Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Finno-German noir: Jan Costin Wagner's Light in a Dark House

The fourth of Jan Costin Wagner's German-language, Finland-set crime novels featuring detective Kimmo Joentaa was published in Anthea Bell's English translation this year. Wagner is married to a Finnish woman and spends part of the year there, and his familiarity with the country is obvious in the novels. Like its predecessors, Light in a Dark House is meditative rather than propulsive in terms of its pacing. There is a good deal of repetition of the major themes (Joentaa's deceased wife Sanna, a major aspect of the series, but some new ones here as well), in a more poetic than strictly narrative style. For me, the moody pace works, but it could be frustrating for some readers.

The new novel picks up a thread from the previous book, Joentaa's relationship with a prostitute who showed up at his house, refused to give her real name (calling herself Larissa), and disappears periodically. At the beginning of this book, after Joentaa has been assigned the case of a comatose woman's murder in the hospital in Turku, Larissa seemingly goes away for good. Joentaa, however, sends her e-mails letting her know where he has left his house key (and her habit of turning off the house lights when she arrives is the source of the novel's title). At a party at the beginning of the current novel, Larissa seems to recognize Joentaa's boss, calling him "August," which is not his name. The implication is clear, and her disappearance is related to this event.

There are two parallel threads of the story, coexisting with Joentaa's oscillations between three women (the unidentified hospital patient who was murdered, his wife, and Larissa): one is a diary that itself oscillates between an earlier, childhood era (especially concerned with the writer's attraction for a young woman who is for one summer his piano teacher) and the present (in which the writer looks back, with sinister overtones, on the events of that summer and the circumstances of the teacher's disappearance); and a separate investigation in Helsinki, in which two detectives are looking for a killer who threw a businessman off a roof (setting off a series of bold, daylight killings).

The Helsinki detectives and Joentaa from the Turku police are simultaneously led to a small town that is the locus of all the story's threads, and from the point where they all come together, the investigations begin to take off and the novel takes on more of the form of a police procedural (as Joentaa's determination to identify the dead hospital patient takes front stage, ahead of Larissa and Sanna).

The varied settings, disjointed narrative, and moody style work together very well here--perhaps even better than in the earlier novels, especially once the investigations get moving. A film was made of the first Joentaa novel, though the setting was shifted to Germany so that the Finnish setting was lost--and the series is not really "cinematic" in any case. Wagner's series depends on the author's voice and on Joentaa's interior monologue for its distinctive character. But if any further films were made, especially of Light in a Dark House, one might hope for a restoration of the eloquent Finnish landscape.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Chilled to the Bone, by Quentin Bates

The first two of Quentin Bates's crime novels featuring detective Gunnhildur Gisladottir (Gunna) were perched on the edge of and at the beginning of the financial crash that Iceland endured in recent years. The third, Chilled to the Bone, is in the midst of the suffering caused by the collapse--but not everyone is suffering equally. Gunna, now running a major crimes squad in Reykjavik, is a likable and normal character, with her own private worries and dramas--but she's neither an action heroine nor a damaged noir detective. She comes across to the reader as a real person.

At the beginning of the new book, Gunna arrives at a hotel to find the body of a middle-aged gentleman, tied to the bed naked and dead. From there, the story progresses on parallel tracks following the investigation and the private and professional lives of two new characters, one a very interesting new character, Hekla, a thief of a very particular sort who is supporting her disabled husband and her children in the best way she can in the current climate. Hekla is also a believable character, but with a colorful metier. The other main character is Baddo, recently released from a prison the the Baltics and deported back to his home in Iceland. Through his eyes and his contacts, we see a more conventional crowd of hoodlums and crooks, though Baddo himself remains at the fringes of the city's underworld, violent though he is in his own right.

To me, this is the best Gunnhildur book so far, with lots of ethical and literary ambiguity, a plot that moves rapidly along, and a cast of interesting characters. The streets and in particularly the hotels of Reykjavik are vividly presented in the story, and though Bates is not a native Icelander his familiarity with the island country is evident throughout. His series is not as dark as that of the star of Icelandic Crime, Arnaldur Indri∂ason, but Gunna is an effective anchor for grim but credible and definitely entertaining crime fiction.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Crime series (Camilleri and Persson)

I'm reading a galley (which I bought rather than receiving it from the publisher, full disclosure) of Leif GW Persson's Free Falling, As if in a Dream, the third volume in Persson's series dealing with the murder of Olaf Palme (and also part of a longer-running series featuring a duo of Stockholm cops, Jarnebring and Johannson). There's a phenomenon we don't see much in the U.S. but is common in Europe of turning crime series into TV series, and some of the series are so good that there's a temptation to think there's no "need" to read the book after seeing the show that it was based on.

Free Falling and its two predecessors were made into an excellent 4-part series in Sweden, under the name En pilgrims död, or The Death of a Pilgrim, starring Ralf Lassgård as Johansson. I recently read a Kindle-only translation of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano's First Case (a novella, really, that I think was published in the original Italian as part of a longer collection of Montalbano stories), from which derived another excellentn series, Il giovane Montalbano or The Young Montalbano. I almost didn't read Montalbano's First Case because the films were so good. But when I did read it, I was struck once again by the difference between reading a book and seeing its film version (though a TV series is sometimes more capable of bringing a book to the screen, through a series rather than a single 2-hour theatrical film).

What's lost in the Young Montalbano series isn't the story or the characters, it's Camillleri's voice. And the loss is subtle because Camilleri is not an intrusive narrator. He inhabits the characters but gives us most of the story in third-person narration rather than mostly in dialogue. In the TV series, we get the dialogue but not the narration, for which the excellent cast and filmmakers provide an equivalent in their acting skills. And particularly in the case of Camilleri, there is also a loss in the dialogue in the translated text (and a loss that is not felt int he filmed version): the Sicilian dialiect. The local language plays a big part in the stories, but it's impossible to render it in English (though Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa do a very good job in making a smooth translation).

The translation from text to film in Persson's case is somewhat different: his trilogy is massive, each volume long enough to support a separate series. To make the transition to the small screen, the filmmakers used the final book, Falling, as a framing device for the story as a whole. The story, which is very complicated, works very well on TV, having a dramatic drive that surpasses that of the books. However, what's lost is not so much Persson's voice (because he, too, is not an intrusive narrator) but the interior monologues of the characters, which are more revealing than their dialogue. Johannson, as the primary example, is egotistical and savagely critical of those around him (mostly in his mind rather than expressing these directly), to a very comic extent. The length of the series, in fact, is compensated for to a considerable extent by this comedy of dramatic irony: the reader has access to this aspect of the story, while the characters do not, for the most part. So in this case, for the plot, see the TV  series. The books tell the same story, but at great length. But for the flavor of the characters and the comedy of the whole miasma of relationships in the story, the books are indispensable.

What about other books-to-TV translations: do any of them supplant the books they're based on? Are there any in which each medium is so strongly presented that we absolutely have to both read the book and see the show?

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Dead Season, by Christobel Kent

The Dead Season is the third of Christobel Kent's four (so far) crime novels featuring private detective (and former cop) Sandro Cellini of Florence. The series has always been rather moody, with a sort of late-in-life melancholy about the main character, and the mood is used to good advantage in The Dead Season. Also much in evidence is the season: the heat of Florence in August has driven away all the residents who can afford to leave for the seaside or the mountains, and what's left is the tourists and people who can't leave (or haven't left yet).

This is a novel with multiple strands that develop slowly, and as the strands draw together, picks up speed considerably until a convergence that isn't quite what the reader has been expecting. Cellini's assistant, former junky Giulli, has brought in a client who probably can't pay: an 8-months pregnant immigrant, working as a maid in a down-at-heels hotel. Her fiancé and the father of her baby has disappeared. At the same time, a middle-aged, unmarried bank teller begins to worry about another immigrant who had been making weekly deposits at her small bank but hasn't showed up lately. The teller, Roxana Delfino, is also contending with her mother's seeming dementia and with her own lonely life as her mother's care-giver.

There are various links between these two strands, including the fact that the pregnant woman's fiancé has told her that he works in a bank and has given her a false name that corresponds to the real bank manager at Roxana's branch, a man who has left for the holiday. Other threads of the story are told from the point of view of Giuli, who is an investigator as much as s secretary by t his point in the series, and Sandro's wife Luisa, who is worried about Giuli (and also about the pregnant client, ultimately).

But the primary topic of the story (other than the summer heat) is real estate, an aggravated issue in a storied and expensive city like Florence. Everyone seems to have an issue with their dwelling or prospective dwelling, and everyone seems connected in some way with a particularly sleazy real estate agent. Kent is the successor to Magdalen Nabb in setting her stories among the real denizens of the city, across all classes and throughout the city's geography. And if the lives of these people (not least Cellini and those around him) can be a bit dour, the rising pace of The Dead Season (as in the first two novels in the series) keeps the tale lively.

There are several covers for this book, among the coutries of publication and the various hardcover, paperback, and digital incarnations. I've pasted in the two I like the best, though I think I prefer the "aerial" view of the street. The other, though suitable for the story, is a bit touristy...

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The last Mario Silva novel, by Leighton Gage

The crime fiction and crime blogging communities were dismayed recently to hear of the death of Leighton Gage, whose 7th novel featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police, The Ways of Evil Men, is to be published by SoHo Press early in 2014. The final novel in the series is a fitting climax to Gage's late-blooming crime writing career, focusing onece again on a pernicious social evil (more than one, actually) as well as the lives of the policemen and civilians involved in a crime and its consequences.

The story begins with the almost complete annihilation of an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian jungle: only a hunter and h is son, away from the village at the time of the genocide, survive. Jade, a young woman who is the local agent of the agency tasked with the protection of the indigenous peoples (FUNAI) attempts to bring the murders to the attention of the police but no one in the remote town or its provincial city is interested in the deaths of "some Indians." Through a personal connection, she enlists the help of the Federal Police, and Silva and his crew travel, reluctantly at first, to the town closest to the site of the killings.

Gage brings attention to several issues in his story: the survival of the tribal peoples (some still not contacted by civilization), rampant racism, and ecological devastation at the hands of loggers, ranchers, and gold miners in the Amazonian jungle; not to mention one of the persistent themes of the series, the corruption among the law enforcement agencies that should be engaged with these issues as well as with ordinary crime.

The novel is populated with a rich assortment of characters from Silva's team as well as the town, including rapacious ranchers and their hangers-on (a whisky priest, the mayor, and others), and a rich vein of the story comes from the sexual and violent relations among those characters. This book is one of Gage's most vivid in its dialogue, setting, and characterization (though all of the above can be pretty unpleasant at times, particularly in a graphic explanation of death by hanging in all its forms). The story also loops back in a hopeful but not resolved manner to the back story emphasized in the first Silva novel, dealing with the grief of the Inspector and his wife over the death of their young son (especially important in the very different ways in which they deal with their grief). In the larger, social story and in the more personal aspects of the tale, there is a glimmer of a hope that Gage has not always offered in his grim portraits of contemporary Brazil. And as always, Silva draws together the several strands of his tale (the slaughter of the tribe, the murder of a local citizen and the lynching that follows, the brutality of one character toward his wife, a blooming love affair for one of the cops) with a moral rather than a legal rigor. Silva is the conscience of the series, and the imagined conscience of a troubled country.

The Ways of Evil Men is a final gift from Leighton to his readers (both the novels and his on-line writing) and to those of us privileged to have met him in person. His voice, his portrayal of vital fictional characters and stories, his outrage at injustices in Brazil and beyond, and his lively participation in the on-line crime fiction community will remain as his testament.