Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Camilla Läckberg, The Preacher: part Cain & Abel, part Elmer Gantry

With her second novel, The Preacher (translated from the Swedish by Steven T. Murray and published by Harper Collins in the U.K.), Camilla Läckberg takes us into the true "heart of darkness": the family. There are stock scenes of family annoyances that are reminiscent of writers like Maeve Binchy, such as Erica's relatives (Erica is the writer who is the central character of this series set in Fjällbacka on Sweden's western coast, though Erica is mostly sidelined and pregnant in this book); her relatives and then another group arrive on her seaside doorstep and expecting to be waited on hand and foot. Erica is now living with her cop boyfriend, Patrik, whose current investigation is triggered by the discovery of a young woman's tortured body. But the host of characters swirling around Erika, Patrik, and the murder include members of a family estranged from one another in the wake of their father's favoritism (the father is the Preacher of the title) and an earlier set of murders. Plus Erika's sister, who escaped an abusive husband in the first book int he series, seems to be falling back into another nasty relationship while not having completely escaped the first. The plot is more of a pure police procedural than Läckberg's first book (which centered more on Erica and her work as a non-fiction writer and researcher), but the story doesn't have much forward motion. Not to say the book doesn't move along nicely, which it does, but that little is discovered by the police until the last 50 or so pages. Until then, the interest is mostly carried by characters who verge on the Biblical (Cain and Abel are specifically invoked) along wiht a bit of Romeo and Juliet, a bit of almost Faulkerian "Southern Gothic" (Northern-Southern Gothic in this case) and quite a bit of Elmer Gantry. In fact, the Preacher of the title signals quite a bit of anti-clerical, not to say atheistic, sentiment that I for one find refreshing in a popular novel--more of the "Northern" than the "Southern" in its Gothicism. We find out a lot more about the other cops in Patrik's station, too, some of them not very good cops, some downright bad cops, and several workmanlike--all fairly vividly drawn. I suppose more than any other Scandinavian crime novelist, Läckberg resembles Mari Jungstedt, since the family life of a central female character is important to both, though not always central to the story. Both set their novels in summer resort areas (though 2 very different resort towns). But if you appreciate Jungstedt, Läckberg will probably also appeal. In spite of the somewhat static plot, The Preacher includes a novel motive for a serial killer, and most of the torture is off-stage, with just a few glimpses into the minds of the torture victims (a short enough glimpse that the crimes are less in-your-face and at the same time not completely convincing). But overall, I recommend The Preacher as another interesting entry in the Scandinavian Crime stakes.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Betrayal, by Gillian Slovo

Not exactly a Forgotten Book Friday entry, but an 18-year-old thriller about a past that we should not forget: Gillian Slovo writes mystery novels featuring amateur detective Kate Baeier as well as stand-alone novels, including two that deal with the end of apartheid in South Africa. Red Dust (2000) a legal thriller set in a rural court during the era of the truth and reconciliation process and Betrayal (1991) about the last gasp of apartheid, just before the release of Mandela from the Robben Island prison. Slovo says that Betrayal was actually finished just before Mandela was released, and the novel is poised at just that moment, when everyone in the country and beyond knew that change was coming but no one quite trusted that the change would mean the real end of apartheid. The Betrayal is a very subtle post-Cold War spy thriller, and there's not one betrayal: there are lots of them, at every turn of the plot. One of the main characters, Rebecca, is an ANC activist in exile--she is leading a tribunal charged with finding out if Alan, a white South African who is also an ANC activist (in fact, a member of the military wing), is a traitor. Rebecca says toward the end of the book that the certainty that had driven away all gray areas during the struggle against apartheid "had gone and complexity had taken the place of its endless simplifications." No one can be certain if the various betrayals are based on ideology or jealousy or sex. No one's motives are pure. Alan and his girlfriend Sarah (an English woman who has also joined the movement) are both in Johannesburg on separate missions when the novel begins, and Alan has discovered a team of traitors when he is seen by Peter, another ANC soldier who already hates Alan, walking in a neighborhood where he shouldn't be and seeming to pass a note to a police operative, setting in motion that tribunal headed by Rebecca. Meanwhile, a police captain named Malan, a true believer in the apartheid system, is pursuing Alan and other ANC soldiers, and is suffering both from cancer and from a superior officer who seems to be undermining him. All these forces criss-cross their way toward a conclusion, revealing ulterior motives and hidden pasts, and when the real traitor is finally revealed, his identity is less important than than the understanding that the reader has gained into these characters and the realities that they've had to deal with during the long struggle. And two of the strengths of the novel are its anticipation of the long struggles yet to come, after the end of apartheid, and the three-dimensional female characters intimately involved in the web of political and personal struggles. The Betrayal has not been rendered obsolete by history; in fact, its honesty and its suspension at exactly the point of imminent historical change make it a fascinating prelude to the equally honest and complex Red Dust and perhaps to the current complexities of a splintered ANC and the new South Africa.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mygale (or Tarangula) by Thierry Jonquet

Mygale (or Tarantula, in the U.K. edition), French crime novelist Therry Jonquet's first novel to be translated into English (by Donald Nicholson-Smith) begins like a series of short stories. Seemingly unrelated tales of 4 (or perhaps 5) people who are trapped in different ways in prisons not of their own making. The stories will, of course, come together gradually (the final one in an almost impossible-to-believe coincidence that is necessary not only for the plot but also the author's philosophical point). And it is a philosophical crime novel, in a very French sense (partaking as much of The Story of O and Georges Bataille's novels and theories as it does of Sebastien Japrisot (the French novelist whom perhaps Jonquet most resembles). It's no surprise that Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar, rather than, say, Quentin Tarrantino, is making a movie from Mygale. The novel is short and it's mostly narrative rather than dialogue, the narrator giving the stories from the eyes of each of the victims except one, who is addressed as "you" throughout his portion of the book. The tight narrative makes it difficult to say much about the story without giving too much away (and I would not recommend reading even the blurbs on the back cover--best to come to the story with as few preconceptions and as little prior knowledge as possible for full enjoyment of the tale and its structure). But if you're looking for something like Pierre Manchette, or Dominique Manottie, or Fred Vargas (there's no one quite like Ms. Vargas), this is not it.
It is instead an elegant, disturbing, and gender-bending tale of torture, rape, a bank robbery gone badly wrong, a fleeing criminal, prostitution, revenge, and misery, moving rapidly through its 128 pages. The English, French, and American covers reproduced here give some sense of the nature of the story, whose conclusion is surprising in some ways and philosophically inevitable at the same time: it's a high-concept crime novel, and it's very well written--but probably not for everybody.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Island of the Naked Women, by Inger Frimansson

The title of Inger Frimansson's 3rd novel to be published in English (translated from the Swedish by Laura Wideburg) suggests a soft-core porn movie until the narrative offers an explanation: Shame Island, where the farm family at the center of the story pastures its cattle, supposedly earned that name because in earlier times women accused of adultery were taken there, naked and with no food, and left to die. That explanation of the title suggests a feminist subtext for the story that never materializes (though there are various sorts of mistreatment of women, overt and subtle). What the reader does get is part psychological thriller (but without the neo-Gothic atmosphere of the earlier Good Night My Darling and its sequel, Shadow in the Water) and part tragedy. Island of the Naked Women does share a "world" with the earlier two novels: there is one character from those books who pops up here briefly. But most of the story takes place a bit further outside the city (the first two novels were suburban--just at the edge between the city and the country). This novel instead alternates between the genuinely rural (a farm, the closest a human group gets to the rhythms of nature) and the completely urban. We learn gradually, rather than all at once, that Titus is a literary writer who has recently published a succesful crime novel and is having difficulty coming up with a sequel. He has returned to the family farm to help out when his father has been injured in a fall. Titus hasn't lived on the farm since his Icelandic mother ran off with another man, taking Titus with her. The father's now-partner Sabina (in the past we would have said common-law wife) is about Titus's age has a learning-disabled adult son, Adam, with a talent for singing Elvis songs, a talent encouraged by a Hardy, a handyman with an attitude and a shady past. Ingelize, a former schoolmate of Titus's, offers him a part-time job working with horses, along with a cabin where he could write in solitude. Even at the start, the scenario suggests betrayal and tragedy. For better or worse, the Elvis angle is barely developed, though Adam does have several key roles in the story and the rotating point of view is occasionally occupied by him. The story builds slowly to the betrayal and to violence (which at first we do not know to be real or imagined), at which point Tobias returns to the city, to his writers' block, and to his girlfriend Marit, with whom he has an increasingly troubled relationship. The characters are not likable, particularly, but the reader has considerable sympathy for them, especially Sabina, Marit, and Ingelize (I couldnt' quite figure out why any of them would have much to do with Titus). The story presents effectively the ease with which murder may occur and the immense consequences that can ensue, both literal and psychological. Titus doesn't write psychological crime novels like Frimansson, he seems to be writing fairly conventional detective stories. In fact, he seems to be condescending to the genre that his own life is now embodying (which is a clever way of reinforcing the "reality" of the novel). The tragic tone of the novel builds slowly, with numerous excursions into farm life and basic bodily functions, toward a descent into the darker aspects of human emotion. The novel is modern in many ways, but also suggests the rural novels of Knut Hamsun and other European writers in the early to mid 20th century. Frimansson's palette has deepened and broadened with Island of the Lost Women, into the depths of the noir tradition.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Out of the past, plus more recent Swedes and bloggers

Published in 1935, The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man), a mystery novel by the prolific John Dickson Carr ( master of the locked room mystery) includes a somewhat meta-fictional discourse by Dr. Gdeon Fell, one of Carr’s running characters, on mystery fiction. Fell begins by proposing that the characters in the case he’s working on are fictional characters in a mystery novel, which of course they are): ““Because … we’re in a detective story, and we don’t fool the reader by pretending we’re not.” Fell also says to the group surrounding him that if anyone doesn’t want to listen to his discourse on the locked room mystery, he “can skip this chapter.” Carr’s analysis is structural, investigating all possible locked room situations and all possible solutions to the puzzle—and his graph of the form does account for one of the best (and least clichéd) of the locked room mysteries that will appeal even to readers (like myself) who are not really enamored of puzzle mysteries: The Locked Room, by Sjöwall and Wahlöö—as well as being a challenge to all current and future writers to find some means of murder and escape that Carr does not anticipate (that will be difficult—he’s very thorough). One of the interesting points that Fell makes in his lecture is about the criticism of crime fiction: Fell says that when you complain about a story or the solution to its mystery, “If you do not like it, you are howlingly right to say so. But when you twist this matter of taste into a rule for judging the merit or even the probability of the story, you are merely saying, ‘This series of events couldn’t happen, because I shouldn’t enjoy it if it did,’” proposing a rule that in fact protects the novel in which the sentence is printed (which includes a lot of improbability) from attack. But Fell goes on to explain what he means at length, but basically he’s saying the same things that a number of bloggers have been saying: don’t condemn a crime novel simply by attributing it to a sub-genre or even complaining that it performs some of the clichés we associate with a particular form (e.g. the locked room, the cozy, etc.).

Rules for reviewing crime fiction have recently been proposed by Maxine at Petrona and by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise (probably among many others), and I’ve mentioned a couple of times that any opinions I give regarding genre or sub-genre, etc., are only meant to suggest whether a reader might like or not like a particular book based on whether he or she likes that particular kind of mystery novel, etc. But Carr has anticipated us by 60-odd years, and in a careful and lively manner. His character, Fell, also gives more credit to Anna Katherine Green, one of the pioneers of the field, than any other writer/critic (real or fictional) that I’ve seen (she was active 50 years before Carr), among other recommendations to his listerners (or readers). All that said, The Three Coffins is a bit too much of a puzzle mystery for me, though it’s a “cracking good yarn,” to use a phrase that might have already been obsolete when Carr was writing. The novel is about a group of men interested in ghosts and illusions; when one is murdered (in a locked room) and the chief suspect is also murdered (in plain view and leaving no tracks) a great deal of discussion ensues among the murdered man’s circle of friends (including Dr. Fell) and the estimable Inspector Hadley. Many scenarios for the crimes are suggested and shot down by forensics as well as speculation, often by surprising new revelations of fact and character, as well as a dramatic story that gradually unfolds regarding someone rising from a grave (a device that recently popped up in (Warning! Spoiler Alert—sort of) a very popular Swedish novel just published in the U.K. and not yet out in the U.S.
The warning by Fell (or Carr) not to judge the probability of a plot device like that applies to the Swedish novel (and to me): I found it pretty preposterous, though I neither mentioned the device in my review (as a spoiler) nor judged the novel badly because of it (and I’m happy to have my opinion reinforced by so auspicious a historical and critical source as the famous Mr. Carr/Dr. Fell. None of the above, of course, means that we can’t be critical about crime novels: just that we should be careful to differentiate between our own taste and a universal judgment; a distinction that will still allow us to talk about writing that is more effective (or less), and novels that achieve more (or less) within the structures of the crime novel or fiction writing or story telling (along the lines suggested by Maxine and Kerrie, perhaps). Carr’s novel is frequently comic, turning as it does on not only the conventions of crime fiction but also on a transitional phase (at the time) between Victorian and modern fiction-writing styles. While Hammet & company were looking forward (and are thus seem more modern) Carr looks back (and seems more traditional/Victorian), but he’s well aware of his position, and he’s having fun with the genre (not only in Fell’s speech but also in similar ways throughout the book) and with his audience.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Brazil's Elite Squad

During the Washington DC leg of his recent book tour, Leighton Gage said a couple of things that illuminate Brazilian crime fiction as a genre. One was that there isn't a highly developed tradition of crime fiction in Brazil: most best sellers are self help books. Brazilian author Patricia Melo's In Praise of Lies, reviewed here a couple of months ago, shows a crime writer turning to self help writing in order to make it big--reinforcing Leighton's comment about the book trade in the largest South American country. Another thing he mentioned was that if you want to get a picture of the country, you can't do better than the recent Brazilian film Elite Squad (Tropa de elite, directed by José Padilha). I picked up a copy of the DVD, and it's a powerful, difficult-to-watch crime story told in a documentary style (somewhere between Battle of Algiers and The Wire). We follow two rookie police lieutenants, Neto and André, who discover the rampant corruption in the Brazilian police. Looking for something better, they end up in the "flying squad" type unit of the movie's title: part SWAT, para-military, and above corruption. The film's narrator is Captain Nascimento, who is desperate to find a replacement for himself so he can get out of the dangerous and demanding unit. André is getting a law degree and witnesses the casual acceptance of the drug gangs by his fellow students, who buy from them as well as getting permission from the drug lords to operate a social service organization in their favela, or slum. The rookie goes through a series of disillusioning experiences that separate him from these privileged students, driving him into a radical position as a cop as ruthless as the drug lords (there's considerable parallel between the violence of the bad guys and that of the good guys, which reaches an extreme (in both cases) at the end of the movie. There has been some controversy about the movie glorifying or justifying the violence of the police against the poor, but that argument is actually raised by the students in a way that doesn't trivialize the argument. In fact, the parallel drawn between the violence on both sides (and the acquiescence of the "civilians" in both the favelas and the rich districts) is carefully maintained. This is a skillful portrait of a society at the edge of chaos, at the point that Yeats envisioned in his most famous poem: things are indeed falling apart and the center is not holding. Corrupt cops are personalized in a direct and often comic way, as they compete with one another for territory in various protection rackets. The movie is not for the faint-hearted. We are lulled into the sense that the violence is not going to be that bad, and then we are hit with the full grim reality of violence. There's also a "boot camp" section when the rookies are put through training that is both macho and disgusting. But a tamer vision of what's going on wouldn't be as convincing emotionally. Thanks to Leighton for the recommendation, and I can pass the advice along (with fair warning).

Friday, April 03, 2009

Colin Bateman's Mystery Man

Dan Starkey, the anti-hero of Colin Bateman's series crime novels (he also writes stand-alones) is a feckless magnet for murder and mayhem, especially as played by David Thewlis in the 1998 movie of the first Starkey novel, Divorcing Jack. The unnamed narrator and central character of the new novel (the author has re-christened himself simply Bateman) conjures up visions of Starkey and Thewlis but to an exaggerated extreme: we learn gradually, and with accelerating speed, that the monologist-narrator is hyper-medicated, allergic to everything, afraid of human contact, paranoid, and has read far too many crime novels. There's a whiff of metafiction--the narrator is the owner-operator of No Alibis, a bookstore in Belfast specializing in crime fiction, and there really is just such a store, in the exact same location, though reportedly the owner bares absolutely no resemblance to Bateman's hero--and the varied plot includes a great number of punctured crime-fiction cliches as well as numerous references to classic and current mystery fiction (as well as a very funny portrait of a certain Irish literary figure who has begun issuing crime novels). A private detective whose office is next to the fictional bookstore disappears, and his clients start asking the bookshop owner for assistance in locating, among other things, a graffiti artist painting insulting comments and a pair of leather trousers purportedly lost by a dry cleaning shop. Then he's lured (very reluctantly) into the case of a missing woman who is the wife of a publisher (of literary rather than genre works) and sets off on a very paranoia-inducing trail that includes a couple of beautiful women (one of them a jewelry store clerk that the narrator has been for some time spying on), Nazis, Holocaust survivors, dance teachers, a useless bookshop clerk, book fairs, an auto dealership, a police detective, a car chase, and a writers' retreat. Along the way, Bateman has a lot of fun with the conventions of the mystery genre, the relationships among writers, publishers, and readers, and the nebbishy character of the lustful, aggressive, shy, obsessive-compulsive hero-narrator. The book is fairly long (just over 400 pages) but the type is very big (approaching the Large Type font for the visually impaired) and moves very quickly from an "amateur detective" story to the thriller plot and at the end, a tantalizing hint of a different kind of story altogether. Bateman's last novel, Orpheus Rising, was magic realism rather than crime fiction, and in the new one, he has come back to crime with a comic vengeance (most of the vengeance seemingly directed toward the standard techniques of crime writing and toward the narrator himself). Reportedly, Bateman is at work on a sequel titled Day of the Jack Russell, and that title gives a flavor of the hijinks as well as the reflexive quality of Bateman's crime writing (whose subject is crime writing) in what may be a new series. Good news, since Mystery Man is the funniest crime novel since Bateman's own Divorcing Jack and Cycle of Violence.