Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Noose, by Bill James

Bill James, author of the extensive series featuring detectives Harpur and Iles, is a master of misdirection, in both his language and his plotting. In Noose, a stand-alone novel or perhaps the start of another series, the misdirection starts with the title: though there is a hanging in the book, there are far more "nooses" that simply entrap the main character, Ian Charteris, in various personal, professional, and political commitments. The story takes place in 1950s London for the most part.

The misdirection continues with the opening pages, when Ian, a freelance journalist, is sent to cover the attempted suicide of a young actress who, as it turns out, may be his own half sister. But what seems to be the start of a newspaper-based crime story turns out to be something else, and in fact the book begins at the end of the story (or ends before it begins, perhaps). Most of the book is backstory, as we see Ian's difficult family life, dominated by an Iles-like egomaniac for a father and envlivened by two foundational episodes. The first is his father's primary claim to fame: when Ian is  young and his father is a deckhand on a river ferry, a young woman falls overboard and both Ian's father and the captain of another boat dive in to save her. The other incident is a wartime murder that occurs in an air-raid shelter; Ian is a witness and the conviction and execution of the admitted killer turns on his evidence.

We return to these episodes, and to the odd father, repeatedly as we also follow Ian's brief career in the air force, an attempt to recruit him into another, more secret, service, and his life as a journalist (as well as his family life once he's happily married--his wife is in fact an interesting character in her own right, one of several intriguing women in this book and in James's oeuvre as a whole). What seemed to be a crime story about a journalist becomes, along the way, a wry spy story (with frequent references to espionage novels not yet written at the time of the narrative). Wry is in fact an apt description of the whole book, especially the prose style (which you'll recognize if you've read any of the Harpur & Iles books). James (not his real name, I believe, and he writes under at least one other) is a kind of P.G Wodehouse of crime fiction (and he invokes that writer as well in these pages). The characters conceal more than they reveal in their conversations with one another--in fact their interactions might be more aptly described not as conversations but as dislocated speeches or salvoes launched past one another.

The text is frequently very funny, and the progression of the novel quite eccentric. What seems to be a slow-moving coming-of-age tale shifts into high gear along the way and as a reader nears the end it seems hardly credible that the story is going to be able to conclude in any coherent way in the pages remaining. James accomplishes a satisfying conclusion, though, in his own way and the book is ultimately satisfying. It's unlike any other spy novel, though perhaps closer to Mick Herron than John LeCarre.I received both this and the most recent Harpur & Iles book through, and I confess I bogged down in the detective story, which seemed to repeat the tropes of the series in high gear, but Noose was a pleasant, satisfying, and surprising read.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Noir in Kuala Lumpur, vol. 1

Fixi Novo, a new crime imprint in Malaysia, sent me a review copy of the first of four planned collections of KL Noir (the first volume is subtitled Red, with White to be the next volume). Red, indeed: this is a fairly bloody collection, though some of the darkness comes not from incarnated souls but disembodied ones.

The introduction by editor Amir Muhammad is very helpful in positioning the stories both in a Malaysian and an international noir context (and also helpfully refers to the supernatural elements in the stories to follow). The collection itself is diverse and of high quality. Some of the stories are quite short, others almost of novella length, but in every case the tale and the setting are vividly evoked. Several deal directly with the Islamic culture of the country, while many are more influenced by a more animistic religious tradition. All of them are heavily influenced, too, by global pop culture: even when the setting is more tribal than urban, there is a confluence of Malaysian and non-Malaysian pop music, culture, movies, etc.--and especially the collective culture of noir fiction and the specific history of Malaysian pulp writing. There is also a good bit of Malay slang, but the meaning is always pretty clear and the language adds to the distinctiveness of the stories and the collection.

Many of the stories give primacy to female characters, too, and a substantial number of the writers are women. The first story, by Adib Zaini, in fact describes the arc from girlhood to criminal of a young woman (daughter of an imam) who takes a job in an internet cafe to supplement her allowance. She is a student and a runner, and her voice is clear and vivid, from her normal life to her downfall and flight.

Eeleen Lee's story brings together traditional oracular divination, modern technology, Chinese gangs, and contemporary shopping in a grim but still entertaining nightmare. Kris Williamson offers a Malaysian spin on serial killers, police corruption, and in particular Jim Thompson. Dhivani Sivagurunathan's The Dualist, one of several stories that focus sympathetically (in one way or another)with homosexual characters, deals with obsession that reaches an ultimate point.  Megat Ishak gives us a nightmare vision that is enough to terrify the story's gangsters.

Other stories deal with sea monsters, revenge tragedies, and everyday crimes, all from the distinct perspective of the denizens of KL's dark corners. I hope to have a chance to see the sequels to this collection since the first is a tantalizing glimpse of a world not easily accessible to outsiders.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Monster of Florence, by Magdalen Nabb

Magdalen Nabb published The Monster of Florence in 1996 in the U.K., the 10th of her 14 books featuring Marshall Guarnaccia of the Palazzo Pitti station of the Carabinieri. But for some reason I have never been able to understand, it has never been published in the U.S. until now, with the new edition from Soho Crime.

The Monster is quite different, in one striking way, from the other Guarnaccia novels. While all of them deal with large topics of human life through the watery lens of Guarnaccia's eyes (he's allergic to bright light), in terms of ordinary families and ordinary crimes, Monster is a documentary novel, with barely obscured material from the case files of the actual Monster of Florence case (also the subject of a Douglas Preston best selling true crime book and a Roberto Benigni movie). But overall, Guarnaccia remains as his usual melancholy and laconic self, anchoring the book in the canon of Nabb's celebrated crime fiction and in the recognizable reality of the citizens and the tourists of Florence.

The case involves, on the one hand, a group of Sardinians and rural Tuscans suspected of the brutal murders of a series of couples parked in dark lanes, seeking some privacy at a time when that commodity could be difficult for young Italians to find. The case spans a number of years from the '60s well into the '80s, and while it was the subject of much investigation and many theories, no one was definitively convicted (though a number of suspects were detained and even brought to trial). In Nabb's telling of the tale, Guarnaccia is roped into a new investigation, some years after the last murder, in which a prosecutor seeks to shift the case away from the Sardinians previously suspected onto a subliterate child abuser, perhaps an unattractive patsy sacrificed to the prosecutor's ambition. The Marshall as usual is very humble regarding his own abilities, a situation that is for a while seemingly reinforced by the others involved in the investigation. But Guarnaccia and a few others begin to pull on a thread that may at least suggest who the real killer was, and what his motive might have been.

Alongside the Monster case, the novel includes a subplot concerned with the possible forgery of a painting left to a young architect by a father who had abandoned him, and the relief from the sometimes confusing documentary evidence concerning the primary case is gratefully appreciated by the reader. In fact, when the conclusion (if it can be called that) arrives, it is clearer to Guarnaccia than the reader. Nabb requires the reader to do some work, rather than feeding a solution as if predigested. One has to read between the lines, even mull over (or look back over in the text) the facts of the case. The suspect (the one proposed by the prosecutor and the one proposed by the Marshall) remains unnamed; the one in the prosecutor's case is frustratingly present in the novel (an annoying subject of long interrogations) while the one proposed by Guarnaccia is frustratingly absent.

The fogginess of the "answer" is singularly appropriate to this actual case, but once in the mind it's very persuasive (and it's the same solution proposed by Douglas Preston, in a very different narrative). The reader has to follow Nabb and Guarnaccia and reach the goal on his/her own. The solution of the secondary case is equally ambiguous but more expllcitly portrayed, and more typical of the series.

The Monster is powerful in its indirection and its presentation in a fictional context of the facts of a real and celebrated case. While it may not be to everyone's taste, not even to every Nabb fan's taste, it's both a very effective crime novel and something more than a crime novel. We should be grateful to Soho Crime for making it more accessible to American readers.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Minnesota noir by Vidar Sundstøl

The Land of Dreams is a Norwegian novel by Vidar Sundstøl, dealing with a crime in Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, the first of a "Minnesota Trilogy" by the author. This isn't the first time that a Scandinavian novelist has concentrated on America, emigration, and the U.S. Westward expansion: Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrant trilogy certainly deals with all of the above, from a Swedish perspective; and, to travel to even further shores, the Norwegian crime boom could be said to have kicked off with Jo Nesbø's first book, which puts his character Harry Hole in an Australian setting.

Sundstøl digs deeply into the culture of the area, juxtaposing Norwegian and Ojibway traditions in particular. There are considerable comic elements in his portrait of Norwegian-Americans, obsessed with their origins, embodied in the forest cop (who works for the U.S. Forest Service, mostly issuing tickets to non-Native-Americans trying to fish out of season), Lance Hansen. Lance's obsession with genealogy and local history irritates some of the locals (because he doesn't take their family stories at face value), and places him at the head of the author's near-parody of Minnesota Norwegians.

But Lance rises from comic to tragic figure when he faces a choice between family and duty, a track that begins with his discovery of two naked Norwegian travelers in the forest, both bloody, one dead and the other alive. For most of the novel, the surviving traveler is suspected of killing his friend (they're on a sort of bachelor's last chance canoeing trip before the deceased one was to have returned to Norway to be married). Lance isn't directly involved in the investigation, which is conducted by the FBI because the body was discovered on federal land, and we see the search for the killer mostly through the eyes of a Norwegian detective sent over to assist in the case (some of the puzzlement about Norwegian-Americans is also filtered through his point of view).

But in the process of mulling over the murder, Lance begins to investigate the hundred-year-old disappearance of a Native-American, a local legend that turns out to have some overlap with a legendary event in Lance's own family history. The confluence of the two stories will lead not only to the forest cop's ultimate dilemma, but also to a good deal of interesting discussion of Ojibway history and customs, and to some ghostly presences (if not outright ghosts) that appear from time to time.

The narrative is a bit repetitive, but not in an unreasonable way, since Lance is mulling over things as he twists his way into a knot. The reader is also pulled along by a sense that everything is going to come together in a difficult way for all concerned, as more is revealed about the Norwegians and their stay in the U.S. as well as the private revelations in Lance's own head. The small town setting is vividly evoked in all its positive as well as confining and comic aspects. This is not a sentimental portrait of Minnesota Americana, but neither is it a parody. And the dreams of the title are also a difficult milieu for all concerned (we are reminded that the Native American "dream catchers" so evident in tourist kitsch were actually intended to prevent nightmares from reaching the owner). I'm very interested to see how the rest of the trilogy will carry forward Lance's dilemma, and how Sundstøl will sustain the various juxtapositions and contraditions through two more novels.