Saturday, February 24, 2007

Leif Davidsen's Euro-Noir thriller

Or Noir Euro-thriller. Lime's Photograph is a few years old now, but it's a pan-European political novel that avoids a lot of the flaws that, in my opinion, mar the thriller genre as a whole. First, it's a first person novel, with Peter Lime (Danish emigre living in Spain, paparazzo and former leftist) occupying the center of the tale. And although geo-political concerns are aired (those of the post-Wall, EU world we still live in today), Lime isn't walking up to Prime Ministers or one-handedly preventing an international assasination. He takes a damaging photo of a Spanish official in a sexual tryst on a private beach, gets harassed by the police, approached by the Danish security service, and his personal life is wrecked. I won't give away any more of the plot, but it's about Lime in the context of the new Europe, not about kings and presidents and prime ministers. Davidsen is a silled and careful storyteller. The events unfold in a leisurely way (the paperback is 375 pages, plenty of room for the tale and its convolutions to unfold). The focus is on Lime's personality as it suffers and responds to events, as much on the plot (though plot is not stinted, there's plenty of story). I don't know of any other single novel that so carefully and effectively portrays at least 4 nations in the new world order (Spain, Denmark, Germany, and Russia). The passages of action (more necessary for a thriller than other genres within the noir landscape) are effective without overwhelming the rest of the story. The ultimate resolution explains the many threads that have gone before. And the reader's passage through the whole journey is most enjoyable.

Friday, February 23, 2007

A Corpse in the Koryo

Storytelling (and novel-writing) isn't really about revealing "what happened," it's really much more about delaying the telling. What keeps the reader turning pages is the pursuit of the plot, not the revelation of it. James Church, in his new noir crime novel of North Korea, A Corpse in the Koryo, knows that truth all too well. The book reads less like a crime novel than a spy novel, with the concealments, double-crossing, internal disputes among agencies, and final twists. The blurbs compare the novel with Philip Kerr's Berlin Trilogy (now a tetrology, actually) and the like (novels that use the police procedural to open up a closed society to the reader), but "Corpse" is more like Le Carre in many ways. Yes, it does open up a closed North Korea, validated by the pseudonymous author's professional experience there. But it's less about daily life in that country than about inter-agency strife. The protagonist, Inspector O, has plenty of noir attitude, but he's pulled this way and that by seemingly unrelated (even irrelevant) incidents and stories all the way through--like Marlowe, perhaps, is often pulled away from the main track, but in a way there is no main track visible in "Corpse," until close to the end. As I said above, Church has delayed that revelation of what's happening--not a problem, but more a spy maze than a noir one. And O is curiously open in his disdain for the power structure--though the portrait we occasionally glimpse of that country seems to be one that wouldn't tolerate that in a policeman--but that is explained in the story , in O's "protectors" within the system). And the citizens that populate the novel seem less desperately deprived than we are led by the news to believe about the citizens of that country (a member of that select group, the "axis of evil")--but again, the citizens frequently turn out to be hardly "simple citizens," again a factor making the book seem more like a spy novel. I guess it's not hard to tell that this is a book I admired more than enjoyed. I don't want to put other readers off--it's a fine story, and I'd read a sequel--but I hoped for something different, a book that Church evidently did not set out to write, rather than the one he did. A word about cover art--I've seen a number of books lately that don't utilize that aspect of a book terribly well (as evidenced by some of the ones I've reproduced here)--but A Corpse in the Koryo has a particularly good cover, for which the publishers should be commended. It has a great graphic quality and at the same time expresses a lot about the country it depicts.

Monday, February 19, 2007

A Spanish detective in Argentina

I read several of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's detective novels some years ago but never got addicted to the series. The plots are usually beside the point, and discoveries are often not made by the detective but simply stated in the narrative--the texture of the novels are far more important than the plots, which are devices for the exploration of the dark side of the modern world. On the strength of Andrea Camilleri's fondness for the novels, as well as the homage offered to Vázquez Montalbán in the "novel for four hands" by Paco Ignacio Taibo II and Subcomandante Marcos, I picked up what is evidently the second-to-last in the series, The Buenos Aries Quintet (the last is The Man of My Life, recently available in English). Private detective Pepe Carvalho is asked by his uncle to find a son who was a victim of the "dirty war" in Argentina 20 years previously and has been in exile in Spain ever since. The son belatedly decides to look for a daughter who was taken from him (when his wife was killed) and illegally adopted --disappeared as effectively as those murdered by the military government of those years. Off to Buenos Aires, reluctantly at first, Pepe is separated from his regular crew and his usual fare (food being a big part of this series). His new crew of damaged Argentinians who are more interesting than the regulars (to me, anyway). Carvalho repeatedly tells people that all he knows about Argentina is "tango, Maradona, and the disappeared." But as I mentioned above, the plot is not a straightforward (or even crooked) line from the assignment to the solution. We figure out where (and who) the daughter is long before the detective, and when she's found the novel takes little account of it. Much more important are the numerous ancillary tales and the main personalities (particularly Alma, everyone's love interest in one way or another) and the flock of auxiliary characters, who together draw a portrait not only of the conflict of left and right in Argentina but also the webs of conflict, deceit, and misery in the world at large. The text is full of tangos and poetry, food and sex, disguise and death. In an odd way when the novel reaches its most crescendo in a burlesque, macabre banquet among the members of the former (and still powerful) elite, The Buenos Aires Quintet reminds me of another big, baggy, overpopulated and satirical novel, Thomas Pynchon's first book, V. And as in V, the pleasure in reading Vázquez Montalbán's book is in going with the flow of the looping, overlapping stories as they reveal contemporary life, a troubled nation, and a vital people.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Irish noir thriller by Gene Kerrigan

There are some writers who seem natural, as if words simply flow freely into finished form: Elmore Leonard, maybe; and there are some writers whose work is professional, well structured: Henning Mankell, perhaps. But there are others who are both natural and professional, some of them coming from a journalistic background, like Gene Kerrigan from Ireland or Deon Meyer from South Africa. Kerrigan's first fictional book, Little Criminals, has both a seemingly careless plot, as meandering as Elmore Leonard's--but at the same time it has a tight overall structure so that at the end of the book, everything seems both inevitable and aesthetic. Little Criminals takes one of the pulp-iest plots in all of crime fiction, the same story as that masterpiece of the cheap paperback trash of early noir, No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a book I've mentioned before: the kidnapping gone sour. But Kerrigan uses the pulp-y plot in the service of a portrait of the post-Celtic Tiger, Euro-centric, urbanized Ireland of today, in all its consumerist, un-quaint glory. Nobody in the book is entirely likeable, but it's a book you shouldn't pick up unless you're willing to stick with it for a while--Kerrigan will build up the tension until you have to keep going, you won't ba willing to stop. And just when you think you know what's coming, he takes a non-pulp sideroad into an intimate portrait of small town life, integral to the plot and at the same time affecting without descending into bathos. Yet the ending has something in common with No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a hollowness within the relief of the resolution, a desperation that comes only partly from the awfulness of the things that the characters have experienced. If you think I'm making too much of what is after all a crime novel well within the noir and pulp traditions, reconsider after you've read Little Criminals--this is a terrific book. I've ordered the sequel, but it doesn't seem to have been released yet.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A new Swedish noir-policier-mystery

Åsa Larsson runs a big risk with her new (new in English anyway) The Blood Spilt, the sequel to last year's Sun Storm (which I reviewed at the time). Like the earlier book, Spilt deals with a damaged lawyer from Stockholm who returns to her family home in Kiruna, in the far north of Sweden, near Finland and Lappland (the Lapps call themselves Sami now). And like the previous novel, this one begins with and centers upon the murder of a priest. The risks that Larsson runs are in simply duplicating the plot of a successful crime novel, in becoming pigeon-holed as the author of "religious noir" or some such thing, and in creating a sense that she is simply repeating herself, with nothing else to say. But Rebecka Martinson, the damaged Stockholmer in both books, is changed now, changed by the experience of the first book (not so common in series novels). She is poised at the precipice of a new life (and she's pretty negative about her old one). The priests, too, are very different--the founder and central preacher in an evangelical cult in the first, the parish priest in the Swedish national church in the second (as in England, the king of Sweden embraced Protestantism and created a national church, Lutheran in Sweden's case, but unlike in England the church has lost its government subsidy--one of the topics of The Blood Spilt. It is as if Larsson set out to show that it's not only the far fringes of organized religions that foster rivalry and hatred. On that subject, one of the comments I've had on this blog asked whether the Swedes are obsessed with religion, given the number of crime novels translated from Swedish dealing with the subject. Like most of Europe, Sweden is almost completely secular--but there are two strains of religion (those in Larsson's two books) that go back over a hundred years--the conformist and the nonconformist or fundamentalist. And in rural or small-town Sweden (the setting for Larsson's novel as well as those by Mankell that deal with religion, including the first with Linda Wallander as a main character), religion is far more important than in the cities, as is true in other developed countries. But back to Larsson, The Blood Spilt is in several ways better than its predecessor--the collective aspect remains (the point of view, always in the third person but focusing on an individual's perspective) shifts between Rebecka, the two cops who carry over from the first book, and several townspeople in the circle around (or in opposition to) the murdered priest--who is in this case not only a woman minister, not so rare in Sweden but not entirely embraced by the townspeople, but also a feminist. The Blood Spilt is more of a feminist novel, in fact, than any other recent crime novel that I can think of (that's a positive assesment, not a criticism). Larsson's novel is very atmospheric, regarding a small town in the far north as well as the enclosed world of this particular small town on its own and as it represents small town life everywhere. There are no absolutes here, in spite of the liturgical "mcguffin" of the book: neither the townie nor the villagers have the high ground, neither the irreligious nor the pious, neither the villagers nor the wolf (herself a central character). The novel is primarily texture and ambiguity, in fact--the plot moves forward glacially (again, that's not a criticism--it progresses like another Swedish book I admire, Kerstin Ekman's much longer and more oblique Blackwater. Larsson measures up to the ammbitions of Ekman's literary crime novel, without sacrificing the pleasures of the more direct (and shorter) genre of crime fiction. I may have some more to say about The Blood Spilt as I mull it over, and if anyone wants more of a plot summary let me know. Suffice it to say that it's a novel savored with pleasure rather than read at breakneck pace in an attempt to get to the final resolution.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

China according to Chief Inspector Chen Cao

Qiu Xiaolong's new novel about crime in Shanghai, A Case of Two Cities is, on the one hand, open and straightforward almost to the point of callowness; on the other hand, it is completely ambiguous and unresolved. Those opposite reactions are a natural result, perhaps, of dealing honestly (as much as is possible) with contemporary China. The title is itself a bit misleading: the story begins in the city of Fujian, then moves to Shanghai, then on to Los Angeles and St. Louis (not coincidentally the city in which the author resides (he teaches at Washington University). As usual, there is a lot of poetry in the text, and a lot of reference by the characters to precedents in Chinese history, legend, and literature. Every decision, evidently, is referred back to the millennia of China's past, rather than to a direct analysis of the situation currently at hand. That constant referenceis added to a certain stiffness of language (perhaps an equivalent for a more formal "style" in Chinese language and culture, as compared to the West). Together, the history and the stiffness give these novels a texture completely different from the usual noir fiction, or even the typical mainstream mystery: neither the cops nor the Triad mobsters talk like Mike Hammer or th denizens of a Jim Thompson book: formality and indirection reign. There's also a good bit of flirtation between the sexes in the new book, though Inspector Chen remains almost without sex drive, so moral and careful is he. All of these comments might be taken as negative criticism, but the new book is almost as effective as a story as the first three in this series--and at least as effective as a portrait of today's socialist-capitalist-corrupt China. I found myself pulled along by the story, while at the same time frustrated by the brittle texture of the interrelationships among the characters (a number of whom are brought back from previous installments, including the U.S. marshall who was a sort-of love interest for Chen in an earlier book. A corrupt official who has fled to the U.S. has left behind a web of corrupt connections, and Chen is assigned by a high party official (still active though technically retired). Chen decides that those at the center of the group are too powerful to be approached directly, so he takes an indirect approach, interrogating those at the periphery--with disastrous results (his actions are revealed to those he is investigating, and a former friend of his is murdered). Then his investigation is seemingly derailed by another assignment, related to his career as a poet and translator--an assignment that will take him out fo the country, to the U.S., as the leader of a literary delegation. Int he process, mucch more is revealed about the state of business and politics in today's China, as well as the intricacies of relations between Chinese and American professionals.