Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Another English writer: Simon Kernick

Simon Kernick has 3 novels out, in the U.S., and a couple more in the U.K., but I've just discovered his work through the first of the novels, The Business of Dying. Kernick seems to be doing a quasi-series, in the same way as Deon Meyer--running characters but not the same hero (and in Kernick's case, not the same point of view), as well as doing at least one stand-alone thriller. The Business of Dying is a first-person narrative about a crooked cop: I won't go into too much detail about the structure, since there are a couple of surprises I wouldn't want to deprive anyone of--speaking of that, I don't usually read the plot summaries on the book cover if I can avoid it. I think they ruin the flow of a narrative by (sometimes erroneously) creating expectations outside the narrative's own flow. For the same reason, I don't do plot summaries here, for the most part. Kernick seems to be playing with point of view--one novel in the series shifts from one first-person narrator to another and the third novel is evidently in the third-person in at least the third novel in the series. Without a running hero, the first person is probably hard to maintain--getting into the head of a different character every time, while maintaining the same setting and some of the same characters, sounds a bit difficult, not to speak of gimmicky, in the way of Rashomon (it will be interesting to see whether the novel that does shift point of view falls into that). But back to The Business of Dying, Kernick's novel starts off with a bang (literally) and goes along pretty well for a while, but it gets repetitive and slow toward the middle third. I think the problem may be that he never really made me care much what happened to any of the characters. The main character here (and evidently also in one of the later novels in the series), Dennis Milne, turns out to be very talented or very lucky in tight spots and fights, and as such he's a bit reminiscent of Parlabane in Brookmyre's novels--but not as funny or engaging. By the time the plot picked up again in the last third, I'd almost put the book down as a lost cause. But I'm glad I didn't--when the pace picks back up, there are considerable rewards in excitement and even comedy, along with lots of corpses. A good read, but I'm reserving judgment about Kernick, overall, until I've read one or both of the subsequent novels.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

English noir: an annotated list, part 1

I focus mostly on noir fiction in translation, meaning I don't deal with English-language novels very often, but I posted a few comments on Scottish noir the other day and got some good feedback and suggestions. So I thought I'd start a list, with some comments, of the English crime fiction that I've liked. In no particular order:
Bayswater Bodycount, by Graeme Gordon: I really liked this one, about a street war between Palestinian and Jewish gangs in London, with a bunch of violent little-people thrown into the mix. I keep waiting for the 2nd novel from Gordon, billed as Barking Mad, but I guess after a number of years of being promised, this one is never going to happen.
Bayswater Bodycount was published by Serpent's Tail's Mask Noir series, edited by John Williams, and actually anything published by them (British, international, or U.S.) is good--avoiding the middle-class-cliches of genre mystery fiction in particular.
Ken Bruen--multiple titles. I liked the early novels (the Mas Noir ones) and the White trilogy, but Bruen is a real text machine, the books just keep coming. I think the volume of his writing is outpacing his ideas, because, to me, the newer books, particularly the ones set in Ireland, are affected and repetitious. Although they've gotten rave reviews here in the U.S., so who knows, maybe I'm wrong. He certainly has a distinctive voice (albeit sometimes seeming a bit too much like J.P. Donleavy).
John Milne: I think he only has three, maybe four titles, but they're all good--another down-and-out detective-hero, but done very skilfully.

Mike Ripley: I liked the first Angel novel I read, but after a while, they get a little tiresome. They're of very even quality, it's just that I got a little tired of the narrator's voice.
Lauren Henderson: I like her crime fiction, although her work was veering toward romance even before she turned to the "chick-lit" genre in her more recent work. Her first three or four crime novels had great titles (Dead White Female, etc) and a smart-ass narrator that was very likable.
Liz Evans: Not my cup of tea. Too much a series franchise, not enough substance. Same for Emer Gillespie. Same for Stella Duffy, though she's better than the other 2. I don't know why I like Lauren Henderson and not these other "Tart Noir," to use the phrase she and Duffy cooked up, it's just that she seems to have a more original voice, less of a genre series shtick. Or is it a "guy thing" that's keeping me from seeing the greatness of these female crime writers? But I think Denise Mina is a lot more original, does that do anything to keep me from being a sexist pig?
John Harvey: All of the books are well written, but I can understand why he retired the Resnick series--how far down the melancholy-unto-despair road could the character go before he either committed suicide or dragged himself out of his rut and got on with his life. But the 2 Resnick novels dealing with the Polish thief were very good, on all levels.
John B. Spencer: I've tried a couple of his novels, but I can't get into them--something cliched or stilted about them. Same for Paul Charles.
Carol Anne Davis's books are certainly dark, but they're really character studies, and the characters don't have much to recommend them.
Maxim Jakubowski: I know he's done good anthologies, but his noir fiction is just like his porn--very artificial.
Russell James: I've liked the ones I've been able to get my hands on--very cinematic, as I remember.

Charles Higson: he's gone on to do the "official" James-Bond-as-a-kid novels, which is a shame, because all of his earlier books are readable and one is a downright howlingly funny black comedy--Getting Rid of Mister Kitchen. Go read that book, and the others, too, if you have time--but that one is a wonder.
Bill James: I think I've dealt with him elsewhere--very strange and funny, but repetitive if you try to read a lot of them in a short time.
Julian Rathbone: Of course.
More later--and please leave notes with your suggested readings and additions to this list.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Jo Nesbo, The Devil's Star

The Devil's Star, by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo (blogger evidently doesn't support the slash that's supposed to be through that second "o" in the author's name) is a first class thriller and police procedural. It is a long book, but it's crammed with material, and if you think you have figured it out, just keep going--every time the book seems to settle into a comfortable genre, it changes ground again and the reader is off to the races. There are a couple of points where the plot is a bit sketchy, and one or two spots where it's even a bit difficult to see what has happened, but the thrill of the ride is worth a few bumps. Detective Harry Hole is even more down and out than the typical, classic noir hero. He has hit bottom and is only kept on the force because it's a holiday weekend and everybody else is on vacation. A grisly murder in an apartment's shower turns sinister when the murdered woman is discovered to have a red, star-shaped diamond inserted under her eyelid, as well as a finger cut off. More murders, diamonds, and stars accumulate, as well as an offer from Hole's nemesis (a detective that Hole is convinced murdered a female detective, perhaps in a previous book not yet translated--the plot has the feel of something being revisited) si suspiciously friendly, offering Harry an ambiguous job that sounds suspiciously like a vigilante operation. But Harry sobers up long enough to get serious about the case, and to yearn for the girlfriend that kicked him out. All the characters are believable and complex, and the Oslo setting is densely portrayed. Of all the police procedurals I've read recently, this one was the most involving, the most satisfying.

Scottish (or tartan) noir (in part)

There are too many writers of noir fiction in Scotland, and they're too diverse, to sum up in a single article. There's Peter Turnbull (police procedurals of a high standard by a former social worker who knows the streets, novels set in Glasgow if I remember correctly); Ian Rankin (my interest in him is growing, due to several recommendations from writers like Deon Meyer as well as a couple of pretty good BBC series made from his books--though when I read them the first time around, his novels, set in Edinburgh, didn't engage me much); Denise Mina's bleak novels of an underclass dependent on anti-depressants; Christopher Brookmyre's thrillers (the best of them are perhaps too funny to be really noir); Val McDermid is Scottish (don't know if she still lives there, though), and her novels are certainly very dark; then there's Douglas Lindsay, whom I haven't read (hard to find in U.S.) but I hear he's "darkly funny," as they say; and there's the series (several books anyway) by William McIlvanney, featuring Jack (I think that's his first name) Laidlaw--and these are the most purely, classically noir novels set in Scotland that I know of (though I'm for some reason usually less interested in organized crime villainy, very prominent in these books, that individual criminals).
There's also a large crop of mystery novels set in Scotland, more of the cosy or middle-class mystery variety than noir, going back many years--in comparison to the noir novels listed above (and their ilk) this stuff is very Nancy Drew, to me--Alex Gray or Simon Brett, for example.
What do you think? Have I missed any "real" noir novels of Scotland? Let me know--and let me know what you think about Douglas Lindsay--should I be investing in the overseas shipping to get his books?

Thursday, May 25, 2006

South African noir fiction

South African crime fiction is bracketed by two writers who started out as crime reporters, James McClure and Deon Meyer, but other than that fact the two writers and their novels have little in common. McClure is English, writes in English, and is basically a satirist. His crime novels pair up a white cop and his black sergeant, in the age of apartheid. One lives in a house, the other in a dirt-floored shack. Their interaction is strictly determined by law and custom. Their creative misuse of that law and custom is the basic premise of the series (which is overtly racist, in a satirical manner, and also sexist, but without the benefit of satire). These characters cannot survive the end of apartheid: the author suggests, as a reason that his series did not continue, that both will die in the turmoil and retribution surrounding the pre-reconciliation days: neither side is able to appreciate the characters' contribution in dealing with people regardless of apartheid, and both will take the rap for propping up the system by upholding the law in a corrupt and unjust society. Three novels by Wessel Ebersohn follow a Jewish medical examiner through the thickets of crime in a criminal society, but the bleakness of the outlook (perhaps a pessimism that the society would ever change) casts a pall over the plots. Another writer who coped with the culture by lampooning apartheid in its heyday, also in English, was Tom Sharpe, who went on to write academic comedies once he returned to England (after being kicked out of South Africa)--Sharpe's two South African novels are technically speaking police procedurals, but in fact are riotously funny travesties of life in South Africa. If satire and comedy were the only means of dealing with the realities of apartheid, noir fiction may be one of the best ways of dealing with the harsh realities (and possibly the high hopes as well) of post-apartheid South Africa. Two writers, both based in and writing about Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, despite a high crime rate, one of the safer cities in the country. One of them, another English speaker, is Michael Williams, a writing teacher whose writing is paradoxically a bit wooden. His best book is Hijack City, which pairs a younger white detective with a black mentor. Williams's portrait of racial realities in the new Cape Town, but the portrait is accurate even though the author's point of view is a bit self-righteous or politically correct. More interesting and even more accurate in catching the tone of the new reality is the work of Deon Meyer, an Afrikaans writer whose work is a fascinating window on a new Afrikaans point of view. Dead Before Dying, actually his first novel, has just arrived in the U.S., following Heart of the Hunter (actually published 3rd in its original language and in England) and Dead At Daybreak. The novels are marginally interconnected but in fact independent, not a series. In Dead at Daybreak, detective Mat Joubert is a wreck, his wife has died, he has a new boss who's a bureaucrat more than a cop, and he can't drag himself out of the bottle. His current case, through which he'll have to prove himself to his new boss, concerns murders committted with a pistol that has a long heritage in the old South Africa, and Joubert has to confront his own pain with that of the grieving families of the murder victims. But there is considerable humor as well as "tourism" in this glimpse of crime and redemption in the new South Africa. In Dead at Daybreak, former cop Zatopek van Heerden is hired as a private investigator to find the missing will of a murdered antique dealer, and in alternating chapters his own story, leading up to his partner's death, his guilt, and his leaving the force, is told. This book is more skilful perhaps than the first novel, but both stand up very well. The third book, Heart of the Hunter, concerns a reformed Xhosa assassin (whose story overlaps with van Heerden's in this book and the previous one), on the run across the country. Heart of the Hunter indulges the author's love of motorcycles, and it's a thriller plus road movie that gives a fascinating panorama of South Africa--but to me the thriller plot is less interesting (less "noir" maybe) than the 2 cop stories, though the portrayal of a black hero (even if by a white writer) is an interesting development (something similar occurs in one of the Wallander novels by Mankell, but the author is ultimately interested in another of his geopolitical plots rather than in the black character (Afrikaaner nationalism, Russian intelligence agencies, and an international plot with "high stakes"). Meyer's book is more authentic, concerning South African and his Xhosa her, but I guess Heart of the Hunter is more myth-making than noir fiction, and though the myth is told in an interesting way it's finally a bit too heroic to quite fit in the classic noir genre. But its success has brought us American editions of the first 2 books by Meyer, and we can hope others will follow (I can't quite tell if there are others already published in Afrikaans that are awaiting translation--does anybody know?).

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Luca di Fulvio and The Mannequin Man

The Mannequin Man, recently published in English by Bitter Lemon Press, is a baroque, operatic crime novel something like the novels of Carol O'Connell, or perhaps a much longer and more lushly written relative of Massimo Carlotto's crime novels. But unlike Carlotto's or O'Connell's books, which are firmly rooted in the Padua and New York of the real world, Luca di Fulvio's novel is set in an unnamed city that's maybe Genoa, or a parallel Genoa. This placed but placeless quality of the setting is of course not new--the 87th precinct novels of Ed McBain are one example. A more recent one is the vaguely North European setting of Borkmann's Point (see earlier post). But The Mannequin Man is wordier and more "mythological" than either, without quite being a Gothic novel, its central serial killer not quite a Hannibal Lecter. So there is a realistic, police procedural core to the story, obscured though it may be in the melodrama of the central love story, between the detective at the center of the narrative and the primary female protagonist/victim. There are lots of heaving breasts (large ones) and a hero trying to "save" their lover by abandoning her. There are also grand narrative metaphors, such as a garbage strike slowly burying the city under mountains of rubbish as the murderer increases the level of evil in the story, and an anthropological theory that broadens the significance of the story of a crime into the story of the human race. That's a lot of weight for a crime story to bear, even an operatic one, and di Fulvio's novel just manages, in spite of its substantial length, to keep the story moving without quite succumbing to the overheated romance-novel elements of the plot and the writing. The flaw I find at the heart of the narrative is that the killer speaks in two voices (as in Nesser's Borkmann's point) for the first half of the novel, under his actual name in his "daytime" life and without a name in his secret life of the night. In the second half of the novel, these two voices join and the narrative follows the killer more openly. But the split in the first half of the novel still feels like a trick. It's not really my taste in "noir," but then neither is Carol O'Connell--so don't let me stop you from experiencing the distinct pleasures of this "compelling" story, to use a word that is itself a bit overheated. On the other hand, I'm halfway through Jo Nesbo's The Devil's Star, which has a plot that might have been equally overheated (drunk cop jolted out of his alcoholic stupor by a serial killer right out of Twin Peaks) but is instead solidly grounded in Oslo and in a terse language that moves the tension-filled story forward (though this book is also very long) easily and with excitement. And a point I will return to later is that the point of view is more carefully controlled by Nesbo than by di Fulvio or Nesser--the narrator dwells in the consciousness only of the central character and what could be called "witnesses," both literally and figuratively, leaving us to discover the killer (and the plot) along with them rather than having it served up openly (as with di Fulvio) or with an element of sleight of hand (as is more the case with Nesser's least-likely-suspect).

Friday, May 19, 2006

Chinese and Southeast Asian crime/noir

There are actually a few crime series set in China, but only one genuine Chinese noir (translated into English) that I know of. Two series set in China are Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine and its sequels and Lisa See's Flower Net and sequels. Both series have 3 volumes now, I believe, and both are by Chinese-Americans and were written in English. Of the 2, Xiaolong's is the more immersed in China and in a particular city, Shanhai. See's novels follow a Chinese detective whose lover is American, and who has spent time in the U.S. And Xiaolong's books are more strictly police procedurals, rather than thrillers, and as such a persistent theme is the interference of the political realm into the world of police, crime, and justice. Wang Shuo's Playing for Thrills, on the other hand, is genuine, full bore noir from a Chinese writer. A caution, though: It's literary noir, in the vein of Japan's Ryu Murakami or Kobo Abe, but with a much livelier style than Abe. Very dark, funny, breezy, but the crime aspect is only a device to get things moving. There's also a movie version of Playing for Thrills. In Southeast Asia, there are noir or noir-esque novels from Singapore (Gopal Baratham's Moonrise, Sunset, which is a gloomy portrait of the city-state but from an author who can't stay gloomy very long--so it's lighthearted in a funny way; and Hwee Hwee Tan's Foreign Bodies, which has an oddly religious theme that undercuts the noir aspect of the story of the sometimes draconian justice system in Singapore). There is a good bit of Korean noir on film, but the only fiction I know of is the series by Martin Limon, who exploits his knowledge of the U.S. presence in Korea in his novels about American M.P.s dealing with crimes in and around U.S. bases. Soho Press published the first couple of Limon's novels and are now publishing the Colin Cotterill novels about Cambodian crime, from the point of view of a pathologist. Personally, I have not found the Cotterill novels very interesting or entertaining, and Cotterill is attempting the very difficult task of writing as an outsider from an insider's point of view. John Burdett's novels about a Bangkok policeman who also runs a brothel (there are 3 of them now), though, make Cotterill's novels look better--Burdett strives to create a Buddhist pimp who works for a corrupt police department, but along the way he makes the exploitation of women in the Thai sex trade seem a trivial matter, the "girls" love what they do and make lots of money and that's the end of it. And the voice of Burdett's character/narrator is a stream of repetitious, self-justifying cliches about Buddhism, prostitution, and even murder. Plus the books are too long. Send me a note if you think I'm wrong about Burdett, who chose Bangkok as a good locale for a crime series, rather than writing from intimate experience of the place--a new kind of colonialism, perhaps. I don't know of any Vietnamese noir, though the country and its history, interlaced with U.S. history, would seem to make Vietnam a great place for noir fiction. There's always Graham Green's Quiet American, but that was a long time ago.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Gianrico Carofiglio, A Walk in the Dark

Carofiglio's second legal thriller is now in English. The novel is set in Bari, in the Puglia region of southern Italy, and "stars" a not-very-confident defense lawyer whose private life is a bit less of a mess than in the first novel. Most legal thrillers don't really fit in the "noir" category (and I must admit I'm not very fond of legal thrillers in general). But Carofiglio's books depart from the genre in significant ways, just as they depart from the conventions of the mystery. A Walk in the Dark is not really a mystery at all, certainly not a murder mystery (though violence and dead bodies are part of the story). The only revelation at the end deals with who the book is actually about (something that many readers will have figured out before then). Like many noir novels, Carofiglio's books deal with the darkness at the heart of society and in the hearts of many of its citizens. The melancholy but not tortured character of Guerrieri, the narrator and main character, is a bit lighter than the normal noir anti-hero, but he is an anti-hero nevertheless, and the situations with which he is forced to deal (because of his clients) is certainly dark enough. His stock-in-trade clients are petty criminals, providing income for Guerrieri by being repeatedly arrested. In some senses he has a kinship with Rumpole, but without the jokiness, or perhaps it is his usual clientele that has something in common with that of Rumpole. But Guerrieri becomes increasingly involved with his more desperate clients (an African immigrant unjustly accused in the first novel, see my earlier post on Italian noir) and in this case an abused woman. His normal melancholy and legal ineptness dissolves through the course of his involvement, and he becomes a powerful, though not always effective in the sense of the hero-on-a-white-horse of the usual hero of legal fiction. In the end, what remains is a sense of Guerrieri's personal growth (unlike some series characters, he is changed by the experiences of his narratives) and a sense of the unpleasant realities of dealing with other people, and of the unjust and unfeeling layers of contemporary society. Plus these books give a glimpse of a part of Italy rarely seen in fiction, much less crime fiction (and for me, gaining some insight into new places and new populations is a driving force in my interest in international noir fiction).

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Three Evangelists, by Fred Vargas

Fred Vargas is the pseudonym of a French woman who is a historian and archaeologist. Her profession shows through more in the recentloy translated The Three Evangelists than in her earlier detective novels (see earlier posts here) which were odd, a bit mannered, but more conventional than the new one. Her writing is typically Dickensian, attributing a very specific personality profile to each character and continuing to emphasize that profile throughout the novel. In The Three Evanvelists, the three characters referred to in the title (Mathieu, Marc, and Lucien) are historians of, respectively, prehistory, medieval, and "Great War" eras. They rent a house, each taking a floor that is an archaeological stratum based on their historical periods (Mathieu on the ground floor, and so forth). And the personalities of each are defined by their era of study: Mathieu a primitive, etc. But Vargas employs these perhaps too consistent characteristics in a comic vein that never becomes irritating, and the comedy never overwhelms the story, which builds slowly and inexorably to a violent conclusion. And no one in crime fiction today can top Vargas's "mcguffin" in this novel: a tree that appears with no warning or explanation in a former opera diva's back yard. The story of the tree is in some senses more compelling than the murder plot, and has certain characteristics of Poe's detective stories, perhaps a nod to the inventor of the genre. Vargas's novels are comic without being funny, in the sense that she moves characters around in a narrowly defined artificial world with more purely authorial intent than realism, as well as the sense of her narrowly defined and rigidly maintained character portrayals. Vargas is working in a genre that might be called satire (though there's no clear object being satirized, other than the modern world). As such, her novels may be an acquired taste. I must confess that I found her first two novels a bit peculiar, stylized in almost the way that Jacques Roubaud's "Hortense" novels, which are anything but noir though based on a kidnapping story. Roubaud is concerned with literature, not crime, and that can't be said of Vargas--her tales compel the reader with atmosphere, character, and narrative, rather than cleverness, as is the case with Roubaud. But there is enough stylization to make a comparison with Roubaud apt. Nevertheless, these perhaps very French novels are an interesting counterpoint to the much more realistic crime novels of Dominique Manotti, Jean-Patrick Manchette (whose 3 to Kill is a wonderful revenge story) or Chantal Pelletier (more of a purely genre writer).

review of classic european noir, 3 Dutch, one French, one Swiss

With this post, I'll begin an overall review of some classical European noir and detective fiction--really just an opinionated list of the best of Europe. Beginning with the Netherlands, for no good reason (I just spent a few days there). Amsterdam has been fruitful territory for Bantjer and Janwillem van de Wettering (with detectives Grijpstra and de Geer), plus the Van der Valk novels by Nicolas Freeling, who is English not Dutch. I think Bantjer's novels (I think I have his name right, but can't find anything to verify it right now) are pulp. A bit of fun but not even worth reviewing, in my estimation. I'm not myself a big fan of the Grijpstra and de Geer novels, but they do demand to be taken seriously, in all their peculiarity. Van de Wettering's writing is based on the characterizations of his two detectives, and on the underlying buddhist perspective of one of the detectives and of the author. For me, the plots are engaging the the interplay of the detectives is a bit distracting. There is something distracting about Freeling's stories, too, but I think it's in the style of the writing and in the plotting. Freeling's novels strike me as being written quickly and without revision, in the model of Simenon, one of the undeniable inventors of the detective and noir forms. Simenon wsa known to write his many, many novels rapidly and according to the advice given him by Colette: leave out the adjectives. The lean, quick prose moves the novels along with few distractions, but allows for two flaws in his works. One is that he often reverts to the already, in his day, hoary gimmick of solving a plot by gathering the suspects all in a room and getting them talking. The second flaw is that a kind of "master narrative" flows through all of Simenon's fiction, a family drama in which the blame for murders and other problems often lies with a mother, or at least a woman. Some of the writers who admittedly stole much from Simenon (Ed McBain, Sjöwall and Wahlöö) gain in range in power by not succumbing to that kind of personal psychology and canned plot devices. One other classic crime novelist who is only now getting into English is Switzerland's Friedrich Glauser, three of whose 1930s-era Sergeant Studer novels have been published by Bitter Lemon Press in the UK. Previously, only Friedrich Dürrenmatt's short crime novels were the only Swiss crime stories to be translated (as far as I'm aware) and, to me, Dürrenmatt's novels are not very satisfactory as noir--he's really concerned with dramatizing ideas (of an existentialist sort) and the stories don't engage much as character studies or crime stories. Glauser, on the other hand, is completely convincing as a crime novelist, but I find Studer to be a bit too plodding, and the stories a bit dated and provincial. What do you think?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Point of view in noir fiction

I'd like to throw a question out concerning point of view in current crime fiction in the noir genre. Looking back at the classic noir, point of view was, it seems to me, tightly controlled: commonly first person narratives but even if in the third person, the point of view was confined to a limited consciousness--mostly the main character, with occasional forays into other settings outside that person's presence, either in the authorial voice or the consciousness of another character. In this way, the classic noir both conceals the "solution" to the mystery or the perpetrator of the crime but also tightens the atmosphere in the service of tension in the narrative. Lately, in for instance the novel Dead Horsemeat that I just reviewed, the consciousness is collective: the point of view shifts from one character to another. Without counting, I'd say there are about 10 different heads that the narrative gets into, relating what the character sees and thinks. The more splintered point of view is perhaps a reflection of our contemporary consiousness itself--we see society (and even ourselves) as splintered, kaleidoscopic. The "solution" of the plot is revealed gradually as these points of view converge in the climax (or sometimes don't). There are of course plenty of first-person narratives in the mystery genre, more broadly speaking--I recently read a couple of Liz Evans novels, very much in the first person, told from Grace Smith's limited point of view. But as with Evans's books, the first person today seems to convey a cuteness or cleverness that shifts the work out of noir into a more "cozy" genre, even when the novel is in an urban setting. Is a first-person noir detective story possible today? Of course it is, there are always exceptions to any general tendency that can be spotted. But I think that the kaleidoscopic narrative (difficult though it can sometimes be to sustain, and irritating as it may be once you start noticing that the narrator is in everyone's head, but concealing something from the reader nonetheless) is a more accurate representation (as well as more like cinema narrative) of reality today.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Noir from France: Dead Horsemeat, by Dominique Manotti

No picture available at the moment: I'll add it later. I've been waiting impatiently for Dominique Manotti's Dead Horsemeat for several years, since reading her excellent police procedural Rough Trade when it first came out in English. Manotti places her procedurals into carefully constructed historical milieux: Rough Trade occurs in the middle of an immigrant workers' strike in the clothing trade (the original French title of the book refers to the dark Sentier, the rag trade district). Dead Horsemeat uses the student rebellion of 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall to bracket a story about drug trafficking, prostitution, horse trading, and corruption in high places. Manotti's chief detective, Daquin, is openly gay (a major factor in Rough Trade, less central here), giving him an edge as an outsider within the close community of the drug squad in Paris. A new member of the team is brought in to provide expertise in the horse-racing scene, and the crew works diligently through a complex plot evolving from the horses to drugs to pressure from government officials. Manotti is one of the few crime novelists who has, even in translation, her own style. She uses the present tense, clipped phrases, and tense dialogue to create a fast-moving story with the flavor of the streets. Rough Trade was a revelation, and if Dead Horsemeat doesn't quite measure up, it's only because the first novel created such expectations for the second. But the links to recent French and European history provide a grounding in a broader context that makes Dead Horsemeat resonate even more than Rough Trade (which was itself very resonant) in our own world, almost two decades down the line since Manotti's tale. This one is Very Highly Recommended! And if you haven't read Rough Trade, get it asap.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Sun Storm, by Åsa Larsson

Åsa Larsson's Sun Storm keeps the reader unsettled: every time you think that the plot is settling into a cliché, Larsson provides a twist, not just to startle but to keep the story full of both tension and realism. The book is not a police procedural, but a policewoman is a prominent character and her investigation, along with her colleagues, is central to the book (without providing a resultion to the plot). The central character is a lawyer forced into investigataing a murder, somewhat like Liza Marklund's intrepid reporter, constantly being thrown into the middle of a murder. But whereas Marklund's character is implausibly skillful in getting out of tight spots, Larsson's Rebecka Martinsson is simply a woman with a past, caught up in the intrigues of a small town that she thought (and hoped) she had left behind forever. The setting is also intriguing--the far northern town of Kiruna. The main thread of the plot Iand of the book's atmosphere) is religion--specifically a uniquely Swedish brand of revivalist/fundamentalist Christianity of the "crystal cathedral" sort. The lure of a "cult" of that sort for ordinary people and also for a certain kind of psychopath is a key theme of the book--but Larsson skilfully avoids demonizing the religiosity of the church at the center of the plot by using a former convert, Rebecka, as her main character. The Lappland environment recalls a wonderful novel by Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater, that is also a crime story--albeit one that is extended by language and narrative far, far beyond (in page count and content) it's "McGuffin," to use Hitchcock's term for the event that drives a crime story. Ekman's novel is heavy sledding (little pun, please forgive me, given the snow everywhere up there in Lappland) unless you get wrapped up in it--if you do, it's a fascinating portrayal of difficult relations among Swedes, Lapps, and leftover hippie-dropout-types in a local commune. Larsson's novel, far shorter than Ekman's, doesn't present any hurdle of that sort and moves along much more quickly, with more tension. But Larsson's language is also rich, her evocation of the far north equally involving and vivid, and her resolution, though more in line with a thriller perhaps than Ekman's, dramatic rather than melodramatic. All in all, we can thank the current Scandinavian crime boom (started off, presumably, by the success of the Wallander books) for making it possible for English speakers to read a book as good as Sunstorm, and if the book blurb is to be believed, the sequels that Larsson is producing. One thing that is evident in this book as well as several others I've read recently is a casual violence against animals, used as a dramatic device. In the case of Sunstorm, this particular plot device is a weakness, a cliche even--a flaw in the book that is the only really off-putting aspect of the novel. In some other cases, the violence against animals is more integrated into the structure but more "on-screen" and harder to take. Is this a theme that anyone else has noticed in contemporary crime fiction?