Wednesday, September 21, 2005

French romans policiers, in English

One of the best police/noir novels in recent years is Rough Trade, by Dominique Manotti (Sombre Sentier in the original French). Manotti's novel subverts all the cliche's of the genre, from the personality of the central character, to his love-life, to police procedure, to the logic of the thriller. It's almost impossible to describe the plot without giving something away that's better discovered in the book, but it is possible to mention that Manotti uses history and politics to great effect as the background and atmosphere of the book. Setting the main narrative a decade and a half into the Parisian past, to coincide with an actual event (a strike among the illegal immigrants employed in sweat shops connected to the rag trade), Manotti is able to both evoke that event and that era and also to provide a coda that extends the narrative both literally and emotionally. Turkish immigrants, the Asian drug trade, prostitution, police coercion, homosexuality, labor relations, and much more historical and political material are at the heart of the book, but the plot is nonetheless brisk (almost breathless). Manotti gives us a most unusual and enjoyable experience. Chantal Pelletier's Goat Song follows a somewhat enervated detective Marice Laice (there's a joke about his name that is a bilingual French-English pun) through the club culture of Paris and the dark underbelly of real estate speculation and drugs. The book is quite entertaining, and in the end both melancholy and romntic, but not quite up to Manotti's standard, in terms of its impact and its realism or believability. Jean-Claude Izzo's One Helluva Mess (original French title: Total Kheops, a slang expression that the English title doesn't really capture) is a tour through the underworld of Marseille. Izzo starts off the book with an exiled gangster returning to Marseille with revenge on his mind, and then the book takes a radical turn, focusing instead on a police detective and former friend of the gangster. Izzo's novel is not a straight roman policier, but instead is a dark, almost romantic take on a changing Marseille: in particular it's Algerian subculture in conflict with its more established population of French men and women who were mostly themselves immigrants a generation or two earlier. Izzo's hero moves freely through the diverse communities, though at home in none of them, and his story is engaging. It's tempting to include the police novels of Yasmina Khadra here, since a post-colonial Algeria is the setting and the theme for them, but I'll restrict myself to a couple of comments: Khadra's two books translated into English so far are fast, somewhat fragmented, very sexist, violent portraits of a chaotic, millennial, even apocalyptic social situation in an Algiers that is perched on the edge between a corrupt regime and a ruthless fundamentalist revolt. They evoke a new Battle of Algiers that, in Khadra's portrait, is a ruthless war zone in both literal and moral terms. On a far lighter note, the first of Tonino Benacquista's novels to be published in English (there are 2 in English now, but I haven't read the 2nd one yet) is a comic take on the life and trials of a 2nd generation Italian immigrant family in Paris--and the connection of its scion, Benacquista's hero, to the land (literally) of his forefathers. Benacquista takes on the mafia, the church, and the structure of the noir/thriller genre here, with quite enjoyable results. In a later installment on France: Fred Vargas and others.

Friday, September 09, 2005

contemporary roman noir (translated from the French)

Coming soon: contemporary French noir (home of the term I'm using so much)--reviews of translations from Jean-Claude Izzo, Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Chantal Pelletier, Tonino Benacquista, and more...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Some German noir

Hans Werner Kettenbach's Black Ice is very dark indeed, a tour through the mind of a not-too-bright German employee of a civil engineering firm who thinks his boss murdered the wife that he had married for her money (and control of the firm). Kettenbach's tale is claustrophobic, with a carefully controlled point of view--the combination of those elements gives the tale a Hitchkockian air--something akin to the novels of Patricia Highsmith (not the Ripley novels but her very claustrophobic novels like The Blunderer, which Black Ice resembles in some ways) or Ruth Rendell. Kettenbach's character Jupp takes a long while to figure out how his boss might have done it, and then another long while deciding what to do about it--and ultimately makes a couple of very disastrous decisions about the latter. Ingrid Noll's The Pharmacist is equally claustrophobic, and a bit more comic, but her tale of poison, jealousy, and betrayal is a bit inert for my taste. It may be telling that "The Pharmacist," available only in the UK as far as I know, is published there not by one of the great English publishers of Eurocrime and international noir (No Exit, Serpents Tail, etc) but by Harper & Collins--the more mainstream audience is perhaps what the publisher, and the writer, have in mind rather than the audience for noir. Noir in Germany is best known (outside Germany at least) in the form of Jakob Arjouni's detective novels, featuring a German-born Turkish detective who is a German citizen. These books (or the 3 that are available in English--Arjouni also has non-detective novels, including Magic Hoffman, which is available in English) are an effective blend of the detective stock-in-trade and the experience of being an outsider in Europe. Arjouni's tales do not always turn on the Turkish/German tension, though--he often deals with other social ills, and the novels are truly an alternative history of Germany just before reunification. A word of caution--two "titles" of Arjouni novels in English are apparently the same novel; the titles are One Death to Die--published by Fromm International--and One Man One Murder--not as commonly available, but it appears in book searches from time to time). Another detective of West Germany, police detective Karin Lietze, can be found in English in Pieke Biermann's Violetta, published some years ago by Serpents Tail, and published in its German original the year after the fall of the Wall. Biermann's detective is caught up in several murder investigations that involve racism, a serial killer, a band of vengeful feminists, and other denizens of an apolcalyptic, millennial Berlin. The novel is a satirical and kaleidoscopic view of Berlin street life just as the Soviet bloc was coming apart but before the fall of the Wall, is amusing and entertaining, and I wish more of her work were available in English. Violetta is a self-conscious "novel," in the sense that there is literary as well as social satire, and the point of view jumps all over the place, but the surface level of the narrative itself is always lively, frequently funny, and at the same time very dark. Biermann's novel is in a way a meta-noir, a commentary on the form, as well as having some nostalgic looks backward toward the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood's famous stories. There are a couple of very dark non-detective novels of post-unification Germany: Rain, by Karen Duve, is a gloomy, grotesque tale of a loser who agrees to ghost-write a gangster's memoir, and takes his beautiful wife to a cabin in the former East, where he can live cheaply while working on the book. Rain, damp, and ensuing slugs (lots and lots of them) and other horrors intervene in his plans, resulting in a grotesque allegory of postmodern life in general and German life in particular, post reunification. The tale is gross, comic, disgusting, and fascinating. A less compelling but more pleasant dark comedy can be found in Christoph Hein's Willenbrock, which deals with crime and ultimately murder, but in a flat, laconic style more geared toward a literary audience than a genre crowd. Willenbrock is a former Easterner making a go of it as a used car entrepreneur in the new Germany, but confronted by social ills and tensions that are both new and age-old among the Germans. Bitter Lemon Press, who publish Black Ice, has also recently published a couple of other apparently classic German noir novels, one of which I liked and the other not so much. The Snowman, by Jörg Fauser, is an on-the-lam-from-drug-dealers tale of a down-and-out German emigre who is eking out a living in Malta by selling old Danish porn magazines, but suddently finds himself in the possession of a large quantity of the best cocaine in the world. Fauser's novel is a road movie of violence and the underworld, very graphic, funny, and enjoyable. The Russian Passenger, by Gunter Ohnemus, is a Richard-Brautigan-influenced (yes, it's true, however incredible it may seem) novel of Russian mobsters and the German working-class. An ex-writer now cab-driver hooks up with the wife of a Russian mobster, who has escaped from him with a lot of money. The story starts out interesting but gradually subsides into the allegorical manner of Brautigan and winds up in San Francisco (of course) with an unsatisfying conclusion that violates the first-person narrative in a not-very-interesting way.