Saturday, September 27, 2008
When I don't like a book, I look for the reasons why. Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage, came highly recommeded by several sites on the web, including International Thriller Writers (thrillerwriters.org), as well written and effective. I suppose it's more thriller than noir, which could be part of the problem since I'm more interested in the latter. However, it's set in Brazil (increasing my interest) and not in Rio (the setting of the very excellent Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza novels, the newest of which is about to be published in English under the title Blackout), but in São Paulo state, mostly in a small town. But there's just too much going on in the book for any focus to emerge--too many priests, too many cops, too many landless peasants agitating against the evil landlords. Plus too much torture (the most graphic of which is directed toward women). The cover of the book calls it "A Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation," but although Gage spends considerable time supplying a back story for Silva, the Chief Inspector really has very little to do with the story or its resolution. We know all along who's perpetrating most of the violence, and so does Silva. The details resolved as the story comes to a close are lurid but not very enlightening concerning the novel's chief target, the disparity between rich and poor, landed and landless in Brazil. Perhaps I'm not being fair to Blood of the Wicked, it may be suffering by comparison to Arnaldur Indridason's Arctic Chill, which is still on my mind. Arctic Chill is focused, intense, and atmospheric. Blood of the Wicked is unfocused, diffuse, and full of local color about the setting without adding up (to me) to a vital portrait of the place. Blood of the Wicked is part of a growing subset of international mystery/thrillers, written by Americans who spend all or a good part of their time in a foreign country that is the setting of their books. One factor that differentiates some books in this sub-genre from "indigenous" crime novels (at least if you compare Blood of the Wicked to Arctic Chill) is that the former sometimes explain a lot that a "native" novelist doesn't have to. That's OK, even necessary for foreign readers maybe, but in a novel, it can distance the reader from the setting and the action (even from the characters). Arctic Chill thrusts readers into its atmosphere, and we have to navigate the place through the eyes of the participants, reading between the lines and piecing together a portrait of Iceland. Gage gives readers a lot of information but we don't have to do any "investigation" of our own to piece together the scene--so we're not implicated in it ourselves, we're watching it like a movie or a TV show. Does that make sense? I could compare Blood of the Wicked to Garcia-Roza's books in the same way--although that Brazilian author does give the reader lots of walks through the streets of Rio, lots of corrupt cops and bad guys, lots of social evil, we're thrust into the middle of it without detailed explanation and because of that we almost become part of it, part of the investigation (and Garcia-Roza's cop, Inspector Espinosa is always at the center of the investigation, not at the periphery as is Silva, and is much more of a living, breathing character in spite of no back story being given). Maybe I'm beating a dead horse--I didn't like Blood of the Wicked, but is; should it be enough to just say that and not try to analyze my reaction?
Thursday, September 25, 2008
There are a lot of Shane Maloney fans outside of Australia, but I would guess that not many are aware that the first two of his novels (Stiff and The Brush Off) have been made into movies (directed by Sam Neill). The movies (made for TV--and apparently Australian TV is less inclined to censor certain language than is the case in the U.S.) are available in a 2-DVD package from a Canadian distribution company that also distributes the Taggart series from Scotland (if you've ever had a chance to see those) and some John Thaw series including Morse. The Shane Maloney DVD set is called Murray Whelan, after the central character of Maloney's crime/comedy/political series, the personal assistant/fixer for a minister of various portfolios in the Labor Party in Melbourne. The first of the two movies is faithful to the novel, Stiff, to a fault. Stiff is a good mystery novel with a political twist and a good deal of sarcastic and situational humor, but in my opinion, Maloney's series really hits its stride with the second novel, The Brush Off--and the same is true of the films. There's a little too much back and forth motion in Stiff, even a bit too much going on. The Brush Off is more coherent, more stylish (since Murray's boss is Minister of the Arts by now), and funnier (plus Murray gets a little more compensation for the violence he suffers). Maybe Australian readers and bloggers out there can let us know if there are more Murray Whelan movies in the works (or even already released), and how well received they were in Australia. Plus one more question--as I recall, the novels were about regional politics rather than national politics. That's not so clear in the movies--would the regional politics be assumed by Australian viewers because of the Melbourne location, or did the films perhaps "nationalize" the stories? In any case, if you have a chance, and especially if you're a Shane Maloney fan, the Murray Whelan DVDs are a lot of fun, and a very effective visualization/dramatization of the first 2 Maloney novels. (Now if somebody can only tell me how to get hold of the most recent Maloney novel, Sucked In, without paying a fortune in shipping...or for that matter whether there are indeed any more Whelan movies available in region-free, NTSC versions?)
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The new Erlendur novel from Arnaldur Indridason, Arctic Chill, has an overarching metaphor of frozen loneliness that pervades the story and also clarifies the character and motivation of the senior detective. Along the way, his fellow detectives Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli, also reveal more of themselves--particularly the latter (Elínborg's personality and private life have been illuminated a bit more in the previous novels in the series). And we also get the final act for the most sexually ambiguous character in crime fiction, Marion Briem, Erlendur's mentor--a retired detective who is never (as far as I've found) referred to with a pronoun (except for one possible reference in the current novel) and described repeatedly in ways that refuse to clarify that male/female given name. Marion, by the way, is said to mean "sea of bitterness," singularly suitable not only for this resolutely alone character and also for one of the chilliest (in terms of emotions as well as weather) of all crime series. In Arctic Chill, a boy whose mother is a Thai immigrant (his father, now absent, is Icelandic), is found dead in the snow near the apartment block where he lived. As is typical among some of the best Scandinavian police procedurals, the detectives are at a total loss, following theories of anti-immigration sentiment, pedophilia, and so forth, while being stonewalled by the family, the boy's school, and almost everyone they come into contact with. The investigation doesn't plod forward, it treads water, until finally a few threads appear that can be pulled, quickly unravelling the pattern. A second plotline, concerning a woman who has disappeared, overlaps with the murder investigation and also revives Erlendur's memories of his brother who was lost in a storm when he was young, a running theme in the series. And here, the lost woman, the lost boy, and other motifs recall a new metaphor from the first novel in the series, Jar City, of sinking along into a bog and being trapped there, yet another image of dread and isolation. One of the blurbs on the back of Arctic Chill calls this series "lyrical," and there are indeed powerful images and elegant phrases, but for the most part the language is simple and direct, another characteristic of some of the best Scandinavian crime writing. These are not novels of sweeping global crime plots or grand schemes. Erlendur and his cohorts are confronted with ordinary human frailties and must deal with them (and their own lives) with ordinary human skills. The result is some of the most involving and effective crime fiction anywhere.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
One of the ironies of Colin Bateman's "rebranding" of himself with one name, "Bateman" is that his new novel Orpheus Rising appears in an Amazon search next to "Orpheus Rising: Batman", a comic from 2001. But we're dealing with Bateman, not Batman, here. Or maybe not. Somebody help me here: I've been following Colin Bateman since Divorcing Jack came out in the U.S., and there's no crime writer quite like him. Divorcing Jack and at least the first half of Cycle of Violence are among the funniest novels (much less crime novels) I've ever read. Among crime novelists of the comic persuasion, perhaps only the couple of books of fiction written by Dave Barry, set in Florida as is Orpheus Rising, compare. Naturally, not least because of the Florida setting, Carl Hiaasen comes to mind (and for some reason there seem to be more comic crime novels set in Florida than anywhere else, with the possible exception of Las Vegas--both Barry and Hiaasen have commented on that fact, I believe). Christopher Brookmyre also comes to mind, though his books shift the balance slightly more to the crime than the comedy (more on this comparison in a minute). Later books by Bateman concentrate more on the story and less on the humor than his first two books, but there is still a lot of comedy in most of them, among those I've read in any case. Which brings us to Orpheus Rising, the Bateman one not the Batman one. It's not really a crime novel, at least according to my loose definition but also according to Declan Burke's definition (if you take the crime out of the book is there still a book?). It's related to Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, and maybe Orpheus Rising is as much a crime novel as The Third Policeman is (see various discussions about that classification of O'Brien's classic on various blogs and websites). What Bateman shares with O'Brien in this case isn't humor but death and the afterlife: both novels are ghost stories, really. And Bateman isn't really being funny here--he amplifies the strain of sentiment that's a common factor in all his books into an extended love story that is in itself quite effective (it's love that approaches obsession, really, that he's portraying). My wife actually read Orpheus Rising before I did--her only prior acquaintance with Bateman is the movie version of Divorcing Jack (a pretty good movie, not as funny as the book). Her reaction was that it's a strange book. I have to concur--stranger still for anyone who is expecting a "Colin Bateman" book. Or even a Christopher Brookmyre book--the publisher (Headline) seems to be looking for a tie-in with Brookmyre since the covers of this book and reissues of Bateman's other books have a suspiciously similar look to the typical (trademarked, almost) Brookmyre cover. Though Brookmyre did deal with the afterlife in the last (maybe the last?) Parlabane book, Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks)--is there something about comic crime writers (or Celtic ones in any case) that eventually causes them to break out in metaphysics? In any case, I don't know what to say about Orpheus Rising: It's interesting, and I finished it so it does have its merits (I'm one of those readers who will give up on a book if I don't find it rewarding). But it's not what I hoped for in a new Bateman (and perhaps that's what Bateman had in mind). Any thoughts?
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Paris Noir, edited by Aurélien Masson (director of the Série Noire series at Gallimard), like all the recent Akashic Noir collections from cities outside the English-speaking world, presents the reader with a certain melancholy pleasure. A pleasure, because the collections are uniformly valuable and enjoyable samplings of crime writing from Havana, Paris, Istanbul, and so on; melancholy because most of the writers have not been otherwise translated, and these stories are all we are going to get any time soon. Only two of the writers in Paris Noir have had full-length novels translated, as far as I know: Chantal Pelletier (whose Goat Song was published by Bitter Lemon) and Didier Daeninckx (who had several novels published by Serpent's Tail a few years ago). On the basis of the other stories here collected, the standard of crime fiction unavailable to non-French readers is very high, at least as high as what is available in English already. There's another "Paris Noir" collection, as you may know, published by Serpent's Tail and edited by Maxim Jakubowski, reviewed here earlier this year. The Jakubowski volume included a number of English and American writers, with others translated from the work of French writers (including one of the best crime writers around, Dominique Manotti). But Masson's collection is entirely French, 12 stories that are deeply embedded in the city, not ostentatiously but casually revealing streets and alleys tourists don't see, places nonetheless in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower and other monuments. The Revenge of the Waiters, by Jean-Bernard Pouy takes a group of waiters on a tour of the city in pursuit of an old man they used to see every day but has now disappeared. Politics and crime and philosophy intersect along the way, as one might expect in this most philosophical of cities. Christophe Mercier's Christmas story draws a weary private detective into a dark tale drawn from film noir and classic gangster movies. Romance is important in a number of the stories, in unexpected ways: a chauffeur and a prostitute in Marc Villard's tale, an old man and a young foster-grandchild in Dominique Mainard's. And an unflinching portrayal of violence and violent men is another common characteristic, particularly in stories by DOA and Salim Bachi. But violence, love, and weary souls are intertwined inextricably in all the stories, in often poetic and always interesting ways. This is a first-class collection of stories, and a tempting morsel of what's going on in French in crime fiction.
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
About 15 months ago, I published a review of Declan Burke's The Big O here, and on the occasion of the Big O's Big U.S. Release, I'm pasting a slightly reduced version of the review here below. I cut the last line of the review ("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...") becaues that new distribution is thankfully upon us. One thing that's changed about the book since its original release can be summed up in another line I cut from the original review, regarding one of the book's surprises, the revelation of the title's meaning--no surprise now, since the fine cover of the U.S. version explains the title immediately and graphically. I don't know if the new cover is an image photographed specially for this book or came from stock photography (increasingly the source for book covers, as has been noted on several blogs with reference to different books using the same imagery), but the new cover is quite striking--Congratulations to all concerned, on the cover as well as the release next week.
The Big O moves out of the classic pulp-noir territory of Declan Burke's first novel, Eight Ball Boogie, 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, are 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. None of these characters are master criminals, and the attraction of some of them for others is that of ordinary men and women. The Big O is, ultimately, a crime farce of the first order. 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 plotting seems casual, unplanned, with the random pattern of life--but looking back, the story is as tightly structured as a jigsaw puzzle. I may not be making myself perfectly clear, here, but The Big O is a lot of fun, hence the earlier mention of Westlake--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 Ireland, but not clearly or overtly so. 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.
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Thanks are due to Barbara Fister (maven of the Scandinavian crime fiction site, homepages.gac.edu/~fister/scandcrime/) and to Maxine Clark (blogger extraordinaire at petrona.typepad.com/) for their thoughts on the intercultural (and particularly Sami) aspects of Åsa Larsson's recently translated The Black Path (see their comments appended to the previous post here). The Black Path stakes out some of the same territory as a couple of other Swedish crime novelists: Henning Mankell (in the confluence of a small northern city and international--in particulr African--conspiracies) and Stieg Larsson (in the investigation of corporate malfeasance and the involvement of a genius/clairvoyant young woman/outsider). Åsa Larsson uses these elements to good advantage, in some ways better than those other Swedish writers, in developing further her series based around lawyer Rebecka Martinsson. As in the first two novels in the series, Rebecka is not always at the center of the action--in fact, Rebecka is probably the most de-centered central character in any crime series, Scandinavian or otherwise. In The Black Path, she's on stage less than 20% of the time, in my guess--one among many voices in what I've previously called a collective novel (meaning that various voices are heard and all contribute to the social context of the story). Other prominent voices here include detective Anna-Maria Mella and her partner, Sven-Erik Stålnacke, various of the mining company executives in the story, a half Indian woman raised by Sami foster parents, a bodyguard at the mining company, and others. But the story begins and ends with Rebecka, first in recovery from a mental breakdown precipitated by the ending of the previous novel and last in taking a step toward a life decision that has been eluding her for the entire series. Rebecka is now a prosecutor in Kiruna, the northernmost city in Sweden, and as such she becomes integrated with the police process in a way that was not possible in the previous novels, in which she was part private citizen and part corporate/part defense attorney. The story moves forward in a tandem fashion, as Anna-Maria investigates the murder of a woman found in an ice-fishing "ark" (with Rebecka's help) and as various actors in the drama reveal their lives in flashbacks and interior monologues. The method works very well for the most part, although those monologues risk marginalizing the police investigation, particularly toward the end of the book. There is a thriller-like conclusion (calling up another prominent Scandinavian writer, Jo Nesbø, whose crime novels have thriller aspects), with Anna-Maria as more central than Rebecka (unlike the first two novels in the series), but the police are at the edges of what's happening, and know (even at the end) less than the reader knows (as he/she has been privy to the thoughts and visions not only of characters living in the present and recalling their past but also the clairvoyant visions of Ester, who is at the periphery of the story until the very end, when she's seen to have been living in the future all along--you'll have to read the book to see what I mean). The spiritual dimension that has been probed by Larsson in previous books in terms of organized religion here appears as a mysticism rooted in but traveling beyond the Sami peoples of the region). The Black Path is admirable, and as I suggested in my previous post, better (in my opinion) than the first two Rebecka Martinsson books, but I do have a little trouble with that marginalization of the cops (and Rebecka as well) that I mentioned above. It's not that the story has eluded the author's grasp but that that it has eluded the grasp of the characters--Larsson is very much in control of her material all the way to the end, but there are so many different elements converging at the end that a number of them seem to miss one another rather than meshing, with characters escaping (almost) into Ester's dreams as well as into those shadowy international conspiracies. All that makes it a very interesting book, but not a book that has the clockwork clarity at the end that I remarked in Allan Guthrie's Savage Night. Åsa Larsson is staking out an entirely different kind of story-telling, perhaps more akin to the confusion and uncertainty of real social and political and the actual criminal justice system. In fact, the more I weigh The Black Path in my mind as I reflect on it and write about it, the more I appreciate what Larsson has accomplished. Which leads me to echo and misquote art critic John Perrault (who said that writing about art is a great way to think about art): blogging and conversing in the crime-fiction blogosphere is proving to be a great way to think about what crime writers are doing and what crime fiction does and can accomplish in terms of both fiction writing and the relationship of the genre to contemporary life.
Friday, September 12, 2008
I'm reading Åsa Larsson's newly translated Black Path, which deals obliquely with an issue that one would think would be central to any crime series about the far north of Sweden: ethnic diversity. Of the Swedish crime novels that have been translated, it seems that only Kerstin Ekman's deal with the interface between Sami and Swedish populations. Though The Black Path does bring up the issue, it's a bit difficult for readers of the translated version, or at least readers not familiar with common names in the populations involved, to quite catch the nuances. Some of the characters in Larsson's novel are clearly Sami (or were raised in that community), others are Finnish (in terms of language at least), but the Sami cross the Swedish/Finnish border, so perhaps some of them (what we would have called Lapplanders formerly) use Finnish and Finnish names. So can anyone clarify for me what role the Sami/Finnish/Swedish distinctions play in Larsson's novel? Or at least who in the novel comes from Finnish and Sami backgrounds? Just to be clear, I think The Black Path is a very good book, better perhaps than the first two in Larsson's series--I just can't quite catch how this particular subtlety of language, names, and culture (which very evidently deepens the novel's texture) works exactly. My review follows soon, and I promise any advice I get on this subject will be duly credited.
Sunday, September 07, 2008
The Nathan Active series by Stan Jones follows the career of a young Inupiaq State Trooper in Alaska, who was raised by adoptive parents in Anchorage but has been posted to the Bush town of Chukchi, where his birth mother lives. If that scenario makes you think "soap opera," you'd be mistaken. The clueless outsider who is nevertheless native "Eskimo" is a perfect vehicle for the investigation of the fault lines between Alaska's various peoples, through the lens of crime fiction. Nathan is a city boy with a strained relationship with both his birth mother and his adoptive family, trying to adapt to the Bush while also trying to get posted back to the city. The first two novels in the series, published several years ago by SoHo Press, follow Nathan in the Bush town and in the Alaskan wilderness. Frozen Sun, the new book, published by Alaska's Bowhead Press, follows the Trooper to Anchorage and an island fishing camp, in pursuit of a young woman who went missing years before. An astute reader will spot some plot elements before the story gets to them, but Nathan's emotionally damaged character, his relationship to both natives and whites in Chukchi, the evocation of life in the Bush, and his tentative attempts at romance are all very appealing. The language of the small town is also very well evoked (in the same way as the Outback language of a similar cultural faultine in Adrian Hyland's Diamond Dove/Moonlight Downs)--for example, Nathan and the other Inupiat townspeople rarely say "yes" to anything, using "I guess" instead. The flavor of the language is portrayed, without any artificial dialect in the speech. And the Bush is never idealized: in Frozen Sun, the descent of a village woman into tawdry homelessness on the streets of Anchorage is central to the story. Nathan's approach to finding her is indirect an conflicted at every point. He makes rookie mistakes (consistent with some of his mistakes concerning local customs in the earlier books) with both the case and his girlfriend. Frozen Sun is, like the first two Nathan Active stories, a subtle, vivid, and effective crime novel that deserves a wide readership: and I for one am looking forward to a new addition to the series, Village of the Ghost Bears, promised for 2009.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
I've just finished Peter Craig's Hot Plastic, published a few years ago. The novel shares a good deal with Jim Thompson's great The Grifters, but I didn't like Hot Plastic very much. I'm wondering why it didn't satisfy, though I usually find grifter novels appealing. One thing that occurred to me is that it violates a modern version of the classical unities, while The Grifters does not. Aristotle said that tragedy should not violate three rules, unity of action, unity of place, and unity of time. That is, one main action or plot with few subplots, one setting, and a time-frame of no more than 24 hours. Obviously, the modern novel violates those rules in all but a few cases (Ulysses, for example), and some forms of the novel (the picaresque, for example) violate all the rules most of the time. But keeping those rules in mind nevertheless provides focus for fiction as well as drama, but crime fiction actually adheres to the rules more closely than a lot of so-called mainstream fiction (think of those family dramas covering four generations and three continents). The biggest difference between The Grifters and Hot Plastic is that Thompson maintains enough of the unities to give the novel a sharp, while Craig's novel is more of a picaresque or romance, following several characters through a number of adventures that don't follow a common plot though they eventually lead back to a kind of repetition of the original situation. Hot Plastic has more of the structure of a mainstream novel, following the relationships of the characters more than any coherent story. Fine, if that's what you're after, but to me it suits the crime genre less well. Even when a crime novel covers a large-ish frame of time; to use just 2 famous examples, Roseanna by Sjöwall & Wahlöö or Faceless Killers by Mankell stretch a police investigation over a considerable time and numerous false leads, but the doggedness of the investigator and the concentration on a single crime maintain a unity of story or action. Adrian McKinty's Bloomsday Dead obviously derives its unity of time from Ulysses, but many other crime novels, from the famous Fast One by Paul Cain onward, adhere to a tight time-frame. And when subplots seem to be more important or as important as a main plot in a crime novel, there's a coherence provided by those plots moving toward a common endpoint or in their relation to an investigation or a crime (as in false leads). Unity of place is possibly the most adhered to of the rules in the kind of crime fiction that I like best (that is to say, localized stories rather than globe-hopping thrillers). So what do you think: Are crime novels Aristotelian? Or should they be?
Wednesday, September 03, 2008
The last of Friedrich Glauser's Sergeant Studer novels emphasizes the Swiss author's common ground with Simenon's Maigret novels, but with Glauser's own meandering style and odd poetry. Ably translated by Mike Mitchell, The Spoke deals with a body found during the wedding of the Sergeant's daughter and his young protege Albert, in a hotel belonging to a sweetheart of Albert's youth. Neither Studer's methods nor the plot of the novel is straightforward, but a contemporary note is struck in one element of the resolution, which deals with predatory lending practices. Set between the world wars (when Glauser was active as a writer), there are some dated aspects of the story, particularly in the author's and the sergeant's attitudes toward women. But there is also a richness of language (without any floweriness, since Glauser also shares a directness of syntax with Simenon) and a rich portrait of rural Switzerland and its dialects. The Spoke is a bit more sedate and introspective (on the sergeant's part) than the two previous Studer novels, resembling the first in the series (Thumbprint) more than any of those in between. And there is really no other crime writer quite like Glauser. Don't be misled by his biography (the addiction and the time in an asylum): his stories are clearly written and composed, but with an oddly off-center quality to both the sergeant's thinking and the style of the writing--creating a totally distinctive voice and an unusual treat for readers looking for a change from the usual crime fiction fare of either the past or present variety. Bitter Lemon Press deserves much credit for bringing Glauser's five novels into the English-speaking world, and also for the distinctive, striking covers of all five.