Friday, February 22, 2013

Marek Krajewski, The Minotaur's Head

Since 2008, Marek Krajewski's crime novels featuring detective Eberhard Mock in the (then) German city of Breslau have been appearing in English, courtesy first of McLehose Press and more recently Melville International Crime, in the order of their original publication in Polish. Now we have a fourth Eberhard Mock novel, but it looks like they've skipped four of the Polish originals to bring out the 8th novel in English, not the 4th through 7th. It's wonderful to have Mock back again, but I have to wonder about those missing books, especially since the first three were in a very unusual pattern, each novel set earlier than the previous one,not sustainable, of course, unless we eventually ended up with Eberhard Mock, toddler-detective; but I wonder when the pattern was actually broken--since the new book is set after the first three. Mock is now integrated into the German Army, but is sent back into police-work to assist in the pursuit of a serial killer who has struck Breslau after two earlier killings in Lwow.

At first unwillingly, and then fully engaged in the task, Mock is instructed to work with Polish detective named Popielski, a wonderful creation who seems at first totally opposite to Mock, but who actually has some common ground with him. The serial killer seems to be selecting only young virgins to mutilate and murder, and Popielski is in mortal fear that his own daughter will be the next victim.

The situation seems like a normal crime-novel plot, but as anyone who has read any of Marewski's books will know, these are not normal crime novels. Krajewski explores the lower depths of prewar Germany and Poland beetween the wars through not only the crimes but also the character of the thoroughly debased Mock himself. With the more-or-less straitlaced Popielski as a foil, The Minotaur's Head is at first somewhat less decadent than the first three books, but Popielski has some secrets that are gradually reveales, not to mention the gradual revelation of what is actually going on in the murders. By the time we reach the end, we have twisted downn into the murk along with the characters, who achieve a form of justice almost in spite of themselves.

And Popielski seems ripe for appearance, in a somewhat changed role, in future novels (I won't provide any spoilers). The Mock series is very dark and sometimes very funny (also in a dark way). Human appetites of all sorts are explored in the stories, in a style that is both jagged and literary, often with aspects of the author's classical scholarship in evidence (but in a playful way). The arrival of a new Krajewski novel in the landscape of English-language crime fiction is like a lurid spark that illuminates another way of doing and thinking about crime fiction, an illicit pleasure that the author graciously shares with the reader.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Lars Kepler's The Nightmare

The Nightmare, the sequel to a prominent Swedish crime of recent years, The Hypnotist, by a husband and wife writing team known as Lars Kepler, has the bones of a good book, undermined, especially in the first half, by some obvious flaws. Joona Linna, a Finno-Swedish super-detective, is alternately held in awe by other cops and squeezed out of investigations by the police hierarchy and the security police (in typical crime-fiction fashion). The awe he inspires in other cops is naively presented, and the obstructions placed in his way are a bit cliched. But these problems fade away in the second half, particularly with the development of a new character, Saga Bauer (whose name unfortunately coincides with the wonderful female character in the Danish-Swedish TV series, The Bridge, as well as a recurring description of her as rather elfin--fortunately she's simply a bit under-confident rather than autistic-ish, like the TV Saga).

Joona Linna (who's almost always described by his full name) is not, in his own mind, quite the superman that other people think he is. He's even a bit insecure, at times, despite the intuition that is his strongest investigative tool. The authors give him a flaw (a recurring severe migraine that he under-treats because the medicine fogs his mind), and he has a murky and evidently tragic past that only slowly comes to light for the reader. Joona's amazing investigative abilities are something like those of Jo Nesbø's detective Harry Hole, but Joona is a bit less self-destructive; both characters can be a bit irritating in their super-abilities, but neither is ultimately totally unbelievable, and Joona is if anything a bit less superhuman than Harry. There is, however, one action by Joona in the climax that is hardly believable (but then some of Harry's exploits beggar belief, too).

A number of the other characters, on the other hand, are cliches; the security police and SWAT team are drawn as bloodthirsty cardboard cutouts of their roles, especially early in the book. Some of the victims and a number of characters who are mostly bystanders do have individual personalities, and the settings are vividly drawn.

The writing is direct and effective, though there are stylistic quirks that are a bit distracting, particularly in the time-framing of overlapping episodes, such as a chapter early on that repeats almost exactly the chapter that went before, with a slightly different focus and time. There is also a chase sequence that goes on for a very, very long time. And as the plot gets more and more complicated, there begin to be some rather gothic and graphically cruel elements to the story, not everyone's taste I expect.

The plotting is the real strength of the book, along with the scene-setting. There are, however, some flashbacks that are intended to illuminate some of the character's biography and motivation, but some of these simply impede the story and pad out the page-count and may induce a bit of skimming on the reader's part.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Perfect Hatred, Leighton Gage

Leighton Gage's new Mario Silva novel, Perfect Hatred, is the second book that I've recently read that's partly set in the wild Tri-Border Area, where Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay meet. The first was Sebastian Rotella's Triple Crossing, which drops a U.S. Border agent, undercover with a Mexican drug gang, into the lawless area. Gage's novel probes more deeply into the political and social realities of the area, as well as the impact of the lawlessness on the surrounding countries.

Perfect Hatred brings together three crimes: a terrorist bombing, the assassination of a regional politician, and a corrupt Brazilian's plot to assassinate the prosecutor who is about to put him in jail as well as Silva himself. A reader might expect the three plots to come together in the end, but Gage subverts the usual plot devices, while keeping all three plots moving rapidly forward.

Silva's team of federal police agents is split by his boss, half following the terrorist plot and half the political assassination. A young Muslim has kidnapped a baby, after murdering its mother, and planted a bomb in the baby's carriage, which explodes outside the U.S. consulate in São Paulo. In Curitiba, a candidate for governor of the state is shot in the head, along with a former associate of Silva's team, who has shot and killed the assassin.

One interesting development in this book is that the individuals on Silva's team have become so strongly characterized that Silva himself, though at the center of everything, does not dominate the story. Instead, the lead role is split among the team members, each an independent element in the collaborative whole. The result is a re-examination of the police procedural format, within the rapidly forward-moving story. Perfect Hatred is about justice and revenge, and the intertwining stories reach resolution in indirect ways, sometimes through inaction rather than action, or through outside actors being drawn into the plot. But Silva's team remains at the center, holding their own against a vividly drawn cast of other characters who range from outright villains through zealots, idealists, and innocent bystanders.

This is the sixth of Gage's Silva novels, each of which takes a different approach to the crime story and to the portrait of Brazil that he is progressively compiling. The books not only don't repeat themselves, they are also getting better and better as the series progresses.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Arne Dahl: Books and Films

When it came out in English, Arne Dahl's Misterioso was obviously (to me) one of the best crime novels to have arrived from Scandinavia. So I was thrilled to learn that a Swedish TV-film based on that and the 4 subsequent "Intercrime" novels were available with English subtitles. The movie-version of Misterioso was very good, and faithful to the plot, characters, and spirit of the book. Subsequent films were equally good, but the second in the series, Bad Blood (Ont Blod in the original Swedish) dipped into the lurid serial killer segment of the crime fiction spectrum--not my favorite fictional neighborhood. I'm glad I saw the film, because in addition ot the clever cruelty, the characters in the ensemble cast were developed further, plus there's some interesting international politics and intrigue.

But now there's a dilemma. Bad Blood, the novel, is about to be released in English. Would the skill of the writer overcome the distaste I have for the lurid subject matter? Does the movie version in any way stand in for the book, or substitute for it? Usually the experience of reading is enough different from the experience of watching that I don't mind revisiting the book after the film or vice versa. Any thoughts on watching the same plot you've already read, or reading the same story you've already watched?

I think I'm coming down on the side of skipping the on-paper version of Bad Blood--not only because of the serial killer plot, but also because of the height of my current TBR stack. If anybody's interested, I can post reviews of the series (I'm halfway through the 4th installament--each book becomes 2 90-minute episodes). I also just learned that "Arne Dahl," both the name of the author and the title of the TV series, is a pseudonym for the writer Jan Arnald.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Irish noir: Declan Burke's Slaughter's Hound

Lately I've been reading books by authors who write novels in pairs or trilogies rather than open-ended series, which seems a relatively recent phenomenon in the crime fiction world. In several cases, the switch from one series or trilogy to another is also a shift in style or genre. For just one example, Carlo Lucarelli's DeLuca series (historical police procedurals) is quite different from his Grazia Negro books (serial killer stories), and different still from his Coliandro stories (which are comic, parodies of the police procedural). All of these series seem to be closed, without further installments (though there is one Grazia Negro book that hasn't been translated, Lupo Mannaro or Werewolf).

Declan Burke has just published Slaughter's Hound, the sequel (and seemingly final installment) to his first book, Eightball Boogie. These two books, featuring not-exactly detective Harry Rigby, are hard-boiled noir, in the tradition of Chandler and Ross MacDonald, but with a contemporary relentlessness and literary references that might remind a reader of a more recent noir writer, Ken Bruen. Burke's other pair of novels, The Big O and Crime Always Pays, are lighter, more in a comic or farcical but still noir tone, closer to Elmore Leonard than Jim Thompson. Neither series resembles Burke's brilliant stand-alone metafiction, Absolute Zero Cool.

Burke's literary references are not intrusive or artificial, but integral to his first-person narrator's character and to the story, and range from Joyce, Beckett, and Yeats to Bukowsky and William Gaddis (who is particularly relevant to one aspect of the overall story, dealing with forgery). One reference is closely related to the dark violence of the story, an image and an act that suggest two grotesque passages in Bataille's Story of the Eye and Kosinski's Painted Bird, though neither writer is mentioned. Neither the literary asides nor the overarching paen to an obscure Irish rock band, Rollerskate Skinny (who I confess I thought Burke had made up until I did a web search) slow down the inexorable downward spiral of Harry's life.

Harry is recently released from incarceration in a mental facility, to which he was confined after killing his brother at the end of Eightball Boogie. A roommate there is the son of a wealthy family right out of Ross MacDonald or even Chinatown, and part of the pleasure of the novel is Rigby's narrative exploration of the intricacies of this spectacularly dysfunctional family. The current Irish financial collapse is also a factor, as it plays out on the bars, alleys, and docks of Sligo, on Ireland's northwest.

Rigby's is an entertaining voice to spend time with, which relieves some of the pain in his story, though in the final section, the pain takes precedence, though there is an almost joyful resignation that echoes the passages repeatedly drawn from Rollerskate Skinny's repertoire. It's a dark journey, but rewarding for an intrepid reader.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Ratlines, by Stuart Neville

Stuart Neville's new novel is something of a departure: his previous novels deal with the violent aftermath of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland, after the peace accord. Beginning with The Ghosts of Belfast, these were some of the most accomplished crime novels of the current Irish wave of crime writing. Ratlines goes back in time, to the aftermath of another war, World War II.

Albert Ryan is a Protestant Irishman who fought for the British during the war. Now an odd man out (both as an ex-soldier in civilian society and as both a Protestant and someone who didn't follow the orthodoxy of Irish neutrality. One aspect of that neutrality has come back to haunt him, along with those he killed (an overlap with The Ghosts of Belfast, though not emphasized here in the same way as that earlier novel).

Like most readers, I was not aware of the Irish government's policy of giving sanctuary to Nazis and Nazi collaborators after the end of the war. On the eve of John Kennedy's presidential visit to Ireland, someone is raising the profile of these unsavory characters by systematically murdering them. Charles Haughey, justice minister and future prime minister, enlists Ryan to find the murderers and to report not only to the government but to the most high-profile of the Nazi "guests," a famous strategist in the war. The title refers to lines of communication and transportation set up to rescue war criminals from the victorious allies, in the aftermath of war and even later.

So far, it sounds like a fairly conventional thriller. But the alliances and betrayals, the sharp characterizations, and the uncertain morality of all concerned keep the story leaning over the edge of conventional storytelling into an edgier and more interesting territory. Ryan is particularly interesting: he's not a leading man (in terms of looks and savoir-faire), a genius, or a martial-arts star (though there's a sort of parody of the James Bond sort of martial expertise, in a fencing match). He's a "good soldier" with little to gain or lose in this investigation that's been forced on him. He can only negotiate as best he can the dangerous and violent situation he's been thrust into.

The whole post-war-Nazi thing has been much mined by crime and thriller writers, but Neville uses it in a novel way, to reveal something about Irish history as well as the characters in the story. Though historical fiction (even recent history) is not my usual cup of tea, Ratlines is an excellentn read that held my interest completely.