Thursday, October 27, 2005

Massimo Carlotto

I've already mentioned Massimo Carlotto's first book to be translated into English, The Colombian Mule: now there's a second volume in the series, The Master of Knots. The title refers to the main plotline, having to do with the underground S & M scene in northern Italy. The unofficial detective agency, really a "gang," that is at the center of the series is made up of a bar owner and two of his friends (all 3 ex-cons, one of them a gangster and the other two "politicals"). The interplay among them (and a subplot concerning the protests surrounding a G8 conference in Genoa) are quite interesting, and the three shuttle back and forth across the northern half of Italy on their various detection errands. The main plot, however, is marred by several cliches (one that is getting to be quite annoying in the genre as a whole, the mythical "snuff film") and by a curiously offstage handling of the chief villain (the "master of knots," a bondage master who trained in Japan). The focus does remain with the detectives (chief among them the narrator, a bar owner identified as "Alligator" in the first novel, but mostly as a first-person voice in the second; in the first novel, the Colombian segment of the plot is narrated in the third person, shifting the focus away from the main characters, who are the most interesting aspect of the series. There is in both novels a considerable amount of discussion of prison (which annoys the gangster-detective, Beniamino Rossini, and threatens to annoy the reader as well), but the life-story of Carlotto (who like Alligator was imprisoned unjustly in a famous political case) informs the discussion and the overall plot as well: at least we know that he has first-hand knowledge of the milieu (of prison, the underworld, and the setting, which revolves around Padua). In case all of the above sounds like faint praise, I should make it clear that the novels are lively, not over-long, and that they include a great deal of interesting detail about Italy, Padua, and the fringes of the criminal underworld to keep them entertaining.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Carlo Lucarelli

The first of Carlo Lucarelli's noir thrillers to be translated into English was Almost Blue (not to be confused with the amazing Japanese "underground" novel Almost Transparent Blue, by Ryu Murakami). Almost Blue (available from City Lights Press, in their City Lights Noir series, in the U.S.) is entertaining but a bit sketchy. The story relies heavily on the surreal interior monologues of the killer, nicknamed the Iguana by the police, and a blind "witness" who is the only one who can recognize the killer, by his voice, since the Iguana changes his appearance at will. The surreal, even magic realist, quality of the narrative threatens to overwhelm the police procedural (featuring detective Grazia Negro and the team that her boss is putting together in Bologna), and the sketchiest part of the book is indeed the procedural/detective portion. But the evocation of the city of Bologna is wonderful, and some elements of the plot are fascinating. The denoument is a bit abrupt, though. The second in the series, Day After Day (recently translated and available in the U.K. from Harvill Press. Day After Day is more satisfying in several ways. Although the plot is almost a carbon copy of Almost Blue (substituting a cold contract killer for the impassioned serial killer of the earlier book), the narrative's poetic qualities (particularly in the narratives of this book's witness and killer) are less surreal, more pertinent to the other narrative, that of Ispettore Negro and the police. And the resolution, though firmly in the formula of the series, is more fully realized in the second book. The only drawback (and the only reason I would not recommend readers to simply begin with the second book and ignore the first) is that Bologna is a more fully realized site for the plot in Almost Blue. So I recommend the series, as a dark, poetic noir/policier in a very Italian mode--but don't stop with the first book, do go on to the second for a more complete version of the genre and of Lucarelli's formula.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tonino Benacquista's Someone Else

I've already mentioned the first book by Tonino Benacquista to be translated into English from the French original (Holy Smoke), and the second has recently become available (Someone Else), also from Bitter Lemon Press in the UK. Someone Else pursues two different lines of narrative that were characteristic of one of the masters (mistresses?) of noir, Patricia Highsmith: the casual encounter that precipitates events of great consequence to the parties involved (as in Strangers on a Train) and the amoral manipulations of Highsmith's Tom Ripley character. Plus there are other elements suggestive of those Highsmith novels: the use of a tennis match as a significant detail (one of the characters in Strangers on a Train was a tennis player) and a character who is a framer by trade (one of the characters that Ripley manipulates and then befriends is a framer, and owns a frame business, just as in Someone Else). What is missing from Benacquista's novel is the sense of menace that Highsmith injects into her novels, even when there hasn't been a murder yet. There is in fact never a murder (except by a character who "kills off" his former self), though there is toward the very end a shooting. And though a detective agency plays a large role, Someone Else doesn't really ever rely on the nature of detective work for any of its narrative drive. Someone Else is definitely in the noir tradition, not only in the references to Highsmith but also in Benacquista's use of despair as a driving impulse for the two main characters; but it is more in the tradition of the early noir than the contemporary, bloodier and more violent entries in the genre (remember the slowly developing plots of James M. Cain, for instance--modern noir is more in the vein of the notorious No Orchids for Miss Blandish, not by Cain but closer to that era than to our own--No Orchids stared with a violent bang and descends in violent stages to a grotesque and melodramatic conclusion, a plot closer to our own era than to Cain's). Someone Else concerns a bargain--more a bet really--between two strangers who meet in a tennis club in Paris. Over much vodka (a new experience for one of them, previously a teetotaler) a proposal is made that each of them should try to become the "someone else" that he has dreamed of becoming throughout his mundane life. Each succeeds, in very different ways, and each achieves a payoff of a sort. The narrative is engaging, though not comic in the way Holy Smoke was, but the narrative could have used some editing or perhaps some relief from the very gradual ascent (or descent) of the characters in their new lives--perhaps some more sudden, even violent, shifts to spark things up. But who am I to give the author advice. If Someone Else does not quite rise to Highsmith's heights (and doesn't seek the same humorous narrative rewards as the author's own Holy Smoke) it's still an entertaining and interesting return to the early traditions of noir.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Fred Vargas"

Fred Vargas is the psuedonym of a French scientist, a woman, who's been turning out interesting romans policier for several years. The novels, Have Mercy on Us all (published first in English, but actually the second novel of the series) and Seeking Whom He May Devour (the first novel in the series), both have titles in English that are considerably different than the French originals--the original titles would have taken some explanation in English, but I for one dislike the practice of changing the titles in translations. Vargas's work might be characterized as a "grand-guignol" noir. Her characters are depicted in terms of a bundle of characteristic traits and tics of speech that are repeated over and over. The effect is archaic, reminiscent of the novels and plays of earlier centuries. That effect is of a piece with her novelistic strategy as a whole--the first novel deals with lycanthropy and the rural French werewolf legends in particular; The second deals with the bubonic plague (and in particular the talismans used to ward off the disease) as well as the revival of the trade of the town crier. These themes are folded into a more-or-less conventional police procedural (less conventional in the werewolf novel than the plague novel), but even that is twisted into a pre-modern (or perhaps post-modern is the proper term) mode by the character of Commissaire Principal Adamsberg, her detective. Adamsberg is absent-minded, illogical, impulsive, and intuitive--constantly grasping mentally for an idea or a person that is just out of his conscious reach. The effect of the almost Dickensian characterizations, the folklore motifs, and the police drama is comic, but nonetheless dark and seductive, practically a modern Gothic version of noir. The combination of the Gothic and the comic is, of course, what led me to think of the series as grand guignol--and the novels follow that model in their aggression, pacing, and impact. A third English translation from the series is promised for January 06.