Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inspector Singh Investigates, by Shamini Flint

It's billed as the first of an "Inspector Singh Investigates" series, but A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is actually the second in the series, following Partners in Crime, reviewed here last year (from a different publisher). The new publisher(Piatkus), has announced what is apparently Partners in Crime under a different title (The Singapore School of Villainy), and apparently intends to emphasize the series detective by using "Inspector Singh Investigates" as part of the title of every book (making for a somewhat cumbersome title). While Partners in Crime had a slightly naive quality (especially in its lead character, a young female lawyer in Singapore, and it will be interesting to see if Flint takes the opportunity to revise the text under the new title), its Malaysian sequel is a much more assured outing for Inspector Singh, the Sikh detective who played a relatively minor part in the first book. The story moves forward in short chapters that are often linked by a theme or even just a word as the narrative shifts between the Inspector, who has been sent to Malaysia to uphold the interests of Chelsea Liew (a Singapore citizen married to a Malaysian man) who has been jailed for murdering her husband); Singh's Malaysian police counterparts; the accused wife; one of her children; and several other characters. It is to Flint's credit that the story remains coherent through all the shifts in point of view. There are a number of shifts in the plot as well, as first one and then another character comes under scrutiny as the possible murderer, and though some readers may guess before the end who the actual murderer is, a surprise ending is prepared for with some skill. The portrait of Malaysia is rather critical, as measured against the detective's (and the author's, as she is a Malaysian-born Singaporean) Singapore frame of reference, though there is also some critique of the police-state aspects of the island city-state's character. The story reveals that the author has not completely worked out her craft, since it doesn't move forward like the well-oiled machine of some more experienced crime writers, and Singh, though he does a good deal of investigating, doesn't have much to do with the resolution of the crime plot. In fact, his role in the ending hearkens back a bit to the more sentimental aspects of Partners in Crime. Still, Singh is a likeable and well drawn character, a less driven and more comic Sikh detective than was offered by Vikram Chandra in the much longer and more complex Sacred Games. And Flint's portrait of Malaysia is fascinating--particularly in a plot twist that reveals the country's theocratic underpinnings and catches Ms. Liew in a legal cul-de-sac with consequences that will be horrifying to those of us outside that religious and cultural orbit. All in all, a satisfying read, and a promising addition to the ongoing series (I already have the next volume, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, the recently published story that evidently portrays the infamous Bali bombing incident or a fictionlized verion thereof.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

From Argentina: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro

Claujdia Piñeiro's Thursday Night Widows (from Bitter Lemon Press, translated by Miranda France) portrays a gated community outside Buenos Aires that is a kind of Potemkin village, except that here it's not the buildings that are false façades but the people. The surface of the novel is the surface of the characters' lives, and what lies behind (Argentinian politics, the collapse of the economy, the prejudice of Euro-Argentinians against indigenous people and the lower classes, the lies and disturbances within the families, and domestic violence of the physical and emotional variety) is mostly implied between the lines rather than directly portrayed. The novel is told in chapters from a number of characters points of view (the wives whose husbands play cards on Thursday nights, hence the title, but also the maids, husbands, a few of the children), creating a kaleidoscopic portrait of a middle class haven and hell. The novel begins with fear and death in 2001, just after 9/11, and then backtracks through several families' arrival in Cascade Heights, a "Desperate Housewives" neighborhood determined to isolate itself from society's threats. Despite the violence of the beginning, and the threat that a number of characters feel from one of the husbands (El Tano Scaglia), this is not a conventional crime novel, and not a thriller (the story is episodic rather than concentrated on a single thriller plotline). It's satire, but not cold or bloodless: the characters are too vivid and their misery (and the misery they inflict on others) too real. Piñeiro is performing an autopsy on a group that attempts to isolate itself from any threat or responsibility from or toward the rest of the culture and society, creating a vivid portrait of the gated community and the wider social fabric. The "daily," ordinary quality of the narrative and the pretentious middle-class characters didn't grab me at first, but Piñeiro soon pulled me in through the satirical approach to the characters (as well as a few more sympathetic characters, particularly two of the children), through the hints of what is going on behind the façades, and through startling vignettes like a series of "altars" created in one of the homes by one of the wives after she abandons the gated lifestyle for something more honest, primitive, and more openly vindictive. The ending leaves a resolution hanging in the balance as the one woman who addresses the reader in her own voice drives away from the community with her family on a mission that might destroy at least some of the artificiality and dissimulation that has gone on inside the gates.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Varg Veum (Norway) and Epitafios 2 (Argentina)

The third of the Varg Veum films, from the novels by Gunnar Staalesen, ran this week on the MhZ Networks in the U.S. This is the best of the ones shown so far: Veum is hired to locate a stolen car and in the process he steps into the middle of a messy divorce and ultimately stumbles into a race-track robbery and into the path of a murderer. His antagonistic/amicable relationship with Inspector Hamre is further developed, along with his friendly/professional relationship with Anna, the lawyer from the first of the films, and Veum also becomes involved with a woman who is entwined in all of the plotlines of this film. The story is less sensational than the previous film (which dealt with incest, gangsters, etc.) and the production gives a good sense of the territory within the city of Bergen that is Veum's usual stomping ground: the housing estate/apartment buildings, chop shop/auto repair shops, police station, and child welfare department. There's more humor, too, not just in Veum's relations with the police but also in subtle moments: at one point Veum brushes his hair aside to make sure the woman he's interested in will see the bruise on his forehead, the badge of his "hero" status. It's a telling moment that gives a sense of the subtlety of the series and the complexity of the character (both in the books and in Veum's realization by actor Trond Espen Seim--and the rest of the cast is excellent as well, effective and understated). My only complaints are that MhZ is only showing the series at a pace of about one episode a month, and they're so prudish or cautious that they're blurring the screen not only for nudity but for people in their underwear (very distracting, more so than letting the marginal amount of brief near-nudity remain). The plot of the new Epitafios series on HBO is more sensational (the series relies on serial killers and grisly murders) but not as lurid as the first Epitafios. Renzo and Marina, detectives in the federal police in Buenos Aires, are back, along with Renzo's father (who has a girlfriend, much to Renzo's dismay) and Marina's circle of russian-roulette players. The killer, whom we see from the beginning, is more complex and interesting than the evil genius of the first series, and we see more of the city as the detectives pass through, as well as in periodic aerial shots. I've only seen 2 episodes so far (out of 13) but so far it's very impressive.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sandra Ruttan, Lullaby for the Nameless

Sandra Ruttan's "Nolan, Hart, and Tain" series has been unusual in several respects, including the balance among the three central characters, RCMP detective-constables assigned to Canada's Southwestern corner. But another important aspect of the series has been the substantial, unexplained backstory of the first case that the three worked on together, a case that has cast a shadow over them from the first novel, What Burns Within, uniting and dividing them at the same time. Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund used a similarly vital backstory in her first novel, The Bomber, and solved the problem of its importance to her character by "re-starting" her series, with a second novel, Studio Sex (aka Studio 69), that started the series over again with the original events that happened to her at a younger age. Ruttan hasn't done that: Her second novel, The Frailty of Flesh, continued to refer to the events prior to What Burns Within as a vital element of the relationship of the three characters, and the unexplained tension among the three has been an important and interesting aspect of the series. With the third volume, Lullaby for the Nameless, Ruttan uses multiple time-lines to carry the story of Nolan, Hart, and Tain forward while also going back to the "myth of origin," the case that first brought them together, as well as the cases they've been on since then. Two corpses are found, one in an urban dumpster and one in the woods (stumbled upon during a manhunt). Hart and Tain (Ruttan's female and First Nations' characters), are called to the body in the dumpster, and Nolan, who has been on temporary assignments since the previous novel, is involved in the rural manhunt and is assigned the case of that body. The three characters orbit around the cases and one another, Nolan in isolation from the other two until the very end, while the cases intertwine and lead back to their original case. The original case is revealed in fits and starts, as Hart is a new detective assigned to an investigation already underway and is inserted between the feuding Tain and Nolan, cut out of the real investigation by both of them. All three are at odds, and the spiky quality of their later relationship as friends and colleagues is prefigured in the conflict of the flashbacks. This is a police procedural of the first order, but with the story told through the characters and their conflictual histories more than through the serial murders and their echo in the current case. We do get glimpses of the murderers and their victims, almost as if caught momentarily in the headlights of a passing car, but for the most part Ruttan pulls off the difficult task of giving the story from the point of view of three people who are each withholding information from the others, and from the reader. Not only is there a jigsaw puzzle of information resulting from the investigation itself, there is a fractured perspective of the overlapping points of view, and what each reveals to and conceals from the reader. A good deal of the considerable pleasure of the novel is in its gradual focusing of the points of view into a single story (though not everything is resolved, leaving some elements of the case and of the cops' relationships unclear, perhaps to be taken up in the next installment). There has been a danger in Ruttan's reticence to reveal the full horror of the backstory, that when it was revealed it would not seem as important or dramatic to the reader as it has been portrayed as being for the three main characters--but when the strands finally come together, there is ample evidence of events, mistakes, and unnecessary deaths that have haunted Nolan, Tain, and Hart, as well as a final horror that even they had not anticipated, one that caps the serial killer plot and frames Lullaby for the Nameless effectively as its own coherent story. There's a good deal of reference to the first two novels in the series, not incomprehensible to a reader coming to Ruttan's work with this third novel, but I'd recommend starting at the beginning--both to understand these references and to get the full impact of the third novel's resolution of the ongoing, hitherto unresolved story. And the strength of the series, its unconventional triple narrative and the three distinct and fully realized characters who support it, is best appreciated in the full sweep of the series so far. On its own, though, Lullaby for the Nameless is a vivid, noir portrait of the hard-scrabble small towns, ethnic tensions, dark urban corners, and deep forest environments of contemporary Canada, through the eyes of three fascinating, troubled investigators.

Monday, September 14, 2009

La Piovra 5

the MhZ Network in the U.S. has just started airing the 5th series of La Piovra (The Octopus), the legendary Mafia series, which evidently had so much impact when first aired in Italy that it had an effect on the prosecution of the Mafia. MhZ actually first aired series 8 and 9 of La Piovra, which were "prequels" to the series as a whole, showing the youth of the series' primary villain, Tano Cariddi, and a post-WWII shift in the Mafia's Sicilian tactics. Series 8 and 9 were operatic and seductive: in spite of a melodramatic plot, the story and cinematography were compelling (and the villain of those two series was played to evil perfection by Luca Zingaretti, better known for a much more sympathetic role as Salvo Montalbano in the TV series made from Andrea Camilleri's novels). When the public TV station began airing the original series, 1-4, we were treated to the best known of the series' heroes, Corrado Cattani, played by Michele Placido with an intensity that today seems quite melodramatic but surely was more effective in the era of its original broadcast. Nevertheless, we were relieved last spring when, at the end of La Piovra season 4, Corrado was definitively killed off (overkill even, one might say, so dramatic was his death). With season 5 we enter a new era, featuring Corrado's last collaborator and lover, Judge Silvia Conti, played by Patricia Millardet, and a new undercover cop, Davide Licata, played in a less cool, rougher style than Placido's Corrado by Vittorio Mezzogiorno. But the heart of the series (since season 3) has been Tano, played with brilliant reticence by Remo Girone. The technical aspects of season 5 are also more compatible with current TV technology, so the image is clearer and brighter. The plot has moved on to a new Mafia hierarchy, with the defection of one don at the end of season 4 and the arrest of several more at the beginning of season 5, and with new corporate "fellow travellers" as well as some carried over from season 4. All in all, an auspicious beginning to the 5-episode, 500 minute series and for the rest of the 10-series saga. MhZ has provided a genuine public service for U.S. viewers, having brought not only La Piovra but also the amazing Finnish series Raid, the current Varg Veum series from Norway, the current Wallander series from Sweden as well as the Wallanders made in Sweden from the original Wallander books, the comprehensive Maigret series from France (starring Bruno Cremer, who is a Swiss villain in La Piovra), both the Martin Beck series from Sweden (from the Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels and from the extension of the characters into new stories), one of the Tatort series from Germany (the one set in Cologne), a couple of series from Australia (Murder Call and Water Rats), Omicidi from Italy, and probably some others that I've forgotten to mention. Too bad their signal has been hard to get, though the situation is now improving with satellite, cable systems, and (it seems) some future Web presence.

Dan Fesperman, The Amateur Spy

The Amateur Spy, by Dan Fesperman, is partly a spy story of the Eric Ambler sort (an amateur gets caught up in an espionage plot), and partly a profile of a terrorist incident (from the point of view of the unlikely terrorist). From the beginning, the narrative is engaging and the characters vivid. The settings (Greek island, Jordanian/Palestinian refugee camp, residential and commercial Washington DC) are convincingly realized. Jordan gets an especially lively portrait, and the scenes in Washington DC ring much truer than in many DC-based thrillers (and much, much truer than the treatment DC usually gets in the movies). The story rocks along from a violent beginning, as Freeman Lockhart, recently retired from a U.N. aid career, is pulled from his bed in his new home in Greece and coerced into spying on his former colleague, a Palestinian who is now fundraising for a hospital in a refugee camp in Jordan. At first, the blackmail that the spies, assumed to be CIA, hang over Freeman's head seems plausible (protecting both he and his wife from the fallout of a disastrous aid mission in Africa), but as the book goes along both the blackmail and the spy plot lose some of their "oomph," possibly because this portion of the narrative, in Freeman's first-person voice, begins to seem a bit too naive, sort of like the Joseph Cotton character in The Third Man--but Freeman isn't the author of Westerns, he's a seasoned veteran of aid missions that have put him in difficult positions before. Freeman seems almost casual in spying on his friend, but never actually reports to his "handlers." When he finally finds out who his handlers are, the news is not terribly startling, but that element of the plot just withers away without any resolution. As the novel moves forward, the parallel plot from the (third person) point of view of Aliyah Rahim, a Palestinian refugee who has lived in the U.S. for most of her life, begins to be more credible and more important than Freeman's story. Aliyah's daughter died because of post-9/11 discrimination against Arabs in an incident that implicates the foreign service's attitudes and incompetence. Aliyah's husband, depressed since the girl's death, has become involved in something that is making Aliyah increasingly uncomfortable, and she ultimately agrees to travel to Jordan in the service of the husband's plot, while secretly attempting to sabotage the plot. Freeman and Aliyah cross paths briefly but only come together at the end. I can't help thinking that bringing them together sooner might have been more interesting, and the ending, in the style of a thriller, doesn't really satisfy in terms of the Freeman plot--and leaves Aliyah hanging, her story unfinished. A tighter spy story, in closer conjunction to the terrorist story, would seem to be to have been an improvement--but The Amateur Spy is nonetheless the most interesting of the 3 Fesperman novels I've read, because of the realism of the characters and the suggestion of stories more interesting than the ones actually delivered. For instance, the temptation to terrorism here is both believable and beyond the cliches frequently offered in thrillers, plus the motivations of the various Palestinian characters (merely sketched in the novel) offer an interesting inside perspective on the shades of Palestinian opinion and action in the region--tantalizing but just out of the reach of the novel itself. The violence often implied in the blackmail plot and in the moody setting never really materializes (maybe a good thing?), remaining mostly off-camera, except for a bit of mob violence. Fesperman gives the physical and political settings as lively a realization as does Matt Beynon Rees in his Palestine novels, but Rees manages to give a much fuller sense of the interior lives of his Arabic characters, perhaps by his tendency to minimize his American and British characters (and leave the Israelis offstage for the most part). Fesperman's story emphasizes the Americans (and the Palestinian-Americans) and we get only filtered glimpses of the Arabic population. I've pasted in 3 covers for the book--an interesting variety of graphic representations of "spy thriller" and the Jordanian/Arbic setting--I actually read the Hodder paperback, which gives a nice view of the amazing city of Petra, but with a "torn" edge that suggests fire or age or soemthing I don't quite get.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Forgotton-books-Friday: Bernard Share's The Finner Faction

For forgotten books Friday: Bernard Share's The Finner Faction delineates the investigation of a World War II incident involving secrecy, spies, sex, and sand castles--it's definitely not noir, but is very funny (and gets funnier as it goes along). It was a paperback original, published by Poolbeg in 1989 (the author's name is a pseudonym for writer/historian/journalist Bernard Bolger). The Finner Faction shares (and puns become irresistible when quoting from or referring to The Finner Faction) something with the pseudonymous Flann O'Brien's fiction (it's a spy novel such as O'Brien might have written) and with Catch-22 (in its maze-like structure, its mixture of broad and indirect styles of humor, crash-landing airplanes, and both straight and comic sex, but without the bombs). The premise is that during Share's research for his history of the Emergency (published by Gill & Macmillan in 1978), he ran across a Fine Gael scheme to protect Ireland from Germany with a force composed of U.K., U.S., Irish, and French forces, led by the French, as well as two manuscripts that suggest a French agent landed at Finner during the war in pursuit, perhaps, of that proposal. The novel has a tripartite time structure (wartime Ireland plus approximately the years of publication of Share's Emergency book and The Finner Faction itself) and the narrative jumps between them unpredictably, seemingly as required not by the plot buy my the many tri-lingual puns, the plethora of ridiculous passwords in 3 languages (English, French, and occasionally Irish), and the author-narrators interviews with old geezers in pubs, with men and women who (might) have something to do with the men gathered together by the protection plan, and (possibly) the stories (real or imagined) of those men themselves, with guest appearances by General de Gaulle and his wife. It's perhaps the only comedy of Ireland's Emergency period (or of the historians of the period), with particularly Irish political comedy (suggesting the Myles na gCopaleen newspaper columns that are cited by Share in the novel) that I'm sure I'm not quite understanding but that is funny nonetheless. There is some spycraft (those absurd passwords, unexplained code names, doors removed from hinges, old notebooks that turn out to be blank) and also the craft of the historical researcher (lampooned for the most part, as in the narrator's task of filling in those blank notebooks with historically appropriate ink and handwriting). There are also carnivals, dogshows, and sporting events with iniosyncratic titles, and the putative spy cell "secretly" meets as two of the three members are entered in a sand-castle contest (they're appropriately enough building a maze). The historian/narrator is searching for "something that would lift my muddied fragments into the steady stream of coherence," as are we the readers, and Share finds something like coherence (and even a "thrilling conclusion" of sorts, featuring a gun and a knife) in his shift from fact into fiction, history into comedy.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Fugitive, by Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto's The Fugitive was published as a novel (in Italian, 1994, in English translation by Antony Shugaar and Europa Editions) in 2007; but it's not really a novel--it might once have been called a "confessional novel" or a memoir lightly disguised as a novel. It's organized thematically rather than as a linear plot. Carlotto provides a guidebook to being on the run, as well as anecdotes from his life as a prisoner and as a fugitive from the Italian government, and a memoir of several aspects of his life in that period (such as binge eating). The short chapters focus on the Mexican revolutionary circles that sheltered him (and betrayed him), on creating new identities while living in Paris, on the difficulties of maintaining a sexual relationship or finding new ones while on the run, and so forth--told in a hybrid form that has aspects of the essay and the novel (considerable discussion of the fugitive life along with narrative sections on his particular experience). The book is book-ended with an introduction by the author, giving a few details of the "Carlotto case," two short chapters about his experience on his forced return to Italy, and a publisher's note at the end, giving a timeline of the case as it worked slowly through the Italian legal system and through the protest movements and ultimate pardon by the State. The story is fascinating, though the reason for his original arrest is never made clear (the case is abundantly discussed elsewhere, so he perhaps felt no need to return to that aspect of it). But the narrative is more static, more like an essay, than Carlotto's fiction (which is typically dark, fast-moving, and linear). The Fugitive is dark enough but more a political discussion than a crime novel (the major crime being the workings of the Italian legal system and the cruelties of a chaotic Mexican situation). I'd say that anyone who has read Carlotto's other books or is familiar with his life will be fascinated by The Fugitive, and it provides an interesting background to at least two of the other novel (Death's Dark Abyss and The Goodbye Kiss). It's also essential reading for anyone interested in the Italian period of "troubles" or the legal system there. But the reader of crime fiction should start with his unconventional detective novels (featuring "Alligator" and his friends) or the more straightforward noir fiction of his other novels. The Fugitive has a great cover--another excellent book design by Europa.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Vengeance, by M.S. Power (unique twist on serial killer)

M.S. Power's 2002 novel, Vengeance, is an adaptation of the serial killer genre in which the serial killer is to a certain extent left behind. The novel has three threads: Chief Inspector Robert Harvey (in London) is, at the beginning, confronted with the 4th in a string of murderous attacks on "rent boys," whose bodies are found naked, with their throats cut. His investigation proceeds by fits and starts, in a fairly conventional police-procedural manner, with some time devoted to Harvey's family (wife Helen and 17-year old son Justin). The second thread is from the point of view of the serial killer, who thinks he's "saving" the boys from their sin, and has frequent flashbacks to his brutalized youth in a Catholic orphanage. The third thread deals with Harvey's twin sons, only slightly older than Justin, whom he's never met--he tried to convince their mother to have an abortion but she refused and cut off all contact with him. The twins (a continuation of Power's exploration of murderous children) have found out who their father is, and that he wanted to abort them. The relationship of the twins, and their plot to get revenge on Harvey, takes over the novel as it progresses, to the point that the serial killer is at one point himself puzzled at being passed over, unable to achieve his moment of recognition and repentance. At another point, one of the characters refers to something he's read "in a book" about the pleasure of killing--the sly reference is to Power's own Stalker's Apprentice, reviewed here recently. Vengeance has some of the same claustrophobic narrative as that novel, when the focus is on the twins, but with a menace that is further developed here through the twins' conversation with each other. Though not identical twins, the boys have the empathy with each other that twins are reported to have, but in this case with quite different personalities. The development of their plan (as well as its execution) is chilling for its ordinary, even childish, quality. Ultimately the story is more about families, and family loyalties, than murder and detection. But the story pulls the reader along to a conclusion that defies the conventions of the mystery/serial killer/crime genres, drawing closer to certain kinds of psychological thrillers (from Patricia Highsmith to Ruth Rendell, to mention just two). Vengeance is more compelling than Power's other novels that hew more or less to crime fiction conventions (Stalker and its sequel, Dealing with Kranze, plus Nathan Crosby's Fan Mail) but doesn't reach for the weird-and-yet-convincing achievement of his trilogy of the Troubles, Children of the North (which I keep bringing up here in order to keep its memory alive, since the trilogy is out of print).