Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Luca di Fulvio and The Mannequin Man

The Mannequin Man, recently published in English by Bitter Lemon Press, is a baroque, operatic crime novel something like the novels of Carol O'Connell, or perhaps a much longer and more lushly written relative of Massimo Carlotto's crime novels. But unlike Carlotto's or O'Connell's books, which are firmly rooted in the Padua and New York of the real world, Luca di Fulvio's novel is set in an unnamed city that's maybe Genoa, or a parallel Genoa. This placed but placeless quality of the setting is of course not new--the 87th precinct novels of Ed McBain are one example. A more recent one is the vaguely North European setting of Borkmann's Point (see earlier post). But The Mannequin Man is wordier and more "mythological" than either, without quite being a Gothic novel, its central serial killer not quite a Hannibal Lecter. So there is a realistic, police procedural core to the story, obscured though it may be in the melodrama of the central love story, between the detective at the center of the narrative and the primary female protagonist/victim. There are lots of heaving breasts (large ones) and a hero trying to "save" their lover by abandoning her. There are also grand narrative metaphors, such as a garbage strike slowly burying the city under mountains of rubbish as the murderer increases the level of evil in the story, and an anthropological theory that broadens the significance of the story of a crime into the story of the human race. That's a lot of weight for a crime story to bear, even an operatic one, and di Fulvio's novel just manages, in spite of its substantial length, to keep the story moving without quite succumbing to the overheated romance-novel elements of the plot and the writing. The flaw I find at the heart of the narrative is that the killer speaks in two voices (as in Nesser's Borkmann's point) for the first half of the novel, under his actual name in his "daytime" life and without a name in his secret life of the night. In the second half of the novel, these two voices join and the narrative follows the killer more openly. But the split in the first half of the novel still feels like a trick. It's not really my taste in "noir," but then neither is Carol O'Connell--so don't let me stop you from experiencing the distinct pleasures of this "compelling" story, to use a word that is itself a bit overheated. On the other hand, I'm halfway through Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star, which has a plot that might have been equally overheated (drunk cop jolted out of his alcoholic stupor by a serial killer right out of Twin Peaks) but is instead solidly grounded in Oslo and in a terse language that moves the tension-filled story forward (though this book is also very long) easily and with excitement. And a point I will return to later is that the point of view is more carefully controlled by Nesbo than by di Fulvio or Nesser--the narrator dwells in the consciousness only of the central character and what could be called "witnesses," both literally and figuratively, leaving us to discover the killer (and the plot) along with them rather than having it served up openly (as with di Fulvio) or with an element of sleight of hand (as is more the case with Nesser's least-likely-suspect).

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