was OK to start with the 2nd book. Now, having read A Cut-Like Wound, I see that I was wrong. Most of the main characters, especially Urmila, who seems to be his mistress in the 2nd novel, but whose connection to Gowda is much deeper, a link only clear in the 1st novel.

A Cut-Like Wound deals with transvestism and transexuality, but Nair is careful to draw the character of the novel's violence from a person rather than a community. The violence of Chain of Custody is more pervasive, rooted in the trafficking of children, but in that novel the traffickers are personalized in the character of a conflicted young man who is one of the prominent voices of the novel.

Both are significant, involving, and convincing crime novels: but start with A Cut-Like Wound, please.

Beside the Syrian Sea, James Wolff

James Wolff's Beside the Syrian Sea is a peculiar spy novel/thriller focused on the effort of a runaway intelligence analyst who goes to the Middle East to try to rescuehis father, who has been kidnapped by Daesh/Isis in Syria. Jonas is both clever and desperate, but he has no field experience in the spy world. He mostly proceeds by lying to everybody and revealing only snippets of the difficult truth of his mission.

He's clearly out of his depth in the complexities of Beirut, and his own British government is trying to stop him from getting involved (after refusing to pay the ransom that Isis demands). He contacts an alcoholic priest (who is a bit of a character out of the novels of Graham Greene), luring him into collaborating on his task by lying and involving not just the priest but the one person in the world that the cleric cares about. Jonas also falls in with Hezbollah (in some of the darker passages of the first part of the novel).

It takes a while for Jonas's plan to become clear, and begin to actually develop, and then it moves quickly but not in a straight line The story is always compelling, but frequently claustrophobic in its focus on Jonass on less-than-clear mind. This is an unusual, and unusually well-written, spy novel, aimed squarely at the grim realities of our current world.

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.