Wednesday, April 25, 2007

De Luca trilogy, part 2

Carlo Lucarelli's 1940s-noir series featuring Detective De Luca began with Carte Blanche and now continues (in English) with The Damned Season. Where as the first novel (or novelette, since each of these books is barely over 100 pages) dealt with De Luca's experience in a corrupt, decadent, and fading Fascist Italy, and ended with De Luca on the road attempting to escape from Allied troops that might not have any sympathy for a cop in the political squad, The Damned Season deals with De Luca on the run and hiding under false identity papers. He quickly falls under the control of a small-town policeman who represents the Partisan, anti-Fascists who are taking over control as the Fascists flee north along with the Nazi troops. De Luca was caught in the web of the politics and influence in Rome in the first book, but still had some scope for independent action. Here, he has lost his independence completely. The local cop doesn't know who he is, but knows he's a carabinieri or policeman from Rome, enough to sentence him to death. But the cop, who has little investigative exprience, is using De Luca to solve a murder case, and the solution to the mystery threatens to make things worse for De Luca as the case reveals the fault lines of the Partisan takeover. Who's in charge changes, but how business is conducted doesn't. This series, brief as each novel is, is very dark, brooding even, and no one escapes the misery and fear that envelopes everything. The brief prefaces, explaining the source of the author's interest in and information about the Italian police of that era, are essential to understanding what's going on. In a sense more palpable than in most crime novels, the author's starting point informs and expands the reader's experience of the books. My only complaint is that as short as the novels are, I wish that they could have been made available in English at the same time, or at shorter intervals. I'm impatient for the next installment--less to see what happens to De Luca than to see how Lucarelli's insight about the professional policeman at the core of his story plays out in the era of the re-imposition of state power over the near anarchy of the society depicted in The Damned Season.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fred Vargas's Adamsberg

The style of French author Fred Vargas is similar to the investigative style of her detective (Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg): intuitive rather than logical. Looked at from a logical perspective, some of the plot elements in the new Vargas translation don't make much sense. But readers who appreciate Vargas's work will be swept along in spite of the illogicalities, since what makes the books distinctive and enjoyable is Vargas's language and her characters (which can verge into caricatures that are used for both comic effect and plot advancement). Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand is the book's title (originally titled Sous les vents de Neptune--and one my ongoing peeves with the publishers of crime novels in translation is their persistent habit of giving the books titles that don't relate to the original titles; the practice can, as in Vargas's case, make it difficult to track down exactly which books have been translated, and in what order they were originally published). Vargas, as is well known now, is the pseudonym of archaeologist Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau, whose twin sister is a painter who uses the name Jo Vargas. The new book has a plot as gothic as the two previously translated Adamsberg books (which dealt with werewolves and the plague, among other things): the detective is struck by fits: he is either having a breakdown or being possessed. What has set him off is a series of reminders of a killer from his past whose murder weapon is a trident (and who died 16 years previously). Adamsberg has a family connection to the killer, who skilfully frames others for his murders: one of those framed was the detective's brother, when both were young. The family connection and the fact that the serial killer is dead complicate Adamsberg's conviction that the same man has killed again, and the killer is now pursuing the detective, in France and in Canada (where Adamsberg's team has gone on a forensic training course). Vargas always richly laces her narratives with incidental characters that are Dickensian in their characterization and their function, and this book is no exception. What is most inviting about these books is the rich texture created by these characters and by the detective's non-linear mind. Neither noir nor cozy, the Adamsberg books inhabit a sort of alternative universe (such as the world evoked in Jack O'Connell's excellent and very different novels), a world with its own internal consistencies that are not bound by simple logic or reason. To enjoy them, the reader will need to abandon him/herself to the rules of that world, and once that is accomplished, the rewards of this atmospheric and frequently funny series can be appreciated.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Irish noir

There's a boom (or boomlet anyway) in Irish crime fiction lately. I reviewed Gene Kerrigan's wonderful Little Criminals a while ago, and I just finished his Midnight Choir, which is a great book--not as much fun as the first novel, but deeper. More on that in a minute. The noir-est Irish crime writer up to now was Vincent Banville, whose detective-on-the-edge novels have just been joined by his brother John's first crime novel (written under a pseudonym, Benjamin Black). There are also two novels (very bloody, I hear) by the playwright Declan Hughes. There are some others, too, that I'll get to sooner or later (as well as the excellent John Brady, whose novels are a bit less noir than the current crop). Midnight Choir is structured much like Little Criminals: there is an incident that serves as a frame, with intro and coda for the novel as a whole; events and phrases pop up with no explanation but are brought into the reader's knowledge of what's going on gradually; there are numerous strands of the plot that come together only gradually. In Midnight Choir, the character development is accomplished so carefully and gradually that the portraits of several key characters are only complete at the very end. In fact, the whole novel is more an examination of character than of incident. The process that the author leads us through is carefully and skillfully constructed and the language is straightforward but doesn't give away much. Much of what's going on is between the lines, and that indirection makes the awful concluding events less shocking than inevitable (events that in less skilful hands would be shocking indeed, even repulsive). Few crime novels are as well written as this, and few as ambitious in scope and depth.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Swedish crime tour

I just heard that Kjell Eriksson, Håkon Nesser, Inger Frimansson, and Helene Tursten will be on tour in the US/Canada from April 17: NY, Toronto, LA, San Francisco, and Seattle. That's a good portion of the Swedish crime wave: something to watch out for!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

uppsala noir

Kjell Eriksson's latest crime novel featuring Uppsala detective Ann Lindell is coming out soon in the U.S. The previous one to be translated into English was The Princess of Burundi, which I reviewed here not so long ago--I liked it a lot. Princess is a "collective" crime novel in what seems like a Swedish tradition, with the whole detective squad as major characters, along with numerous working class characters. The new one, The Cruel Stars of the Night, is a bit different. Lindell was on mternity leave in the previous one and now that she's back on duty, she takes up more space and the other cops get less. Plus the crime this time is more involved with the university side of Uppsala's town/gown divide. Where Princess was more sociological in character, Stars is more psychological. Two strains flow through the novel: the investigation of the murders of three old men whose lives seem unrelated and the case of another old man who has gone missing. That latter thread of the plot is told mostly through the eyes of his daughter. The psychological aspect of the novel takes a while to get going, but once it cranks up it will involve the reader effectively. And Eriksson is a bit more to my taste than some of the new Scandinavian wave of crime novels--he's more naturalistic than some others; in comparison, Nessser is more mannered, Marklund more genre-driven. Ann, a single mother, copes with some of the same family problems as Marklund's Annika, but Ann is by far the more likable of the two. Of the other Scandinavians, Eriksson probably has more in common with Karin Fossum of Norway. The translations are evidently being done out of order, and there are several references in Stars to previous cases that sound interesting (Princess is the third or fourth in the series and near as I can tell Stars comes a couple of books later in the series). I hope the publishers in their wisdom will commission translations of the other books previously published in Sweden. Though I liked Princess better than Stars, Eriksson is one of the best of the Scandinavian crime wave.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Mediterranean Noir conference

I just noticed that Europa Editions is sponsoring a series of panels and readings on "Mediterranean Noir" at the end of April. Here's the url:

Swedish noir(ish) crime fiction: Liza Marklund

Liza Marklund has used (apparently) a remarkable process for the development of her series featuring star reporter Annika Bengtzon of the fictional Stockholm tabloid newspaper, Kvällspressen. The Bomber was released first, around the turn of the millennium (a bit before in the original language). The Studio 6 (or Studio Sex, or Studio 69 as it is normally called now--the Swedish title is a pun, since the Swedish word for 6 is sex). Studio 6 is a "prequel," providing the background for Annika's criminal past, her employment at Kvällspressen, and her rise to the peak of her profession. Then Paradise provides another link in the development of her career prior to The Bomber (as well as a social theme that Marklund has developed in nonfiction, the exploitation of women). And now Prime Time completes the circuit, leading up to and providing hints about the plot of The Bomber. Prime Time has some elements typical of the mystery genre, more than noir (13 people at a country house, one dies and the rest are suspects--you know the drill; plus there's a murder at the beginning and no real threat to anyone in the rest of the plot). Marklund has been extraordinarily thorough and careful about providing her heroine's backstory. A mere hint of a trip to Korea in the first novel (The Bomber, first in order and last in sequence--you have to pay attention to keep this straight...) is substantiated in some detail in Prime Time, as well as the history of her friend Anne Snapphane's career in broadcast journalism, and Annika's sometimes troubled home life, etc., etc. It's fun to see how it all links up, but it's time now for Annika to move forward (her life story is getting little tedious). Annika's exploits rely on her job as a reporter--she never shifts into amateur-detective mode. That's a positive element in the books, to me, but it also limits the story to what a reporter can dig up or drag out of the police (though Annika conveniently has unique access to a top cop). And you have to be interested in (or have some tolerance for) the politics of the newsroom and the news business, since there's a lot of that in all the books (particularly in Prime Time, which has both the TV news and tabloid newspaper as primary focuses of, respectively, the murder plot and Annika's life). A reviewer on the Amazon site complains that Annika is a too all-capable to be believable, but I don't really find her annoying in that way. She's lucky in her occasional physical encounters with the crime-doers, but at the same time none of her opponents are master criminals or superheroes. Most of her characters, good and bad, are flawed, upwardly mobile Stockholmers--and that's perhaps the strength as well as the uniqueness of her books in comparison to the other entries in the current Scandinavian crime wave (and perhaps a limitation from my perspective, since her world is really too middle class to be the proper zone of "noir"--she always fits more neatly into a "mystery" category, as I mentioned above with respect to the new book). She may encounter sleazy Stockholm occasionally (especially in the first two books, chronologically speaking: Studio 6 and Paradise), but she's mostly working in professional circles rather than sleazy bars, etc. My complaint with Prime Time is mostly with the final resolution (Annika is perhaps too intrusive and too clever to take the role she does in the denouement; it's almost as if Marklund couldn't figure out any logical role for Annika at that point, so she just stuck her into the situation). Plus her home life is a bit too much of a soap opera to me (my wife says it's characteristic of my taste that I like the Law & Order type of TV series--focus on the crime rather than the detective's private lives). But I enjoyed catching up with Annika, and bringing her story up to date. I went back to The Bomber to check out details (and would like to see the movie versions of Annika's stories that are being made by Colin Nutley, but they're not available in U.S.-standard dvd formats, apparently). But I'm most curious about where she goes from here...