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.