Thursday, June 28, 2007

New noir from South Africa

I use the word "noir" in the title of this post, but Deon Meyer's newly translated and published (only in U.K. so far) Devil's Peak is partly police procedural, partly thriller, partly revenge tale. But it shares a good deal with the novels of George Pelecanos, particularly in that revenge plot, and Pelecanos is generally though of as "noir," so I feel justified in inlcuding Meyer's novel in that category. In fact, Meyer's book is better (in terms of the revenge plot) than most of Pelecanos's stories: Devil's Peak is more complex in the telling, providing several levels of contrast (through the eyes and voices of other characters) to the avenger's moral point of view. Meyer's plotting is also more complex, though the revenger has a similar motive to that of Pelecanos's heroes (a personal grudge elevated to an almost mythic level, the individual's violence becoming a kind of flawed justice for those neglected by society and damaged by the violence of others). The emphasis with Meyer is on the flawed part of the justice, which is emphasized by the police procedural segments of the book. I find it difficult to say much in terms of the way the plot works, for fear of giving something away and spoiling the reader's experience--suffice it to say that tone of each of the three main narratives, and the personality of the three characters at the center of those narratives, is handled carefully and variously, taking full advantage for the plot in the differences in the motives and lives of the three. In broadest outline, Thobela, a character from two previous Meyer novels, loses an adopted son to violence and becomes a vigilante fighting those who do violence to children. Benny, a drunk cop who has also appeared in other novels, crawls out of his alcoholic depths just in time to be assigned to chase the vigilante. The third strand deals with a character not at first obviously involved with the other two (though a reader may guess at the likely connection), an "escort" named Christine who is telling her story directly to a rural preacher, in the fashion of a confession, though the minister is not Catholic. Meyer sometimes alternates the three narratives and sometimes sticks with one for an extended period. The looseness of that aspect of the structure is used to good effect, whereas constant alternation would have been tedious after a while. And the delayed revelations about what's happening (and delay is after all the major function of good plotting) are more effective for the disappearance of some of the characters for large-ish portions of the story. Like the three previously translated novels by Meyer (Dead at Daybreak, Dead Before Dying, and Heart of the Hunter--though none of the titles correspond to the original Afrikaans titles) provides a fascinating tour of contemporary South Africa, particularly its most beautiful city, Cape Town. I've reviewed the other novels here, if you're looking for info about them, and if you want a brief visual tour of Cape Town, it's partially the setting for the film version of Mankell's White Lioness, the only one of the Wallander movies available on DVD in the U.S. (that seems to be the case for the U.K. as well). As in Meyer's novels, the view of Cape Town through Wallander's eyes includes the beauty and the ugliness (though Wallander's tour is a bit out of date, being very close to the end of apartheid). Back to Devil's Peak--the novel drew me forward through the strength of the characters and the power of the plotting, and surprised me at several points in that most effective novelistic manner: making me see the "truth" about what had happened before. Highly recommended (which goes for Meyer's earlier novels as well). He has a new novel called, I believe, The Invisible, that is in the process of translation now (about a white-trash bodyguard in the new South Africa), which I'm looking forward to eventually reading.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Bolivian noir?

Amerian Visa, by Juan de Recacoechea, comes with a blurb by George Pelecanos invoking the name of Chandler, as well as marketing that niches the book as a crime novel. There are certainly enough references to Chandler (and even more to Chester Himes, one of whose novels the main character steals)--but American Visa is really a picaresque rather than a noir crime novel. Not that that is a lesser thing (and the picaresque certainly has a long pedigree in Spanish-language fiction), it's just something different. The crime that the story leads up to is a theft and murder, but then so is the crime in Crime and Punishment (which is of course neither picaresque nor noir). That said, Recacoechea's book is a rare glimpse into Bolivian lower class society, and an insight (especially valuable for those of us living in the U.S.) into Latin American attitudes toward their northern neighbour. Plus the narrator-hero's voice is lively enough to keep the story going and the reader (even the dedicated crime fiction reader) interested, even though the crime plot isn't even hinted at until well into the second half of the book. There are a couple of cliches, particularly the happy whores with hearts of gold, that are undersandable in the context of the typologies appropriate to the picaresque, in which the plot is a string of incidents not necessarily related in any structural way, with characters who represent types rather than being completely individualized. Recacoechea in fact gives the characters more history than the picaresque necessarily calls for, and his setting is carefully portrayed in realistic terms (apparently in explicit revolt against the magic realism that we of the north have come to expect in the Latin American fiction that reaches us in translation. As such, American Visa is a valuable addition to the South American repertory available in English--and lest anyone th ink I'm damning the book with faint praise, that is not my attention. I enjoyed the book, though it was not quite what I expected from the marketing (and to give the marketing its due, the phrase "picaresque noir" does appear therein.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Going forwards and backwards: Declan Burke's 2nd novel and Declan Hughes's first

I've already reviewed Declan Hughes's second crime novel, featuring private detective Ed Loy, but have just gotten around to reading his first, The Wrong Kind of Blood. And I've already reviewed Declan Burke's first novel, but am just getting to his second, The Big O. First, the Hughes: The Wrong Kind Blood is a bit more straightforward than its sequel, The Color of Blood, but still very much tied up with family dramas, rich folks, and Ross McDonald-style noir. And there are lots of bodies, though the "blood" in the title refers more to blood diseases and family histories. Perhaps a bit more prominent in this one is a tour of the new Dublin, quickly leaving its past behind. Whereas Hughes's books are very similar, Burke's The Big O could hardly be more different from his earlier Eight Ball Boogie. The Big O moves out of classic pulp-noir territory into a kidnap caper with style and plotting more like Elmore Leonard (or maybe Donald Westlake) than Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The narrative is actually mostly dialogue: even the non-dialogue sections, if you look closely, and internal monologues by the various characters. The voices are snappy, and the novel is divided into short sections, each from the point of view of one of the characters. The result is a kaleidoscopic narrative that moves forward at a rapid pace--and the result is also quite funny, in the way that Leonard's novels are frequently funny: expectations are overturned, characters move inexorably toward an unforeseen climax, and we glide past unbelievable coincidences without hesitation. Another writer I might mention for comparison is Timothy Watts, whose three novels (that's all he has published to my knowledge) are very realistic portrayals of ordinary people caught up in criminal situations, none of them more honest or truthful than they need to be, and often as involved in personal relationships as violent crimes. Burke's book is similar, in that none of these characters are master criminals, they're very much "ordinary decent criminals," a wonderful phrase that the Irish have bequeathed to the rest of the world, and the attraction of some of them for others is that of ordinary men and women (also a feature of Elmore Leonard's books, to their credit). The Big O is, ultimately, a crime farce of the first order (that is to say, it stands up very well to the Leonard comparison, or to comparison with one of my favorite Italian crime novels, the very funny and very violent Night Bus, by Giampiero Rigosi). The violence is postponed, riding along with the converging characters and plot lines until the ending that, though impossible to entirely foresee, seems inevitable once you've gotten to it. The unforeseeable aspect comes from another aspect that the novel shares with Leonard: the plotting seems casual, unplanned, with the random pattern of life--but looking back, the story is as tightly structured as a jigsaw puzzle (not that it's a puzzle novel in any way, except for the reader's curiosity about the meaning of the book's title, only clear nearly at the end). I may not be making myself perfectly clear, here, but The Big O is a lot of fun, hence the earlier mention of Westlake--it's not overly comic, as Westlake sometimes is, but the elements of the plot lock together as the story moves forward with an increasingly comic effect (as, for example, the plot of Pulp Fiction moves forward), and the "blackout" quality of the short sections and alternating voices adds an additional liveliness. I frequently talk about the settings of crime novels, and this one has a carefully ambiguous setting--sometimes it seems like Dublin, but not clearly or overtly so, in the fashion of Declan Hughes. Sometimes The Big O's story could be happening in the U.S., except that some idioms are clearly not U.S. English ("chemist" for what would be "drug store" here, among other examples). The ambiguity works effectively with the technique of the novel, though, focusing our attention on the progressively complicated story rather than on a definite setting. I highly recommend The Big O, and wish for the sake of its potential readership that it soon finds wider distribution--in the U.S., for example...