Friday, August 22, 2014

New review at Los Angeles Review of Books

My first review at Lost Angeles Review of Books is now live, discussing two new books dealing with dark passages of Italy in the 20th century :
The books I'm reviewing there are Dominique Manotti's Escape and Maurizio De Giovanni’s By My Hand. (The Los Angeles Review of Books is a nonprofit literary and cultural arts magazine in great American tradition of the serious book reviews.)

Philadelphia noir series

Just a word about a TV series that I'm guessing too few people are aware of: The Divide, on basic cable channel WE tv. It's a smart updated noir set in the Philadelphia of today but hearkening back to the classic noir Philly writer, David Goodis.

The Divide begins with an Innocence-Project-like group that specializes in revisiting the DNA evidence in prior convictions, in this case investigating the conviction of a white man awaiting the death penalty for murdering 3 of the 4 members of a middle-class black family. The cast includes the surviving daughter of that family, the black district attorney and his family, a young man convicted of complicity in the murders, now serving a life sentence, and members of the legal group, with a particular focus on a law student whose own father is imprisoned for a crime he may not have committed.

But what's interesting about the series is the issues it confronts, beyond the issues of crime and punishment. The continuing reverberations of race as an issue in American life are at the forefront, but also the influence of money and position on law and politics. It's a smart blend of ideas, dialogue, issues, and plot that's among the best things on television right now. WE tv isn't a flashy pay cable channel and isn't as well known as some of the basic cable outlets, but this series deserves a wide audience, and would reward a bit of binge watching if you can get it on demand or streaming. Several thumbs up...

Monday, August 04, 2014

Down a dark road in France...

Pascal Garnier's 2010 novel La place du mort (the title literally means "the death seat," I think) has just been translated into English as The Front Seat Passenger (Jane Aitken is the translator and Gallic Books is the publisher). Garnier is an amazingly economical storyteller: he packs an amazing amount of menace, humor, and violence into 139 pages, and he does it in the milieu of an ordinary man whose orderly life is upset (twice).

The novel begins with a traffic accident, and then moves to the point of view for the rest of the book (told in the third person): Fabien, whose marriage to Sylvie has become more a matter of routine than love. But he hardly expects to discover that while he has been on a reluctant visit to his father, Sylvie has been killed in a car driven by her lover, whose existence he had never expected.

A good deal of the rest of the book involves his stalking of the dead lover's widow, without a clear motive. He moves in with his friend Gilles, who is estranged from his wife, and the son of that broken marriage, who spends a lot of time with Gilles. The three males develop a sort of all-male family (with all the maleness that one might expect, with considerable comedy), but Fabien continues to stalk the widow in secret, eventually following her and her constant female companion on their vacation, where he meets them under false pretenses.

Once he meets them, the tone gets edgier, building toward a violence that the reader knows is coming yet is nonetheless unexpected. There are several abrupt twists, with Fabien always the front seat passenger in the journey, since he doesn't drive.

Each of Garnier's novels is quite different, but each portrays a life that is very ordinary in most ways (even his novel about a hitman), but twisted out of the ordinary into the nightmare along the way. In addition to comic scenes, there is a comic aspect even to the violence, in the intricacies of the plot and the close analysis of the characters involved. The cover blurb compares Garnier with Patricia Highsmith (though his writing is tighter than hers) and Georges Simenon (though the comparison is apt for his "serious" novels, not the Maigret series). But Garnier is quite unique, in a very French and philosophical manner.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Karin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

To her credit, Karin Fossum doesn't adhere to a formula in her series featuring Inspector Sejer, the calm, relentless Norwegian detective. In the newly translated The Murder of Harriet Krohn, Sejer and his team are almost completely offstage: Sejer himself appears toward the end in the role of interrogator.

At the center of the novel, instead, is the murderer, Charlo Torp, a compulsive gambler who lost his marriage and his daughter due to that compulsion's effects on the family. Now, he has turned to theft, initially to get out of debt but finally as the basis for a redemptive gift to his daughter, but his target, the titular Harriet, doesn't cooperate.

Most of the novel occurs after the murder and in flashbacks, Charlo re-envisioning his life as a reformed addict. He's not a total sociopath, there are moments of guilt. But he is so focused on his goal (to reestablish contact with his daughter) and so self-centered that the guilt and even the fear of being caught are minor impediments to his plan.

Staying in Charlo's point of view is a risky narrative strategy: he is not a pleasant man, and his self-justifications are painful. What Fossum gains is a sense of doom related to the inevitability of classic tragedy: we know that this is not going to end well, and though we see the daughter only through Charlo's eyes, we feel as much compassion for her as for Harriet. Sejer becomes primarily the engine of the fate we know is coming.

Fossum's experiments with the genre are not always to my liking, and I still prefer her more directly police-procedural novels: but The Murder of Harriet Krohn is a remarkable descent into the mind of a troubled, twisted soul who is less a hardened criminal or a psychopath than simply one of us, twisted by ego and addiction into a disastrous parody of normality.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Italians: Camilleri, Lucarelli, De Cataldo

A few short fictions by some of Italy's leading crime writers are coming into English: Andrea Camilleri's Brewer or Preston and a collection of novellas called Judges, with short works by Camiller, Carlo Lucarelli, and Giancarlo De Cataldo.

The Judges collection includes Camilleri's Judge Surra, which deals with the appearance of a northern Italian judge in Montelusa and Vigata (the fictional Sicilian cities of his Montalbano series) just after the unification of Italy; Lucarelli's The Bambina, about a young female judge in Bologna during the years of violent political action that are called the anni di piombo, or years of lead; and De Cataldo's, The Triple Dream of the Prosecutor, which  concerns the lifelong conflict between two boys who grow up to be a crime boss and a prosecuting magistrate in a northern Italian town.

Each of the stories has an element of comedy as well as threat. In Judge Surra, the magistrate's utter innocence regarding the ways of Sicily leads him not to failure but to paradoxical success in his endeavors. The Bambina, whose title comes from a popular nickname for the young-looking woman magistrate, deals with an attempt on the judge's life in which the police force is implicated and, not able to trust anyone, she adopts a somewhat extra-legal strategy. De Cataldo's story deals with the extension of a schoolyard bully's domination of his classmates into a career of intimidation and untouchability, along with the judge's strategies to thwart his activities.

All the stories are short, but long enough to engage the reader effectively in the judges' (and Italy's) struggles. Camilleri exploits a similar strategy in The Brewer of Preston, a short novel that whose brief chaptes each take a different poiint of view and narrative strategy, almost as if the book were an anthology rather than a single novel (each chapter begins with a phrase drawn from a literary classic (there's a key at the end), and one of the books is Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and anthology-novel each of whose chapters parodies a literary style.

The Brewer, also set in Montelusa and Vigata just after Italy's unification,  is the funniest of Camilleri's novels to appear in English so far. It takes off from a real incident, in which a bureaucrat sent from the north attempts to put on an obscure opera to inaugurate a new opera house. The locals, however, regard the opera (as well as the bureaucrat) as a cultural intrusion being forced upon them. What ensues is an operatically tragic tale of arson, murder, the Mafia, misunderstandings, and the invention of a steam-powered fire engine. Along the way, the story frequently takes on something of the character of a sex farce, albeit a sometimes deadly one. This is the only one of Camilleri's novels (among those translated) to fracture both the narrative timeline and the style and tone of the narrative approach, to considerable comic effect.

While fans of the Montalbano series may be a bit puzzled at first, The Brewer definitely rewards the reader's persistence. The cultural contradictions of contemporary Sicily have their roots in the social discrepancies that Camilleri skewers in his historical novel.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New French noir: Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails

Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails, newly translated by Siân Reynolds for Maclehose Press, is a dark, strange book. At first, it seems like a cross between Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg series and the Department Q novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen, but the story keeps going in a downward spiral darker than either of those.

The setting is the Paris police's suicide squad, an assignment given to a detective that the powers-that-be want to get rid of, Guérin. The novel opens with his assistant, Lambert, showing a surveillance video of a man committing suicide by running naked along the peripheral highway outside the city--the group of cops gathered around the screen as if watching a porn video.

Guérin's downfall, as well as his strength, is that he sees connections everywhere, leading him to conspiracy theories that bring all the evidence together. As Guérin and Lambert investigate the naked runner and other cases, including a fakir, a performer who dies while suspending himself from hooks onstage in a seedy cabaret, another thread of the story proceeds to draw "the American," a hermit- or hippy-like character and an archer living in the woods in rural France, Nichols. (the quirkiness of the cast of characters should suggest why I thought of Fred Vargas when I started reading the story). The dead fakir turns out to be an old friend of Nichols, who is asked to come to Paris to identify the body.

From there, almost anything I could say about the plot would be a spoiler. There are intertwining conspiracy theories that tie Guérin into knots, sending him to the brink of insanity and also threatening to engulf Lambert and Nichols in the maestrom of what might be actual conspiracies. The denouement is a twisted parody of the Simenon or Christie pattern of bringing all the suspects together to extract a confession, but in this case the result is something much darker and more violent. The results derive directly from character traits that have been evident all along, on the part of Guérin as well as Lambert, and the conclusion is rather more bleak than neat.

There have been several newly translated French crime writers published recently, including classics like Jean-Patrick Manchette and newer writers like Pierre Lemaitre, revealing to American readers new aspects of French noir: Varenne's novel is among the best, but also among the strangest.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

An Event in Autumn: not the final Wallander but the last to reach us

Henning Mankell's Wallander saga has ended, with the final novel (A Troubled Man) and the final 6 episodes of the Swedish TV series, which extends the melancholy ending of A Troubled Man in an even more melancholy way, with new cases and new insights into the Ystad detective's last days. But a "new" Wallander story has finally arrived in English: actually a novella originally written for a Dutch book promotion, which offered free short books to crime fiction buyers in a specific month. In the chronology of the series, the story falls after Before the Frost: Linda Wallander is a police officer in Ystad, living with her father for the time being in his Ystad apartment. The novella was filmed as part of the British Wallander series with Kenneth Branagh in the leading role.

What will come later in the series is foreshadowed (Wallander is looking for a house in the country, thinking of getting a dog, worrying about getting older), but this moment in his personal autumn has its own interests as well. The relationship with Linda is clearer here than anywhere else in the book series (somewhat different, though recognizable, from the relationship between the detective and his daughter in the three filmed versions of the stories), and the fact that they are constantly irritating one another has begun to take on a slightly comic character. Previously, one might have wondered why they bothered to stay in touch, family ties notwithstanding, but here the affection between them clearly underlies their spiky interactions.

The case relates to an unfortunate discovery in the garden of a house that Martinsson (Wallander's long-standing right-hand man) has suggested Wallander think about purchasing as his house in the country. In an almost subliminal moment, the detective uncovers a skeletal hand sticking out of the earth. What follows is a pure police procedural, as the investigative team works through the old mystery without much hope of finding a solution. There are false leads, and leads that seem dead ends but turn out to be productive. And there is a brief confrontation with death (not quite an "exciting conclusion") as the solution is achieved.

The usual cast of characters is present, each exhibiting his/her personal characteristics as well as a specific role in the series and the investigation, and while it's a short book, the laconic style and very personal and rounded characters (detectives, witnesses, and suspects alike) that we know from the longer books are very much in evidence. In fact, the very "dailiness" and ordinary nature of the crime are more interesting to me than some of the more global and conspiratorial plots of some of the full novels. Thanks are due to translator Laurie Thompson and publisher Vintage Crime/Black Lizard for making the story accessible to we Anglophones.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Åsa Larsson, The Second Deadly Sin

Dogs have been an important element in Åsa Larsson's Rebecka Martinsson novels before, but in the newly translated (by Laurie Thompson) The Second Deadly Sin (due out in the U.S. this summer) the dogs are more fully characterized than some of the important human characters (and one of the dogs will ultimately be the subject of a crucial and very affecting plot point late in the book). Among the characters who get shorter shrift are the husband of Anna-Maria Mella (the police detective in this series, set in Kiruna, Sweden's most northern city) and a shadowy figure who becomes one of the primary suspects.

The book begins with a bear attack but quickly shifts to the murder of a woman who lives alone with her grandson (who has disappeared). Rebecka is assigned as the lead prosecutor on the case but is quickly relieved of her post by a jealous colleague (and that colleague and his jealousy are a key element in the story). Another thread of the tale goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the founding of Kiruna by mining interests: a young woman arrives to be the teacher in the mine-supported school, and is met and courted by the mine's director, who is actually a historical character, the man who is credited as the founder of the city.

The jealous prosecutor is so totally defined by his mania to destroy Rebecka that he ceases to become a fully realized character, and the villain in the historical tale (the mine's manager) is so totally "Simon Legree" evil that he, too, is a cartoon rather than a character. It's a shame to waste two such potentially interesting figures, and their thin-ness takes away from a pair of interesting stories. The historical thread not only fills in the family history that will ultimately lead to the present-day murder but also gives an interesting portrait of not only the northern frontier town but the class and culture struggles of Sweden as a whole around the time of World War I (when the country was neutral rather more for commercial advantage than ideological purity).

In the present-day story, Rebecka takes advantage of the fact that the murdered woman's family has endured a number of sudden deaths in recent years to conduct her own unauthorized investigation, uncovering the deadly avarice that is the mortal sin of the title ultimately. Rebecka's nearly animistic connection to her natural surroundings is only an occasional factor in the narrative, a marker of the isolation caused by the traumas delineated in earlier books in the series as well as her uneasy relationship with her former boss and her former urban life, in the job she left to come to Kiruna (which might be the only route back into a life with her lover). A possible love interest who is resident in the north is a police dog handler who has shown up in previous books, a gentle but terribly disfigured man more comfortable with his canine colleagues than the human ones.

Though the book does carry the series forward in interesting ways, to me it's not the strongest of the Martinsson series, and is definitely not the place for a reader to start (the first two of Larsson's novels deal with a subject not often focused upon in other Swedish crime novels, religion, in interesting ways, and the introduction to Martinsson and other characters in these and the other two subequent books is really necessary to follow what's going on between the lines in the new book.