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.