Friday, March 23, 2012

From Finland and South Africa: 2 new crime novels

These two books could hardly be more different, but provide a perhaps interesting contrast. Harry Nykänen's Nights o Awe (translated by Kristian London and published by Bitter Lemon) is a police procedural set in cold Helsinki, featuring Finland's only Jewish cop, Ariel Kafka, the first book in a series. Jassy Mackenzie's The Fallen (published by SoHo Crime), more of a thriller, is the fourth novel featuring Johannesburg investigator/bodyguard Jade de Jong, who for this novel is mostly in the hot coastal resort of St. Lucia.

Nights of Awe is a grim tale of murder and conspiracy, with many twists and not a little quirky humor, recognizable from Nykänen's sometimes comic novels featuring hitman Raid. For instance, Kafka' name more often reminds people he meets of a Helsinki pawnbroker of that name than of the famous Czech writer. Kafka is single, but still dealing with family, in the person of his brother who tries to draw the detective back into active participation in the Jewish community (Ariel doesn't deny his heritage, he's just not actively engaged). A murder case that starts with two bodies, possibly Arabs, are found on a bridge and the railway line beneath it. The police hierarchy is quick to evoke terrorism, and Kafka is drawn into a twisted tale of competing allegiances and conspiracies that proves more and more deadly.

There are lots of dead bodies in The Fallen, as well, as well as twists and turns and family complications, but Mackenzie's plot is a bit tighter and more tense, leaving little room for comedy. Jade has invited her sometime boyfriend, Detective Patel, to spend a weekend at a resort that offers Scuba diving, and she discovers as she awaits his arrival that the Scuba lessons she's been taking have uncovered an unanticipated fear of drowning on her part: and she's not used to failure. She's about to experience a bit more of that in her relationship with Patel, though, and amid the personal turmoil, a woman is found dead in the resort. A man lurking in the shadows turns into a direct threat to Jade and others as the plot draws out corrupt cop, environmental conspiracy, and dark sexual and commercial acts.

While Mackenzie's characters are fully believable for the most part, there are a couple of them that seem a bit out of synch: one is a primary villain whose profit-driven, large scale crime is lessened a bit in its impact by the character being a bit sketchy. The other is one of his minions whose sexual proclivities are a bit too completely filled in, in a way that seems tacked onto the main plot, mainly to entrap an innocent incidental character into a salacious horror scenario. Is there a quota on women chained to a bed in a locked room these days, a requirement for at least one in a book? Or a TV show: I noticed a couple of weeks ago that the otherwise excellent TV series Justified (taken from an Elmore Leonard story) puts a woman in that same position, solely (seemingly) to blacken the heart of a character who was already sinister enough.

That said, I enjoyed both Nights of Awe, which draws into its story a lot of cultural and historical framework, and The Fallen, which carries along with its story a rich sense of the history and contemporary reality of post-Apartheid South Africa. On the subject of sexism in fiction and film, a brief word about a feemale character drawn from Valerio Varesi's novels, as translated into film in the new Italian TV series, Nebbie e Delitti (Fog and Crimes). More about the series another time, but for now: Several bloggers and commenters have complained about Angela, the lover of Commissario Soneri in the first book, River of Shadows, because Angela is in that book drawn as hyper-sexual, repeatedly seducing Soneri into having sex in dangerous places. In the first film in the series, taken from the same book, Angela's relationship with Soneri is developed more slowly (she erupts suddently into the book), and she's more fully drawn and more sympathetic. More about the TV series after I've seen the second installment, which runs tonight on the quirky MhZ network in the U.S.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Cold Comfort, by Quentin Bates

The second in the Sergeant Gunnhildur series by Quentin Bates builds in intensity to the point that, about halfway through and a bit beyond that, it's the best crime-novel evocation of the financial crash in Iceland (and beyond) while simultaneously taking on the Sjöwall/Wahlöö mantle of empathetic social criticism in crime fiction. Alas, the story is so complicated that the energy has dissipated somewhat before the end of the book, and the somewhat anticlimactic climax reinforces that drop-off. Nonetheless, it is overall a very interesting book.

There are perhaps 4 threads to the book, the first being Gunnhildur herself: a flawed cop and mother, but not spectacularly or disastrously flawed, as is the case with a number of series characters. She is quite sympathetic, someone a reader might want to get to know, who is moving on with her life after the death of her husband and as her children grow up and out of the house. She's now working in a violent crimes unit in Reykjavik, where she is the da facto unit leader, in the absence of the official leader, and is thus at the mercy of some higher-ups (some of whom are actually effective police). She also returns to the small town of the first novel in the series, though, since she kept her house there, and both personal and professional events lead back there from time to time. The second thread is the death of a semi-celebrity, a fitness entrepreneur who has some other business going on on the side. She is beaten to death in her own apartment, and the investigation is the main thrust of the novel.

The other two threads are in some ways more interesting (as Barbara Fister has remarked at her excellent Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog). The most interesting is also the one that most suggests Sjöwall/Wahlöö, a man who has lost everything in the crash and blames a few individuals among the host of people (a number of whom feature in the novel in one way or another) who caused the misery but didn't experience the suffering themselves. This man is obviously on a collision course with those individuals and with the police. The final thread, though the one with which the book begins, deals with a nasty piece of work who inexplicably escapes from prison not long before he would have been paroled, and then goes on a violent spree, seemingly settling old scores with violent attacks.

The way these threads intertwine and resolve themselves shares something with the casual and unexpected plotting of Elmore Leonard, mostly to good effect. There's not a sudden epiphany that brings everything together, Gunna (as she is mostly called) plods ahead in her investigation and tries to take advantage of unexpected developments in each of the investigations. The course of the novel is very involving but so complicated that a reader's attention may flag after that middle point that I mentioned. Part of the confusion is unfamiliar and similar-looking Icelandic names, so that some of the men implicated in the crash and in the fitness guru's life are a bit hard to keep separate as Gunna bounces back and forth among them in her investigation (though I suppose with the boom in crime fiction set in Iceland, we should be getting used to Icelandic names by now)..

Overall, I think Frozen Assets, the first novel in the series, is a tighter and more coherent story, with an ending that is frustrating but not as anticlimactic. But Cold Comfort introduces some very interesting characters and develops the setting and stories of Gunna's environment in positive ways, leading me to look forward to the next Gunnhildur book with anticipation.

Friday, March 02, 2012

The Thief, by Fuminori Nakamura

The Thief (by Fuminori Nakamura, translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates and published by ShHo Crime) is a stripped-down philosophical crime novel, with prose that is sometimes reminiscent of Kobo Abe (more so than the book reminds me of recently translated Japanese crime fiction) or French fiction from Camus to the Nouveau Roman. There are several plotlines in the short book: the narrator-hero is a skillful pickpocket who's showing some signs of a breakdown (he's finding things in his pockets that he doesn't remember stealing); he approaches a mother and son who are shoplifting in a grocery to tell them that a store detective has spotted them, and becomes involved in their lives tangentially; and a crime boss approaches him with an offer he can't refuse, to participate in a series of thefts.

Along the way, the thief remembers key events in his life, all the while with a powerful metaphor hanging over his life (an oppressive tower). The first of these memories is of a master pickpocket who had trained him gets him involved in a caper that will put him in the power of the crime boss who will approach him again later. The second involves a love affair with a married woman whose memory haunts the thief.

As events careen out of the narrator's control, the tone of the novel remains calm, even distant. The reader learns a lot about the art of picking pockets, both in the narrator's interior monologue and in his advice to the young boy/shoplifter, to whom he becomes a sort of mentor (and whose mother also insinuates herself into his life). It's clear that the crime boss is luring him into something beyond his control, just as he is at a crisis point between of overcoming the sense threat represented by the tower and experiencing a sense of loss of control or memory in his activity as a pickpocket. All the threads (in plot and metaphor) come together in a tantalizing climax that hangs on (literally) a coin toss (not in exactly the way that sounds).

If the story sounds heavy, it's not. Its strangeness is in fact the everyday, matter-of-fact quality of the prose, in contrast to what would seem to be extremely stress-enducing events. The bleak plot line, emotional distance, and plain style are aspects that The Thief has very much in common with the classic noir, along with the cold and imposing urban setting. Some hard-boiled aspects of the book will probably seem strange, even comic, to readers like myself who aren't familiar with Japanese daily life (the narrator keeps buying cans of hot coffee from vending machines, for example). The drily philosophical tone and the noir atmosphere combine perfectly, providing a rapid and enjoyable "read" that is nonetheless cool and distant, provoking the reader to think about (as much as experience) the tale.