Sunday, March 19, 2017

Donna Leon: Earthly Remains

Donna Leon's new Guido Brunetti book follows the typical/atypical pattern of the series, developing slowly toward an ambiguous ending, with familiar and unfamiliar elements along the way. In Earthly Remains, as in some of the earlier books, we are immersed in an aspect of Venice not commonly available to the tourist: in this case woeing (Venetial style) among the outer islands of the laguna.

Brunetti falls into a trap he has created for himself and as a result finds himself taking an unexpected vacation, staying by himself in a villa some distance away from the city, a house belonging to one of his wife Paola's relatives. The caretaker finds out that the detective is interested in spending some time out on the lagoon rowing, and begins a series of excursions that tax Brunetti's muscles but not his ptience (and not the reader's, although there is more about rowing in this particular style than we would have thought we wanted to know). This is a side of Venice way beyond the calle and campi, instead among burds and reeds and especially bees (another major topic of the book, both in the process of the detective's vacation and in the working of the plot.

Of course, there are twists involving a death in the present and a violent incident in the past, as well as currption of a new sort for a series that has often explored corruption. In addition to the faxing natural glories of the region, we also see the industrial mainland, as well as the bureaucracy and the family life for which the series is renowned.

All of the Brunetti books have a dark, pessimistic core, but some are more bleak and some more hopeful. Earthly Remains earns its gloomy atmosphere with a complex portrayal of human nature along with its detailed exploration of nature itself at the edges of Venice's glorious and its dark corners. Leon's strength as a writer is to inveigle the reader with language that seems casual and unforced into following down the book's twisty and twisted path.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Karo Hämäläinen: Cruel is the Night

There is a locked-room mystery quality to Finnish author Karo Hämäläinen's first novel to be translated into English, Cruel is the Night, along with an homage to Agatha Christie, toward the end. But the best part of the novel is a black comedy told from the varied points of view of the 3 participants, two couples, Robert and Elise and Mikko and Veera, at a dinner party in the London high rise occupied by Robert and Elise.
The first two monologues, by boyhood friends Robert and Mikko, and pompous and self-absorbed, qualities that are immediately punctured by Veera's monologue, from outside their self-centered maleness. The Rashomon quality continues with an additional thread about the survivor of the reunion that has brought the couples together (we aren't supposed to know, presumably, who this survivor is, but the language hardly leaves any doubt). So we don't know who the survivor is, or how the presumed deaths of the other 3 occurred, but the mystery isn't really maintained as a driving force of the book, which remains a fairly static series of interrelated blackouts that reveal the interrelationships, obvious and not, of these 4.What draws the reader on is more the comic but emotionally loaded interplay, revealed not only through the dialogue at the party but also through flashbacks to their past, some of which deal with the death of Robert's girlfriend, in their youth (Mikko and Veera became a couple almost by default, as friends of Robert and the doomed girl).
So this is a novel about murder, but not a mystery really. Instead it's a very dark comedy, sometimes witty and sometimes wildly farcical. Forget the slim thread connecting the book to the mystery genre and enjoy the ride.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Repost: Heda Margolius Kovály's Innocence


-       Reposted from the late lamented site The Life Sentence, now offline

-        Down Prague's Mean Streets:  Heda Margolius Kovály, whose well-known memoir of the Holocaust, Under a Cruel Star, was first published in 1973, also published one crime novel in Czech, Innocence: or, Murder on Steep Street, in 1985. According to her son, who wrote the introduction to the new English translation, Kovály modeled her book on Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe stories, which were among the many books she had translated into Czech from English and German. But the Chandler connection is a bit misleading: Innocence is an intriguing reimagining of the crime genre in the context of Prague in the 1950s. Kovály does take from Chandler a focus on the real conditions of the lives of her contemporaries, but Kovály’s Prague in 1952, under Soviet totalitarianism, is a very different place than Chandler’s 1940s Los Angeles, under corrupt, bankrupt capitalism.

-        The style of Kovály’s book shares more with Czech literature of the 1970s: The philosophical meta-fictional prologue could have been spoken by one of Milan Kundera’s characters. But Innocence suggests most particularly a novel by Zdena Salivarová, Summer in Prague. Salivarová’s famous husband, Josef Škvorecký, also wrote detective stories, but his honest policeman is quite different from Chandler’s characters or, for that matter, Kovaly’s. Both Innocence and Summer in Prague have a lightness of touch in dealing with difficult material and both focus on young women whose lives are stifled by the overbearing state. Innocence does include elements of crime fiction absent in Summer in Prague: two murder investigations frame the novel, whereas the only death in Salivarová’s book is accidental (the result of social conditions rather than murder per se); but the real engine behind the misfortunes that befall the central characters in both is the unfeeling apparatus of the all-powerful state.

-        Kovály’s novel does begin with the kind of murder one finds in Chandler and American noir generally, but it’s a red herring: the child-murderer who would have been a serial killer in a conventional crime story serves as a counterpoint to the real serial killer, whom we discover only later. The murder at the beginning announces the book as crime fiction and introduces the characters around whom the action will take place: a police detective, Captain Nedoma, and an usher in the Horizon movie theater, Helena Nováková. The crimes with which the book is really concerned occur later, toward the middle of the book.

-        The focus of the narrative is split among several of the women working at the movie theater, plus a few policemen: in addition to Nedoma, Lieutenant Vendyš (who ultimately replaces Nedoma as the book’s primary investigator) and a satanic figure, Vojta Hrůza, from the secret police (according to the notes, his last name means “dread“ in Czech). The central character, though, is Helena Nováková, who had been working in a publishing house, until her husband (a planning official) was falsely arrested by a paranoid government, branding her, by association, as an enemy of the state. She feels fortunate to have been offered a menial job as an usher in the movie theater, but is mainly preoccupied with her jailed husband’s dilemma. The most important of the other women working at the Horizon are Marie Vránová, a young woman seemingly only interested in having a good time, and Mrs. Kouřimská, an older woman who is carrying the burden of more than one secret life.

-        Helena’s interior monologue, devoted to her despair and the solace she seeks in her hope for her husband’s release, is the only first-person voice we hear. In the depth of her despair, “The solitude separating Helena from other people was starting to distance her from inanimate things as well, stealing into her brain, where every thought floated unanchored into the void.” Her loneliness leads her into a tentative relationship with a stranger who primarily foreshadows the relationship that her despair will lead her into with Hrůza, who presents himself as a friend who may be able to help her husband. There are several other seductions: Marie has an affair with the married Nedoma and Mrs. Kouřimská, in addition to her private sexual proclivities, also has a relationship with Hrůza, providing the opportunity for his original introduction to Helena.

-        It is the two policeman-seducers who precipitate, in very different ways, the deaths at the center of the story, one of which, the “murder on Steep Street” of the book’s subtitle, Vendyš will investigate throughout the second half of the novel. The Lieutenant, though, is an ordinary cop who seems incapable of penetrating to the dark heart of the crime, as the narrator notes in an image that recapitulates the novel’s central setting in a theater: “Steep Street was like an empty auditorium after a performance, with Vendyš the late-coming spectator who could only guess what had taken place.“

-        The investigation leads not so much to the truth behind a murder (though a resolution of a sort is achieved) as to a revelation by a confessed killer about the underlying subject that provides book’s main title, innocence, especially in the context of life in a police state:

-        “No one can do a thing to stop people like Hrůza…They’re like earthquakes, or the plague. But they could never inflict so much misery if it weren’t for…the little helpers who try to convince you it doesn’t matter, there’s nothing wrong with a little snitching…They make evil seem like a natural, trivial thing…they blur the line between guilt and innocence, till eventually you accept it and murder just seems like an accident with nobody to blame.”

-        In the trivializing of evil lies the link between Kovály’s Holocaust memoir and Innocence, as well as the dark undertone that makes her crime novel so distinctive and powerful.

-        The book ends with a coda, a conversation between a shadowy fat man who had crept into the Horizon earlier, and an even fatter man, who together seem to be the actual spies whose actions had caused government’s paranoid suspicion, which in turn ruined Nováková and her husband. The two fat men untangle, from their particular point of view, the skein of guilt that runs through the book’s deaths and betrayals, and one of them refers to the possible justice in some afterlife: “I just hope it isn’t like here. Because if we got what we deserved for everything we did in our lives, they’d have to just cancel heaven, straight up.” That pessimism echoes the novel’s epigraph, from Hemingway: “All things truly wicked start from an innocence.”

3 by Pierre Lemaitre (from The Life Sentence site)

Continuing my reposts of my reviews from the late lamented website The Life Sentence (now offline), here's an overview of Pierre Lemaitre's first 3 twisty thrillers.

-        In his Commandant Verhoeven Trilogy, Pierre Lemaitre has set out to investigate the history and the possibilities of crime fiction, and noir in particular. In Irène (2014), the narrator offers an analysis of the career of James Ellroy that could serve as a description of noir writing in general: as his “style evolved, it became more savage, more visceral as Ellroy began to trade in inhumanity at its most elemental. The seediest districts of the city became a metaphor for a desperate, disillusioned humanity. Love took on the acrid taste of urban tragedy.” Yet Lemaitre refreshes these tropes of noir by turning them inside out. Irène takes crime fiction not only as the genre of the story but also the subject and the structural principle of the novel. In Alex (2014), the author twists and re-twists an abducted woman’s relationship to both the perpetrator and the police until the story reaches a final clarity. In Camille, all the principal characters are lying, to each other, to themselves, and even to the reader: Lemaitre is making clear the importance of prevarication (as well as unreliable narrators) in crime writing.

-        But in no way are these books a dry exercise in crime fiction writing or a farcical metafictional jest. Each of the novels, and all three as a group, are among the very best French crime novels to be translated into English so far (and there is some very strong competition). The first installment in the series, Irène, begins with the case of a battered woman but moves on very quickly to the principal plot, the case of a horrific murder and dismemberment of two women in an apartment on the periphery of Paris. As the gruesome details of the murders accumulate and Commandant Camille Verhoeven of the brigade criminelle pursues the few leads in the case, a reader with a heavy heart may come to the same conclusion as the Commandant, who early on in the story “feels immensely weary, because this whole thing is predictable, banal.” The violence against women, the murder of prostitutes, the pursuit of suspects among the pimps, property developers, and petit bourgeoisie seems all too typical of the genre, a run-of-the-mill serial killer story distinguished mostly by the Parisian setting and the quirky team of detectives. Verhoeven himself is a tiny man, whose growth was stunted by his artist mother’s tobacco habit, but the quirkiness of the detective and his colleagues is itself typical of the genre (think of Fred Vargas’s Adamsberg, another eccentric French detective of small stature). However, Lemaitre’s book is more than the simple depiction of the “universe of carnage, peopled by impulsive psychopaths, shady deals, and old scores settled,” as the detective himself announces. Lemaitre is less concerned with displaying all the sadistic, misogynist carnage and more interested in pursuing the essential nature of crime fiction and of the relationship of the storyteller to the reader, but a subtext of the whole trilogy is the dependence of crime fiction on violence against women.

-        After the double murder becomes linked to an earlier murder by the “rather American exoticism” of the crimes as well as a fingerprint match in both cases, another connection between the crimes comes gradually into focus: both crime scenes seem patterned on literary precedents, well-known novels by James Ellroy and Bret Easton Ellis. Thus the press dubs the killer “the Novelist.” From that point on, the brigade criminelle relies on information provided by sources such as one character’s “authoritative introduction to crime fiction,” and another’s survey of the novels published in Gallimard’s famous Série Noire.

-        After other crimes, present and past, prove to be based on Scottish, French, and Swedish crime classics, the narrative itself turns inside out: the team of detectives discovers that the killer has been keeping a journal of his murders, and Lemaitre refers to a detail of his own life that the killer gets wrong, a detail that makes us suddenly question who has been telling the story we’ve been reading up to that point. Lemaitre upends the book in a logical and devastating way, while ultimately remaining true to the pact between the author and the reader, not in the same way but in the same spirit perhaps as Agatha Christie’s notorious ending of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, when the narrator turned out to be spectacularly unreliable. The writer in both cases reminds us of the narrativity of the text — that we’re only seeing what the narrator wants us to see — while maintaining the credibility and the emotional truth of the story.

-        In Alex, which takes place four years after the events of Irène, Commandant Verhoeven is a wreck, devastated by the loss of his wife and unwilling to take on anything with living victims, accepting only, “Cases where the deaths are behind you, not in front. No kidnappings. Camille wants his dead well and truly dead, corpses with no comeback.” But the brutal kidnapping of a young woman (Alex), which opens the book, occurs when Verhoeven’s replacement as head of the brigade criminelle is out of town, and the diminutive Commandant is tricked by his boss and friend, Divisionnaire Le Guen, into taking the case temporarily, with the inevitable result that it becomes his case. For the first third of the novel, the narrative alternates between the frenzied pace of police procedure, in the effort to save the kidnapped woman, and the portrayal of the brutal conditions of her captivity. As in the beginning of the previous novel, we are on standard plot territory here, a woman severely confined and tortured by a thuggish man who repeatedly says, “I’m going to watch you die, you filthy whore.” But as her torment and the investigation proceed, both Alex, the victim, and Camille, the investigator, realize that there is a link between the kidnapper and his captive. Their pursuit of this link provokes disastrous action by the police, but also a prefiguring of the sudden shift in the middle portion of the book that turns the story on its head: a shift that overturns both the woman-as-victim narrative and the entire genre of the serial killer (all the while remaining full of terror and torture).

-        In the third section of Alex, Verhoeven is following her not in the present but in her past, seeking the roots of her actions and personality, in large part through a long series of interviews with her brother (perhaps a reference to the extended interrogation in Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Roseanna, also referred to in Irène). The awful truth that Camille discovers will explain all of the book’s twists, and lead to yet another twist in the story.

-        Camille, which has the most straightforward plot of the three novels, takes the Commandant back to the beginning of the trilogy: “His first wife was murdered, a tragedy from which he took years to recover. When you have faced such an ordeal, you assume that nothing more can happen to you. This is the trap.” Again, the ordeal happens not directly to him, but to the new woman in his life, Anne Forestier, who walks in on a jewelry store robbery and is beaten nearly to death. No one in the police knows about his new relationship, allowing Camille to step in as lead investigator, a lapse in personal and professional judgment that will leave his life in tatters.

-        The story of Camille is a three-day race against time, as the jewelry store robber seems determined to return to kill the witness and Camille pushes toward preventing him from doing so. The narrative focus is divided among an increasingly irrational Commandant, the surviving but terribly hurt Anne, and the man who attacked her (who gives us his story in his own voice). All three narratives explore the extreme violence that Anne suffers and its echoes in the story of Irène, and the lies that all of them are telling each other (as well as the truths they are all withholding from the reader) create overlapping dramatic ironies as well as contributing to the tension driving the story forward.

But even when we see the story from the points of view of Anne and her attacker, the overlapping of Camille’s past and present draws us back to Camille as the center of everything. There is a brutal honesty in the Commandant’s focus on himself: he feels responsible for Anne, but what he feels is not really sympathy but regret for what he has himself lost: “The woman who lies swollen and bandaged before him now has nothing of the magic, all that remains is the outer shell, and ugly, terribly prosaic body.” Even her own betrayal is ultimately less important to him than his loss of the “magic” of their affair. For all the violence against women in the trilogy (as in much crime fiction), it is Camille’s self-absorption that leads the narrative down into disaster and a final resolution. Having wrecked his career by lying to everyone in order to maintain control of the pursuit of the attacker, and having used the attacker’s own strategy to finally turn the tables on him, Camille reaches an abject state of loss that makes it possible for him to confront his own history, in particular the parts played by his mother and his wife. In Camille’s story there is a horrible assertion of male ego. This man of boy-like stature, having hidden his damaged lover in his mother’s studio in the forest (also the site of his wife’s murder) achieves a catharsis at the cost of several women’s misery. But that is a truth that the Commandant does not face. Lemaitre’s trilogy takes apart the structure of noir fiction and puts it back together in a new way but remains, like Camille (in his professional capacity), dependent on the genre’s reliance on violence against women. Lemaitre has continued to write about Commandant Verhoeven, extending the trilogy into a series. As new novels appear in English, it will be fascinating to see how far Lemaitre can extend his reimagining of the roman policier, as well as how he will develop his central character after the apotheosis at the end of the trilogy.