Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Forthcoming: Tana French, The Witch Elm

Tana French's milieu is groups of young people, families, school groups, and the like. My favorite among her Dublic police novels is Faithful Place, which is focused on an adult cop, but a substantial part of the novel is flashback to his teen years. Similarly, her acclaimed first novel, In the Woods, centers around an incident in the main character's childhood, and her second novel (less succesful, to me,), The Likeness focuses on a group of college students, which the main character infiltrates. The series is about cops, but in The Secret Place one of the main characters is a cop's daughter, and the main setting is her school.

French's new, standalone novel, The Witch Elm includes both present-day interaction among a group of cousins in their 20s and the youth that they remember (or not, or misremember). There are still cops (the Guards, in Ireland), but they're not at center stage, most of the time. Instead, we're trapped in the mind and narrative voice is Toby Hennessey, who is violently attacked toward the beginning, and musst confront new challenges from within the limitations of the head injury that he suffers in the attack.

The result is a classic "unreliable narrator" story, and the chief contrast in the telling of the tale is between his interior monologue (remembered from a future point of view) and the conversations he has with his cousins, two different teams of detectives, and other family members and friends.The result can be frustrating, and the twists and turns of the plot are considerably delayed by the slow pace of this oblique storytelling.  I miss the sometimes funny, sometimes nasty family relationships of Faithful Place: The Witch Elm has more in common with The Likeness or The Secret Place, in that the reader is embedded in the interplay aong the young people in the novel, for better or worse. The result is classic Tana French, with a bit of metafiction added to the mix toward the end, turning the narrative back on the narrator's mental state.

The twists in the plot, when they arrive, seem satisfyingly inevitable in the way they transform the story, with an emotional charge that will be familiar to readers of French's series novels. But the cops in this story, as central to the telling of the tale as they eventually become, are not as fully drawn as those in the seires, and I miss that element in her work. The Witch Elm will certainly satisfy her fans, but I still think of Faithful Place as my favorite among her books, collowed by In the Woods.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Jake Needham's Don't Get Caught

Narration in a novel, maybe even more so in a thriller, isn't about moving the plot forward. Most plots are simple enough that a short story would be plenty of space; and most plots are so simple that keeping a reader's interest for even a few pages would be a challenge. The telling of a story is about delaying the tale more than telling it, drawing it out and postponing the conclusion, whether the outcome is a surprise or a standard resolution. Jake Needham's narrator in the Jack Shepherd novels, Mr. Shepherd himself, is a master of delay: his storytelling is a conversation with the reader, twining around the plot itself, retelling key points so we don't get lost even if we put the book down, and leading us forward inexorably toward what is to come. And, as I've observed before, Shepherd is good company all along the way.

In this fifth Jack Shepherd novel, the lawyer and financial crimes expert is still living in Hong Kong, but gets pulled back toward Bangkok (the two cities are the twin poles of the series). The evocation of both places is concrete and vivid, though frequently not coplimentary (crime fiction at its best takes us to new places, but without resorting to tourist brochure promotion). We see the Asian setting throughh the eyes of an outsider, a white man who, no matter how long he resides in these places and no matter how well he knows them, will never be an insider there. He provides an ideal guide for those of us who don't know the cities at all, and I expect also for those who do know them

Shepherd is working on a high-stakes financial investigation, in which the Malaysian government and the Chinese Triads are involved. That scenario might seem dangerous enough, but a former acquantance from Thailand lures him into an even more risky one: rescuing a deposed prime minister whose life is threatened by the General who has taken over the country. Shephered is no super hero, and is reluctant to take on the new task, but he's a loyal friend, and the former prime minister (the first woman to hold the job) is indeed a friend, and almost, perhaps, except for intervening circumstances, a lover.

Once the final stages of the story kick into gear, events move rather quickly, some according to Shepherd's plan and some that twist out of control. The ending is at once a surprise and the logical outcome of the intersection of the events and the characters. Don't Get Caught is an essential contribution to the new Asian noir, and fortunately for readers, there's another new book by Jake Needham, the latest in his series featuring the dyspeptic Inspector Samuel Tay of Singapore (another interesting city for noir fiction, despite its reputation for being clean and calm).

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Two by Gunnar Staalesen

Amon the originators of nordic noir, Gunnar Staalesen has not fared as well as some others in being translated into English. His ground-breaking Varg Veum series includes 19 novels, published at regular intervals since the '70s in his native Norwegian, but only 9 have been translated for English-speaking readers, sometimes with gaps of 8 or 9 years between translations.

Varg Veum is distinctive in a number of ways, perhaps not least because he is, to my knowledge, the only fictional private detective whose background is social work. And the novels frequently involve threatened children (as do, directly or indirectly, the two most recently translated). Plus Veum is ageing, closely tracking real time. By the second of the two new books he's 61, and showing the physical strains and limitations of his age (including slower recovery from the beatings that private detectives in noir fiction seem prone to get).

In Wolves in the Dark, Veum has been struggling with the sudden death of his lover. He has mostly been a more or less upright citizen, though living at the margins of Norwegian culture in his home town of Bergen, but in Wolves, he. has plummeted down and out . He had indulged in acquavit to the extent of experiencing numerous total blackouts, and his detective work has suffered. Now, in the frame of the novel, he has begun his recovery, largely through the help of a new relationship, but he stands accused of a terrible crime and must revisit some cases he had taken on in his drunken days to look for who might have framed him. These cases, and his own flight from the police back and forth across Bergen, are a civic and cultural portrait as well as a very complex story (whose various threads are finally more or less drawn together by the end). His flight from the police adds a breathless quality to the narrative which is not typical for this series (though there are always passages of danger and threat in the books).

Big Sister is a quite different story. Now that he is back on his feet, Veum is surprised by his new client, a long-lost half-sister, whose existence he was aware of but whom he has never met. She wants him to find her missing god-daughter, a college-age woman who has vanished. Veum dives deeply into several cases of sexual and physical abuse as well as drugs, plus unexpected strands of his own family history, as the book moves slowly toward a final surprise that seems a bit cinematic. Along the way, he has to contend with a biker gang (bikers are a particular staple of Scandinavian crime fiction) and a host of reluctant witnesses.

Veum's voice as narrator of his own stories is unfailingly self-aware, and grounded in both ethical standards and genuine concern for children and young people. His unique voice is one of Staalesen's major conributions to Scandinavian noir.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Black Swan Rising, by Lisa Brackmann

It says right on the cover that a black swan is "A highly unlikely event that has massive impact, and which seems predictable in hindshght," and Lisa Brackmann's new Black Swan Rising illustrates the idea in detail. the novel is part political thriller and part cautionary tale (of the dystopian sort), part "ripped from the headlines" and part vision of the near future. There are two central characters: first, Sarah Price, who has assumed a new identity to escape on-line harassment in her past and is now working as an intern for a congressman from San Diego who is running for reelection. The second is Casey Chang, a TV reporter who was the victim of a mass shooting and is trying to reestablish her life and her career.

The novel alaternates betwee the two threats, shooters in real life and haters on-line. and sets out the real and fictional threats from both arenas vividly, not only in the threats against the two leading women, but also against the electoral system and the society as a whole. This is a thriller that hits much closer to home than the average book in the genre: what is happening is not only credible, but as the book's title suggests, inevitable in the current political and social toxicity. The on-line threats described are simply reflections of what is happening in the cybersphere every day, every minute. The active shooter threat is an extension of what we see every day (in schools and on the streets and specifically in the social movements brought out into the light by the encouragement of our current political leadership--and we shoudl remind ourselves that it's not a single person who has encouraged these hate groups now, it's a large segment of the right both in power and around the country.

But Brackmann's novel isn't only dark and foreboding, it's also human and humane. The characters take us along this difficult journey through their compelling personal engagement with what's going on. And the action of the novel doesn't indulge in the cliches of the genre: The twists and turns of the plot are uniquely Brackmann's.

Brackmann's previous two series, one set in the gaming and art worlds of China, the other a more straightforward pair of noir novels set in the drug trade of Mexico, the southern and western U.S.,  establish the writer's conversational narrative voice, which continues in Black Swan, but the new novel has more urgency and more contemporary impact, as if this is a novel that Brackmann had to write. I don't know of any other book that captures the actual social and cyber threats to democracy in the U.S. so effectively. We can hope for more, whether a sequel or a new angle on our times in future books.



Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sjöwall & Wahlöö, The Locked Room

I was a big fan of the Maj Sjowall/Per Wahlöö Martin Beck novels when they were first translated in the 1970s in the U.S., and at the time my favorite was The Locked Room, the 8th of the 10 books. I had reread all of them a few years ago, but recently had occasion to listen to the audio version of The Locked Room recently and was surprised how funny it is (at least when listened to)--sometimes int he ironic way that all the Martin Beck books are funny, but also in a broad comic way. This is one of the most tendentious books in the series, in terms of its indictment of the Swedish so-called "welfare state" of the time, with the narrator occasionally veering into invective against the injustice and neglect that elsehwere is effectively potrahed in the crimes, victims, and even criminals (sometimes) in the series.

The set-up is straightforward: A woman proceeds toward a bank in Stockholm, robs it, and kills a bystander almost by accident. The reader will not revisit this bank-robber until very late in the novel, though the police will focus on a couple of other bnnk-robbers at length.

Afte rthe robbery, we turn to the return of Martin Beck to active duty, after the senior detective of the national homicide squad had been shot in the previous novel (Man on the Roof, very effectively filmed by famed Swedish director Bo Widerberg in 1976--inientally, The Locked Room was not included in the excellent Swedish series based on the Martin Beck books, only appearing on film in the '90s in the German film Beck: De Gesloten Kamer).
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Beck is assigned what everyone thinks is a lost-cause cold case, to give him something to do: A classic locked-rom murder (everyone except Beck thinks it's funny that Beck, who never reads crime fiction, has been assigned such a classic mystery novel premise). At the same time, the rest of his squad is investigating the bank robbery from the novel's first pages, but they pursue the notion that a gang of robbers that they have previously been unable to catch (but whose identities they well know) perpetrated this crime as well. One of the results of their pursuit is the spectacularly failed raid on the gang's hideout, a comic catastrophe that is more Keystone Kops than police procedural.

When the solution to both crimes finally arrives, the criminals don't exactly come to justice, at least not in any conventional manner. But the novel's conclusion is satisfying in several ways: in its ironies, in its endorsemenet of the lives of those at the bottom of Swedish society, and in the private life of the usually doleful Beck. In the end, this is no longer my favorite Beck novel (perhaps The Fire Engine That Disappeared currently holds that title), but is a reminder of the very high standard that this series set for  crime fiction in Scandinavia, and indeed everywhere else.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Swedish noir: The Tunnel, by Carl-Johan Vallgren

Most of the Scandinavian crime wave is made up of thrillers and police procedurals, only occasionally reaching the bleak potrayal of life in the streets that is typical of noir. Carl-Johan Vallgren reaches for noir, basing his two (so far0 novels featuring ex-junkie Danny Katz in a difficult landscape of heroin, disfunctional famiies, life on the streets, sexual deviance, and exloitation. The Tunnel, the second in the series, also focuses (almost equally) on two former friends of Danny's, from his junkie days, Eva, now a prosecuting attorney, and Jorma, a career criminal.

The novel actually begins with a failed armored car heist, in which Jorma is involved. Jorma spends most o the rest of the book seeking who is responsble for the betrayal that led to the robbery's failure and the murder of a friend, also involved in the robbery. Danny, a computer expert and former intelligence office, is involved in both the investigation of his own Jewish background and in the murder of a friend (a drug dealer) and the disappearance of the dealer's girlfriend. Eva becomes involved when Danny asks her for information relating to the drug dealer.

But Eva has her own demons, including a failed marriage (and her failure to be an adequate parent), her addiction to casual sex, and a difficult (to say the least) relationship with her boss. As all the threads are slowly drawn together (int he first two-thirds of the book) the stage is set for a violent, sexually twisted (~a la 120 Days of Sodom), and breathless rush to a consculsion. Finally, at the end. Dany once again confronts his family history and Jewish roots, and the story (and perhaps the series) comes to an emotionally crashing conclusion.

This book is a difficult read, first because of the shifting perspectives, second because of the disgusting sexual violence lying behind muh of the plot. But for fans of Swedish crime fiction who have been craving something darker and tougher, this will be an essential novel.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Icelandic noir TV series


Iceland hardly seems like a breeding ground for noir fiction, since it’s a small country that the rest of the world knows mainly for its volcanic activity, hot springs, and cold climate. But the country has a famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn (though he was executed in 1596) and has in recent years experienced some of the conditions that foster noir: rapid change and increasing instability and inequality. In fact, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in E
urope until, during WWII (known afterwards to to Icelanders as the Blessed War), it was invaded and occupied by foreign powers (England and the U.S. At the end of the war, the occupiers left behind considerable infrastructure that began the modernization and enrichment of the country--leading up to the financial crash in 2008 and the slow rebuilding since then.

There has been a flowering of crime fiction from Iceland in recent years, beginning with Arnaldur In∂ridason’s dark police procedurals featuring Erlendur, of which Jar City (written in 2000) was the first translated into English (in 2005)  and made into an excellent film in 2006 by Iceland's most famous director, Baltasar Kormákur. A number of other writers, mostly natice Icelanders, have followed Arnaldur into globalcrime fiction circles.

a trend that has in more recent years resulted in a suddenly visible crime television boom, several series having become available on streaming services in the U.S.and beyond. One of them, Lava Field, even refers to that 16th-century serial killer. Lava Field deals with murder in a remote location, near a small town in which the lead detective has roots. There are a lot of interesting characters, not the least of whom is a woman who is a former athlete and new cop who becomes a key investigator in the case. There are also many views of the country's bizarre landscape. Lava Field was, at least until recently, available on Netflix

One of the factors in Lava Field that is typical of Icelandic nor TV is an emphasis on both the troubled personal lives of the main characters and the pursuit of the criminals. A series known both as Court and Case (the former in its first season, available on Walter Presents, the latter in its third season, which was available on Netflix and will perhaps show up again as a new season on WP), develops largely in the disastrous rise and decline of a lawyer, once unjustly jailed, then gradually undercutting his successes in the law with alcohol and bad personal and professional decisions. Both available seasons are excellent, but the version known as Case
on Netflix, is particularly compelling.

Baltasar Kormákur. is the force behind Trapped, a claustrophobic series based in a fishing town int eh far north of the country (the BBC ran the series, and it was, and may still be, available on Viceland in the U.S.). Trapped deals with a ferry that arrives in the northern town at the same time as a headless corpse, and the police sequestration of the ship in order to investigate the murder leads to multiple unfortunate consequences, for the police chief, the mayor, the boat captain, and many others. The series is beautifully made and features intense and impeccable acting.

Another Icelandic series, Cover Story,  (also known asThe Press) is available (2 seasons so far) on Walter Presents int he U.S. This one, despite the serius crimes and turbulent lives of the main characters, is not quite as heavy as the other three mentioned above. The scene is a newsroom, which provides some opportunity for comic moments largely (but not entirely) missing from the other series. In this one, the main character is a woman reporter trying to raise her two kids mostly alone, while becoming more deeply involved in murder, financial crimes, and anti-immigrant violence.

IN early 2017, the murder of 20-year-old Birna Brjánsdóttir as she walked through Reykjavik late at night after a night out, brought home to Icelanders that the blossoming of noir in their country is not an entirely fictional phenomenon--though it's still a safer country than its fictional output would suggest, the seeds of noir have taken root in real conditions and crimes.
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Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A brief word about Anita Nair's A Cut-Like Wound

Some time ago, I reviewed Anita Nair's second novel in the Inspector Gowda series, Chain of Custody, not having read the first in the series, the acclaimed A Cut-Like Wound. Chain of Custody seemed to include any explanaations necessary, so that it was OK to start with the 2nd book. Now, having read A Cut-Like Wound, I see that I was wrong. Most of the main characters, especially Urmila, who seems to be his mistress in the 2nd novel, but whose connection to Gowda is much deeper, a link only clear in the 1st novel.

A Cut-Like Wound deals with transvestism and transexuality, but Nair is careful to draw the character of the novel's violence from a person rather than a community. The violence of Chain of Custody is more pervasive, rooted in the trafficking of children, but in that novel the traffickers are personalized in the character of a conflicted young man who is one of the prominent voices of the novel.

Both are significant, involving, and convincing crime novels: but start with A Cut-Like Wound, please.

Beside the Syrian Sea, James Wolff

James Wolff's Beside the Syrian Sea is a peculiar spy novel/thriller focused on the effort of a runaway intelligence analyst who goes to the Middle East to try to rescuehis father, who has been kidnapped by Daesh/Isis in Syria. Jonas is both clever and desperate, but he has no field experience in the spy world. He mostly proceeds by lying to everybody and revealing only snippets of the difficult truth of his mission.

He's clearly out of his depth in the complexities of Beirut, and his own British government is trying to stop him from getting involved (after refusing to pay the ransom that Isis demands). He contacts an alcoholic priest (who is a bit of a character out of the novels of Graham Greene), luring him into collaborating on his task by lying and involving not just the priest but the one person in the world that the cleric cares about. Jonas also falls in with Hezbollah (in some of the darker passages of the first part of the novel).

It takes a while for Jonas's plan to become clear, and begin to actually develop, and then it moves quickly but not in a straight line The story is always compelling, but frequently claustrophobic in its focus on Jonass on less-than-clear mind. This is an unusual, and unusually well-written, spy novel, aimed squarely at the grim realities of our current world.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Hunting Game, by Helene Tursten

I've read most of Helene Tursten's Irene Huss novels, and seen the Swedish TV series, so it was interesting to see that she has a new lead character for a new series: Embla Nyström of the mobile unit of the Gothenburg police--younger, single, and a boxer instead of a jujitsu champion. I regret to say that I lost patience with the novel itself, Hunting Game. The setting is an annual moose hunt on private property, among a group of residents and guests who indulge in this hunt during the season every winter. But other than Embla, I didn't find the characters terribly compelling, or perhaps it was the claustrophobic environment of the cabins and the hunt itself that caused my problem.

Another reader of many of the Huss novels has gotten tired of the soap opera of Huss's family life, and Embla certainly solves that problem. She is independent, and though part of a team, this novel isolates her from the other cops because she's part of the hunt and knows a lot of the people involved. When the cops do get involved, after one of the hunters disappears, she is still on her own most of the time, right up to the high-threat conclusion.

Another difference from Irene is Embla's willingness to doctor the evidence and bend the truth (not that that sort of proffssional deception is beyond Irene, but Embla is particularly blatant in an incident I won't describe since it would be a spoiler).

So I enjoyed Embla, and the set-up of the moose hunt was interesting, but ultimately I didn't sympathize with the hunt or the other characters--more Embla please, but please, not out in the forest hunting game...


Monday, February 19, 2018

Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard

One of the reviewers of the original South African edition of Weeping Waters, by Karin Brynard,
called the author "the Afrikaans Stieg Larsson," but the comparison is way o ff the mark. Even the author's own tribute to Deon Meyer, the most prominent Afrikaans crime writer, doesn't really illuminate Weeping Waters very much. Brynard's novel made me think of both Zoe Wiomb's David's Story (for its evocation of the Khoi-San people of South Africa) and Gillian Slovo's Red Dust (for its examination rural post-apartheid South Africa): but Weeping Waters doesn't imitate either of thos ebooks.

Brynard uses the form of the police procedural rather loosely, as one element of her lengthy (just over 500 pages) story of a family torn apart by illness and misunderstandings, of the indigenous people of South Africa (a very complicated story, examined at lennth in various passages of the book), of fear and racism among the white farmers underthe new regime, and of a lonely cop exiled into a rural town that he has difficulty understanding or coping with.

There is a violent murder (and references to even more violent murders, white supremacist preachers and farmers,  there's traditional culture and history, and there are the murder victim's haunting paintings. The central characters include the cop, the victim's journalist sister, the victim's farm-manager (of indigenous background), and various other cops, farmers, devvelopers, farmhands, and others. The story can be repetitive, but never drags: the repetitive elements spiral toward a violent conclusion that highlights the country's struggles with inequality, history, and rapidly changing society afte rthe fall of apartheid. Of the substantial number of crime writers in the new South Africa, Brynard is one of the most ambitious in scope, but her style is straightforward, always focused on the reality of the characters' lives.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

2 by Mick Herron


Mick Herron has two new books out, both dealing (as is usual for Herron) with the British secret services, though (as is also usual for Herron) in unusual ways, especially in one of the new books. The more usual of the two is London Rules, the latest entry in the "Slow Horses" series, featuring a band of disgraced MI-5 agents working in a seedy building far removed from the security services headquarters By now, we know the pattern of the books in this series, and London Rules fulfills our expectations: from the atmospheric opening to the twisty plot, the disdain with which the headquarters stff regards the "slow horses," in the Slough House exile that gives them their name, and in the ultimage though costly engagement of the slow horses with the current threat. The formula is still enjoyable, though the twists and turns are to be expected now (the surprises were a major part of the enjoyment of the first novel, Slow Horses), and Lonodon Rules has a bit of a suggestion that the series may be drawing to a close soon, not least in the unlikely reappearance of one of the most appealing characters from Slow Horses.

The other new novel, This is What Happened, is rather different, not least in how the secret services figure in the plot. There is an unexpected kidnapping wiht an unexpected outcome, a dystopian tale, a dogged investigator without any official portfolio, and a claustrophobic atmostphere that remains regardless of the sudden shifts in point of view (and the sudden shifts in the reader's realization of what actually is going on). Though not as comic as the Slow Horses series, this stand-alone is vintage Herron, and an interesting departure from his usual style, not least in the closed-in quality of the setting of a good part of the book.