Saturday, May 13, 2006
review of classic european noir, 3 Dutch, one French, one Swiss
With this post, I'll begin an overall review of some classical European noir and detective fiction--really just an opinionated list of the best of Europe. Beginning with the Netherlands, for no good reason (I just spent a few days there). Amsterdam has been fruitful territory for Bantjer and Janwillem van de Wettering (with detectives Grijpstra and de Geer), plus the Van der Valk novels by Nicolas Freeling, who is English not Dutch. I think Bantjer's novels (I think I have his name right, but can't find anything to verify it right now) are pulp. A bit of fun but not even worth reviewing, in my estimation. I'm not myself a big fan of the Grijpstra and de Geer novels, but they do demand to be taken seriously, in all their peculiarity. Van de Wettering's writing is based on the characterizations of his two detectives, and on the underlying buddhist perspective of one of the detectives and of the author. For me, the plots are engaging the the interplay of the detectives is a bit distracting. There is something distracting about Freeling's stories, too, but I think it's in the style of the writing and in the plotting. Freeling's novels strike me as being written quickly and without revision, in the model of Simenon, one of the undeniable inventors of the detective and noir forms. Simenon wsa known to write his many, many novels rapidly and according to the advice given him by Colette: leave out the adjectives. The lean, quick prose moves the novels along with few distractions, but allows for two flaws in his works. One is that he often reverts to the already, in his day, hoary gimmick of solving a plot by gathering the suspects all in a room and getting them talking. The second flaw is that a kind of "master narrative" flows through all of Simenon's fiction, a family drama in which the blame for murders and other problems often lies with a mother, or at least a woman. Some of the writers who admittedly stole much from Simenon (Ed McBain, Sjöwall and Wahlöö) gain in range in power by not succumbing to that kind of personal psychology and canned plot devices. One other classic crime novelist who is only now getting into English is Switzerland's Friedrich Glauser, three of whose 1930s-era Sergeant Studer novels have been published by Bitter Lemon Press in the UK. Previously, only Friedrich Dürrenmatt's short crime novels were the only Swiss crime stories to be translated (as far as I'm aware) and, to me, Dürrenmatt's novels are not very satisfactory as noir--he's really concerned with dramatizing ideas (of an existentialist sort) and the stories don't engage much as character studies or crime stories. Glauser, on the other hand, is completely convincing as a crime novelist, but I find Studer to be a bit too plodding, and the stories a bit dated and provincial. What do you think?