Monday, June 29, 2020

Two recommendations, from Scotland and Finland

A couple of well written, complex, and entertaining novels, one new and one from last year. Denise Mina's The Less Dead, from Mulholland Books (available this coming August in the U.S.) delves into Glasgow streets across two generations. Dr. Margo Dunlop's adoptive mother has just died, and she discovers a link to her birth mother. The novel actually begins with a fraught visit to the social service agency that is mediating between the birth mother's family and Dr. Dunlop, but shifts quickly into a dangerous journey into the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, dirty cops, and a (possible) serial killer. The book's title comes from a Scottish term equivalent to the famous "NHI" term used by the LAPD to indicate that no humans were involved in murders of prostitutes. Dr. Dunlop gets a very deep lesson in the lack of attention given to the murders of prostitutes in Glasgow. The material sounds very heavy, but Mina manages to make the text surprisingly funny at times, and at all times the story is tense and compelling.

Katja Ivar's Evil Things also deals with the death of a mother and the fate of an orphan, but in the far northern Lapland of Finland, in the early 1950s, close to a recently contested border with the Soviet Union. Hella Mauzer is the first woman to have achieved the status of detective in the Helsinki police but is now disgraced (because of an event that only becomes completely clear at the novel's end) and sent to the mostly rural far north. After the report of an elderly man even further north an closer to the Russian border, Hella becomes determined to investigate, despite her new boss's conviction that there's no case, the old man has just wandered into the forest and has probably encountered a bear. Hella's own story comes out in small bursts of her recollections, and the truth of the case comes out slowly at first, and then in rapidly increasing momentum. The story deals with murder, envy, bureaucratic refusal to consider the lives of people living in distant villages, and international conspiracy. There is also a striking echo of a current pharmacological and governmental scandal in the U.S. (watch for it, it will show up late in the book). There is, even in this tense and emotional book, some lightness and comedy, and a resolution that shifts the story from a dark pessimism into a cautious optimism about humanity and the future.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Four from around the world: Italy, S. Africa, France, India

A quick update on recently read crime novels of note, from French, South African, and Indian writers and a well-known American writer resident in Venice.

Donna Leon, famous outside Italy, refuses to allow her excellent series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti to be published in Italian translation. Her intended result is that to her Venetian neighbors, she's simply a fellow resident of this magnificent, troubled city, not a famous writer. Her newest book in the series, Trace Elements, was written before the pandemic, but centers on a death in hospice, a death to which the police are called because the dying woman has a confession of sorts. Her death inspires Brunetti and his fellow "poliziotti" to follow a slim thread regarding the death by accident (or perhaps suicide) of the dead woman's husband, whose job is the inspection of water quality in a privatized segment of the water supply system of Venice. The novel follows the usual process of the series, including the key involvement of the Questura's genius of information gathering (legal or illegally obtained), Signorina Elettra, as well as Brunetti's associates and his family. The sad story is nevertheless involving, right up to the typically complex resolution.

Another very successful series, by Deon Meyer, featuring Benny Griesel of the South African Police Service's major crimes division, the Hawks, in Cape Town, has a new and propulsively readable addition in The Last Hunt. One of  Meyer's specialties is action that pulls the reader along with rapidly developing events. In The Last Hunt, we get a couple of those, with intertwining plots that at all points reflect the current political and social problems of South Africa, in a plot with echoes of The Day of the Jackal. Along the way, Benny's relationship with a once-famous singer reaches a key hurdle that the detective is nervous about crossing (this relationship has been developing steadily across the past several books in the series). Meyer gives us a lot of insight about the daily struggles of the police in the troubled nation, as well as the larger milieu. Meyer has a lot of fans around the world, and deserves a look by any reader who is looking for an excellent police procedural combined with a thriller with a vital glimpse of the post-apartheid reality of South Africa.

Manu Joseph's Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous seems at first to be a satire, and it ends up with a more sobering indictment of contemporary India. A building collapses, trapping a man who has knowledge of a developing terrorist attack, and the only person who can reach the area where he is trapped is a woman who is a journalist specializing in ambush interviews of well-known political figures. This is the India of Hindu nationalism, thoughh the leader of the movement is the fictional, rather than the actual, prime misister of India. The central figures of the terror side of the plot is the titular Laila, who makes the mistake of taking a ride with a friend, and as the plot progresses, with a sudden shift at the end, she becomes the focus of a terrible indictment of India today, framed as if in a comic novel. Miss Laila is a quick read, though the story is complex--and it gives a picture of India more stark and contemporary than many novels from the sub-continent that have appeared here in recent years.

Jean-Patrice Manchette reinvigorated French noir fiction in the 70s and 80s, and a string of his novels have been appearing in English over the past. decade or so. The most recent, No Room at the Morgue, is a recasting of classic private detective fiction. The plot is appropriately complicated (Manchette evidently had Dashiell Hammett in mind), and though there's a lot of blood spilled, the tone is light and quick. Manchette's detective, Eugene Tarpon, is a former cop who is about to abandon his brief, unsuccesful career when a young woman appears at his apartment appealing for help int he matter of the death of her roommate. Very soon,  Tarpon is drugged, beaten intimidated, and ensnared in network of shady filmmakers, gangsters, journalists, and corpses. Manchette's contributions to the French graphic novel, and the connection with that art form are obvious in this novel. As transated by Alyson Waters, the prose is quick, colloquial, and full of quicky dialogue. Manchette's novels typically have a social depth at the heart of the noir story, but his politics are well hidden behind the spectacular plot and the down-and-out stoicism of his hero. For fans of Manchette, No Room at the Morgue is a bit more like Fatale than his other books translataed so far. For fans of classic noir, the book will be a treat, even if they don't know the author's other books.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguin

The Fragility of Bodies is a crime novel from Argentina, and Sergio Olguin's story is a departure from the usual crime fare. Veronica Rosenthal is a magazine writer who decides to look into the suicide of a commuter-train operator in downtown Buenos Aires. What she. uncovers, over the 377 pages of this Bitter Lemon edition translated by Miranda France, is a bizarre betting game that preys on young would-be soccer players in the slums around the city, particularly those along the train lines. Veronica is a woman in control of her life, single and intending to keep that way, and in her professional life she is determined and implacable.

She finds a train operator who is willing to talk to her and embarks on a journey of personal and professional import. Olguin's text is lively, shifting among the various character and the sites in the city relevant to the tale, so we get a vivid story as well as a 3D view of Buenos Aires today. At some points in the story, I became as frustrated as Veronica with the lack of progress in her research, but stick around for the satisfying, if also quite dark in the way of most noir visions of conteporary life. Olguin's story is fascinating, and his novel is unlike anything else you will find in crime fiction.