Sunday, January 29, 2006

japanese noir

One of the pleasures of reading mystery and noir in translation is getting a glimpse of other cultures. In spite of the globalization of culture (and literature) there is still a strangeness to crime in other places, a difference in the atmosphere of the streets and the motivation of the criminals. Japanese noir is a glimpse into a culture that is particularly "other" in many ways. Miyuke Miyabe's first novel in translation, All She Was Worth, examines the particularities of Japanese notions of identity (particularly with respect to gender) and debt. The structure of the novel is a pretty straightforward investigation (albeit by a policeman who is not working officially). Miyabe's second novel to make it into English is Shadow Family, whose structure is a "one act play," as one of the characters remarks. The first several chapters are all indirect narrative, just a set up for the main event, which is a long, detailed presentation of an unual, theatrical interrogation scene. Ed McBain did this sort of thing occasionally in the 87th Precinct series, but this version more extended and with particularly Japanese sensibilities. But the major premise of the novel regards Internet identity, and the complex possibilities are really only touched on by Miyabe. The strains inherent in the Japanese family, and the consoling illusion of an "ideal" online family are examined in detail, but the gender-bending opportunities of online identity are not even suggested. Still, the novel is an interesting glimpse into dark corners of ordinary life in Japan. Out, by Natsuo Kirino, is a much darker vision of life (particularly women's lives) in the Japanese working class. Out displays the mundane lives of its characters, but with dark humor and open sexuality (elements missing from Miyabe's work). Out is a bit cartoonish but not necessarily in a bad way. It's a striking experience of the underside of another culture. An even darker ride is Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup, whic h takes the reader along on a guided tour of the Japanese sex trade. Murakami's earlier books in English, the amazing Almost Transparent Blue and the more straightforward Coin Locker Babies, are contemporary fiction more than they are noir per se. In the Miso Soup is very much in the noir tradition, from a peculiarly Japanese point of view. It is funny, very (VERY) dark, and has a more distinctive narrative voice that is much livelier than the narrators of Miyabe's books. Speaking of voice, there is frequently a stilted quality to the translations of Japanese mystery novels. That is true with Miyabe and Kirino (though not with Murakami, whose prose may be more global in some ways), as well as with some otherwise excellent mystery/noir novels by Akimitsu Takagi, including the excellent Tattoo Murder Case, whose considerable sensational elements are dampened a bit by the stilted quality of the English prose. These translation problems may be the result of the very different structures of the two languages in question, and present only a small hurdle to the enjoyment of these novels.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

one more John Brady

The latest Matt Minogue novel from John Brady is Islandbridge, available only in Canada as far as I can tell, from McArthur & Company--Chapters/Indigo's website has it. Islandbridge is much concerned with the transformation of Ireland into a European crossroads, no longer isolated from the "traffic" of all sorts that characterizes the contemporary "noir" environment. Brady's language is, as always, a major focus--anchoring the story and the sentiments about modern Ireland in a regional "sound" of voices and accents. Dublin is also a visual presence, not a sentimental pubby Dublin but a real, embodied city. The threads of the story begin 20 years in the past, with a bleak encounter between a young garda and a couple of thugs, father and son. In the contemporary plot, Minogue steps away from the more administrative tasks that are his current assignment (typified in a lampoon on the stereotypical Powerpoint presentation) to follow his former colleague Tommy Malone into a maze of corruption and violence that will ultimately engulf another of Minogue's colleagues. The ending is a bit odd, leaving the reader to infer not so much what has happened as what will happen, in whatever subsequent novel Brady has in mind. In fact, the plot hinges on guilt and threatened violence more than on overt action. The result is a compelling novel, a very dark but complex pattern of voices, desires, disappointments, and private disasters.

Friday, January 13, 2006

australia and noir

Garry Disher has evidently published a number of novels in Australia, including some crime novels yet to be published in the U.S. His two procedurals published stateside so far, Dragon Man and Kittyhawk Down, combine an ensemble cast a la McBain's 87th Precinct with redneck noir a la Danlel Woodrell's Arkansas noir novels. Kittyhawk Down, published recently, mines the redneck noir vein very effectively, with side plots that are very dark and very violent, though with a comic sensibility. The main narrative threads, featuring homicide detective Hal Challis plus a couple of female cops and a couple of male cops, are as much taken up with the trials of the cops' personal lives as the murders they are investigating. The splintered focus and diverse plots of these procedurals are very effective and entertaining, if you like McBain, Sjowall/Wahloo, etc. And if you like Woodrell (or Scott Phillips for that matter) the country town aspect of Disher's "peninsula" setting is vivid and enjoyable. Altogether worth the trip, and there's evidently at least one more in this series headed for U.S. publication. Speaking of Australia, the Shane Maloney novels, of which there are five now, I think (only 4 published in the U.S.) are very effective urban/comic/political novels. Maloney's portrait of local politics in Australia is very sharp. Of the presumably numerous Australian crime novels, only a few others have made into the noir lists of U.S. publishers. There are a couple of John Dale novels dealing with the urban underworld (very deep in the underworld), plus Caroline Shaw (whose Cat Catcher was published by Serpent's Tail some years ago). Shaw's detective is one of those almost-amateur female detectives that the English do so many of, but this Australian variant is a bit darker and grittier, plus the animal angle is handles without the cuteness of so many U.K. or U.S. cat-related mysteries (Shaw's detective specializes in finding pets, and only tangentially in human investigations). More Aussies out there in the world of noir? Let me know, please.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

more on Irish noir

Ken Bruen's newest Jack Taylor novel is The Magdalen Martyrs, and illustrates the attractions and some of the limitations of his version of noir fiction. Bruen's current series has some peculiar qualities, not the least of which is his tendency to quote other writers in the historical and contemporary noir genre. But his own writing is more Charles Bukowsky than James M. Cain, and in the tradition of Bukowsy, the narrative voice can be fascinating and bleakly poetic. Jack Armstrong is a very self-conscious boozer and druggie, a loser who frequently brings grief to those he loves (or even just associates with). I keep stating that from my point of view, noir writing has to have a social conscience to really qualify as noir, and Bruen's Jack Taylor is really too self-absorbed to reflect consciously on his environment in any effective way, and Bruen's writing is itself too self-absorbed to bring any social consciousness into the narrative at the authorial level. The attempt to link the narrative to the horror of the Magdalen martyrs, enslaved by nuns in Galway in the early and mid-20th century, is the weakest part of the novel Bruen names for them. Bruen's earlier "White Trilogy" was much more in the noir/police procedural vein, and both very dark and very effective in drawing a portrait of contemporary London and (tangentially) Ireland. Bruen's earlier work is interesting but wildly uneven: Rilke on Black is a tantalizing literary take on crime fiction and the literature of the underworld, sending me out looking for other Bruen novels. But Hackman Blues and Her Last Call to Louis MacNeice were disappointing. Bruen seems to be a text machine, churning out novels quickly and giving the impression of not planning or editing much. The considerable charm of the Taylor novels lies principally in the flow of the narrator's voice, and not in the plot or structure. A much more richly constructed version of Irish noir can be found in M.S. Power's Children of the North, a kaleidoscopic trilogy on the so-called Troubles in the recent history of Belfast and Northern Ireland. At times, Children of the North reminded me in its complexity and skeptical intelligence of Ford Maddox Ford's great No More Parades, but in a very contemporary vein and with a rich sense of the tragedy and comedy of recent events in Ireland (and like another novel on the troubles, The Psalm Killer by Christopher Petit, the more you look into actual events, the novels have an eerie quality of being both actual news and prescient clairvoyance). Power's other novels, such as I've been able to find so far, are a bit disappointing, being of smaller scope in terms of both history and literary ambition. But all three of the Children of the North novels (and the massive novel that they collectively become) are strikingly dark, even cynical, as well as being vastly entertaining.