Thursday, February 23, 2012

A three-fer, from Italy and South Africa

It's not usually a good idea (for me) to be reading three novels at once, but in the case of my past week's reading, it has been interesting to see similarities in Ben Pastor's Liar Moon, James McClure's The Sunday Hangman, and Valerio Varesi's The Dark Valley (translated by Joseph Farrell from the Italian original, Le Ombre di Montelupo). Not that the three books are much alike in plot, characterization, or the crimes portrayed.

What they share is that they all progress by means of dialogue. In the cases of Varesi and Pastor, the effect is rather melancholy, but in McClure's book it is oddly comic. Varesi's book even gives the reader a dramatic climax in terms of second-hand conversation (it's an interesting effect), and most of the rest of the book is converstations among Commissario Soneri, a captain and a Maresciallo of the Carabinieri, and various inhabitants of a small town in the mountains near Parma. Varesi's first novel to be translated, River of Shadows, shares a similar approach, and each novel is embedded in a group aging men and in the politics of the conflict between partisans and fascists at the end of World War II (portrayed more subtly and to better effect than the war reminiscences of Marco Vichi's Inspector Bordelli, though, in my opinion). The only women in The Dark Valley are Soneri's girlfriend Angela (who's rather more sympathetic a character here than in the first book) and a woman who, with her husband, runs the small inn where Soneri has taken refuge from the city. The result is a rather one-sided buzz of conversation and gossip that is nevertheless interesting for its gender limitation. The solitary walk in the woods of the book's cover is a true portrait of the book in one way, but gives an ideal rather than an actual sense of what the book is about and how it progresses.

Soneri falls into the crimes associated with the failure of a mountain town's main source of jobs and income, a salame factory where in fact Soneri's father was once employed as a bookkeeper. Soneri's memories of his father become entwined (as well as reconsidered) with what is going on as the whole town faces collapse. The denouement is very interesting in the way it is revealed, through conversation that holds the horrifying nature of the central crime somewhat at arm's length and therefore more bearable.

McClure's Sunday Hangman (the most recent of his novels being brought back into print by SoHo Crime) portrays a closed world as well, but one that is so jarring that it's almost like reading science fiction. The racism and cultural violence of the apartheid era in South Africa is assumed, given to the reader in all its nastiness with no respite or commentary. McClure's contemporaries understood the satirical and critical import of his style of writing very well, though readers today may have some difficulty getting past the race-hatred (and fear) embodied in the characters' language and behavior. The style of writing is also a bit indirect, relying on dialogue and a narrative that reads almost like dialogue, with much unspoken and hinted at rather than given directly. But the rewards of persisting with McClure's Tromp and Zondie books (the former being an Afrikaan's lieutenant and the latter a Zulu sergeant in the South African Police) are considerable not to mention the historical value of getting such a direct portrait of life in that era. And not to mention the considerable humor, not least in the relationship of the two main characters, constantly struggling across cultural and racial barriers internalized by them both.

In Hangman, the plot is also very oblique and odd. A criminal on the run after a bank robbery in which Zondi was shot in the leg (and is still suffering from the wound) seems to have hanged himself along the road. But the medical examiner and Tromp think it was murder. The investigation winds around and around until it reaches a bizarre (but in the context o McClure's story, entirely believable) conclusion.

Ben Pastor, who is an Italian woman writing in English about a German World War II officer called upon to investigate crimes as well as to conduct his part in the war. Much of the conversation in this second "Martin Bora" novel is between the now-Major Bora and an Italian policeman, Guidi, pulled together to investigate the murder of a local plutocrat in Verona in late 1943. Bora seems at times like the German officer played by Erich von Stroheim in Jean Renoir's wonderful Grand Illusion: as the film progresses, von Stroheim has lost more and more body parts, until he's practically a cyborg. Bora has, just before the novel begins, been the victim of a partisan bomb and has lost a hand and almost lost a leg.

The quality of the dialogue in the book forces us to see Bora as a person, rather than a Nazi stereotype, in spite of his stiff German attitude and the willingness with which he seems to support atrocities perpetrated by his army. As the novel progresses we learn a bit more about his role in the atrocities that may (as the series progresses) change how we see Bora (there was little hint of any mitigation in the first Bora novel, Lumen. Bora is somehow both unlikable and sympathetic, and it will be interesting to see how he develops as a character through what is characterized as an ongoing series. Liar Moon, considered on its own, is a very interesting and unconventional portrait of a complex era of italian history (now that Bora has been sent to northern Italy after the Polish setting of Lumen), and the conclusion, reached after much digression in action and conversation, includes an interesting double-reverse and depends on the correct interpretation of the book's title, whose basis in folklore is finally explained.

I would have said that reading three novels based on indirect conversations rather than narration and action would have been frustrating and confusing--but Pastor, Varesi, and McClure are in their very different ways very good writers, and their tales are rewarding whether considered together or separately.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Puerto Vallarta noir: Lisa Brackmann's Getaway

Getaway, the second thriller from Lisa Brackmann, is the kind of book that Eric Ambler used to do so well, an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary events and forces way beyond his job description. Except that instead of spies and international intrigue, Michelle Mason is caught up in something she isn't able to figure out at all. Is it police corruption, drug gangs, the CIA, or something even stranger?

Michelle's husband killed himself, after revealing that he has been keeping secret from her the impending financial disaster that is about to engulf her life. She escapes her woes with a brief trip from Los Angeles, where she's now homeless, to Puerto Vallarta on Mexico's west coast for a last getaway before the reality of her new life sets in. A chance encounter with an attractive man and several margaritas on the beach leads to her hotel room, unwelcome night visitors, and ultimately to jail and the loss of her passport.

The mysterious Daniel (from the beach) disappears and an even more mysterious Gary appears, saving her from jail but proposing a devil's bargain: he'll help her, even pay off her overextended credit cards, if she contacts Daniel and keeps tabs on him. He won't say who he is, who Daniel is, or what's going on. What ensues is a puzzling series of encounters (violent and not) as Michelle spirals down into murky waters, including glimpses into horrific violence and horrible poverty, as well as the life of rich and not-so-rich locals and emigre Americans who are more or less permanent Puerto Vallarta residents.

Getaway is a faster ride than Brackmann's previous Rock Paper Tiger, with clearer threats and more violence, but it has some of the earlier books twisty indirection. Michelle is likable and pleasant for a reader to spend some time with, but she keeps stepping in it rather than getting her problems sorted out. To give her her due, she shows her nerve when it's called for and she has no way to know who to trust: the biggest threat in a very threatening atmosphere is her status as an isolated foreigner whose bubble of tourist-untouchability has been totally shattered.

Though the atmosphere and setting of Rock Paper Tiger were more exotic, and more up-to-date concerning art and technology, Getaway was for me a more convincing book, pulling me along with the story in a more compelling way, with more tangible threats and consequences coming down upon Michelle and other characters along the way. Not to give anything away, but the ending fulfills several strands of the book without totally wrapping up others. It almost suggests the ending of the Tony Scott film, veering off into a half-fairy tale, half metafictional other world: Getaway's ending is more believable than that of True Romance, but it's open-ended and contains elements of wish-fulfillment in the same sort of way.

Altogether, Getaway, due from Soho Press in May, is an interesting and entertaining update on the damsel-in-distress story (from the damsel's point of view) as well as the Ambler-esque spy thriller.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

South African crime satire

As far as I can tell, Zakes Mda's Black Diamond is only available in South Africa, published as it is by Penguin Books (South Africa). Mda is a widely published author, whose books are generally available throughout the English-speaking world, but perhaps other publishers have been unwilling to pick up this 2009 novel because it is a merciless satire of life in the "new South Africa," a phrase repeated over and over again in the book.

There have been previous satirical crime novels from South Africa, published outside of (and in previous years, ONLY outside South Africa), particularly James H. McClure's Tromp & Zondi novels from the 70s and 80s and Tom Sharpe's hilarious early '70s Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure (mentioned here previously). More on McClure in a later post, since his novels are finally being reprinted, by Soho Crime in the U.S.

Black Diamond, though, is a post-Apartheid satire, with more in common, perhaps, with the very funny South African political cartoonist Zapiro than with McClure or Sharpe. The title of the book refers to the rising (and risen) black middle class and oligarchs today, particularly in Johannesburg (where Black Diamond is set) and Cape Town. Don Mateza is a bodyguard and security consultant whose former-model wife expects him to achieve more, to become the Black Diamond that she sees in him. Just as he is about to be a possible candidate for CEO of VIP Protection Services, a magistrate, Kristin Uys, is threatened by a petty criminal whom she has sentenced to jail time for contempt of court. The criminal, Stevo Visagie, gets his brother and mother and former nanny to agitate for his release, including threats to Kristin and even her cat.

There's a standard love triangle (and even a screwball comedy å la Hollywood in the '40s) there, and Mda doesn't hesitate to go there. But swirling around that part of the story is the very complex racial situation in South African society, exploited here to great advantage. Every aspect of the culture comes under Mda's scrutiny and ridicule, even the traditions of resistance (Stevo's nanny adopts the tactics of Mandela and the ANC, as she sees them, to get her boy out of jail in some of the more merciless comic passages. But Mda never dehumanizes his characters. While the characters of satire aren't typically the fully rounded characters we expect in the best crime fiction, Mda manages to convey the humanity of everyone involved in his cultural portrait.

There are some detours in the plot that suggest some of Tom Sharpe's more vicious comedy of Apartheid, but Mda keeps things moving along without getting bogged down in the more sensational (or embarrassing) elements, and the story ends up with everyone if not in their proper place, at least in a suitable position for a screwball noir of the new Republic. Mda's touch is here a bit less folkloric and sympathetic than in his wonderful Ways of Dying or The Heart of Redness, though neither of those uses the conventions of the crime novel (which Mda does for good effect in Black Diamond). I would say to publishers that on the one hand the rest of the world is familiar enough with the new South Africa to understand Black Diamond, and on the other hand, the book is itself a comic guidebook to that culture—more people should be able to read it.