Wednesday, October 25, 2006
With regard to the recent publication of The Man Who Smiled, which was actually the 4th novel in Henning Mankell's crime series about Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden, we had some conversation about why so many of the Scandinavian crime novels are arriving in English out of their original sequence. Before I started The Man Who Smiled, I went back to the previous novel, The White Lioness (the 2nd novel published in English, though it was the 3rd of the novels), which I hadn't read since it was new, and then I continued with Sidetracked, the novel that follows after The Man Who Smiled in the original sequence. That's a pretty big dose of Mankell in a relatively short period of time. And doing that has reinforced my impression that the novels, effective though they are, are also very formulaic--almost as much so as the paintings of Wallander's folk-artist father (always a sunset, with or without a grouse). The rhythm of the novels is determined by the lack of evidence in the police investigation--the cops are spinning their wheels for half or even more of the book. Usually, the criminal makes a few "cameo" appearances (though that's not the case with The Man Who Smiled, and the criminal conspiracy at the heart of The White Lioness is much larger than a cameo, in terms of the amount of the narrative it occupies. Reading the novels close together emphasizes that the stories are narrated rather than dramatized. That is to say, even though there's plenty of dialogue, most of the text is description of Wallander's thoughts, summaries of events or discussions not directly narrated or described, and details of the painstaking investigation. For those of us (myself included) who are addicted to the procedural as a form, the Wallander books can be very satisfying. But the formula can get a little old with frequent repetition--the appeals to the dead mentor, Rydberg; the hated press conferences; the use of dates at the end of chapters as a dramatic device. There are, of course, also references to things that happened (in the detective's private life as well as previous investigations) before--but these have a "reality effect," reinforcing the realism of the story in the same way as the endless back and forth through the streets of a small town in Southern Sweden do. But, to make a comparison, the novels of Mankell's Swedish compatriots Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö perhaps used their own formula in a more supple way. The formulaic elements in the S&W books had to do with the character of the detectives, the comic elements of the series, and the running portrait of the welfare state gone to seed (also a running element with the Wallander books). The only irritating element of the S&W formula that I can remember (and I recently read through that entire series one after the other, all 10 books, without getting tired of them--it's like a very long movie) is the constant use of the chief detectives name as a whole: it's always Martin Beck, never Beck or Martin (except in other characters' dialogue) or even Inspector Beck. Just Martin Beck again and again (but perhpas a minor irritant). The S&W books are also shorter, so there's less formula called for (and more plot) per page. The procedural elements of both series are quite prominent, very important to the structure (and the pleasure) of the books. Wallander will definitely do, in the absence of S&W's Beck, only brouht back to life in a Swedish TV series that has gone beyond the original books (which has also happened with the Wallander series in 12 or so films not based on the books). But at the same time, the comparison makes me nostalgic for that great series, and regretful that there are only 10 (I know, I know, the authors never planned for more than 10, but if Wahlöö hadn't died young, meybe...).
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Maxine posted a response to one of my recent entries, complaining about translations of crime novels that are done out of order. The recently published The Man Who Smiled, by Henning Mankell, is a case in point. This was actually the 4th of the Inspector Wallander novels, between The White Lioness and Sidetracked. And in fact, the second novel in the series, Dogs of Riga, was also translated out of order. The excellent Swedish TV films taken from the series also appear to have come out out of order (and with the plots of the books intermingled and changed, so that events from one book appear in a film taken from another one, etc.). All this is very confusing. I'm assuming that publishers in the U.S. and U.K. want to either capitalize on what they think is a better book later in the series, or perhaps to characterize the series in a way that the next one in line doesn't quite do (for instance, Dogs of Riga is a sort of thriller rather than a police procedural per se, though the procedural form does dominate that book as well). Even more irritating, to me, is the practice of starting the translations in the middle of a series, perhaps leaving the early books untranslated or published as if they were "prequels." By the way, Liza Marklund is apparently responsible for her series being out of order: Studio Sex (a salacious title taking advantage of the Swedish word for six) is a prequel to The Bomber, her "Stockholm Olympics" novel--she's filling in the backstory for her character. But back to The Man Who Smiled: this novel stays more tightly focused on the police investigation than any other Mankell novel except the first, The Faceless Killers. When the investigation plods, so does the novel; when the cops go back over the same ground again and again, so does the narrative. So if you like the police procedural (and I do) then you'll like this entry in the series. If you prefer a more straightforward crime plot, or entry into the mind of the criminal, then this one is not for you. The only glimpse beyond the detective's point of view (though there's a 3rd person narrator) is at the beginning (as is usual with Mankell's books), when an old man who is afraid flees what it is he fears in his car, is mysteriously killed--though the police afterwards think he died in an accident. Wallander is lured back from the brink of retirement (more on that in a minute) by pleas from the dead man's son that it could not have been an accident--but Wallander only answers the plea when the son is himself murdered (unmistakably this time). The clues lead to a powerful man who is mostly (and effectively) offstage. Though the ending is perhaps just the reverse--the final confession is a bit stagey. But overall, it's an effective novel in following how the truth is uncovered when we are all sure who the killer is, but not how he can be proved guilty. One aspect of the Wallander series that is typical of Scandinavian crime novels generally (and distinctively) is the law-abiding and even politically correct quality of the police detectives. Wallander is shattered by an event in the previous novel, in which he killed a man (clearly necessary but nonethelss guild-inducing for Wallander). He worries about drinking and driving (a theme going back to the first novel) and other social crimes. In fact, the Scandinavian fictional detectives seem to be the most socially responsible of all crimem heroes or anti-heroes. I guess it's so ingrained in the culture that the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking noir detective is not possible in the context of Scandinavian culture (except in the case of Harry Hole, Jo Nesbo's Norwegian detective, who is so spectacularly alcoholic that he is the aggressively anti-social exception).
Friday, October 13, 2006
There is a distinct genre of crime fiction that I'm calling "emigre noir" but might just as well be called "tourist noir." The writer may be American or English, but the detective (usually) and the setting are European or Asian. Sometimes the setting is evoked in an interesting way but the writing or the story aren't quite true or compelling (Colin Cotterill's Southeast Asian series, as well as the Bangkok series by John Burdett, the Aurelio Zen books by Michael Dibdin, and the Venetian novels of Donna Leon fall into this category, to me), sometimes everything is evoked beautifully but the novel is more a mystery or a "cozy" than noir (much as I like Magdalen Nabb's series, and as gloomy as her hero is, they really fall into this category).
But occasionally the milieu and the story are both evoked within a dark, noir sensibility. Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy starring Bernie Gunther, former cop and now a private detective in the Nazi era, are now joined by a sequel, "The One from the Other," that extends Kerr's insight, that the perfect setting for noir is WWII Germany, into the postwar years. This time the settting is mostly Munich, with excursions to Vienna (another perfect city for noir) and the German countryside--all devastated by war. We may see what's coming before Bernie does, but the plot is nevertheless full of twists and turns. The survival of Nazis into the postwar economy is the topic, as well as rapacious capitalism (always a part of the Nazi picture, after all). Bernie is hired to verify that a war criminal is dead, so that his wife can remarry, but soon he's in the thick of personal tragedy and professional disaster. It's hard to say more without giving something away--suffice it to say that Bernie's narrative is always full of the wisecracking, smartass repartee that is a throwback to classic noir film. If you like your noir in that vein, and sometimes I do, this one is Kerr at top form.
Martin Limon's series about George Sueno, American MP in Korea, always keeps to the ground that Limon knows firsthand, the military base and the surrounding Korean community of entrepreneurs (mostly bars and whores). In the Door to Bitterness, Limon uses a hackneyed plot (gun and badge stolen from cop) to explore the difference in cultures between the GI and the surrounding Confucian/Korean culture of the family. The cliche of the basic plot takes a bit away from the story, but the logic behind it is satisfying and convincing.
Last but not least is the closest of my current crop to being tourist noir. Buddy Giovinazzo takes the New Jersey mob on a trip to Berlin, where they try to muscle in on the largest construction site in the world, Potsdamer Platz after the fall of the wall. It's a great idea, and mostly it works. Tony, Giovinazzo's hero and narrator, is an enforcer who lands in the middle, between the Turks and the Russians who are trying to control the construction projects, as well as the Germans of both Eastern and Western varieties, and even his own uncontrollable psycho partner. The writing sometimes slips into "writerly" excess, with metaphorical language that is a bit too much, but another of Giovinazzo's devices works surprisingly well--Tony slips with no warning into the story of his life leading up to this assignment, and the result is a cinematic style that well suits the material. He predictably and tragically falls for a German girl that he really should not be attracted to, against the background of hyperviolence that he finds himself reacting to simultaneously with callous disregard and newfound distaste. The mob novels I deal with in this blog are typically of the non-U.S. variety (such as the various crime families in Izzo's densely portrayed Marseilles), and it's refreshing in an odd way to get the good old Sopranos-style mob in an exciting new venue. I haven't enjoyed a mob novel this much since reading Jim Cirni's Long-Island mob books. Although Cirni stays within comic distance of reality, and Giovinazzo veers off into a kind of satirical fairy tale by the end of the book.