Friday, October 13, 2006

Emigre Noir: Kerr, Limon, and Giovinazzo

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.

1 comment:

Peter said...

I like your terms "tourist noir" and "emigre noir." I've professed distaste for such books without ever coming up with such clever terms for them. I've also singled out the Aurelio Zen books as an exception.

I won't try to talk you into liking Dibdin, but I hope you think of him as more emigre than tourist noir. I've noted that he seems to make it a game to set novels in great tourist destinations, then go out of his way not to mention tourist sites. (I have not read his novel that opens with a man going splat in St. Peter's.)

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder is More Fun Away from Home"