Monday, December 25, 2006

Olen Steinhauer: noir or formula?

I'm looking for some opinions about Olen Steinhauer. I've been reading his recent Liberation Movements, and it fits into a nexus of other "international noir" books that I've read, in several ways. Like the works of Swedish author Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren novels (such as Borkman's Point, reviewed here in 2006), Steinhauer's novels are set in a fictional country (in Nesser's case, it's a vaguely "north European" nation, somewhere between Holland and Sweden, in Steinhauer's, it's an East European nation under Communism). That fictional country thing had kept me from reading Steinhaier before--I prefer to get a glimpse of a real city, a real place, in reading crime fiction--that's one of the principles on which this blog is based, actually. Like the Berlin trilogy of Philip Kerr (there's a 4th novel now), Steinhauer is exploring life under a totalitarian regime under which he never lived. But for me, Steinhauer's unnamed country is not as believable as either of the above--and for me, his portrait of the "evil of Communism" has a kind of American triumphalism about it. In this latest novel, he doesn't just show the shoddiness of the classic Trabant automobile of the East, he feels he has to show a public plaza littered with them. In fact, in East Berlin, on the one occasion when I visited the Communist East, there were plenty of Trabants--all running, all parked in an orderly fashion in the public squares. There's plenty of misery and horror to portray under Communism without taking cheap shots at something you don't have personal knowledge of. In fact, Trabants are a sort of collector's item in the East now--Communist nostalgia, I guess. I'd like to hear your opinions about Steinhauer's fictional country in these novels. The books are well enough written--constructed fairly tightly--except that he feels it necessary to use an X-files plot element, extra-sensory perception (in particular, precognition), to work out the kinks in his plot. It also seems to me that his characters are not so fully drawn as Kerr's (I have the same complaint with Nesser, but Nesser's characters are at least not Communist stock characters, which some of Steinhauer's are). Steinhauer's novels are, I guess, more thrillers than noir--is it too much, then, for me to expect the fatalism (embodied, one hopes, in well realized characters and plots) that is a hallmark of noir? In any case, instead of that kind of fatalist, dark tale, Liberation Movements seems to be a brittle tale of evildoers and unfortunates--a melodrama, in other words.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

dark polish novel (maybe not "noir")

I mentioned a Polish novel of the 1960s in my previous post: Witold Gombrowicz's Pornografia. Pornografia has the bare bones of a "cozy" mystery plot: in the waning days of WWII, as the Nazis are retreating across occupied Poland, two friends (Witold and Frederick) travel to another friend's country house. They become fascinated by two adolescents, one the daughter of the house, the other a young orphan (a boy of about the same age as the daughter) who is staying with them. The group travels to the nearby home of the daughter's fiancé's family, and while there, the fiancé's mother (a devout Catholic) shows a strange fascination for the atheist Frederick. But in the evening, while the mother has gone to the kitchen, there are the sounds of a struggle, and the group finds the mother stabbed to death and a young interloper with stab wounds and bite wounds. The matching stories of the interloper and a kitchen maid suggest that the mother of the house attacked the interloper with a knife, and bit him savagely, before he got the knife away from her and killed her. But enough mystery surrounds the event to puzzle the most astute detective. Did she attack him? What was the boy doing in the house?
But the cozy plot disappears in a haze of another plot, this time a thriller closer to the spy genre: The group does not turn the murderer over to the police--they imprison him in the house and then return with him to the previous country house. And then the partisans demand that Witold and Frederick carry out the assasination of a traitor. From there, the plot goes further off the rails, according to a logic that is alien to either of the genre plots--a logic fully prepared for from the first pages of the novel. Whereas in the usual mystery or thriller, the fiction mimics life more or less adequately, in this novel life imitates the genres, more or less adequately. Gombrowicz is a "thesis" novelist, though of a peculiar and comic sort. He wants us to examine the structures (genres, even) through which we make sense of life as it comes at us day by day. What he is after is close to the "moral" of an existentialist novel of previous decades, such as might have been written by Camus or Sartre. Or perhaps a "nouveau roman," such as might be later written by Robbe-Grillet (who also did detective stories, of a sort). And the thesis is overlaid with the atmosphere of eroticism (and violence) implied by the novel's title--albeit a very (very) peculiar, second-hand eroticism also related to Gombrowicz's thesis (which has to do with youth versus maturity). This is an important book, one of the key accomplishments of the mid-20th century, by a writer with much to add to 20th century philosophy and art. The genre plots are not looked down upon, they are a simple structure on which to build the language and the thesis that are the writer's concern--but without which there is nothing he can say. In other words, this book is philosophy-as-story, or story-as-philosophy. There is no linear "meanning," only a portrait of our time, through the twin lenses of the mystery-thriller and Gombrowicz's own unique point of view. And, believe it or not, there's a recent movie version of the story, which I've ordered but haven't seen yet...

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Philosophical noir from Italy

Andrea Canobbio gives the alert reader a clue about his intentions in The Natural Disorder of Things when he gives one of the characters, a Polish gardner with a literary background, a name that is a composite of the two great Polish philosophical novelists and playwrights, Gombrowicz and Witkiewicz. The murder plot of Canobbio's novel is a McGuffin (do I have that spelled right?) in reverse--not a seemingly casual element of a story on which Hitchcock (it's his term) hung a mystery plot for a movie, but a plot on which Canobbio hangs an existential inquiry. The novel is not an allegory, something that will reveal the author's systematic philosophy, an approach that Canobbio shares with the equally oblique Polish authors I mentioned. Canobbio's approach isn't symbolic allegory but a maze--specifically a garden maze that might be constructed by the garden designer at the center of the novel--but a maze with no center and perhaps no exit. Claudio Fratta witnesses a murder that might be called "overdetermined," to use a word from the Poststructuralist philosophers (the man that Fratta has been watching (for reasons we don't learn until later) is essentially killed twice, by being run over first by a van with unrevealed drivers and then by a car driven by a woman with whom Fratta becomes obsessed. The novel progresses in events that will only be explained in later passages, as if a maze is being followed blindly or an onion is being peeled. The revenge demanded by Fratta's family after being bankrupted by a predatory lender, the affair between the previously solitary Fratta and the woman (who becomes his client), the man who is possibly (and possibly not) her husband, Fratta's brother and nephews, and Fratta's neighbor and his dogs, bred to have stripes (in particular a striped Doberman)--all these elements intertwine not to solve the initial murder but to precipitate a mirroring event that to some extent resolves Fratta's life, or at least brings him to the end of a chapter. The novel can be frustrating in its herky-jerky progression, and is perhaps too much a drama of ordinary life (rather than a crime story per se) for many fans of noir. But it has prodded me to pull out Gombrowicz's "thriller," Pornografia, which I'll report on as soon as I've re-read it. I'm looking for other suggestions, if anybody has some--as I'm in a dry spell for reading that's relevant to this blog. There are a number of books being translated for publication in the spring of 07, but not much new is available right now. Maybe I've missed something, though--any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Tartan noir with a heart of gold, sort of

Denise Mina's new novel, The Dead Hour, is the most purely noir novel she's written, and one of the most purely noir novels I've read recently (other than that other Scot, Alan Guthrie, whose 2 novels so far are pure throwbacks to the pulp heyday of noir). Is it something in the air up there? But at the heart of Mina's noir world there beats a doggedly optimistic heart, instead of the depressive, alcoholic, desperate soul at the center of most of noir fiction. Her heroine, cub reporter Paddy Meehan, is struggling to be a subject not an object, as she put it, and her feminism as well as her career struggle are carried on with a determined air that is comic in intention rather than in result--Mina is not making fun of Paddy's optimism (or her weight problem), she's using it to build a 3D character, lust, atheism, family loyalty, professional determination, and poor choices all included. Paddy's positive attitude is at odds with the overall noir atmosphere, at first glance. But it is Paddy's character, in all its ordinariness, that makes this novel work as "pure noir"? And why do I say that about this book and not the previous Paddy Meehan novel, Field of Blood? The separate strains of the new book are each bloodier than the other, and each grounded in working class reality rather than in the family drama of Field of Blood. The Dead Hour reminds me of a Swedish crime novel: not the obvious comparison with that other "intrepid reporter" (that phrase actually occurs in The Dead Hour, in a comic way) in Liza Marklund's novels, but with The Princess of Burundi, because of the milieu of a small town, which is what Mina's Glasgow seems like here, including a mechanic who is involved personally in the crimes. I'll say it again: it is the ordinariness of Paddy and her milieu that make the novel work as noir--Marklund's heroine is practically a superhero by comparison, and the crimes she investigates are big. The implications of Paddy's investigation are big, bigger than the police are willing to investigate, but the actual events, bloody and violent as they are, are the stuff of urban reality rather than thriller fiction. The escalating crimes, the sense of threat experienced by several characters, and the guilty dread of one ordinary person (not Paddy in this case, but an addict) who is forced to kill a thug in a particularly gruesome way, all add to a classic pulp plot, raised oddly to another level by Paddy's personality--because she's not a cliche (though the plot does contain a few of those). And the "real Paddy Meahan," a bigger factor in Field of Blood, plays an important role here nonetheless, in a small cameo with consequences for the story rather than an intertwined sideshow, more the case with the earlier book. I have to say I was surprised by how much I liked The Dead Hour.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Beginning of Kate Atkinson's detective "series"

When I saw reviews of Kate Atkinson's new novel, One Good Turn, featuring a detective named Jackson Brodie, I picked up a copy of the first book about this character, Case Histories. I'd read a "postmodern" novel of hers before, Emotionally Weird, which also includes a detective character, named Chick, in her "metafictional" universe. Emotionally Weird is funny, clever, and effective as a novel or an essay on the novel, but it's not crime fiction. Case Histories is and is not crime fiction. It reads like a cross between the "serious" fiction of a novelist like Anne Tyler (with close focus on quirky characters, their families, and the misery therein) and an English cozy mystery--with an overlay of the urban noir novel. Brodie's detective work is essential to the development of the plot, but hardly on center stage most of the time. It seems to take him a very long time to get started on his investigation of the 3 intertwined "case histories." He never gets around to one of them, the solution to which is right in front of him. Case Histories is not as much about crime as about emotional ties and about the destructive behavior of some people who should be nurturing those ties. But its not a book about misery, it's about coping, and there's a liberal dose of wit to leaven things. One Good Turn sounds, in the reviews, like a combination of Case Histories and Emotionally Weird, taking the complexities of Jackson Brodie's first appearance to a new level. I'm looking forward to it. Anybody have any comments about Atkinson, Jackson Brodie, or "serious" novelists venturing into crime fiction?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Word about "young adult" novels

Maxine recently added a comment to my post about Denise Mina, saying that she'd heard that Mina's new series about Paddy Meehan, cub reporter, was being packaged as a "young adult" novel. The story of the first novel (and evidently the second) certainly fits that category, as a coming-of-age story in personal and professional life. But that's also the case with Liza Marklund's series, at least in the first two novels and really all along as Annika, her own cub reporter, rapidly climbs the career ladder. Both series are perhaps a bit dark for the young adult category, though books for children can certainly be very dark. In terms of genre fiction, I think of science fiction as a whole as fitting neatly into the young adult category (possibly because I read science fiction when I was a kid and a teenager, and haven't been able to read any of it since, except maybe Phillip K. Dick and Alfred Bester). But the "noir" genre seems as a whole too world-weary for the young adult category. Maybe that's why Mina's Paddy Meehan might fall into the genre--in spite of a bleak setting (both her city and her family), Paddy is ultimately pretty optimistic.

Kernick and Harvey--briefly

I've been looking forward to Simon Kernick's new book, A Good Day to Die, because in it he resuscitates his murdurous ex-cap Dennis Milne, his most interesting character so far. I also picked up the newest John Harvey, Darkness and Light, featuring his post-Resnick detective, Frank Elder (as usual, Resnick has a cameo). Both books were disappointments. The Kernick novel has all the elements of a good read, but it somehow drags even through the fast and violent scenes (of which there are many, as usual). The denouement is predictable, a cliche really. And the narrative is very repetitive, between recapping the plot and Dennis's constant soul-searching. The Harvey novel is also pretty dull. The plot itself is interesting enough, but I could never really get interested in any of the characters. Elder seems a pale echo of Resnick, though it seems we're in for more of him, if the preparation for sequels in the last pages is any evidence (preparation that involves finding an excuse for an ex-cop to be constantly brought back into investigations--in spite of his often-stated desire to be left alone in his Cornish retreat). Darkness and Light just plods along, professionally written but slow even for a police procedural. All in all, this has been a disappointing week of reading.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

a bit more on Haas, plus Denise Mina

I realize that there was a bit more I intended to say about Silentium, the film made from Wolf Haas's detective novel of the same name. Silentium capitalizes on several aspects of Austrian culture (and specifically that of Salzburg, where the story is set): music festivals, tourist overlooks (a mountain precipice above the city), and the Catholic church. I already dealt with the latter in the previous post, but the use of both other elements (tourism and music festivals) is as important (and as mordantly funny) as the story's sly references to the church.
But on to other things. On the occasion of the release of Denise Mina's second Paddy Meehan novel, I finally got around to reading the first in the series, Field of Blood. One of the unique and interesting aspects of the book is Mina's use of the narrative of "the real Paddy Meehan," a figure whose biography is explained somewhat, along with the author's relationship to him, in an afterword. Paddy the second, the young aspiring journalist, is in many ways the sister of the main character in Mina's first series, the Garnethill trilogy (but without that character's history of abuse--or overt abuse anyway--the abuse of children by well meaning families is a major theme of the new series). Paddy's story is a bit a coming-of-age novel, a bit of Glasgow local color, and a bit the intrepid cub reporter tale. But Mina is very skilled at creating the characters and through them, and the "real Paddy Meehan," she manages to hold together all these elements in a compelling story (a bit more direct and a bit less obliquely Gothic than the Garnethill books).

Friday, November 10, 2006

Wolf Haas and Austrian noir

Every now and then there's a chance to get a glimpse of the "crime culture" of other countries and languages, things not normally available in the U.S. and in English. The currently touring 2006 European Union Film Showcase includes Silentium, a film made by Wolfgang Murnberger from a series of novels by Wolf Haas featuring Brenner, a seedy private detective played in the film by the sad-eyed, scruffy Josef Hader. The film is very dark, very funny, and full of references to films (North by Northwest, Butch and Sundance, and on and on), religious imagery, and twists on crime cliches. There's a car chase in the spiral driveway of a parking deck that is marvelous and dizzying. At one point, the hallucinating Brenner becomes a "player" in a foosball game, a very well done, very funny, and at the same time horrifying bit of film. The religious imagery is mostly Catholic and mostly very funny (hard to describe without coming off as blasphemous--satire is often hard to describe without losing the bite. This little glimpse of Haas's fiction makes me hungry for more of what my lack of German makes inaccessible--I can only hope for another film showcase or future translations. I highly recommend this series (film or book, though I only have experience of the former) to those who can read German, those with access to Zone 2 DVDs, or especially to those looking for translation projects.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

More on Wallander and novels out of order

With regard to the recent publication of The Man Who Smiled, which was actually the 4th novel in Henning Mankell's crime series about Kurt Wallander in Ystad, Sweden, we had some conversation about why so many of the Scandinavian crime novels are arriving in English out of their original sequence. Before I started The Man Who Smiled, I went back to the previous novel, The White Lioness (the 2nd novel published in English, though it was the 3rd of the novels), which I hadn't read since it was new, and then I continued with Sidetracked, the novel that follows after The Man Who Smiled in the original sequence. That's a pretty big dose of Mankell in a relatively short period of time. And doing that has reinforced my impression that the novels, effective though they are, are also very formulaic--almost as much so as the paintings of Wallander's folk-artist father (always a sunset, with or without a grouse). The rhythm of the novels is determined by the lack of evidence in the police investigation--the cops are spinning their wheels for half or even more of the book. Usually, the criminal makes a few "cameo" appearances (though that's not the case with The Man Who Smiled, and the criminal conspiracy at the heart of The White Lioness is much larger than a cameo, in terms of the amount of the narrative it occupies. Reading the novels close together emphasizes that the stories are narrated rather than dramatized. That is to say, even though there's plenty of dialogue, most of the text is description of Wallander's thoughts, summaries of events or discussions not directly narrated or described, and details of the painstaking investigation. For those of us (myself included) who are addicted to the procedural as a form, the Wallander books can be very satisfying. But the formula can get a little old with frequent repetition--the appeals to the dead mentor, Rydberg; the hated press conferences; the use of dates at the end of chapters as a dramatic device. There are, of course, also references to things that happened (in the detective's private life as well as previous investigations) before--but these have a "reality effect," reinforcing the realism of the story in the same way as the endless back and forth through the streets of a small town in Southern Sweden do. But, to make a comparison, the novels of Mankell's Swedish compatriots Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö perhaps used their own formula in a more supple way. The formulaic elements in the S&W books had to do with the character of the detectives, the comic elements of the series, and the running portrait of the welfare state gone to seed (also a running element with the Wallander books). The only irritating element of the S&W formula that I can remember (and I recently read through that entire series one after the other, all 10 books, without getting tired of them--it's like a very long movie) is the constant use of the chief detectives name as a whole: it's always Martin Beck, never Beck or Martin (except in other characters' dialogue) or even Inspector Beck. Just Martin Beck again and again (but perhpas a minor irritant). The S&W books are also shorter, so there's less formula called for (and more plot) per page. The procedural elements of both series are quite prominent, very important to the structure (and the pleasure) of the books. Wallander will definitely do, in the absence of S&W's Beck, only brouht back to life in a Swedish TV series that has gone beyond the original books (which has also happened with the Wallander series in 12 or so films not based on the books). But at the same time, the comparison makes me nostalgic for that great series, and regretful that there are only 10 (I know, I know, the authors never planned for more than 10, but if Wahlöö hadn't died young, meybe...).

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

New-ish Wallander novel, and translations out of order

Maxine posted a response to one of my recent entries, complaining about translations of crime novels that are done out of order. The recently published The Man Who Smiled, by Henning Mankell, is a case in point. This was actually the 4th of the Inspector Wallander novels, between The White Lioness and Sidetracked. And in fact, the second novel in the series, Dogs of Riga, was also translated out of order. The excellent Swedish TV films taken from the series also appear to have come out out of order (and with the plots of the books intermingled and changed, so that events from one book appear in a film taken from another one, etc.). All this is very confusing. I'm assuming that publishers in the U.S. and U.K. want to either capitalize on what they think is a better book later in the series, or perhaps to characterize the series in a way that the next one in line doesn't quite do (for instance, Dogs of Riga is a sort of thriller rather than a police procedural per se, though the procedural form does dominate that book as well). Even more irritating, to me, is the practice of starting the translations in the middle of a series, perhaps leaving the early books untranslated or published as if they were "prequels." By the way, Liza Marklund is apparently responsible for her series being out of order: Studio Sex (a salacious title taking advantage of the Swedish word for six) is a prequel to The Bomber, her "Stockholm Olympics" novel--she's filling in the backstory for her character. But back to The Man Who Smiled: this novel stays more tightly focused on the police investigation than any other Mankell novel except the first, The Faceless Killers. When the investigation plods, so does the novel; when the cops go back over the same ground again and again, so does the narrative. So if you like the police procedural (and I do) then you'll like this entry in the series. If you prefer a more straightforward crime plot, or entry into the mind of the criminal, then this one is not for you. The only glimpse beyond the detective's point of view (though there's a 3rd person narrator) is at the beginning (as is usual with Mankell's books), when an old man who is afraid flees what it is he fears in his car, is mysteriously killed--though the police afterwards think he died in an accident. Wallander is lured back from the brink of retirement (more on that in a minute) by pleas from the dead man's son that it could not have been an accident--but Wallander only answers the plea when the son is himself murdered (unmistakably this time). The clues lead to a powerful man who is mostly (and effectively) offstage. Though the ending is perhaps just the reverse--the final confession is a bit stagey. But overall, it's an effective novel in following how the truth is uncovered when we are all sure who the killer is, but not how he can be proved guilty. One aspect of the Wallander series that is typical of Scandinavian crime novels generally (and distinctively) is the law-abiding and even politically correct quality of the police detectives. Wallander is shattered by an event in the previous novel, in which he killed a man (clearly necessary but nonethelss guild-inducing for Wallander). He worries about drinking and driving (a theme going back to the first novel) and other social crimes. In fact, the Scandinavian fictional detectives seem to be the most socially responsible of all crimem heroes or anti-heroes. I guess it's so ingrained in the culture that the chain-smoking, heavy-drinking noir detective is not possible in the context of Scandinavian culture (except in the case of Harry Hole, Jo Nesbo's Norwegian detective, who is so spectacularly alcoholic that he is the aggressively anti-social exception).

Friday, October 13, 2006

Emigre Noir: Kerr, Limon, and Giovinazzo

There is a distinct genre of crime fiction that I'm calling "emigre noir" but might just as well be called "tourist noir." The writer may be American or English, but the detective (usually) and the setting are European or Asian. Sometimes the setting is evoked in an interesting way but the writing or the story aren't quite true or compelling (Colin Cotterill's Southeast Asian series, as well as the Bangkok series by John Burdett, the Aurelio Zen books by Michael Dibdin, and the Venetian novels of Donna Leon fall into this category, to me), sometimes everything is evoked beautifully but the novel is more a mystery or a "cozy" than noir (much as I like Magdalen Nabb's series, and as gloomy as her hero is, they really fall into this category).

But occasionally the milieu and the story are both evoked within a dark, noir sensibility. Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy starring Bernie Gunther, former cop and now a private detective in the Nazi era, are now joined by a sequel, "The One from the Other," that extends Kerr's insight, that the perfect setting for noir is WWII Germany, into the postwar years. This time the settting is mostly Munich, with excursions to Vienna (another perfect city for noir) and the German countryside--all devastated by war. We may see what's coming before Bernie does, but the plot is nevertheless full of twists and turns. The survival of Nazis into the postwar economy is the topic, as well as rapacious capitalism (always a part of the Nazi picture, after all). Bernie is hired to verify that a war criminal is dead, so that his wife can remarry, but soon he's in the thick of personal tragedy and professional disaster. It's hard to say more without giving something away--suffice it to say that Bernie's narrative is always full of the wisecracking, smartass repartee that is a throwback to classic noir film. If you like your noir in that vein, and sometimes I do, this one is Kerr at top form.
Martin Limon's series about George Sueno, American MP in Korea, always keeps to the ground that Limon knows firsthand, the military base and the surrounding Korean community of entrepreneurs (mostly bars and whores). In the Door to Bitterness, Limon uses a hackneyed plot (gun and badge stolen from cop) to explore the difference in cultures between the GI and the surrounding Confucian/Korean culture of the family. The cliche of the basic plot takes a bit away from the story, but the logic behind it is satisfying and convincing.

Last but not least is the closest of my current crop to being tourist noir. Buddy Giovinazzo takes the New Jersey mob on a trip to Berlin, where they try to muscle in on the largest construction site in the world, Potsdamer Platz after the fall of the wall. It's a great idea, and mostly it works. Tony, Giovinazzo's hero and narrator, is an enforcer who lands in the middle, between the Turks and the Russians who are trying to control the construction projects, as well as the Germans of both Eastern and Western varieties, and even his own uncontrollable psycho partner. The writing sometimes slips into "writerly" excess, with metaphorical language that is a bit too much, but another of Giovinazzo's devices works surprisingly well--Tony slips with no warning into the story of his life leading up to this assignment, and the result is a cinematic style that well suits the material. He predictably and tragically falls for a German girl that he really should not be attracted to, against the background of hyperviolence that he finds himself reacting to simultaneously with callous disregard and newfound distaste. The mob novels I deal with in this blog are typically of the non-U.S. variety (such as the various crime families in Izzo's densely portrayed Marseilles), and it's refreshing in an odd way to get the good old Sopranos-style mob in an exciting new venue. I haven't enjoyed a mob novel this much since reading Jim Cirni's Long-Island mob books. Although Cirni stays within comic distance of reality, and Giovinazzo veers off into a kind of satirical fairy tale by the end of the book.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Jo Nesbo, The Redbreast (a new Scandinavian noir crime novel)

Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast has been translated out of sequence in this compelling Norwegian crime series--last year's Devil's Star is actually a later episode than The Redbreast. Reading this one is a bit of an odd experience, since the reader will already know things that the characters will not discover for a long time (and these are long complex novels at over 500 pages each). But each novel is independent, and has its own character. The Redbreast actually shares a number of things with Henning Mankell's early Wallander novel, The White Lioness. Both feature morose leading men who are cops (though there is more humor in Nesbo's book); both have a South African connection and both involve racism, assassination, and weapons that are the tools of professional assasins. Both also deal with international intrigue, conspiracies, and evil people--all of which are more normally the territory of thrillers rather than noir fiction or police procedurals. In both cases, it is the close attention of the author to the melancholy detective that saves the books from becoming simply throwaway thriller knockoffs. And Nesbo's character, Harry Hole, is more noir, perhaps, than Mankell's Wallander. Hole is an alcoholic, lonely man (like Wallander) but Hole falls further into the pit on a regular basis--without ever becoming the cliche "lonely, drunk detective." He continues to engage our attention even when he's wallowing in self-pity, because he's a fully realized character rather than a cardboard one (not that Wallander is cardboard, just that he doesn't fall so low, and for that reason sometimes his self-pity can be a bit irritating). And the global conspiracy plot that underlies The White Lioness and most other Wallander novels is not a prominent element of The Redbreast, in spite of its neo-Nazi, evil bureaucrat, and corrupt police elements. It remains local, of the streets, rather than global in its essence, and therefore more noir (I'm overusing that word but haven't come up with a good substitute: pulp? hard-boiled?). The story goes back to the Norwegian soldiers who enlisted in the SS and fought with the Nazis on the Western front (as well as the "latter-day saints" among those who played both sides or no sides until it was clear the Nazis would lose). Norway's wartime leader, Quisling, bas become the very name of treachery, so it's very interesting to get an inside look into the gray areas of the Nazi period there. And it's not only fanaticism but also love that drives both the murderous plot and the sympathetic surface tension of the novel. I won't go into any more detail, since the twists and turns of the story in this long complex novel are a big part of the pleasure of diving into it. Give Nesbo the time and attention that his work deserves, and you'll be richly rewarded.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

volume 2 of Marseilles trilogy

Chourmo, by Jean-Claude Izzo, is the sequel to Total Chaos (also published as One Helluva Mess), and extends Izzo's paen to Marseilles into new territory. This time, former cop Fabio Montale only has memories of his two pals, the gangsters who were the subject of the first volume. His beautiful cousin (one of the infatuations of his youth) shows up and wants him to find her missing son, who has gone to ground in the Arab quarter of Marseilles. In his efforts to find the boy, Fabio discovers a second murder and the two plots intertwine right up to the conclusion. But the chief charm of this series is the loving evocation of Marseilles in all its aspects, gangsters, terrorists, and all. It's best to start this series at the beginning, but the charms and thrills of Chourmo are open to any reader, whether they know Total Chaos or not. We should all thank the Eurocrime publishing series for bringing this (and several other valuable European crime novels and series) to English readers, especially in these attractively printed and bound volumes. The titles of Izzo's novels, by the way, are from Marseillais slang--I won't give them away, though--it's best to discover for yourself how the originate and how they relate to these stories, these characters, and this city.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Yet another Bruen

Ok, I'm addicted. I keep saying that I'm not reading any more of Ken Bruen's books, but I just finished Calibre, the latest in the Brant series about the Ed McBain-obsessed cop in Southeast London, as well as his cohorts. This series has none of the sentimentalism of Bruen's other series set in Galway. But Calibre has the same roughness and the same references to other noir authors (and the same misspellings of writers' names, as if the books are written and edited so fast that fact-checking is simply not looked after). Calibre is certainly a quick read, carelessly but effectively plotted--things don't happen according to any cliches of the genre, and plot lines are not always followed up (also a characteristic of Elmore Leonard's books, and one of the reasons that his stories are so realistic). In spite of Brant's dedication to the 87th precinct novels, it's really more Leonard and Jim Thompson (the favorite author of the primary villain and alternative point of view in Calibre) that are the models for Bruen. Unlike Bruen's other series, the Brant books also feature several other cops (the only factor that mirrors Ed McBain's series), with new ones added from time to time. The black policewoman, Falls, has had a hard time but seems to be rising up from her low point in the previous novel. Tensions between Falls and other cops are unpredictable and often comic, and Brant's pugnacious character is also often funny--making this note only a more life-like but also more fun than others of Bruen's books. It sounds like I'm giving the author grudging respect, but as sketchy and incomplete as the Brant books are, the are true to noir, fun to read, and each different from the other. The Jim Thompson obsessed villain here is an accountant who kills people who are impolite, and the distinctiveness of his social role and his personality are compounded by the quirky resolution (or non-resolution) of his story. So this one is recommended, even if I can't recommend Bruen's Irish novels.

Monday, September 11, 2006

first of a few more scandinavians

A few more titles in the area of Scandinavian noir are about to be available in English. The first is Voices by Arnaldur Indridason (soon to come are new books by Liza Marklund and Jo Nesbo--the new Marklund sounds as if it may not be a great one, but the Nesbo is one I'm looking forward to, it's a "prequel" to the book already released in English by him--actually an earlier book released out of order). Voices is better than Indridason's 2nd book, Silence of the Grave, and almost as good as his first, released in English under 2 titles, Jar City and Tainted Blood (the book is identical, just 2 different titles). Not to say that all of them are not very good, because they are--just that the first one has stayed with me, and I admire that one particularly. Voices concerns the murder of a doorman/handyman at a hotel in Reykjavik, murdered in his basement room while dressed in a Santa Claus suit with his pants down around his ankles and a condom on his penis. And who says the Scandinavian crime novels are humorless. Actually, there's quite a bit of humor in Scandinavian noir, but like the dead Santa, it's very dry, almost earnest even it its comedy. The dead man turns out to have been a child star, and the cast of characters includes his surviving estranged family, a nasty bunch of hotel employees, the usual crowd of homicide detectives familiar from the first 2 novels, plus a female crime tech who is a possible love interest for Erlandur (Indridason's chief detective) and a couple of prostitutes. A bigger cast than Silence of the Grave, but like that novel occurrences in the distant past hang heavily over the living and the recently dead. The past and the current murder share time with Erlandur's ongoing struggle to find a relationship with his formerly estranged daughter and with the other detectives' attempt to find time for Christmas preparations that their families depend on them for. What I like about Indridason's novels is what I look for in noir--the ordinariness of life, the frequent banality of motives for murder, and the struggle of the characters to find an emotional refuge in the hostile contemporary environment (plus a view of Iceland you won't find in the guidebooks). Voices provides all of the above, and quirky humor--what more could a noir reader ask for?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

a really bad book

OK, on the way to the train station, desperate for something to read on the journey from Washington to New York and back the same day, I picked up what looked like a pretty good French thriller. The book is Empire of the Wolves, by Jean-Christophe Grange. It's been made into a movie in France, so how bad could it be, right? Actually it can be (and is) very very bad. The author is lazy (and can't blame it on the translator). Long passages of the story are told as if in a scenario, rather than dramatized as in a story. There are fuzzy leaps in the story and much melodrama. Plus some unbelievable plot points that are essential to the ultimately pointless tale that the author wants to pass off as a novel. I had hoped for something at least sort of noir (the French invented the word, after all, and have been producing both the film and fiction versions of noir in abundance). But this thing is laughabloe

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A Cuban cop and socialist noir

Havana Black is the 4th of Leonardo Padura's novels about Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde of Havana (it's a tetralogy, but there is a 5th novel, Adios Hemingway, published in translation as by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, the author's full name--the 5th novel is different in structure and atmosphere from the other 4). The 3rd novel in the tetralogy has been published as Havana Red--no word on whether the 1st two in this "seasonal" series will make it into English. Havana Black started me wondering about the social setting of noir fiction in general. Surely, noir is a Capitalist form of art. The classic statements of noir relied on greedy capitalists and bureaucrats and on a free-market of crime and morality at street level. But there could hardly be a more "noir" atmosphere than the Communist Cuba of Padura's novels. Here the deprivation of the common people is enforced by socialist structural mandates rather than not-so-benign neglect (as would be true in democratic noir. But the darkness is even more enveloping, along with the pessimisn and despair--there's a hurricane coming and Conde keeps wishing for it to wipe things clean, an ongoing metaphor that overlaps the end of the novel, with the hurricane just arriving. Conde, this time, is investigating the murder of a former Cuban (now emigre) bureaucrat who had been in charge of distributing the property expropriated from the fleeing Cuban middle class after the revolution. The decadence of morals that was the theme of Havana Red here shifts into a decadence of politics, with the expropriators expropriating the state's newly stolen property. The consequeneces of that decadence are still reverberating in the Cuba of recent decades, in Padura's novel (originaly published in Spain in 1998). Padura's language, though, relies on a rich and allusive indirection rather than the terse, stripped-down language of classic pulp-era noir. Padura is often nostalgic and poetic in his evocation of Cuban despair. He is no less pessimistic about Miami's Little Havana, as well. His detective, his Cuba, and his noir fiction are all stuck in a politiical trap: on the one hand the decaying Cuba of the embargo and on the other hand the soul-less emigre community of fat, rich Miami. In perhaps a symbol of the situation, more than in a clue to the crime, the former Cuban, former bureaucrat's body is found not only murdered but castrated: perhaps Cuba continues to grab hold of the emigres in just that way, preventing them from moving forward creatively into a new world by their nostalgia for a Cuba that no longer exists (and will not exist even if Fidel is pushed aside, since the past is past). The complex metaphor is echoed in a complex and layered writing style. The novel does not flow easily, in the style of pulp noir, but slowly, in a layered prose that includes history (not only of Cuba's 50-year Communist experiment, but also of the Spanish colonial era, South America in the post-colonial era, and even Chinese history), current social reality (the shortages and difficulties of today's Havana), and the life story of Mario Conde in its Cuban revolutionary context of deprivation and total state control. There are echoes and insinuations of The Maltese Falcon and even adventure novels like King Solomon's Mines, as well as a reflexive joke concerning the main character's inability to conceive of himself as a literary character (and the novel itself rounds off with a reflexive flourish, the Conde tetralogy eating its own tail, so to speak). Ultimately, this novel is about Conde himself, as the representative of a "lost generation" of Cubans who stayed on, neither willing to leave nor endorsing the revolution. The reflexevity, the melancholy, and the rich style of the writing are all in the service of that portrait of a generation.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Jakob Arjouni

There have been a number of German crime novels translated recently (from Bitter Lemon Press and others), and I thought I'd go back to one of the first German noir novels to be translated, Jakob Arjouni's Happy Birthday, Turk! Arjouni's novel predates the marvelous Violetta, by Pieke Bierman (set in Berlin in the first days after the Wall came down). Philip Kerr's noir series set in Nazi Germany have been around a while, but Arjouni's Detective Kayankaya is definitely the senior noir detective of German crime fiction, at least as translated into English. And Kayankaya is definitely a noir anti-hero, of the classic variety. He's pretty good in a fight but is ultimately on the losing end of the violence around him. The clients for his private detective business are the outsiders, not the insiders, of the German miracle (in the case of this first novel they are Turkish immigrants, like Kayankaya himself (the detective is, like the author, a German citizen who speaks no Turkish). The plot wanders through the underground drug and sex trade of Frankfurt and winds its way back to the immigrant community: one of the strengths of this short novel is its unsentimental view of all segments of the German society in the '80s. It's a short book, but pared down to essentials rather than leaving anything out. The terseness suits the noir genre as well as the straight-ahead character of the first-person narrator-hero. At the end, Kayankaya is battered, has a clear moral view that is tangential to the legalities of the murder he's supposed to be investigating, and single-minded in maneuvering his enemies toward some kind of justice. Rereading Happy Birthday, Turk! was if anything more rewarding than reading it the first time, and I'm motivated to continue with the next 2 Kayankaya novels, the only ones translated, as far as I know. Arjouni has a couple of other books in translation, but one is short stories that are apparently fables of a sort and a novel of Berlin that includes crime and criminals but is really a "rootless youth" novel rather than noir.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Breaking my own rules: new Pelecanos novel

My rule is that I only review non-U.S. crime fiction here, but I'm going to break my own rule for a novel that is not only based in the U.S., it's based in my own neighborhood. George Pelecanos lives in and writes about the same neighborhood, from suburban Maryland to the city of Washington, that I live in and work in. So if I'm breaking the rule, I'm breaking it all the way, shifting from distant lands to my own back yard. The Night Gardener is Pelecanos's best novel so far. I started reading his books after he'd published 4 novels, a trilogy about a private detective and a stand alone noir thriller that recalled the great days of pulp noir (Shoe Dog). One of the pleasures of reading them was seeing familiar streets and places through the lens of noir fiction, but his books had considerable power from the beginning, as noir and as portraits of the Capitol area. Powerful though they were, Pelecanos's earlier novels (not only those first four but throughout the first half, roughly, of his output) shared a common structure: a troubled good guy becomes disillusioned with the ability of the forces of law to deal with a criminal, and he assembles a group of friends to take justice into his own hands, vigilante style. The books typically ended with a bloodbath, and along the way there was much incidental material about popular music, bars, and drunks, as well as an atmosphere of despair. The Night Gardener has a shoot-out toward the end, much like the earlier novels, but the incident only resolves one of the plot lines, and is related to revenge in the drug trade, not the act of an avenging (flawed) hero. And this is the first book in which Pelecanos seriously investigates the world of homicide police (as well as the first book, apparently, that is based on research with a police force, DC's Metropolitan Police). The book is complex and compelling, dealing with a murder that for several reasons conjures up memories of an earlier murder spree that was never solved and thus pulling together two retired cops and a working detective who were at one of the crime scenes related to that earlier murder. None of the details fo the story adhere to a stock plot, and the resolution is satisfying without being cliche (the solving of the contemporary murder is particularly nuanced). There are flaws, to my mind, in Pelecanos's writing that are also evident here: some of his family men are a bit smug about family life, as is the narrator. And there's a strain of homophobia that is ineffectively countered here by a couple of politically correct speeches by leading characters--not enough to overcome Pelecanos's portrait of a couple of gay or gay-ish characters. The only positive gay character is dead. And Pelecanos is very self-righteous about redevelopment of the city and its suburbs, editorializing about the kinds of bars he likes and dislikes, the kinds of development he disapproves of, and so forth. But you can't say he hides his opinions, and if you step into his world, his stories are compulsively readable. If you haven't read his work, this most recent one is a good place to start--it recapitulates a number of his themes but in a more effective way than he's done before. Perhaps he's taken some lessons from the excellent HBO noir-detective series The Wire, for which he's been a producer and writer.

Friday, August 04, 2006

New Sicilian crime novel

With Rounding the Mark, Andrea Camilleri steps more closely into the territory of Leonardo Sciascia. Like Sciascia, Camilleri in this novel uses actual events to bracket his story and takes an explicit stand on national politics. But Camilleri's tone is very different overall. For Sciascia, much is unspoken; he uses little dialogue, mostly describing and implying events in the narrator's voice. At the time Sciascia was writing, that stance was an explicit metaphor of Sicilian realities, in particular the famous "omerta," the vow of silence with which the mafia imposed its own principles and its own place in Sicilian reality on everyone else. Camilleri's Sicily has changed, at least somewhat. A great deal of any Camilleri novel is dialogue, and there is much discussion of current realities, even those of the mafia. The newest of the Commissario Montalbano series, Sicilian police procedurals, is out in English. The Italian title is more literally "rounding the buoy," actually. As has previously been the case, this book revolves around the sea, seafood, trafficking (of goods and people), and Montalbano's friends and cohorts. Though the crime is very dark, and the mood, health, and personal life of Montalbano are all dark, the tone is typical of the series: light, often comic, and always concerned with food. One of the contributors to Montalbano's black mood is in fact the closing of his favorite trattoria. It's in the interplay of the ensemble (here it's Augero and Fazio plus the irrepressible Catarello from the police, plus a Swedish woman who's been in a few of the previous novels) and their conversation that provide the comedy. The plot, also as usual, moves in fits and starts, less a logical investigation than an accumulation of events and facts that eventually leads to a satisfying conclusion. In this case, as in some but not all of the others, there is a police raid that has almost James Bond overtones, though with more human than superspy in terms of the characters' capabilities and motives. Camilleri's novels are short, enjoyable, and offer a window on coastal Sicily, all very good things. I'm beginning to get a little tired of the English translator, Stephen Sartarelli's use of dialect to mimic the Sicilian dialect of the Italian original: there's no real equivalent in English, and the result makes Catarella in particular sound like a hillbilly from Brooklyn. But the Italian and Sicilann phrases and the dishes in the trattoria (helpfully explained in the notes) are a delight, and the series moves ahead at full speed with Rounding the Mark.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Italian noir, late fascist era

Carte Blanche is the first novel of a trilogy set in Northern Italy at the end of the Fascist era. Commisario De Luca, the hero of the trilogy, has recently transferred from the political police to the regular police, but politics continues to intrude on his investigation of the murder of a well-connected but shadowy Fascist, and De Luca becomes involved with a fortune-teller, the underworld, the falling government, and the pursuing partisans. There are echoes of The Conformist, but Lucarelli's sleep-deprived cop is more self aware than Moravia's Fascist agent, and the novel refers more to classic noir fiction than to Moravia. Plus De Luca is at the Northern periphery, not the Roman center, of Fascism, keeping things at street level rather than the marble halls and ballrooms (or mission to Paris) familiar from readers of Moravia's novel or viewers of the Bertolluci movie based on it--though the linkages among sex, drugs, and violence are prominent features of Lucarelli's novel as well as Moravia's. Carte Blanche is, in spite of its complicated plot, very short and moves very fast. Not having seen them, I'm guessing that the 2 sequels will round out the story, and that the trilogy is in effect a novel in three sections--but the vagaries of the publication of novels in translation don't allow us to see the whole story yet. What we do have in English now, thanks to Europa Editions, is a fascinating glimpse into one of Italy's most troubled eras, and into a character whose origins is suggested in Lucarelli's fascinating introduction. This novel is quite different from the Inspector Grazia Negro series by Lucarelli (two of which have been translated), which are serial killer thrillers set in Bologna (I've talked about them previously in this blog). A brief preview of an upcoming post: Rounding the Mark, the new Montalbano story by Andrea Camilleri, is out in English now, and a copy is waiting for me--so you'll see something about Sicilian noir soon.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Deadfolk and rural noir

Even more than Daniel Woodrell's backwoods noir, Charlie Williams's novels set in the town of Mangel are the true descendants of Jim Thompson's rural version of noir. Deadfolk is not a new book, but is so distinctive that it warrents (like the odd Harpur and Iles series) further consideration. Williams's hero (though using that word in this case stretches it beyond all recognition) is Royston Blake, a small-time gangster and club doorman, who has lost his nerve and is letting a local gang ride all over him. The book is one of the most violent of all the current (very violent) crop of British noir, and also very funny. The distinct voice in the novel is the heavy local dialect of Blake himself, the first-person narrator. This use of dialect is itself funny, and it is used here very effectively, but it does get old after a while. A reviewer compared Deadfolk (unflatteringly) to the very different novel by Magnus Mills, All Quiet on the Orient Express, which does not use dialect and (despite a murder) is less a crime novel than a fable. But Mills's novel and Williams's are both about towns that seem to trap their occupants totally and inexorably, and both are closed fictional worlds, without any real reference to a recognizable outer world. That kind of thing can be very effective but also very brittle. Mills's book is less funny, but also less brittle. Williams's world is fascinating in the same way a car wreck is fascinating: it's difficult to turn your head away, but the rewards of looking are a bit ambiguous. Deadfolk is a distinct accomplishment but perhaps not one that will invite everyone (myself included) for another visit.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Wolves of Memory, Bill James

There's a new Harpur and Iles book, just out in the U.S. Bill James (his nom-de-plume for this series) is at least as prolific as ken Bruen, but a bit more polished--or perhaps the difference is that the Harpur and Iles books are a strict formula. The novels are static, set in a pattern established in the first 6 or 8 novels (Iles only appears in a small role in the first one, though the peculiar sexual and vicious quality of the series is evident even there--what hasn't developed yet in that first act is the oblique patter between Harpur and Iles, and the constant interrupton of the dominant speaker, whether cop or villain, in dialogue with his underlings). The structure of each novel is very interesting, though--not straightforward at all. James focuses on dialogue, rather than action, and he often joins a dialogue in the middle, and after an event that only becomes clear gradually, in flashback or in the context of the conversation in the "present" tense of the book. The "jerky" quality that this process gives the narrative is a perfect complement to the very odd quality of many of the conversations, in which set-pieces that reveal the character of the characters, particularly the barely restrained viciousness of Assistant Chief Constable Iles, are repeated within a book and from book to book. The plot of a particular novel progresses in the background of these conversations and set pieces. In this latest, James departs from his more common formula, involving local gangsters and their attempts to keep up a balance among themselves and with the police in order to keep their trade going at full steam. In Wolves of Memory, the plot involves an informant from London, a sort of accidental supergrass, whose relocation is under Iles's jurisdiction. Iles predictably takes up a predatory pose toward the supergrass's wife, and there is much philosophical parody regarding (of all people) Thomas Hobbes, among others. As is also typical of the Harpur and Iles books, Harpur is closer to what's actually happening, in spite of his almost passive approach to gathering evidence, and the story takes several surprising, even shocking turns. At the heart of the story is the question of identity, and how it relates to real or constructed identity, particularly with respect to the grass's young children, who must unlearn their identities in order to adopt new ones. The struggle of the children achieves a kind of painful, hysterical comedy that is one of the rewards of this series--though the repetitive quality of each novel and of the series can be a little mind-numbing once you've been through James's mill a few times. But Wolves of Memory reaches a satisfying, unexpected, even startling conclusion, so stay the course--the darkness and the comedy reach an apotheosis by the end.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

More Scandinavians

Two new Scandinavian crime novels have arrived, Never End, by Åke Edwardson, and What is Mine, by Anne Holt. This post will deal with the former, and I'll get to the second one next week. I didn't much like Edwardson's first novel in English (Sun and Shadow, see the post on Scandinavian noir in my August 2005 archive). But Never End is much better--less of the "soap opera" of the detective's home life, more about the social situation (the "New Swedes," as they are politely termed in the novel--immigrants that are a new feature of contemporary life for Sweden). The novel is a straight-ahead police procedural focused on an investigation that seems to be going nowhere for most of the novel (something like what I think is the best of the Walander books, the first one). And there is an interesting reversal of the usual pattern in noir and crime fiction. Normally, the story begins with a measure of complexity, which is resolved into a clear picture of events as the detectives find out more and more. In Never End, the case keeps getting more and more complicated as the facts are (almost grudgingly) revealed. Even the somewhat abrupt conclusion leaves more murders, more crimes, more diverse involvement in events than any reader would have expected at the beginning. One other improvement over Sun and Shadow--Edwardson's telegraphic style is used to better advantage in Never End, giving a breathless quality to the story as it advances, and providing a linear drive that is lacking in the stories diverging links. One irritating tic in the book--the detectives return again and again (and again) to a grotto in the park, where current and former victims were raped and murdered, to meditate on the crime. Enough would have been enough. I almost didn't bother with Never End, due to my dislike of Sun and Shadow--but my change of mind is amply rewarded in the pleasure of this second book in English from Edwardson's "Erik Winter" series. One further comment--U.S. reviewers frequently complain of the dour, serious quality of Scandinavian crime fiction, and I believe it was the New York Times crime reviewer, Marilyn Stasio, who made that complaint about Never End in particular. But while the novel is no laugh fest, there is relief in terms of the personalities of the characters, and the somber quality of the story is an interesting aspect of the newly developing Scandinavian noir--in the case of Never End, the darkness is maintained even in the long days of the Swedish summer.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Literary noir from New Zealand

Departure Lounge, by Chad Taylor, is in the noir mode, and it's very well written--but ultimately its aims are more literary than noir. It can even stand up to a literary analysis, as an allegory of (as is often the case with literary fiction) the writing of literary fiction. A writer is a kind of thief, stalking people, invading their homes, and rummaging around in their stuff. That's exactly what Mark Chamberlain, Taylor's first-person narrator, does. But on one of his forays into other people's lives, he runs across a memory from his own, by stepping into the apartment of the recently deceased father of one of his schoolmates, Caroline, a girl who simply disappeared one day. The rest of the novel could be read (again if you are into literary analysis) as a series of tropes that show the ways of telling a story: the noir surface narrative, the family narrative, the urban legend, the rumors (such as, in this case, brought false news of the girl's whereabouts to the police and to her schoolmates), as well as photography and film as modes of narrative (standing in for the visual arts as a whole, represented by a gallery exhibition in which the photos and film are shown). The novel is not a pastiche of these ways of telling a story, though--Taylor's narrator stays in character as a noir hero, shifting ground only in flashbacks to the disappearance of Caroline and to related events in his youth. All the other forms of narrative are referred to, as alternate tales or alternate endings to the one being presented. And, in literary fashion, the multiple threads of the tale are never wound together, and the reader is left to his/her own thoughts about the story and what might have been "true," how either Caroline's or Mark's story might end. I've complained about literary noir before, in particular about the usual failure of the writer to get to the meat of noir fiction by condescending to the form. Taylor doesn't quite do that, although he violates some of the expectations of the genre (for a resolution, for example--though of course The Maltese Falcon doesn't exactly resolve itself). And the writing is beautiful but simple, appropriate to the kind of noir and the kind of the literature that the author is striving for. It would even make a good movie, but it would be more like Blowup than The Big Sleep, more like Blowup than Blowout, even. And to refer back to a comparison I've made recently, the novel is more like Faulkner's Sanctuary than Chase's No Orchids for Miss Blandish, though Taylor is both clearer in his style and more respectful to the form of noir than Faulkner. It is typical of Taylor's intentions that his title refers not to anything concrete in the novel but to a metaphor that is used by the narrator to describe an "in between" state of being neither here nor there, a philosophical description of the characters' state and of human life, when looked at through a philosophical lens. Taylor has at least 3 other novels published, though only one, Shirker, is available widely in the U.S. (or elsewhere, as far as I can tell, outside New Zealand). Shirker sounds like a more extravagant departure from noir, including travel to other dimensions of reality--I've sent for it so I'll let you know, though I'm usually not too enthusiastic about that sort of genre-mixing.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A Greek crime novel

Nightmare in Athens, by Petros Markaris, is the first crime novel I've run across that's set in modern Greece. Markaris's main character is Costas Haritas, a detective in the Athens police, and the novel sticks to his first-person narration. At first, the novel has something in common with Donna Leon's books--Haritas has a nincompoop boss, whose attractive secretary helps out Haritas, and the detective's home life is a big part of the book. But unlike Leon's detective, Haritas and his wife tolerate one another at best, and their only child is away in medical school. And though the story starts out toward a Leon-like dissection of the injustices of a judicial system that is tilted toward the wealthy and influential, Markaris's tale veers into his own territory with a plot that becomes increasingly complicated as each likely suspect is set aside in favor of another, and as the original crime is set aside in favor of subsequent murders. the tale expands in this fashion until it ultimately comes back around to the story's beginning, and if the complicated passages (and some of the names that are a bit too much alike to an American ear) bog the reader down, there is a payoff in staying with it for the resolution of all the threads (if not a judicial resolution). Like some other books I've reviewed recently, this one is not a "least likely suspect" story (and yet it is). There's no thread of clues, opposed by red herrings, that will lead a reader to discover the truth before the detective does, and yet many of you may figure out who the final "reveal" will reveal as the murderer. But it's the slow investigation, the complexities of Greek history and social life, and the personalities of detectives, victims, and suspects that carry the novel forward, and what begins as a more straightforward mystery ends in the territory of noir, with dark overtones coming from all directions (albeit a few melodramatic overtones as well).

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Framed, by Tonino Benacquista

Framed, the third novel in translation from French crime-writer and film writer Tonino Benacquista, fulfills the promise of his first novel, Holy Smoke, much more than the second novel, Someone Else. But Framed is very different from Holy Smoke (and from the Highsmith-y Someone Else). If you want the further adventures of the comic hero of Holy Smoke, in translation, you'll have to read the subtitles of a film from a couple of years ago, Love Bites. Framed is not a series novel, but it is indeed noir fiction, in the tradition of, perhaps, David Goodis. Antoine (the trick of naming his hero "almost" after himself is not intrusive here or in Holy Smoke) keeps his day job, as an art handler in a contemporary art gallery, and his night passion, for billiards, completely separate--his friends in one world know nothing of the other world. Unlike the choice that classic noir would surely have made, most of the novel focuses on the day world (dark though it indeed is) rather than the billiard hall. The choice is telling: Benacquista lets us know that he knows where his tale would traditionally be told, and indeed comes back to that world for his denoument; but he shifts the focus into a new realm for noir, fully and realistically rendered (if quite cynically portrayed). Framed is a short and fast novel, a fun read, and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett

There is a genre of crime novels that includes (as one of its characteristics) a close focus on police rather than on the traditions fo the mystery, police procedurals that take seriously the cop's point of view, in form as well as in the profession of the protagonist. Dog Day, by Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, is one of those crime novels. There is a mystery, just as for any police investigation, but there is no series of clues, no unveiling of the "least likely suspect." There is no reason for a reader to pick out the murder or murderes in this story from the rest of the characters. The crime is clarified through successive discoveries of evidence and witnesses, gradually, as if a lens were gradually being focused on the crime. The discoveries are not prefigured or hinted at before the police themselves reach the point of disclosure. There is an element of dramatic irony (a trope characterized by the audience knowing more than the characters), in that surely a reader (an American reader anyway) who will guess a crucial fact of the investigation long before the police do (I won't tell you what that fact is, but it has to do with dogs, like much of the plot of Dog Day). But for the most part, Gimenez-Bartlett stays narrowly focused on her detective, Inspector Petra Delicado, the first-person narrator. We follow everything through her eyes: the facts of the attack that begins the case and the subsequently discovered dog-thefts; the people met (and relationships begun) in the course of the story; the irritations of her relationship with her sergeant/partner; and the meanings that the case takes on for Petra and the other characters (insofar as she understands them). The writing is much more direct than in the most famous Spanish detective series, the novels of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, whose books are to me less satisfying as "noir fiction" or crime novels than those of Giménez-Bartlett (Vazquez Montalban is too digressive, too indirect for me--his concern frequently seems to be mostly with a pair of problems--what's for dinner and what are the political implications of a crime). Although the Montalbano novels of Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri are (like the name of his policeman) based upon Camilleri's fondness for Vazquez Montalban's novels, Camilleri's books are (like those of Giménez-Bartlett, based on the only example to be translated thus far) more direct and more enjoyable, though both he and she share the older novelist's penchant for specifying what's for dinner (and lunch) and both, like Vazquez Montalban, are careful to include the social environment as both setting and ultimate cause of events. Giménez-Bartlett in particular evokes Spanish fatalism in the face of the horrors as well as the pleasures of life--and her detective's cheerful fatalism maintains the true noir spirit even in the most light-hearted or comic episodes of her novel. I will put Giménez-Bartlett on the lenghtening list of novelists in other languages for whose translations I will await impatiently (and thanks to Europa editions for bringing her books and those of other crime novelists into English).

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pessimism in Noir--a question

I think of noir fiction as being characterized by pessimism as much as anything else: there's no assumption of the "goodness" of man or of the possibility of achieving any kind of purity in life. Noir is about the impure streets, and one of the differences between noir and conventional mystery fiction is that the middle-class characters of the conventional mystery drive through the streets without stopping. The "cozy," characterized by drawing rooms, libraries, and the other trappings of Agatha Christie and the Clue board game, is the model for that sub-genre of crime that I'm lumping together as "mystery fiction." Some books, of course, cross back and forth across that line. Simenon, for example, peoples his novels with middle and lower middle class characters, yet there is a pervasive atmosphere of the streets (and of pessimism) in his Maigret novels (though these often hinge on that staple of the cozy mystery, the assembly of all the characters in a climactic unveiling of the Truth), and the non-Maigret novels are often claustrophobic family dramas of the lower-middle class (the home is in these novels a merciless trap rather than a refuge). I'm reminded of my taste for pessimism in noir by one more factor that irritates me in The Priest of Evil, which I've just commented on in the previous post. The villain in Joensuu's novel controls his victims by means of telepathy and hypnotism, unexplained by any other "daylight" version of what he's doing. He is even able to murder one victim through hypnotism, though I've heard that you can't actually make a hypnotized person do something that he or she would not be able to make him/herself do awake. The "spiritualist" aspect of The Priest of Evil harks back to the dawn of the mystery novel, in Poe, Wilkie Collins, etc., and that is not in itself a bad thing. Bringing that sense of menace to contemporary stories is an accomplishment to be envied. However, to speak more specifically about noir fiction, I don't think spiritualism has an appropriate place in this genre; fatalism, yes, even karma. But telepathy? Let me know what you think.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Matti-Yrjana Joensuu

Matti-Yrjänä Joensuu is that rare commodity, a working policeman writing police procedurals. The police portions of his novels are as correct and convincing as you would imagine they would be. But there are some problems with his recently translated The Priest of Evil. First a small thing that I find annoying whenever this sort of thing happens in a novel. The author (or translator, but in the circumstances I lay the error at the feet of the writer and his editor) portrays two detectives staring at sections of CCTV surveillance videotape with a magnifying glass, investigating the images of a murder suspect frame by frame. It's a technical thing, perhaps, but if you think about it for even a second, you should realize that there are no images on videotape that can be seen with a magnifying glass, not frame by frame or any other way. He's thinking film, but of course no one uses film in closed circuit cameras in public places (in this case the Helsinki Underground). That mistake doesn't make me throw the book across the room--not quite. The other problem with this novel is bigger. Joensuu spreads the story and the narrator's point of view across several characters in addition to his detective, Harjunpää (his detective in nine novels, only one of which has previously been translated, some years ago, as The Stone Murders--see my earlier post). The splintered narrative is hard to follow at first, and then hard to stay interested in. The effort is ultimately rewarded as the narrative begins to pick up speed, but there are lots of repetitions in both the killer's religious iconography and the detectives' rehash of the clues. Repetition is one of the tricks of the fiction trade (you have to remind the reader of what's gone before because the novel is too long to expect the reader to remember everything), but too much repetition of details can clog up the narrative--as it does for a long time here. The murderer/priest is one of the narrators, and his delusions are intricate but not particularly credible as a paranoid fantasy. The other characters, two children and the father of one of them, are caught up in Joensuu's extended portrait of unhappy families and awful parents (Joensuu, judging from this novel and The Stone Murders, is very interested in families and children, and the socioeconomic framework that supports them). There is also an evident attempt at reflexivity: one of the children is named Matti, and his father is a novelist with a triple name--both factors that point to Joensuu having placed himself metaphorically in the narrative on the side of the civilian-victims rather than his detective or villain. That reflexivity, and his interest in families, suggest that unhappy families, divorce, and family violence and retribution are important to Joensuu. But he doesn't make them all that interesting, and his story is a bit earnest for my taste (none of the wild, dry Finnish humor of the Raid TV series--see my earlier post--or the movies of the Kaurasmaki brothers. And one more complaint: the print in this English version fo the novel is too small, a factor that isn't always irritating, but when I'm already irritated with a book, it makes reading the text all that more a trial instead of a treat. But all my complaints and reservations apply for the most part to the considerable effort of getting involved in The Priest of Evil. If you stick with it, somewhere around halfway through the book the narrative picks up speed, begins to make more sense, and sucks you into the inevitable progress of the characters toward one another and toward a climax. The improvement in the book is proportional to the amount of space given to the detectives rather than the killer, who never really comes alive in spite of his malevolent potential. The conclusion contains several surprises and develops from the author's concern for families rather than a straightforward plot--though because of that shift away from the conventional detective novel, the ending is not what you expect. Altogether, I'm glad I persisted through the novel, but it could have been as good as its best passages, but it unfortunately isn't. And of the Euro-Crime series published by Arcadia Books that I've already read (including the quite excellent Dominique Manotti novels from France) this one is the least satisfying as a whole.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Self's Punishment

I promised a Finnish novel next (The Priest of Evil), but first...Bernhard Schlink, best known in the U.S. because Oprah Winfrey chose his book The Reader for her book club, wrote Self's Punishment, a detective novel, with Walter Popp in the late '80s, roughly the era in which the novel is set. Though Oprah's endorsement usually signals the middle-brow, The Reader was not so well received by some of her fans--who found it intellectual rather than oriented toward a story. Evidently Schlink has written other crime novels, but none have yet been translated into English. Based on Self, I'd like to see the others. Self's Punishment is as close to classic noir, in the strain from Marlowe to Chinatown, as it is possible to be in a contemporary (more or less--the novel is from before the fall of the Wall and seems a little quaint because so much has happened since then) German context. Self's name is Selb in German, and the name really needn't have been translated--the existential or psychological import of the translated name is not necessary, or even helpful, to the novel. And as is too common, the title is changed from something like "Selb's Justice" to Self's Punishment--which is also not really helpful. Self is a retired Nazi prosecutor who became a private investigator after the war. The novel is not, however, about the progress of a detective in the difficult years after the war or the years of the German miracle. It's about the past returning to bite him in the course of a routine investigation late in his career. The one false note (and I'll have to be careful not to reveal too much in this comment) is that he would have been chosen by his former school friend, Korten, to investigate a security breach in the Chemical firm Korten now heads. It might also be considered a flaw that Self is very good in hand-to-hand combat, considering his age--except that he's succesful more in anticipating his opponent than any fancy technique or physical power--and the fistfights keep the noir character of the novel at the forefront rather than the author's literary ambitions (noir being a physical medium more than a primarily intellectual one). Self, like Germany (a point made explicitly in the novel) has elided his guilt as a participant in the Nazi horror by immersing himself in the daily life of the post-War. The connection with the ambience of Marlowe and Chinatown develops slowly, in the very "daily," even quotidian investigation and life of the elderly detective. What develops is not so much sympathy for Self as immersion in the dailiness of his life on the part of the reader. So that when his investigation results in a death (perhaps more than one) and finally leads to its conclusion, it involves the reader in the network of guilt, politics, and history that Self is mired in. Self's Punishment is a quiet book rather than a sensational one, and the power of its central premise is more powerfully told than in the more typical melodrama of thrillers that try to evoke politics and history. Forget the Oprah connection--this is a book that is effective as noir, as narrative, and as a novel.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Finnish thriller by Kjell Westo (maybe not so thrilling)

My wife and I have this discussion about TV cop shows: I can't stand it when there's a lot of "soap opera" about the cops' private lives. That's why I like Law & Order and don't like NYPD Blue. And it's why I don't like a certain kind of novel, whether it aspires to noir or not. Too much "soap opera" impedes what Paul Cain referred to in the title of his classic (and classically depressing) A Fast One. The best noir progresses inexorably toward its conclusion. Kjell Westö's novel Lang starts out great: The narrator, an old friend of the Lang of the title, is woken up in the middle of the night by a panicky Lang who needs to borrow a shovel. Great, I say to myself, this has the ring of violence and also comedy--maybe this is another Getting Rid of Mister Kitchen (see earlier posts). But alas no. This is that dreaded sub-genre, the literary thriller. Simply speaking those words condemns the novel, in my lexicon. Too many "art" novelists think they can write a crime novel and when they do, it comes out baggy or full of "soap opera." Westö's Lang mentions the novelist Joyce Carol Oates favorably (while disparaging his girlfriend for reading Bridget Jones's Diary instead). But Westö's novel is a bit too much like an Oates novel, arty perhaps, but not much of a thriller. The novel is in fact a mystery-woman novel of the sort pioneered by Lawrence Durrell in his Justine. Lang's lover, Sarita, has mysterious secrets that make her, at her core, unavailable to Lang. But the real mystery is why she would indulge this pretentious asshole (a novelist and talk-show host) as much as she does. Westö does make fun of his character as a pretentious bore, and he distances the narrative by having a narrator who is a friend, assembling the story from notes that Lang sends him from prison (the end of the shovel incident being foretold in the nature of the narrative). There are also several interesting or comic literary conceits (the letters from prison, not presented directly but referred to by the narrator, recall Humbert's prison confession in Lolita; and the narrator includes a review of his own earlier work written by Lang--a highly unfavorable review). That's all very clever, but how much of the back-and-forth sexual relationship and mysterious former husband do we really have to sit through before the tale of the shovel comes back into the foreground. Writers of art novels do periodically think they can write noir, without realizing that the genre is note a mere finger exercise that they can toss off, or a genre without its own imperatives into which they can simply pour their usual literary interests. The effective crime novel is an art of its own, entertainment perhaps (like the Bridget Jones that Lang disparages though to me an entertainment of broader concerns and interests); But not an entertainment that is simple to imitate. Westö is a Swedish-speaking Finn, part of a linguistic minority within a very distinctive culture--I was hoping for more from his contribution to the crime novel. Next, I'm reading a Finnish language crime novel--maybe that one will be better (and I'm not saying anything about the conclusion of Lang--if anyone cares, leave me a note and I'll add something about it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Allan Guthrie and one comment on Derek Raymond

A couple of readers have mentiond Derek Raymond's Department of Unexplained Deaths or "factory" novels, and that they're being reprinted by Serpent's Tail (more kudos to Serpent's Tail). I should have gone into some detail about Raymond, but it's been a while since I've read them. A good excuse to go back--my memory is that they're noir to a depth that is almost surreal. I just read Allan Guthrie's first novel, Two Way Split, and it has a surreal side, too. The complex, fragmented narrative has a secret lurking at its center, revealed in the denouement. Even before that secret is revealed the narrative has a weird movement that contributes, rather than retards, its motion forward as well as its noir atmosphere. When the secret IS revealed, the novel tips into a milieu that has only been hited at earlier--has anyone read Jim Thompson's asylum comedy, The Alcoholics? It's a wild and funny surreal noir comedy, and Guthrie's first novel takes a step in that direction, as well as a step in the direction of Thompson's more straight noir novels. The sequel is much more straightforward, but still a pleasure--while Two Way Split is perhaps a more distinctive accomplishment. Check out Guthrie's extensive website, Noir Originals, which has a great deal of information about other authors as well.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Stuart MacBride and a more general observation

I'm reading Stuart MacBride's Cold Granite (at a reader's suggestion) and not quite done yet. But since I'm not doing plot summaries anyway, I'm going to go ahead and post (since I'll be away from my computer for a few days). Reading Cold Granite is kind of like watching a very good cop movie or TV series, really more Joseph Wambaugh than Thomas Harris, even though the novel deals with a serial killer situation. MacBride keeps careful control of point of view, only leaving his main character's perspective for the occasional preview of a crime scene. That control is a key to the success of MacBride's approach, which is both light and dark, comic and menacing. And, like Wambaugh but unlike even McBain, MacBride captures the flow of personalities, events, non-events, irrelevant occurrences, and false leads that can make a cop story both fun and revealing (not just about cops but about the larger social setting). Cold Granite is set in Aberdeen (the Granite City, apparently) and the setting is gritty and wet (the author all but apologises to the citizens of Aberdeen in an foreword). But the focus is on personality, which allows the comedy to develop naturally (again, as in Wambaugh--though no one would describe a Wambaugh novel as "noir," I think, and MacBride does come closer to the topic of this blog). I'm looking forward to more of MacBride, when I can get my hands on the later novels. One thing about Cold Granite is that it seems to be catching the detectives in mid-series, as if the reader has known about some of the back-story that comes out in little bits through the book--it's an effective device to lure the reader into a series novel without indulging in the kind of "mythologizing," a la, for example, the first episode of the Lone Ranger (if any of you readers remembers that, or if it's still circulating somewhere in the ionosphere). You feel as if you know these characters already.
The general observation is more of a question--I've been thinking about gratuitous, sadistic violence after reading Simon Kernick's novels. There's one passage, a kind of throwaway character analysis that Kernick does a lot, in which a man casually tortures another man with a hot steam iron. The torture is not essential to the novel, just to the character description, and somehow the sadism is more pointed, more sadistic than if it were part of the main thread of the story. Though there's certainly a lot of violence in noir fiction, is there a place for such casual sadism?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Couple more by Simon Kernick

I promised a couple more UK novels before going back to the Continent, and here are a couple by Kernick--but there's one more UK work (from Scotland) still in my pipeline before we move on to Finland: Stuar Macbride was recommended to me by one of this blog's readers, and I've gotten hold of a copy that looks very tantalizing. But first, as they say: Simon Kernick has 5 novels out now, I think, but I've only read through #3. I reported on #1 earlier, but here I'll just say a few words about The Murder Exchange and The Crime Trade, two almost unbelievably complicated cops-and-mobsters stories. Kernick uses a first person narrator, one of his detectives, for some of the narrative and third-person for others, and in the case of The Crime Trade this device leads to what I would consider a flaw--the annoying withholding of information. Of course, all "mystery" writers withhold information. But when Kernick follows an undercover cop, in great detail throughout the novel and withholds a large piece of his life and character from the reader, I feel a bit betrayed. The Murder Exchange is, I think, a better novel with a (for sure) bigger payoff in the fast and violent conclusion, but it is even more complicated than its sequel--Kernick relies on an Afterword to tie up all the things he hasn't been able to deal with in his narrative. Kernick's novels have a lot to like, and there are frequently very funny and very violent passages (often at the same time), but so far all of his novels have alternated these parts with long longeurs, to my mind, and the novels could have used some judicial editing--they're a bit too long as well as too complicated, and I tend to lose interest in the repetitious dialogue that he has to indulge in to keep the details of the plot in the forefront of the reader's mind.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cathi Unsworth and what's next

I'm going to talk about a couple more UK writers (the one shown here is the U.S. cover, which I prefer to the original, for a book I've been saving for a while) and then it's back on the international circuit, with two writers from Finland (one writes in Swedish, the other in Finnish), a Cuban, and more. First, The Not Knowing, by Cathi Unsworth, another estimable noir novel from Serpent's Tail. TNK includes an English version of Southern Gothic, like Thomas Hardy crossed with Deliverance (or maybe Daniel Woodrell): at the heart of the novel is a novel-within-a-novel that Unsworth's heroine, Diana, takes seriously as a crime novel, though it's really more "wretched of the earth" kind of stuff. The set-up is that Diana works for a new magazine, Lux, that deals with crime fiction, music, and the culture scene (particularly the scene around what she calls "psychobilly," a marriage of punk and rockabilly that sounds fascinating (I need to do some research and find which bands or what scene she's portraying here--anybody have any ideas?). As the novel gets going, there's a spectacular murder of a filmmaker who's just made a splash with an updating of the great British gangster films of the 50s (and its success has spawned a craze for the style of the Kray twins). The texture of this aspect of the novel is wonderful--Unsworth is able to move back and forth from the film world, to publishing, to the pubs frequented by the musicians, and it's all great fun. Diana is likable, though she falls more into the role of victim than active agent or investigator (kudos to Unsworth, though, for not setting her up as an amateur detective, England is already crawling with those, to judge from the mystery lists). Also to Unsworth's credit is that the denoument doesn't involve any transformation of her heroine into a kung-fu master (mistress?) or any hero-on-a-horse--the conclusion arises from character rather than cliche. But the false heart of the novel, for me, is the novel-within-a-novel--I just can't accept it as seriously as the characters in the novel do. I'd rather be hearing more about some of the minor characters, such as 50s gangster-film star Niall Flynn, whose career was resurrected by the murdered filmmaker's success, or Detective Linehan, who is merely sketched in here, but seems likable and intimidating by turns, a good combination for noir. I'd read another book by Unsworth, though, and hope she fulfills the promise of this first book (apologies for my caveats--maybe it's just me).