Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Havana Noir part 3

I'm off to Scandinavia soon (in my literary travels--actually I'm off to Barcelona in a month in more literal travel terms), but taking a side trip to Cuba first, by means of Leonardo Padura's Havana Blue (that's the title in English of the third of his quartet-plus-one of novels featuring detective Mario Conde, the Count). All of Padura's books are melancholy, and all contain considerable social criticism of the socialist milieu of this not-very-cop-like cop. But Havana Blue seems even more melancholy (though Mario gets the girl, in a sense) and more critical (if I'm not forgetting some of the critical edge of the books translated earlier). Mario repeatedly refers to the "squalid story" that he wants to write, and the story of Havana Blue is pretty squalid. Corruption is the theme here, in a style that would be as corrupt in a capitalist system, but here has particular Cuban inflections. An old school acquaintance is missing, and Mario's reflections on his school years (and his infatuation with that missing friend's now-wife, Tamara) occupy a considerable portion of the novel, notable for both nostalgia and cutting satire of both the educational system of Communism and the still existing class structure of the school and the state. Padura's novels do not proceed directly, nor does the detective. Though mostly told in the third person, it's Mario's vacillation between attention to the case at hand and meditation on his disastrous personal life (plus his attention to a small circle of old friends) that form the structure and the surface of the story. A reader has to have a lot of tolerance for Mario's ruminations, which don't leave a lot of room for development of other characters who on the basis of the scant evidence seem very interesting, such as "China," the half-Chinese investigator who helps ferret out the financial corruption in this case. But as a window on Cuba, on a particular kind of Anglo-loving Cuban frame of mind (it's largely music and literature from the U.S. and U.K. that Mario returns to again and again, particularly Hemingway). One Americanism in the novel is botched by the translator (who is plainly British)--he gets the lingo of baseball all wrong, and baseball is important enough in this book that the mistakes are irritating. Nevertheless, Havana Blue is an essential addition to the crime fiction available from this setting and this writer.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Book covers, U.S. vs. U.K.

Less annoying than the bad habit publishers have of changing the titles of translated crime novels (and less than the even more annoying habit of publishing the same novel under different English-language titles) is the change in the book cover between the U.S. and U.K. editions. Usually, I find the cover of the U.K. edition more appealing, though the English edition of Tana French's In the Woods has a startlingly misleading pitch on the cover (playing to the Gothic impression they were trying to give of the story). Sometimes, U.K. publishers (and in particular Penguin) are amazingly creative in cover designs--as in the recent U.K.-only editions of Kafka. Between the U.K. and U.S. editions of Benjamin Black's Christine Falls, I'm surprised that Henry Holt, the American publisher, didn't keep the U.K. cover simply as a taste of Irish cultural nostalgia in the U.S. market. The U.S. edition is handsome, but emphasizes the title character (as she might perhaps have appeared on the slab in the morgue, while after all she is the "maguffin" or "mcguffin" if you prefer that spelling, rather than a character in the novel. I'm not buying a crime novel because of its cover, but covers that suggest the history of the genre or its origins in pulp fiction can have a certain appeal. Even better is a well designed book, including the cover--since a book in any genre can be an object of desire, if it's done right.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The first "Quirke"

John Banville's first crime novel, Christine Falls (under the pseudonym Benjamin Black) has a number of things in common with Tana French's recent In the Woods. Both include Gothic elements, both are tightly wound and elegantly written stories that don't suggest much possibility for a sequel (though both do have forthcoming sequels). French's novel is more tightly plotted; Banville's has a good deal more plot than some of his other novels, as well as a somewhat more straightforward style. He packs a lot of elements from the mystery and crime tradition into the book: a Jim Thompson plot about a young drifter in the U.S., a Ross McDonald plot about a rich family spanning the Atlantic, a good deal of material drawn from the Magdalene scandal (which has already appeared in the work of other writers, including Ken Bruen), and a lot of depressing material about the broader interface between the Catholic Church, the poor, and the very rich. One thing that is surprisingly not important, after the early pages, is the profession of Quirke, Banville/Black's central character: unlike other fictional pathologists who are amateur or part-time detectives, Quirke only discovers one fact (although a big one) through his medical skills, and it's the fact that sets the rest of the book in motion. But after that, Quirke's job is only used for metaphorical purposes (his relation to the dead, versus his step-brother's profession as an obstetrician). Quirke is trying to find out why his step-brother has falsified the death certificate of a young woman, whose name the novel bears, and it leads to a dangerous network of Irish and American folks involved in the manipulation of orphans and mothers. Quirke is attacked, a woman who confides in him (partially) is murdered, and there are many revelations and events--perhaps too many, especially toward the end, when events seem less to carry the story forward than to eliminate characters who are getting int he way or to keep the moody atmosphere at its gloomy heights. The novel is set in the early 1950s, seemingly to take advantage of some aspects of Irish and American society in relation to the Church at that time. But the gloom and Gothicism seems well suited to the '50s, better perhaps than the now booming city of Dublin (though surely there are still many of the characteristics of his story that would still be relevant). It's a tightly packed, involving, beautifully written, and somehow not quite adequate crime novel. Banville's brother Vincent wrote a few detective stories that satisfy as such, though perhaps without the literary heft of the Benjamin Black tome. Banville isn't quite slumming in Christine Falls, but he's also not taking a full and focused advantage of the genre elements that he summons for this book. As with Tana French, I'm looking forward to the next Quirke book, partly to see how the trick of a sequel will come off, and partly to see if he's more tightly in control of the structures that he's borrowing from the nature and history of the crime novel in future efforts.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Tana French and "Benjamin Black": A little news and a question

Unlikely as it may seem (to anyone who has read Irish writer Tana French's In the Woods), French is working on a sequel or maybe a series. The next volume, titled The Likeness, isdue out next spring, featuring the female partner (Cassie) of Ryan, the detective narrator of In the Woods. Cassie has her own dark past (to match Ryan's childhood secrets), both in her college years and in her undercover work prior to joining the fictional murder squad. I have to say I'm intrigued... And on another subject related to Irish crime fiction: is anyone else startled by the eruption of a Jim Thompson-esque subplot (set in Boston) in the middle of John Banville's pseudonymous, set-in-the-'50s crime novel, Christine Falls (written under a totally transparent pseudonym)? The style even seems to shift from the more elegant prose of the central tale of a Dublin pathologist (whose narration, though in the third person, is in the cultured tones of an Irish doctor) to the pugnacious reactions of a guy from Delaware who's trying to claw his way up into the working class in Boston... A review of Christine Falls follows soon.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Tana French (and is Benjamin Black actually John Banville when he's slumming?)

The question in my title is only half serious, and I've just started reading Christine Falls, the new crime novel written by John Banville under a transparent pseudonym. So I'll let you know what I think about that question after a while. In the meantime, there's another crime novel from Ireland that was preceded by p.r. and reviews that tout it as a "literary crime novel," so this post and the next will be related. All that p.r. and some of the reviews made French's novel sound like a dark, brooding Gothic thriller, which it isn't. It's for the most part a straightforward "policier" with one or two differences. First, the narrator, detective Rob Ryan, is a very chatty speaker, and his story moves forward with sly jokes, and a lot of silly banter with his partner, Cassie Maddox--the two are joined at the hip, soul mates one might think (but that relationship is ultimately a major factor in the plot). Rob's chatty manner takes the story over after a florid opening chapter (fortunately--I'm not sure I could have stuck with the overheated prose of the novel's beginning, which is much more Gothic than the body of the book). Rob even explains the quality of the prose in an offhand comment that he has a knack for imagery of the cheap flashy sort (as well as warning the reader that he, like all detectives, lies--a gesture toward the classic literary technique of the unreliable narrator, which remains part of the novel but not in a blatant fashion). The story itself is part of the reason that the book sounds so Gothic, when the story is outlined: Ryan is actually the sole survivor of a group of 3 children apparently attacked in a semi-rural wooded area 20 years previously. The other 2, his closest childhood friends, were never seen again. The return of this story, as gradually remembered by Ryan as well as given in references to the original case notes, does add a Gothic note at odds with the breezy narrative, and when the case at the core of the present-day narrative heats up, the 2 levels or tones of the book converge to some extent. The "current" story involves the body of a young girl discovered on a prehistoric, sacrificial stone in the middle of an archaeological dig that is hurrying its task in advance of road construction. The stone (and body) are in the same woods into which Ryan's friends disappeared. I have to admit that the setup was offputting to me at first. I've read a couple of crime stories set in Ireland with similar "Celtic" overtones, and they were mostly pretty bad (as well as mostly being by non-Irish writers). French's book fortunately concentrates on the procedural aspects of the investigation, along with the detectives' struggle against depression as the case moves forward without success over the course of a month. The archaeologists, the murdered girl's family, and local developers come under suspicion, but no evidence points clearly to any of them. Something is wrong in the girl's family, but Ryan and Maddox can't prove anything. And evidence and overtones of the story keep bringing back the 20-year old case (as well as Ryan's professional risk in not stepping off the case, in fact keeping secret his identity as the sole witness in the earlier case). The matter-of-fact quality of the present-day story, and the almost gossipy tone of the narrator keep the book grounded and fresh rather than overwrought, even when supernatural or magical elements drift past the tale, remaining well in the background. I have several problems with the book, but before getting to that I want to address a complaint made by several of the people who have posted reviews on Amazon--and this is a bit of a spoiler alert. The ending does not wrap up some of the threads of the tale, and that has confounded and annoyed some readers--if this is a mystery, why isn't everything tied up in a neat bundle at the end? And if this is not a mystery in that sense, is that because it's really a literary novel in disguise (or slumming as a detective story)? While there is a sophisticated structure underlying the book, I didn't get the sense that it was condescending to the genre. But Ryan's voice can get a little annoying, and the oblique clues to the unresolved parts of the story have a metaphysical tone that you have to take on whatever terms you are willing to do so--French does not tell you how far to go in accepting that aspect of the book at face value, or even how far she's willing to assert it. And the relationship of the 2 detectives, important as it is to the book, can be a little annoying--they're a bit cute together, until they stop being that, as the case moves into its final phase. Still, I liked the book much more than I anticipated, and followed it closely through a long-ish 400+ pages without it seeming too long. I'd appreciate hearing from others who've read this one--do you think it measures up as a crime novel? or does it seem pretentious in its literary ambitions? Questions I expect I'll have to return to in the next post, about Black/Banville.

Monday, August 06, 2007

New Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum's newly translated Black Seconds seems to be the fulfillment of the clever and effective false start of her first novel to be translated (actually the fifth of her Inspector Sejer series), Don't Look Back. In that novel, everyone thinks a very young girl has been abducted, but the search party discovers instead the body of a teenage girl. That initial twist away from a particular kind of crime novel, the child abduction, and perhaps Fossum has been waiting to write that story since using it as such a clever feint earlier in her distinguished career. But there are twists here as well. Fossum is frequently compared to Ruth Rendell, and there is certainly some common ground there, particularly in Fossum's close attention to family dynamics and their attendant horrors. Fossum's novels are not whodunits. In Black Seconds, for once a literal translation of the original Norwegian title, we know early on who the likely perpetrators are: but there is considerable tension built up around the questions of what exactly happened, and why (also the key questions in most of Fossum's other novels). Fossum's sympathy for her characters is another key aspect of this series: she wants to understand the people, criminals and victims alike, as much as the what and why of the events. In Black Seconds, even the people responsible for the violence to the missing girl are eligible for Fossum's considerable sympathy, and ultimately ours. Fossum is also skillful in constructing the books, using parallels (in Black Seconds some of these have to do with silence or a choice not to speak) to create a well-formed tale. At least one of the earlier novels in the series, Calling Out for You, verged on gothic horror (without the metaphysics), but Black Seconds is a return to the bleak realism of which she is a master (mistress?). The Scandinavian crime wave seems to specialize in bleak emotional landscapes, and Black Seconds qualifies for inclusion in that category, but Fossum imbues the tale with humanity, and in the ending, even a little glimmer of hope for a positive future for some of her characters. About the plot, for those who are interested: a beautiful little girl disappears, an autistic middle aged man on a three-wheel-truck is glimpsed by the mother, out looking for the girl, and the mother's sister sits worrying at home while her son arrives home disgruntled because he's just dented the fender of his new car. All the elements are already in place, and the rest of the novel follows each of those characters as well as the police (detective Sejer and his uniformed younger colleague Skarre) move slowly forward in piecing together the facts of the case. Another thing the Scandinavians (since the estimable Sjöwall and Wahlöö) seem to be good at following the police in a systematic investigation that moves forward in fits and starts, giving the northern romans policiers a particular rhythm and style. Black Seconds qualifies for the top rank in that company.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

McGilloway's Borderlands

Borderlands, the title of Brian McGilloway's first crime novel, evokes a wide range of associations, particularly in the northwest of Ireland, where the novel is set. Detective Ben Devlin and the rest of the characters cross repeatedly over the national border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and both the police and the various criminals and suspects cross back and forth over the line between social norms and antisocial behavior. The story deals with the discovery of a young woman's body in circumstances that suggest that the murderer may have been one of the travelers (formerly known as tinkers), Ireland's gypsies. The social lines between the settled population and the travelers, between petty criminals and businessmen, between the police and the murderers are never completely clear, and McGilloway manages the multiple ambiguities of the story very skilfully. Devlin is the narrator, but he's no superdetective: he muddles along, frequently aware that damage is being done because he hs made the wrong move or remained a step behind those responsible for the original murder, vicious beatings (of which he is more than once the victim himself), and crimes of the present and the past. The long, sad history of Irish political entanglements is one of the subjects of the novel, but it remains in the background, as McGilloway and his narrator focus instead on the people who have inherited that history and those entanglements. McGilloway's style is clear and direct, even when the story is not, giving a real sense of Devlin's puzzlement and the process by which things are clarified. The various policemen and women involved interact with believable and human qualities, and the rest of the society of small-town Northwest Ireland and western Northern Ireland is drawn with subtlety and compassion. This is a short but powerful crime novel, and a sympathetic portrait of a "borderland" that is too often obscured in cliches or ruralisms in fiction of the present and the past. McGilloway conveys a believable portrait of a real, troubled, and coping-as-best-they-can population in the new Ireland, with all its contradictions and complexities.