Monday, June 29, 2020

Two recommendations, from Scotland and Finland

A couple of well written, complex, and entertaining novels, one new and one from last year. Denise Mina's The Less Dead, from Mulholland Books (available this coming August in the U.S.) delves into Glasgow streets across two generations. Dr. Margo Dunlop's adoptive mother has just died, and she discovers a link to her birth mother. The novel actually begins with a fraught visit to the social service agency that is mediating between the birth mother's family and Dr. Dunlop, but shifts quickly into a dangerous journey into the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, dirty cops, and a (possible) serial killer. The book's title comes from a Scottish term equivalent to the famous "NHI" term used by the LAPD to indicate that no humans were involved in murders of prostitutes. Dr. Dunlop gets a very deep lesson in the lack of attention given to the murders of prostitutes in Glasgow. The material sounds very heavy, but Mina manages to make the text surprisingly funny at times, and at all times the story is tense and compelling.

Katja Ivar's Evil Things also deals with the death of a mother and the fate of an orphan, but in the far northern Lapland of Finland, in the early 1950s, close to a recently contested border with the Soviet Union. Hella Mauzer is the first woman to have achieved the status of detective in the Helsinki police but is now disgraced (because of an event that only becomes completely clear at the novel's end) and sent to the mostly rural far north. After the report of an elderly man even further north an closer to the Russian border, Hella becomes determined to investigate, despite her new boss's conviction that there's no case, the old man has just wandered into the forest and has probably encountered a bear. Hella's own story comes out in small bursts of her recollections, and the truth of the case comes out slowly at first, and then in rapidly increasing momentum. The story deals with murder, envy, bureaucratic refusal to consider the lives of people living in distant villages, and international conspiracy. There is also a striking echo of a current pharmacological and governmental scandal in the U.S. (watch for it, it will show up late in the book). There is, even in this tense and emotional book, some lightness and comedy, and a resolution that shifts the story from a dark pessimism into a cautious optimism about humanity and the future.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Four from around the world: Italy, S. Africa, France, India

A quick update on recently read crime novels of note, from French, South African, and Indian writers and a well-known American writer resident in Venice.

Donna Leon, famous outside Italy, refuses to allow her excellent series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti to be published in Italian translation. Her intended result is that to her Venetian neighbors, she's simply a fellow resident of this magnificent, troubled city, not a famous writer. Her newest book in the series, Trace Elements, was written before the pandemic, but centers on a death in hospice, a death to which the police are called because the dying woman has a confession of sorts. Her death inspires Brunetti and his fellow "poliziotti" to follow a slim thread regarding the death by accident (or perhaps suicide) of the dead woman's husband, whose job is the inspection of water quality in a privatized segment of the water supply system of Venice. The novel follows the usual process of the series, including the key involvement of the Questura's genius of information gathering (legal or illegally obtained), Signorina Elettra, as well as Brunetti's associates and his family. The sad story is nevertheless involving, right up to the typically complex resolution.

Another very successful series, by Deon Meyer, featuring Benny Griesel of the South African Police Service's major crimes division, the Hawks, in Cape Town, has a new and propulsively readable addition in The Last Hunt. One of  Meyer's specialties is action that pulls the reader along with rapidly developing events. In The Last Hunt, we get a couple of those, with intertwining plots that at all points reflect the current political and social problems of South Africa, in a plot with echoes of The Day of the Jackal. Along the way, Benny's relationship with a once-famous singer reaches a key hurdle that the detective is nervous about crossing (this relationship has been developing steadily across the past several books in the series). Meyer gives us a lot of insight about the daily struggles of the police in the troubled nation, as well as the larger milieu. Meyer has a lot of fans around the world, and deserves a look by any reader who is looking for an excellent police procedural combined with a thriller with a vital glimpse of the post-apartheid reality of South Africa.


Manu Joseph's Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous seems at first to be a satire, and it ends up with a more sobering indictment of contemporary India. A building collapses, trapping a man who has knowledge of a developing terrorist attack, and the only person who can reach the area where he is trapped is a woman who is a journalist specializing in ambush interviews of well-known political figures. This is the India of Hindu nationalism, thoughh the leader of the movement is the fictional, rather than the actual, prime misister of India. The central figures of the terror side of the plot is the titular Laila, who makes the mistake of taking a ride with a friend, and as the plot progresses, with a sudden shift at the end, she becomes the focus of a terrible indictment of India today, framed as if in a comic novel. Miss Laila is a quick read, though the story is complex--and it gives a picture of India more stark and contemporary than many novels from the sub-continent that have appeared here in recent years.

Jean-Patrice Manchette reinvigorated French noir fiction in the 70s and 80s, and a string of his novels have been appearing in English over the past. decade or so. The most recent, No Room at the Morgue, is a recasting of classic private detective fiction. The plot is appropriately complicated (Manchette evidently had Dashiell Hammett in mind), and though there's a lot of blood spilled, the tone is light and quick. Manchette's detective, Eugene Tarpon, is a former cop who is about to abandon his brief, unsuccesful career when a young woman appears at his apartment appealing for help int he matter of the death of her roommate. Very soon,  Tarpon is drugged, beaten intimidated, and ensnared in network of shady filmmakers, gangsters, journalists, and corpses. Manchette's contributions to the French graphic novel, and the connection with that art form are obvious in this novel. As transated by Alyson Waters, the prose is quick, colloquial, and full of quicky dialogue. Manchette's novels typically have a social depth at the heart of the noir story, but his politics are well hidden behind the spectacular plot and the down-and-out stoicism of his hero. For fans of Manchette, No Room at the Morgue is a bit more like Fatale than his other books translataed so far. For fans of classic noir, the book will be a treat, even if they don't know the author's other books.


Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguin

The Fragility of Bodies is a crime novel from Argentina, and Sergio Olguin's story is a departure from the usual crime fare. Veronica Rosenthal is a magazine writer who decides to look into the suicide of a commuter-train operator in downtown Buenos Aires. What she. uncovers, over the 377 pages of this Bitter Lemon edition translated by Miranda France, is a bizarre betting game that preys on young would-be soccer players in the slums around the city, particularly those along the train lines. Veronica is a woman in control of her life, single and intending to keep that way, and in her professional life she is determined and implacable.

She finds a train operator who is willing to talk to her and embarks on a journey of personal and professional import. Olguin's text is lively, shifting among the various character and the sites in the city relevant to the tale, so we get a vivid story as well as a 3D view of Buenos Aires today. At some points in the story, I became as frustrated as Veronica with the lack of progress in her research, but stick around for the satisfying, if also quite dark in the way of most noir visions of conteporary life. Olguin's story is fascinating, and his novel is unlike anything else you will find in crime fiction.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Cold for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, Maurizio De Giovanni

Been away for a while, I've resolved to keep up a little better, with short reviews at least. Just read Cold for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, by Maurizio De Giovanni, the third of his "bastards" novels to be translated into English (in Europa's World Noir series). This series is a little lighter than his Commissario Ricciardi series (the commissario hears the voices of the dead, after all), but there's a lot of misery, not least among the diverse group of detectives "exiled" for various reasons to the Pizzofalcone police station, where they linger awaiting the closing of the station, occasionally amassing their forces to solve a case and try to save the station and their jobs.

This book starts with two cases: a teacher suspects that one of her students is being molested by her father and a brother and sister are found murdered in his apartment, with no suspects of motive that the cops can discover. Most of the book follows the frustrating investigations by the team, with various cops coming into the primary focus, rather than a single detective. The result is a "collective novel, a bit like Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, or the Martin Beck novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Were it not for the pervading misery, I would almost call the Pizzofalcone novels "cozies," since there are certain social norms reinforced by the stories (also the case, with, for example, another very dark, noir author, George Pelecanos.

All in all, De Giovanni is a very interesting writer, and I'm grateful to Europa Editions for making. his work available.  One note--the "stand-alone" novel by the same author, The Crocodile, is in part a "prequel" to the bastards series, setting up one character who will become part of the team in the series--you might want to read the Crocodile before
starting on the series.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

The Night of Rome, Carlo Bonini and Giancarlo De Cataldo,

The Night of Rome is a sequel to Suburra, the recent novel about politics, corruption, and gangsters in Italy'scapital city (both novels, Suburra and The Night of Rome, are tangential to the movie Suburra and the TV series of the same name, and more about that in a minute). In The Night of Rome, some of the characters from the previous story are now in the background (most notably the gangster behind most of the action, Samurai, is now in jail), and others are now struggling with one another and with a new mayor over control of the infrastructure projects aligned with a jubilee year announced by Pope Francis.

The machinations of Sebastiano and Chiara, the gangster at the center of what's happening (as long as his mentor, Saurai, is still in jail) and the leftist politician on the rise in local politics are a fascinating dance of violence, fading ideologies, sexual attraction, and old and new alliances. There is indeed violence, and the novel begins with a particularly vivid assault on an innocent employee of the intended recipient of the message behind the attack). Once beyond this stomach-churning passage, most of the novel keeps the violence at arms length, or at least in a less vivid register.

The Night of Rome corresponds, roughly, to the time frame of the 2nd season of the Suburra TV series (available on Netflix with subtitles), but the story is completely different, an alternate  reality with some characters overlapping both. The Suburra film is also an overlapping reality, but ends in a way that would prevent a film of The Night of Rome being possible without, again, changing almost everything. This Italian practice, transforming a novel into a filmic equivalent and then transforming it again in a multi-episode TV format, is both interesting, providing insight into the process of reimagining a story several times, and frustrating (keeping up with the characters from one story to another, one sequel to another, can be confusing). But The Night of Rome on its own is a powerful vision of a recent, almost contemporary Rome in which tensions of politics, organized crime, and organized religion is powerful and fascinating.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake

A short review (because that's all I can manage right now) of Laura Lippman's interesting new novel The Lady in the Lake. It's about a Jewish wife and mother in '60s Baltimore who, after a chance encounter, veers suddenly off the conventional path she had created for herself into a new world, with an impossible lover, an improbably career, and an uncertain future. She begins with the discovery of the body of a missing girl (having gone out searching mostly to get out of the house, it seems), then a new focus on the case of a murdered African-American woman whom nobody seems to care about except her parents. Along the way, she reveals the Baltimore (and the ountry) of an era emerging from the conventional 1950s into a new opennes to change in the 1960s. Lippman's previous novel was an exercise in neo-noir genre bending, and the new one is another change in direction for a writer who keeps coming up with interesting takes on the crime novel, expanding the scope of the genre beyond conventional exectations (much as her new heroine expands her own scope and life).

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Two unusual noirs from France and Italy


I recently read Pierre Garnier's C'Est la vie and Tioachino Criaco's Black Souls, both of which are unusual takes on noir tropes. Black Souls is less like a novel than an epic, delineating the history of a crime family in central Italy in the voice of their leader, as he rises from shepherd to crime boss and then crashes in an epic sacrifice that fades out in a cloud of mythic proportions. It's a compelling read, but without a central thread of plot, other than a string of incidents along the thread of the hero's life.

C'Est la Vie on the other hand begins as a traditional novel, in the voice of a writer who is dissatisfied with his life despite having finally had success with his new novel. The intricate plot revolves around his son, one of his former wives, his current (much younger) wife, leading toward (like Black Souls) a final conflagration that achieves a surrealist, dreamlike version of noir in which the hero retreatsf rom life (almost) into a trapped-in mental state he maintains seemingly by force of his will.

Both these books are fascinating, and both defy the expectations of readers: adventurous crime fiction readers should take a break from conventional fiction and have a look.