Monday, January 30, 2012

Glasgow and Paris:Two dark tales

I haven't been posting much lately, since I've gone through several books recently that I found disappointing enough that I wasn't inspired to write anything about them. Then I got started reading two books simultaneously, which slowed me down a bit, and also provided a contrast that didn't necessarily do one of the books any favors. The two books were Denise Mina's new The End of the Wasp Season and Cara Black's Murder at the Lanterne Rouge, set in Glasgow and Paris respectively.

Both books are from a series, though Mina's is a new one (this is the second book in the series featuring DS Alex Morrow) and Black's is the most recent of the 12 Aimée Leduc series (Leduc is a security consultant who acts like a private detective). Mina's book surprises at every turn: when we think she's writing one kind of story, we discover that it's actually something else entirely. Black's book is a dependable entry in a good series, in this case continuing a theme begun in her last book, in which the story follows the unfortunate love life of the two strongest minor characters in the series, Morbier and René.

It's partly that contrast between the unpredictable and the dependable that made Black's novel less rewarding for me, when experienced in parallel with Mina's. Aimée once again explores for us a quartier of Paris that we, as tourists, wouldn't be able to experience, in this case several distinct Chinatowns, each, though, tied up in the same illegal-immigrant-and-snakehead problem. The villains are mostly offstage, and mostly just what you would expect them to be.
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Mina's book, though, follows a case concerning a young woman brutally murdered in the house of her recently deceased mother. We see the build-up to the murder and then the police investigation after the fact, but not the act itself. Then we follow several parallel threads, including Morrow's investigation, the life of a former friend of hers who gets caught up in the investigation, and a teenager who was involved in some way that seems clear, then not so clear. It's that narrative concerning the teenager that keeps surprising the reader. I was getting ready for a young-thug-from-a-slum narrative, and it's not that at all—the polar opposite in fact (yet not quite the spoiled rich brat either). Toward the end, we think we know what has happened, and then a coda twists us back to the beginning, to rethink the whole crime (I found myself rereading the first chapter with new eyes).

Mina's prose is clear, if her narrative style is somewhat indirect in a way that's usually interesting. Morrow is an unconventional detective in an unusually realistically drawn squad. She's pregnant with twins, so she'll be on maternity leave soon. The squad is caught up in a power struggle that isn't about rank (in fact, the culture of the squad enforces an interest in not gaining rank, only in protecting their current positions). Morrow's own social background is problematic, for a cop (not too different from that of the central characters in her other series, so her tale is not a total shift away from her own previous books). But she is livelier, more present in the story, somehow, than in the previous book, though she's offstage a lot of the time. And the story is full of nice images and parallels (such as the life cycle of wasps) that bring together the whole novel in a satisfying way that reinforces not only the telling of the story but its significance for the reader as well. Some books undermine the whole "genre" business separating crime fiction from "mainstream" or "literary" fiction, which I suppose Kate Atkinson does from one direction and Mina certainly does from another.

Mina's book is in one way a straightforward example of a series novel about a police detective, and in another way it's simply a novel about the damage that families do to one another, and how some people escape and others don't. Though if I saw that description (from an author I didn't know and with no mention of the books genre structure) I would almost certainly not have picked it up from the library (where I got the copy I read). It would have been my loss.

So I can recommend Murder at the Lanterne Rouge to Cara Black fans, even to newcomers to the series, without being able to say too much about it. And I can recommend End of the Wasp Season to anyone who's interested in the more advanced (in terms of both the writing and the story) end of crime fiction.

1 comment:

Caleb J. Ross said...

Interesting that you use the phrase "Mina's prose is clear, if her narrative style is somewhat indirect in a way that's usually interesting." I wonder, is this a qualification of noir fiction in general? I seem to come away from a lot of noir fiction with this thought. Though, there are a breed of noir writers who actually embrace the "velvety prose" angle by focusing on the beauty of the words. I tend to fall into the latter with my own grotesque noir style of writing, but I love it all.