Thursday, December 31, 2009

Black Tide by Peter Temple, from Australia

Black Tide is Peter Temple’s second Jack Irish novel (there are four in the series, not all available presently in the U.S.), published originally about 5 years ago. The novels about Australian attorney Irish are complex, in this case mixing plotlines (all from Irish’s first-person point of view) concerning his negotiations between two gangsters, his participation in a horse-racing scheme with several shady friends, his investigation into the disappearance of the son of a friend of his father, the waning and end of his relationship with a TV announcer-girlfriend, and his avocation as an apprentice carpenter. Unlike some crime novels with complex plots, these stories do not all coverge—instead of clever plotting, Temple’s use of complexity gives instead the “reality effect,” a sense of life’s (and real people’s) diverse experiences—along with a great deal of oblique and slangy dialogue (some of which is very local). The reader flows along with Irish until one of the plots comes to the front, as the “thriller” promised by the novel’s publicity. Irish is no superhero, he’s a lawyer with a marginal legal practice and a lot of shady friends, but in this book he falls into a plot that could have come from a more conventional thriller, featuring international arms trade, money laundering across international borders, ruthless agents, and corrupted government officials. But Temple’s reality effect keeps the story grounded. In the Irish novels, Temple doesn’t take up the big social issues that he addresses in his excellent The Broken Shore, but Black Tide is not in any way a lesser novel—its focus is simply more closely on characters who are unfailingly real and interesting. It may take a reader (at least a non-Australian) a while to get into the book because of the intricate speech patterns in the dialogue, but once the ear is attuned, the story flows forward in ways that are involving and increasingly rapid. There is no easy or clichéd plotting but there is enough action on all fronts to justify the “thriller” category. The two images are the U.S. and the U.K. covers of the most recent paperback editions.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Wallander film and the power couple of Swedish crime

First, the gossip: I discovered yesterday that Stefan Lindman, a character introduced in Henning Mankell's Return of the Dancing Master who then reappears, having moved to Ystad, in the novel Before the Frost and in the Swedish TV series based on ideas (rather than books) by Mankell, is played with a certain smoldering intensity in the TV series by Ola Rapace (in the center of the movie poster reproduced here)--who happens to be the husband of Noomi Rapace (a publicity photo of this power couple of Swedish crime appears below). Ola Rapace's birth name was Pär Ola Norell, and I'm curious whether the non-Swedish-sounding name "Rapace" was a choice that both of them made when they were married, or if it's simply a name one or both of them was "assigned" by a publicist--anyone know? On to the movie: Wallander: Blodsband (inexplicably called The Black King in the English title) ran on the MhZ network last weekend. It's one of the better in the Wallander TV series starring Krister Henriksson as detective Kurt Wallander and the late Johanna Sällström as Linda, his daughter. We see the murder of a woman on a boat, then follow an investigation that leads to a communal farm and to an old flame of Linda's. A further death suggests a serial murder is in progress and also suggests a link to an escaped criminal and an armored-car robbery. Kurt is more stable (lonely but not angst-ridden) in his personal life and more strict in his conduct of the investigation, but Linda shows some of her past difficulties with depression as well as some lapses in professional conduct. The plot is conventional enough, but the series characters continue to be interesting (we learn a bit more about Nyberg, the "CSI" of the team) as well as the commune's inhabitants, and the scenery here is of the bleak-Swedish-winter variety (not a tourist postcard).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Athens noir and Greek politics

Petros Markaris's newly translated Che Committed Suicide covers some of the same territory as recent Irish crime fiction: what happens to revolutionaries when the revolution is over (whether they won or lost). Markaris's likable Inspector Haritas was shot at the end of the previous novel, and is on sick leave for most of this one (and he and his wife are getting on one another's nerves). The very public suicide of a former activist (and former prisoner in the Greek Junta's military prisons) on TV gets Haritas's interest, but the police aren't paying any attention until after two immigrant laborers are murdered and a second suicide of a former comrade in arms, also public. Ten days after the first suicide, a biography of the dead revolutionary appears--and a week after the second, another biography appears, from a different publisher but the same author. Are more suicides on the way? Haritos's replacement as head of homicide believes the claim of responsibility by a right wing, anti-immigration group, but Haritos can't see how the group would have forced the two public figures to kill themselves in such a public way. Most of the book, all told from the Inspector's point of view, shows him going back and forth among family members and business associates of the two suicides, while also talking the case over with his daughter and her fiance and an informant in the press and a former communist. He also drives his ancient Fiat around Athens a great deal, and there's a lot of detail about his routes--not the scenic Athens by any means (the city sounds hot, dirty, treeless, and crowded)--rather like George Pelecanos's tours of Washington DC's underside. It's a long book and it develops slowly, but the characters hold a reader's interest, and the plot is very unusual (how, indeed, is someone induced to commit suicide publicly?). The denoument is believable, sad, and political--if you've never seen the movie Z, see it now for its own merits and for the background it provides to Markaris's tale of ideals, ideals lost and betrayed, lingering faults in a society that has healed only on its surface after a turbulent repressive past, and families at their best and worst. Somewhere along the way, Arcadia Books' EuroCrime series changed the cover from the graphic that appears above to a night shot of the Acropolis with a noir street scene below it. I think the graphic is a better representation of the novel, but the contrast of the night streets and the bright Acropolis is also effective (reproduced at the top of the review, though it may be a bit hard to see in this small version). What do you think? Which would tempt you into picking up this very interesting book?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Varg Veum at the movies: Buried Dogs

The lastest Varg Veum film to run on U.S. tv (on the unconventional MhZ Network) made me curious about the novel from which it was taken, since the credits at the beginning state that it is "adapted freely" from the original by Gunnar Staalesen. None of the Veum movies shown so far corresponds with any of the books translated from Norwegian into English, though, so I will be left wondering about the relationships between the books and the films. Buried Dogs (I'm not sure what the title refers to) deals with Norwegian politics, and it seems to be the same nasty mess as politics elsewhere. A candidate for the head of a right-wing party comes to Veum saying that someone is threatening her and that the police won't do anything. Veum, seemingly because of the anti-immigrant stance of her party, refuses the case. But when there is a botched assassination attempt on her rival for head of the party (his wife is shot by mistake), Veum gets interested and works with her to unravel the original threat and the possible new threat. Her party is meanwhile playing hardball, trying to squeeze her out by manipulating sympathy for the candidate whose wife is in a coma after the shooting. The final resolution is more of a twist and counter-twist than is usual for the Veum stories (I think my wife figured it out, from the hints left hanging at the end--I'll supply her theory for anyone who wants to hear it), and there's a bit more back and forth between Veum and the police (sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile). A viewer has to pay a bit more attention to this one, as most of the plot is carried forward in the lengthy conversations among characters, somewhat difficult to follow in the subtitles unless one is paying close attention. Buried Dogs would perhaps be better seen in a movie theater, with fewer distractions and bigger subtitles, than on the TV in the living room--but beggars can't be choosers, and the broadcast of this series is a welcome opportunity for fans of international crime fiction and film. P.S.--the actor playing Varg, Trond Espen Seim, is scruffier even than in the earlier films, his hair limp, badly cut, long, and dirty. His scruffiness doesn't really fit my image of Veum from the books, though otherwise he is excellent in the role (tough but sympathetic). Does anyone else have an image of Veum different from what you can see in the film poster above?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

philosophical noir by Aifric Campbell

Irish-born Aifric Campbell based her novel The Semantics of Murder on the life and death of Berkeley logician-philosopher Richard Montague (re-named Robert Hamilton), seen through the lens of his younger brother Jay, a psychoanalist who has relocated his practice from California to England. The name that kept occurring to me while reading The Semantics of Murder, though, was Nabokov: the novel shares with that Russian-American writer (who after all also wrote several books that could be called crime novels) a distrust of psychoanalysis but substitutes a fascination with semantics for Nabokov's fascinations with chess and butterflies (the latter are mentioned in a way that suggests that Campbell is acknowledging her relation to Nabokov). The story has the strict structure of a one-act play, with frequent and lengthy asides: Jay is expecting a visit from Dana Flynn, a writer who is working on a new biography of Robert, and structurally the novel's present tense progresses through the various meetings over 2 days between Jay and Dana, but the possibility of a biography of his brother raises numerous opportunities for Jay to remember his past, reminiscenses told in the 3rd person in a complex, allusive language that reveals the truths of Jay's life only gradually, in layers. The reader moves from a disinterested acquaintance with the psychoanalyst toward a certain respect for him and into increasing levels of distaste, as the story moves from family history to murder to hatred and despair. The "mystery" of the murder is increasingly easy to guess, but the point is not the mystery but the significance of the event for Jay and everyone in his personal and professional life. Another element that is introduced well into the novel also relates to Nabokov and to the metafictional preoccupations of much of 20th century literary fiction: Jay is also a respected author, writing under a pseudonym that conceals the fact that he has been stealing his patient's lives for his fiction. the biggest surprise of the novel derives from that literary career (and I'll get to that in a minute, after a spoiler warning). The central irony of the novel is that Jay's life turns on a psychoanalytic truism regarding a mother's love and the consequences of the absence of love. The threads of the present, the past, psychoanalysis, science, linguistics, crime and criminals in California, and literature twine around the reader, trapping him or her in fascination that begins in a "cool," literary mode, moves through a "hot" crime fiction mode, and ends in a philosophical dream-state, before shifting once more in the Appendix, which reproduces Jay's final manuscript as a writer (and here's the spoiler alert). That appendix shifts everything that has gone before into a comic perspective, because we've been led to believe that Jay is a brilliant writer, even as we've watched his career as a brilliant psychoanalyst melt away: the climax of the novel as a whole comes with Dana's discovery of this manuscript on Jay's desk, revealing a coincidence, prediction, or even criminal conspiracy on Jay's part regarding a disturbed patient. But the manuscript, when we get to see it in the appendix, is terrible: it's badly written, poorly constructed, and without literary, psychoanalytic, or crime-fiction interest. So Jay and the narrator have misled us about one of the central aspects of his life, after all the other aspects have already been undermined in the novel itself as Jay's life is gradually opened up for inspection. The final manuscript is a slap in the reader's face, a shock. One of the most Nabokovian passages of the novel, in which Jay belittles Dana as a writer because she isn't "bewitched by language," isn't "enthralled by linguistic propagation," leading us to assume that Jay does fulfill those requirements as a writer: then when he exhibits no skill with language, not even much interest in language, in the appendix, the contrast between Robert and Jay, between two intellects, shifts into another mode entirely, that between a genius and a fool (and it's the fool's eyes that we have been looking through). It's a neat trick, and adds a final layer to a complex but accessible novel that combines the thriller and philosophy (another neat trick). The Semantics of Murder was slow reaching the U.S., but we can hope that her new book, The Loss Adjuster, which promises to be equally interesting, arrives here sooner.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

The Ghosts of Belfast is a profoundly sad, though sometimes also funny, novel by Stuart Neville, concerned with the past and future of Northern Ireland. The "ghosts" are mostly in Gerry Fegan's head, his "followers": the specters of the 12 people he killed in his role as an IRA hit man during the troubles. The ghosts silently point out to Fegan the people who ordered him to kill them, demanding retribution (silently, except for one word spoken by one of them--more on that in a minute). What might seem like a ghost story at first, and like a revenge story as Fegan starts to obey the followers (to make them leave him alone), becomes something else as Neville skilfully moves his story forward to deal with political reality (and cynicism) in the new Northern Ireland: the new economic possibilities, the lingering violence and sectarian hatred, the transformation of the war's foot soldiers into thieves and thugs, and the personal burdens of the war's survivors. In addition to Fegan, the characters include terrorists and politicians, a Scottish soldier who's been undercover too long, and a woman and her daughter who are caught between Fagen and his targets. Plus the ghosts, of course; we get used to them as manifestations of Fagen's psyche (though they have more personality than that characterization might suggest) but Neville catches us off guard toward the end, when Fagen's plan upsets the balance of the peace, and the wrath of the living puts the killer, his followers, and everyone he has touched into a violent cauldron and a hope for redemption (always without resort to cliche or sentimentalism or melodrama. The Ghosts of Belfast updates two of the most intense novels of the Troubles, Children of the North and The Psalm Killer as well as one of the best Irish stories of the occult, Yeats's play The Words Upon the Windowpane (which has a twist at the end that has a distant relation to Neville's ghost story). The Ghosts of Belfast is not an easy read; it's intense and rewarding, one of the best books of a very good crop of recent Irish crime fiction.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Winterland, by Alan Glynn

Winterland is a very good crime novel (a very good novel, come to that). It starts with a glimpse into the future of a character named Gina, who is caught up in something violent and beyond her control. The story then proceeds to a murder in a pub and to Gina's brother (don't get too attached to him, though he's a sympathetic character). Gina, who works for a failing software company in the midst of the economic downturn in formerly prosperous Ireland, is plunged into a violent subculture in Dublin and simultaneously into events that will shake up the government: if that sort of plot sounds familiar, Winterland in fact stands Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy on its head: Gina is no super-hacker, she's an ordinary grown woman driven by anger and grief to acts she would not have thought herself capable of, and into threatening situations she could not have imagined. Other threads of the plot include the machinations surrounding the construction (and leasing) of a huge new development in the Dublin docklands area that is moving forward in spite of the downturn (and in the face of certain other difficulties); the surviving son of a family that suffered a violent car crash 25 years earlier; and assorted businessmen, police, and others at the fringes of those stories. It's a big, complex book handled by Glynn with grace and with considerable tension and forward motion (warning: this book is a compulsive reading experience once the story gets cranked up--you may want to set aside some time because you won't want to put it down, particularly at some key points starting from about halfway through). Threads of the novel lead to several endings, with a few hanging on beyond the end of the physical book. The considerable violence is handled skillfully and believably, with all characters on the spectrum from innocent to guilty portrayed with nuance and sympathy. Even the most evil character is saved from caricature by Glynn's sympathetic portrait and by the complex nature of the secrets finally revealed about him and about what's been going on. I'm moving on to another new and highly recommended Irish novel (Northern Irish, really), The Ghosts of Belfast (know in the U.K. as The Twelve), but it will have some difficulty outperforming Winterland.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Old/New Commissario Brunetti

I've been reading Donna Leon's A Sea of Troubles, which was published in 2001 in England but has not, as far as I can tell, been available in the U.S. until a new Penguin edition appeared this year. But while reading, I kept thinking I'd read it before, or perhaps heard it as an audiobook. Then I realized that I had had the peculiar experience of seeing it, in an episode of the German TV series, Commissario Brunetti, with the title Das Gesetz der Lagune (meaning something like The Law of the Lagoon) that had been broadcast in the U.S. a few years ago by MhZ Networks. I found the episode on YouTube and watched it again, though without subtitles this time (and I don't speak German). It's a peculiar experience watching a story written in English and set in Italy now presented in German, with only the occasional Italian word interrupting the flow of German coming from the mouths of Brunetti, Signorina Elettra, Vianello, Patta, Brunetti's family, and the fisherman on Pellestrina in Venice's lagoon. Leon's novel includes an uncharacteristic aspect of the thriller, with the police, a villain, Elettra, and her boyfriend all battling a sudden storm in small boats in the lagoon, plus the sudden murder of one of Brunetti's men and an act of violence on Brunetti's part (plus for once some partial justice for the crimes committed). In the film, I suppose the filmmakers were unable to conjure up a sudden storm and so the drama is a bit more conventional--the thrust of a knife, a gunshot... But still set on Pellestrina and a nearby ruin of a fort. In both film and book, Elettra is more of a focus than usual, and Patta a bit less, but the frustrations of investigation are typical of Leon's novels, in this case primarily caused by the refusal of anyone in the fishing village to say anything to the police. Some of the characters in the novel are combined in the film, resulting in the witless Alvise going undercover as a waiter rather than the more resourceful Pucetti (though in both cases the ruse is fruitless). Leon's novel is a vivid portrait of Venice, Pellestrina, and the lagoon and the narrative shifts suddenly into overdrive in the storm--but as usual the plot is secondary to character and to the frustrations of Italian law and society. The film is quite effective in portraying Venice, with the resources of the moving image, and does a pretty good job with the characters--the actors mostly look enough like my mental image of them that there's no cognitive dissonance, once you accept or get used to or forget the language dissonance, for an English speaker or anyone who has been in Venice and heard the Italian or Veneziano spoken there. I'm pasting in a couple of images from the series, of Brunetti withh Vianello and Elettra and one of the Brunetti family (whose patio has been moved from the Polo area to the Grand Canal, apparently). If anyone has any reaction to their appearance, in relation to the mental image of the characters imprinted on the mind by Leon's prose, leave a comment so we can share.