Thursday, May 24, 2007

Declan Burke's 1st

There is classic noir popping up in what would once have been unusual places. Alan Guthrie, for instance, is creating the contemporary equivalent of the pulp noir of Jim Thompson or David Goodis but on the mean streets of Scottish cities. And Declan Burke creates, in Eightball Boogie, a hard-boiled, sharp-tongued (or smart-mouthed) "research consultant" (part freelance reporter and part private detective) Harry Rigby, who lives in the northwest of Ireland (in a small city that seems to be Sligo, though it's never named). Harry, as a first-person narrator, is the wisecrack-laden voice at the heart of the book, and Burke walks a careful narrative line: The other characters speak in a less wise-ass and less allusive language, if occasionally almost as hard-boiled as Harry. The contrast foregrounds Harry's Marlowe-ish/Bogart-esque voice whose every phrase comments on the action, the scene, and the other characters, balanced by the self-aware tone of his voice and the comments from other characters (in the words of one of them, Harry watches too many movies). Those characters become a sort of Greek chorus commenting on both Harry and the novel itself, which along with Harry's own awareness of the depression or self-hatred explicitly lurking behind his smart mouth prevent the style from descending into parody. And when the story turns to Harry's estranged wife and their son, the smart talk recedes as the emotional depth increases, and it's this family drama that actually drives the story. Harry's own hard man facade is actually mostly just that--he keeps a .38 in his desk, but it turns out to be a replica, incapable of shooting anybody (as is Harry, though the violence he suffers and the threat to those he loves will push him beyond his limits). The arc of the story leading to that ending is a foot-race between Harry's tough-guy language and the circumstances that may turn his soft heart to stone. But most of the time, at least, Harry is almost as funny as he thinks he is, and the comedy keeps the story rolling along between the sudden eruptions of violence. If Harry's imitation of the voice of a hard-boiled private eye isn't your cup of tea, stick with the book anyway--Burke's novel is not just a pulp revival, it's genuine neo-noir.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Håkan Nesser and a word on blogs

There was recently a comment about blogging quoted by Richard Schickel in the L.A. Times, in his article about blogging versus criticism. He quotes D.J. Waldie as saying that blogging is a form of speech, not of writing. I agree with that comment, based on reading lots of blogs and "writing" this one. Others may disagree--what do you think? The distinction doesn't have to be seen as a criticism of blog-criticism: but a blog doesn't go through an editorial process, isn't solicited by a publisher, and is usually more immediate for those and other reasons. So what we get (or give) in a blog is a discussion, a conversation, rather than formal writing (no matter how immediate a good writer can be in that form). And in fact that's what I find attractive about the better blogs--they're a way to talk about something, with a circle of people who might be interested in the same topic, however geographically dispersed they may be. The blogosphere is like a huge bar, with multiple overlapping discussions, and with your own selection of beverage rather than some bar owner's offerings.
On to the subject at hand: Håkan Nesser's second crime novel has been published in English (out of the sequence of the original Swedish publication, as is becoming annoyingly the norm). The Return is based on Inspector Van Veeteren's home ground, the city of Maardam in an unnamed North European country (the first novel in the series to be published in English, Borkmann's Point, occurred in a provincial town some distance from the city, and the police chief and detectives in that town replaced most of Van Veeteren's usual team in that book). As in some other series, the detectives are narrowly drawn characters, a device that throws into relief the personalities of the witnesses, victims, and murderers that populate each novel. The lead character is Van Veeteren, basically a thinker more than an investigator, and in that he resembles Nicolas Freeling's Van Der Valk a bit, (perhaps Nesser's character's name is meant to suggest Freeling's--Van Veeteren's French in-laws and grandchildren, for example, echo Van Der Valk's French wife), and the ending of The Return suggests Van Der Valk's off-center sense of justice. Münster, VV's more-or-less partner, is more of a field investigator--and a key factor in Münster's characterization is his relation to his wife, who's always calm and happy and sensual (and Münster often reflects on his luck in being married to her). The dialogue (particularly in the witness interviews) is lively and interesting, as are the plots. The plot of Borkmann's Point hinged on a surprise ending that was a bit Agatha Christie, from my point of view, but The Return is less reliant on surprise and more of a procedural, involving as it does the full complement of Van Veeteren's team. A headless, hand-less, and foot-less body is found rolled up in a carpet, and identified as a man named Verhaven who was recently released from prison after murdering two women. The police have almost nothing to go on and pursue the case by going over the presumed victim's murder trials and interviewing anyone they can find (while also questioning the identification of the body and Verhaven's guilt in the two crimes for which he was emprisoned). I've mentioned before that there is a "neverland" aspect of Nesser's setting. It's "Northern Europe," sort of Netherlands but also with suggestions of Denmark or Flemish Belgium. He draws the portrait of the fictional country well, without being obtrusive about it, but the pan-North-European quality of place and character names throws me off a bit--it's hard to decide how they should be pronounced, even--should we use a Swedish inflection, though the names sound more Dutch or German, even Slavic? Should we imagine this to be a thoroughly multi-cultural place, with Slavic pronunciation of Slavic names, Dutch pronunciation of the more Dutch-looking names, etc.? Is this a game the author is playing with us? That would be OK, but I miss the local color that is the part of any crime novel--local expressions, local slang, food, attitudes, etc. Nesser invents criminological/sociological/judicial facts that the characters refer to or have to deal with, creating a full sense of a culture that the cops live in and have to deal with, but little details like the kinds of cookies that an old woman who is being interviewed serves the detectives, or the brand of beer that a detective drinks, are vague and ethereal rather than specific and grounded in local culture. On the other hand, some books are so steeped in the local culture that references to TV personalities or consumer products can be puzzlingly opaque to readers from outside the local orbit. Nesser's unnamed country is more invented than the Eastern Europe of Olen Steinhauer's books or McBain's 57th Precinct, since after all McBain's Isola is a parallel-universe New York), and the invention may allow him latitude in dealing with cultural specificities like historical relations with Germany or where along the Protestant/Catholic divide his characters have grown up (and perhaps the depths of his invented country are revealed over the breadth of the series, most of which is after all not available in English). In any case, his fictional country is rewarding to enter for a while, and his stories compel the reader's interest. Plus he can be quite funny, as in a chapter in which VV is simultaneously conducting an interrogation and figuring out how his fancy new office chair works. There's an irony of a sort that's worth noting: The Return deals with events punctuated by two 12-year prison sentences, and the novel itself has taken 12 years to arrive in English. We can hope that the rest of the series doesn't languish that long before being available in the English-speaking world...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The conclusion of the Marseilles Trilogy

Solea, the third volume of the Marseilles Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo, continues the melancholy, violence, love, and beauty of the first two volumes but adds Sciascia-like documentary material that grounds Izzo's portrait of the Mafia in actual contemporary history. Fabio Montale, the cop and then former cop who is the center of the series, is pursued by death throughout the novel. Babette, a former girlfriend has been investigating the mafia, and she has acquired some documents that the Mafia wants back--and they're killing Fabio's friends one by one until he finds Babette and hands her over. The plot is simple, but the narrative is complex, with overlapping reminiscences of Fabio's friends dead and alive. And at the center of everything is the city of Marseilles, its light, its changing streets, its mix of ethnicities, and the sea. The trilogy is a powerfull evocation of the city and of a tragedy that only becomes clear in the third volume, with Babette's revelations of the extent of the mafia's penetration into "straight" society and politics. Fabio's melancholy becomes despair, and all those around him are sucked into it. Izzo's language is sinuous and emotional. The novel is rich and rewarding, and its impact is beyond that of most crime fiction.

Friday, May 04, 2007

"noir," "pulp," Declan Hughes, and Ken Bruen

There have always been two strains in noir fiction, one more oriented to the crimes of the upper class: the template for this sub-genre is The Big Sleep, and the stories often feature private detectives (logical enough--the rich clients can afford to hire them). Perhaps the culmination of this subset of noir can be found in the novels of Ross McDonald, with their atmosphere of the corrupt rich threatening to destabilize the smooth operation of capitalist society. The other strain of noir is (more associated with "pulp" publishers) focuses on working class people struggling against corrupt cops and small-time gangsters--this strain leads from James M. Cain to William Goodis to Jim Thompson; these books provide a critique of capitalist society no less than the portraits of corrupt rich folks in classic noir, but from underneath, where there isn't much evidence of a stable order in the first place. I myself am more drawn to that segment of noir, having been blown away by the likes of Thompson and Goodis when I first started reading crime fiction. In Irish crime writing, the prime representative of pulp noir has recently been Ken Bruen (though perhaps a better Irish representative of the working class crime novel, and certainly a better writer, is Gene Kerrigan). Now there's a series that is very much in the Ross McDonald mold, in the crime novels of playwright Declan Hughes. Hughes is hardly hiding his debt to McDonald--his detective, Ed Loy, has just returned to Dublin after 20 years in Los Angeles (California being the stomping ground of McDonald's detective, Lew Archer). And the second novel in the Ed Loy series, The Color of Blood, begins with the detective being hired by a classic Ross McDonald client: the rich, screwed up, decadent Howard family. McDonald is also the most literary of the early noir/detective authors, both in the style of writing and the metaphorical weight of his plots. Plus Hughes uses a quote from McDonald at the head of one of the novel's three sections (the others begin with quotes from Dante and St. Matthew, pretty grand company and a pretty big hint as to his opinion of McDonald). Hughes, as an established playwright, may have been drawn to this more literary model of noir, but in any case the style of writing is self-consciously literary (not stripped down in the terse style of Simenon or the journalistic style of Kerrigan, and not full of references to fiction and pop culture like Bruen, but full of descriptions, metaphors, and allusions in the voice of the first-person detective narrator. His dramatic sense is evident in that first-person narrative, and his skill with dialogue forms a counterpoint to the allusive prose. The Color of Blood moves briskly along: the characters are three-dimensional, and the extremely complicated plot is lively and not predictable. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its explicit analysis of Irish culture: in these days of the "Celtic Tiger," an Irish noir story requires an explanation (or a leap of faith). Either you show the underside of the succesful social development (much as Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö did in the boom years of Sweden's welfare society, in which the lives of those left out of the social-democratic miracle are portrayed and some of the characters refer to the society's failure with bitterness). Hughes operates in a similar mode, and among the Irish crime novels I've seen, Hughes offers the most explicit analysis of who's left out of the Irish miracle, and what the sources are of the miseries that linger in Irish society--he puts it in the mouth of a therapist who has been treating the disfunctional family at the center of The Color of Blood, and this passage is important to the success of the book, as well as several less explicit hints concerning, for example, babies born in fields as a result of Church-bound attitudes toward sex and birth control. These sociological threads provide a grounding for the discomforts, perversions, and miseries portrayed in the novel: all of which rise in Faulknerian, apocalyptic tensions vividly described in the novels final chapter. The Color of Blood is more noir than mystery, but there is a complex series of revelations in the final sections--the book satisfies on many levels and across several sub-genres, making good use of the McDonald model.

I mentioned Ken Bruen's books, and his new American Skin has arrived in the U.S. The usual Bruen style is here, but in what could be seen as a more "American" plot but is actually a self-conscious homage to the pulp noir that I described above. Bruen's Irish-criminal-on-the-run, American psycho murderer, and a few other desperate characters are resolutely working class, as is usually the case with Bruen's books, whether in the Galway private detective series, the London police procedurals, or the miscellaneous other novels (Bruen is nothing if not prolific). American Skin displays some of Bruen's usual mannerisms, including the multiple allusions to popular music, movies, and literature (Bukowski, among others). The timeline of American Skin is more splintered than is usual with Bruen's books, and the point of view is divided among the first-person Galwayman who is the main character and third person narrative focusing mostly on the American psycho. But Bruen's virtue is in the author's voice, not his characters or plots. A reader has to be convinced by or interested in that voice in order to get anything out of Bruen's books, and for me it's just not interesting enough. For me, in spite of Bruen's fidelity to "pulp noir," American Skin's story lacks the lively characters of the Brant novels or the atmosphere of despair in the Galway novels. And in spite of my allegiance to pulp noir, I enjoyed Hughes's new novel much more than Bruen's.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Passport to Crime

There's a new anthology (titled Passport to Crime) from the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine that acknowledges the growing importance in English-speaking countries of mysteries of all genres that are translated from other languages. Since EQMM is broad in its definition of "mystery," the anthology contains everything from cozies to Poe homages to noir and (appropriately enough) an Ellery Queen-influenced story. For some reason, I'm not normally a fan of mystery short stories (although I enjoyed the DC Noir anthology, I haven't obtained its cousins from Brooklyn, Baltimore, etc). But the authors included in Passport to Crime are mostly not available in English at all, the anthology is an invaluable window on other worlds. Some of the writers are available in English (and some have been mentioned or reviewed here, including Kjersti Scheen, Baantjer, Ingrid Noll, Dominique Manotti) most are revelations. Some are not to my taste (since I'm primarily interested in noir fiction), a few are mystery-esque stories by novelists who have primarily literary aims, and some are not up to the standard of the best recent translated crime novels (the Scandinavian wave is under-represented, as well as the excellent new books from Italy), but EQMM should be applauded for their public service in bringing this book (and the series in the magazine on which it's based) to us. And even if a particular story is not to your taste, the glimpse into the world of what a recent symposium called "bloody foreigners" is great fun.

New from Japan, not so new from Ireland

Two books that I've recently read don't really qualify as noir, for different reasons, but I'll talk about them briefly anyway. John Galvin's Bog Warriors is a comic mystery published a few years ago, dealing with the Irish police (the gardaí) and a murder in a rural town. There's a good deal of comedy dealing with relationships both among the townfolk and among the police, but for the most part this is a rural cozy, played out in the form of a police procedural preceded by a portrait of small town life and followed by a couple of plot twists more typical of the mystery genre. During the procedural section, the novel takes on a forward drive missing in the other sections, but overall the book is enjoyable both for the comedy and the police portraits (Galvin is a working garda, still on the force--his second novel is a serial killer thriller that has not had glowing reviews). One thing I cannot understand (maybe somebody can help me!) is the cover of the paperback as issued by the Irish publisher. I could not find any reference to cowboys and horses in the book--and when I do an image search, I find this photo popping up in other places in the Celtic world. Does it have local reference to the "bog warriors" of the title (either the drinkers or the defenders of order)? Somebody please help. The Japanese novel, recently published in English translation, is Asa Nonami's The Hunter, featuring a female detective named Takako Otomichi and her older male partner, Tamotsu Takizawa (the point of view fluctuates between them and also to a narrative voice that describes the crimes). There are hideous crimes described (attacks by a wolf-like animal, fires started by arson and by a terrible chemical weapon) but the focus on Otomichi and Takizawa is hardly of a "hard-boiled" character, which may be due to Japanese culture, to translation difficulties, or indeed to the aims of the author. But whatever the case, I find my attention drifting away from the difficulties of the two partners in adjusting to one another, the problematic home situations of both of them, and so forth. Too much soap opera (a term I've mentioned before--it's the word I use to explain to my wife why I like Law & Order but didn't like NYPD Blue, to use a TV-series example). I want to shake both the principal characters by the shoulders and get their attention back on the case--I don't really care whether they ever get along with one another (though we know they will gain each other's respect by the end of the book, it's that kind of story). Even on the case, there are cultural differences that prevent the story away from the noir tone: The detective squad spends a condiderable time deciding the name of the case (what they come up with sounds sort of like a Perry Mason book title, or even a Hardy Boys title)--it's difficult to tell if this process (and the title itself) are intended for comic effect, since there's little other attempt at humor in the book. Still, I don't want to just complain about The Hunter; it's a window on a very different culture and its police, its crimes, and its attitudes toward women. If it doesn't delve as much into the underside of Japanese culture as, say, the books of Natsuo Kirino or Ryu Murakami, and is more an old-fashioned copy/mystery novel than the neo-noir that the book's cover suggests, it's still a well-told story that a lot of people will enjoy.