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.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Killer Deal, by Sofie Sarenbrant

Killer Deal is a new Swedish crime novel, the first in an apparently popular series to be translated into English. The setup is interesting (a family is in the midst of separating, and becuase of that selling their house. After an open house the husband is found dead. There's also a nice twist at the end, creating an unexpectedly open conclusion. However, I just could not get into the book--it's too suburban, almost small-town cozy. There's too much intertwining of the detective's life and the people involved in the case, as if everyone in this part of Stockholm is separated by considerably fewer than six degrees. 

The writing is OK, geared more to best-seller than literary status, and the characters are believable. But there are lots of subgenres in crime fiction, and I guess not all of them appeal to all of us. And it's definitely a window on a suburban way of life quite different from the setting of a lot of the Scandinavian crime wave.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Two by Lola Smirnova

Lola Smirnova's Twisted and Craved, the first two novels of a trilogy, apparently, offer enough crime, misery, drugs, alcohol, sex, and even occasional pleasure for a dozen crime novels, but these are not really crime novels (despite the excess of crime, especially crimes against women, in them). Instead, Smirnova has constructed an episodic fictional memoir by Julia, who with her sisters Natalia and Lena, depart from a difficult life in Ukraine into an even riskier world of sex work, primarily nude dancing and sometimes prostitution. They are not being trafficked, they are entering into contracts more or less with their eyes open. And the sisters, each in her own way, are looking for a home life, with or without romance--in some ways the novels are the antithesis of romance fiction.

The story begins with an S/M scenario and then flashes back to the beginning of Julia's story. The sisters travel first to Luxembourg and then to Turkey, encountering many, many unpleasant men, across a range from customers in a strip club to rapists. Julia descends into drug addiction, and her sisters try to save her and eventuall succeed, returning to Ukraine and decide to start a new life as entrepreneurs, starting, with their mother's help, a beauty salon.

Craved, the second book, begins with a new temptation to leave their new life (the salon isn't doing all that well) for Cape Town, South Africa, for a new gig as dancers. At first, they find the new situation easier than their European experience: prostitution is now assumed to be part of their job, though that practice lurks always below the surface as the underside of their work. Each sister finds a patron, even in Lena's case a husband (something she has been searching for all along) but love is not part of the equation at any point. But while Julia finds her own patron in a seemingly kind Arab prince, things begin to spiral out of control for all three: even the truths that they had assumed about their parents and each other start to dissipate. By the end of Craved, things are very bad, and a sequel will need to dig Julia nad her sisters out of a very dark place.

There's a lot of sex in these books, but nothing even remotely sexy. But Julia's tale is compelling, and the story moves quickly along, pulling the reader into the net into which the sisters have themselves become entangled. This is a new kind of noir, not following any of the rules of the genre but conjuring up the true core of noir fiction's vision of contemporary life.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Two important Norwegians

The principle characters of two of the most prominent Norwegian crime writers, Anne Holt (author of the Hanne Wilhemsen series, set in Oslo) and Gunnar Staalesen (author of the Varg Veum series, set in Bergen) in a recently translated novel by Holt, The Lion's Mouth, when Wilhemsen runs into her old friend Varg in a cafe. It's only a passing moment, a kind of homage from one writer to another, as we can see in The Lion's Mouth and in Staalesen's recently translated We Shall Inherit the Wind.

Holt's novel is immersed in Norwegian political machinations and scandals when the prime minister, scarcely 6 months after she had taken office, is found dead in her office. The investigation, not by the senior cop Hanne, because she is in America on a sabbatical until almost halfway through the novel, but by her friend Billy T and, of course, everyone else in the Norwegian police and security services. There is also a three-decades-old scandal, uncovered recently and under investigation by a commission headed by an old friend of the prime minister, dealing with an unusual number of babies who died in the year 1965.

At times, this is a political thriller something like that other giant of Norwegian crime writing, Jo Nesbø, or perhaps the Swedish writer Leif GW Persson, but the tone of Holt's writing is quite different. She alternates gritty and hard-nosed investigation with some light-hearted, even childish, behavior on the part of Billy T and others, injecting a bit of the atmosphere of a cozy mystery into this otherwise more noir and urban tale.

Staalesen's hero Varg is a private detective whose career started as a social worker, and he often investigates the disappearance of children (as in the case he mentions when he runs into Hanne), but in We Shall Inherit the Wind he is asked to find an adult male who has disappeared just before finalizing a deal to build a wind farm on a prominent site above a fjord. We learn a lot about the politics of clean energy (rather than Norwegian national politics) as well as the machinations of families involved in one way or another with the site of the proposed wind facility.

The book begins with Varg's girlfriend, near death in a hospital, and circles back to the story in which she is led to that hospital bed. The tone is very dark, due in part to that framing device, but there is also a lot of violence, threats of violence and even a crucifixion, lending an apocalyptic air in line wih the Biblical title of the book. But Varg, who is also the narrator in this series, is an affecting example of the tragic hero outlined by Raymond Chandler's famous essay on hard-boiled fiction, while also being humane and vulnerable (very much in character with his original profession). 

It's appropriate and amusing for Hanne and Varg to meet, in Holt's bit of metafiction, but they otherwise don't have a lot in common: Varg is immersed in the dark side of urban life, with rarely a moment of respite, while Hanne diverts her (and the reader's) attention with more settled relationships in her own life and in the lives of those around her. Between the two writers, they describe the whole range of the rich vein of Scandinavian noir that is unique to Norway.