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.