Thursday, November 22, 2007

Kickback (Garry Disher), crime, westerns, etc.

I finally got my hands on some of Gary Disher's Wyatt novels, which are very different from his more recent police procedurals. Wyatt is on the other side of the law, but the novels are also on the other side of a border we might draw between "noir" as a traditional form (going back through Jim Thompson to the pulp detective novels of the 30s and 40s) and the contemporary crime novel. Plus Kickback, the first of the Wyatt novels, makes an explicit comparison between cowboy fiction and crime fiction (perhaps in part a nod to the early career of crime great Elmore Leonard, but certainly a link to the Western genre in fiction and film). First of all, names: Wyatt and the Younger brothers; plus the solitary quality of Wyatt's life, and the fact that (like so many classic Westerns) the story exploits a changing social pattern (Wyatt complains of changes from cash to electronic and plastic money, a change that is cutting into his business as a burglar/thief--in the same way that modernization provides the background to a host of cowboy stories about the "end of an era" as the cowboy lifestyle came to and end, or even the land wars in the Western U.S. that caused that change). Even the businesslike thief versus the "cowboy" recklessness of Wyatt's antagonist, Sugarfoot (another Western reference, explicit in the novel--if anyone remembers the TV series of that title). The novel, though overlaid with the cowboy metaphor, is a classic caper-plus-the-mob story, with even a bit of Mike Hammer (revised for modern audiences--though I won't go into that parallel too much, since it would give too much of the story away). Wyatt is doing small jobs leading up to a moderately large one, while being pursued by that Sugarfoot character, who feels Wyatt wronged him on one of the small jobs. The key figure in the big job is Anna, who engages Wyatt emotionally as well as professionally and sexually. That emotional attachment suggests for a moment Disher's later work, when the more stylized world of pulp-noir will give way to the more complex milieu of the contemporary crime novel. Disher, a prolific writer across a number of genres, has something in common with Ed McBain, who under several names produced detective stories, the template of all modern police procedurals, and gritty literary novels about life in the modern city. As with the later books of McBain (or, for that matter Graham Greene) the genre fiction and the literary fiction come together in Disher's more recent books. While the Wyatt books are tersely written in a very effective way, and are leavened by humor and emotion, they're basically (on the evidence of the first one, and I'll revisit this theme when I've had a chance to read some of the later ones) caper stories of a high order, comparable to the "Richard Starke" novels featuring the master thief Parker (as detectiveswithoutborders has pointed out in some detail). With the Challis/Destry books, Disher enters the realm of those crime novels that satisfy fully in the terms of both the genre and the larger literary world (though there's still a bias against crime fiction, especially series fiction, in certain quarters of the literary world). It's unfortunate that the Wyatt books are so inaccessible to readers outside Australia, but if serious readers haven't discovered the widely available Challis/Destry books, they have only themselves to blame.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

a Sophie Hannah preview

Sophie Hannah's new crime novel (her third) is scheduled for release in the U.K. in early February. It's a hybrid, and the combination is highly unusual: the novel is an amalgam of a paranoid-threat thriller, a comic harried-housewife novel, an emotionally-damaged-cop novel, and a couple of other things. One of the substantial accomplishments of this book is that it remains funny even as the reader realizes that what he or she has been laughing about is at the same time the heart of the very tense threat-plot. There are several elements in the story, separated by narrative style. The first person narrative is that of Sally, who is at her wit's end trying to cope with two jobs, a clueless husband, and a couple of demanding young children--and suddently seems to be pushed into the path of a bus. Cleverly paired with Sally's narrative is a diary by a woman who was found dead in a bathtub (her daughter also dead, in another tub). The diary's narrative is an extreme version of Sally's, puzzling the police in its negative (even violent) thoughts about the child that the diarist, a stay-at-home mother, was raising until they died. The police have mostly accepted the idea that the mother drowned the daughter and then slashed her own wrists, after dosing them both with a date-rape drug. But Simon (the detective who, along with his Sergeant-partner and sort-of love interest Charlie, are the running characters in Hannah's series) can't see it as a murder-suicide. The police strain of the book is told in the third person, mostly but not entirely from Simon and Charlie's divergent points of view--the other cops are differentiated by various characteristics but never really as alive as Simon and Charlie (or Sally and Geraldine, the dead mother). And Sally sees Geraldine's husband, Mark, on TV, but she knows that the man she sees is not the "real" husband, since she'd had a brief affair with Mark during which he'd told her all about Geraldine and their daughter (while she's complaining to him about her own family situation). Hence the paranoid plot--if this is Mark, who was it she spent a week with last year? And if she knew the real Mark, who's the guy on TV--and did one or the other of them just try to kill her? All of that sounds complicated, but Hannah is very good at keeping all the plots going--and as the tension increases, she's also good at building up the reader's interest only to suddenly shift into one of the other plots. There are elements of this book that refer to genres that I don't care much for (the cozy or traditional mystery, the threatened-woman thriller), but Hannah uses the cops to bring everything together in what is not quite a police procedural, and not quite the new-wave crime novel, and not exactly a "literary thriller," but her own form combining all the elements above. She even manages a bit of postmodernist metafiction (without being obvious or obnoxious about it): part of the plot depends on the diary being an unreliable narrative, but also on the detectives finding its author a believable character--the detective, within the story, acting as a literary critic to pass judgment on the quality of the writing of a segment of the book he's a character in... In some ways, The Point of Rescue reminds me of the much more low-key crime novels of Kate Atkinson, but in the end, as good as Atkinson's novels are, they're more literary works than crime fiction per se. Hannah's novel is more effective in depicting a crime and giving the reader a sense of the characters' endangered state, while at the same time seriously (though often comically) engaging serious issues (particularly the damaging expectations heaped upon women in family situations--the beginning of The Point of Rescue is indistinguishable from the beginning of a literary novel on that topic, even beyond the attempt to murder Sally, right up until the police narrative takes over and the extreme version of Sally's story, in the diary, casts that more conventional harried-mother story into stark relief. I highly recommend The Point of Rescue as an enjoyable crime novel that is at the same time funny and involving, and still manages to tackle serious social issues. One word about the "series" aspect: at first, the relationship of Simon and Charlie seems so complex and their history already so fraught with difficulties that a reader might think starting with the most recent of Hannah's three crime novels will be confusing--but in fact, the reader ultimately has all the information he/she needs to follow not only the plot of this book, but the plot of the Simon/Charlie relationship as well (you just have to be as patient in following their story as in pursuing the crime and motherhood plot).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Australia according to Garry Disher

It's obvious from the beginning of Garry Disher's Chain of Evidence, recently released in the U.S., that Disher is in control of his material. There's not a false note in this compelling book that nevertheless remains tied to the day-to-day-ness of crime and criminal investigation. Chain of Evidence is, like Grace Brophy's The Last Enemy (previously reviewed here) published in the excellent SoHo Crime series. And, as in Brophy's novel, the point of view (always in the 3rd person) shifts among a number of characters. But unlike Brophy's narrative, Disher's remains distant from the point of view of the suspects and even potential suspects (apart from the short first chapter, the original crime from the anonymous perpetrator's point of view--something that has become a standard feature of the crime novel). We are privileged to hear what the primary characters of the novel (Inspectors Challis and Destry) are thinking, as well as several other investigators--but the narrative stays with the investigators, which is important in a police procedural. There is a narrative irony, as so often in crime fiction: we see clues that the police are missing; but these are viewed through the anonymous narrator's eye, not other characters. And even this detail of narrative irony is handled in an interesting way by Disher: frequently when the police get around to that already-revealed-to-the-reader clue, it is a case-breaking revelation and a success for the main character of the story. Disher is much less melodramatic: a clue (glimpsed by us in the original crime and on a victim's refrigerator door) is uncovered, but only as one more piece of evidence that, on its own, will not convict the child-predator at the center of this book. The frustration of the police in amassing a case that will, indeed, hold up is a driving force in Disher's book (something missing in Brophy's, which is structured more like a traditional mystery, interested only in revealing the identity of the killer). There's also a passage that highlights the noir credentials (rather than those of a cozy mystery) of Disher's brand of police procedural: in the narrator's voice but from the point of view of detective Ellen Destry, we get a view of modern society: "We admire rapist footballers, own plasma TVs we can't afford, grow obese and vote to keep out strangers. Our fifteen-year-olds get poor educations and move on to senseless crimes, addiction, jail time or deatah behind the wheel of a stolen car, and if they make it past fifteen they can't find work. A great, banal sameness defines us, making us mostly soporific—but nasty if cornered. We're vicious with paedophiles, probably because we produce them." That point of view is sympathetically carried through in Disher's portrait of the underclass in South Australian housing projects and small towns (a big part of Chain of Evidence). The social, even sociological, quality of the narrative reminds me of the novels of Sjöwall and Wahlöö, which I've often held up as a model for effective noir police procedurals. Disher captures the society that produces the criminal classes, the milieu that spawns the individual criminals and causes the depression of the cops that retain a conscience. His novel is an achievement to be appreciated and a valuable and enjoyable addition to the genre. We become personally involved (and implicated) in the several strains of Chain of Evidence: the child molester, Hal Challis's vanished brother-in-law, and surrounding events and characters that reflect and amplify the pain and anguish of everyone involved on both sides of the law. Chain of Evidence makes me want to go back and re-read the Challis-Destry books from the beginning, and also to wish for access to Disher's other crime books.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Grace Brophy's The Last Enemy

I know it's not fair to start of a review with a complaint about what's really a technical matter, but the editor-side of me comes out when there are a lot of proofreading errors in a book. Grace Brophy's new series set in the Italian hill towns (mostly Assisi, in the first book) has a lot of them: Names are routinely misspelled (a character named Giulio is often referred to as "Guilio," another named Giuseppe is as often called "Guiseppe," Giorgio is frequently "Georgio": maybe the proofing system has a problem with names beginning with "g," though there are other mangled names as well. Maybe the publisher, the estimable SoHo Crime imprint, was in a hurry to get the book out, but it's very irritating. The Last Enemy also has some of the characteristics that I've referred to as "tourist noir": Americans are included as characters (primarily here the victim), the English text is peppered with Italian phrases for local color (not usually done with translations from foreign-language crime novels, and it actually does add local color, so I'm not complaining), and a "cozy" plot transferred to the exotic localed (though here with a substantial dose of political cynicism à la Donna Leon). There's a crime at the beginning, then the detective begins eliminating the many suspects while battling his personal enemies in the bureaucracy, aided by his trusted cohorts, as the point of view shifts from one character to another. That last point, about point of view, is particularly an issue with The Last Enemy: When the detective, Commissario Alessandro "Alex" Cenni, arrives in the household of the victim, each of the characters is focused on, his or her history and thoughts entered in turn. It's almost like one of those lists of characters found in translations of big Russian novels, or the massing of characters for the concluding confrontation in a country house mystery. The point of view continues to shift as the novel moves along, mostly among the police but also among other characters--that sort of thing goes on in "noir" police procedurals, but typically the focus (and the reader's attention) is a little more carefully controlled. The event at the center of the novel's atmosphere is a grim-looking Good Friday processional through the streets of Assisi, penitents dragging crosses, accompanied by the hooded figures carrying memento mori as portrayed on the novel's cover. But that scene, and the mood it might convey, are off-stage, while the reader is whisked from the palatial digs of the would-be Italian royalty to the police station, to the cemetery (similarly not very spookily evoked, though Italian cemeteries can be wonderfully strange by Anglo-American standards). There is a behind-the-scenes advantage in Brophy's method--we get to see beyond the Assisi of the tourist buses into the private homes of the wealthy as well as the middle-class (and even working clsas and immigrant populations) of the city and the surrounding hill towns. But there are irritating tics on the part of the detectives: Cenni assumes from the corpse's facial expression that she was not in distress at the moment of death, and further from the obviously staged rape scenario that the killer is a woman: these assumptions are surely the stuff of melodrama rather than crime fiction of the grittier sort that in other places Brophy clearly has in mind. I wanted to like The Last Enemy, and will probably pick up the projected sequels, but I'm hungrier for translations of some of the Italian noir fiction that, on the basis of what has become available so far, is collectively a more substantial addition to the crime canon.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Dibdin's second-to-last

Not being a Dibdin fan (something about the writing has always irritated me), I'd noticed the publication of his last novel--but instead picked up the previous one when I noticed reviews that talked about Back to Bologna more as a comic novel than a crime novel. One of Dibdin's satirical targets is semiotician-novelist Umberto Eco, surely too easy to lampoon these days both for his novels and for semiotics as a postmodern profession past its prime. For some reason, the scholarly literary references (even in fun) in Dibdin's novel seems forced, whereas a passing reference to Italo Svevo (without mentioning that author's name) in Carofiglio's The Past is Another Country seemed natural and unforced--simply a shorthand description of the character's state of mind, in terms that would have come naturally to the university-educated character himself. As has pointed out, Dibdin also indulges in a bit of insider humor by naming two characters with, alternately, the first and last names of the chief characters in his chief "competitors" novels (those of Magdalen Nabb and Donna Leon. Which leads me to the topic of Italian crime stories written by Americans and Brits who live (or have lived) for a time in Italy. The temptation is plainly difficult to resist: setting a novel in Venice or Florence (or all over Italy, as Dibdin does) is clearly more appealing (and probably more marketable) than setting it in Akron or Bradford. For readers of noir, perhaps Akron or Bradford would be more appropriate settings, though. I've referred to this phenomenon in its more egregious manifestations as "tourist noir," though Leon and Nabb lived in Italy long enough to escape that title. Dibdin did live in Italy for some time, but I believe he wrote the novels from a safe distance, in Seattle. Much of the comedy (and the plot) is derived from portraits of celebrities (the semiotician is balanced, in the plot-thread concerned with him, by an equally lampooned celebrity chef) and other "big" people, rather than from the life in the streets that I find more appropriate fodder for crime stories, even comic ones. See, for instance, the very funny crime novels of Donald Westlake, focused on small time criminals, not presidents and media types. Maybe I just have a tin ear for celebrity satire, or maybe it's not a format that translates into the crime genre very well. Regardless, there isn't quite enough crime to balance the comedy in Back to Bologna, and though there are several appealing new characters (including a lampoon of a private detective, a curiously naive Albanian immigrant--though she says she comes from Ruritania, the comic-opera locale of her favorite novel, also the source of her student-lover's name--and some local cops) there are a few too many characters and subplots, so that the whole thing comes off as a shallow skimming of the possibilities of Bologna (better seen in the excellent Night Bus, which manages crime and humor in Bologna in big enough quantities to far outshine Back to Bologna). But Dibdin's Bolognese book does have some things to recommend it: his brief descriptions and evocations of Bologna are apt and colorful. And when the narrative finally settles down briefly into the investigation of the ostensible crime (the murder of a football-club owner) the dialogue among the cops and Zen's progress through the city are a suggestion of the crime novel this might have been. But the crime and the investigation collapse under the farce and the metafiction (the Eco character proposing to write a crime novel called Back to Bologna, starring a detective named Nez...). Flavia the Ruritanian herself refers to the plot as "silly intrigues," so perhaps Dibdin the metafictional author was himself aware of the shallowness of the farcical elements of his plot.

New Carofiglio novel

The Past is Another Country is a "stand-alone" crime novel by Gianrico Carofiglio, already known in English-speaking countries for his excellent, somewhat low-key series of legal thrillers set in Bari, on the east coast of Italy. The new book starts out something like a Patricia Highsmith novel, with Giorgio, a law student, coming under the influence of Francesco, a stronger personality who teaches Giorgio how to make money by cheating at cards and lures him further and further into Francesco's shadowy world. But what for the first third of the book seems to be a story about a gambling scam takes a sudden shift in the second third, when Giorgio's first-person narrative begins to alternate with a third-person narration about Lieutenant Chiti, a young detective with the Carabinieri. Forget Marshal Guarnaccia and the Carabinieri barracks of Magdalen Nabb's novels set in Florence: the paramilitary police in Carofiglio's novel are fiercely competing with the regular national police for big cases and their interrogation technique is to begin beating a suspect immediately upon catching up with him, ceasing only upon confession. There is also a distinct class difference between Chiti and his men (something also seen in Nabb's novels); Chiti is a product of officer's school, whereas the other men in his unit went straight from military training to the streets. In following Chiti, we learn about a serial sexual molester who has been beating and forcing fellatio on a series of young women; the Carabinieri have caught some of the cases and Chiti is under pressure to solve the case before the national police do. That process, and Chiti's own demons, occupy his sections of the rest of the book, alternating (loosely) with Giorgio's story, in which it becomes clear that Francesco is a "user" in the sense that he takes control of Giorgio without allowing the weaker young man any choice in what they do or when. Then the story departs from gambling, for the most part, concentrating on Giorgio's descent into a pointless, directionless way of life (whether under Francesco's influence or after being dropped by him). It's less suspense or mystery that drives the story than a fascination with seeing how low Giorgio can be dragged. There's a framing device, in which Giorgio is confronted by a woman whom he does not recognize at the beginning of the novel, setting the narration into motion--and, effectively, the woman returns at the end, her identity revealing the distance that Giorgio has traveled, in the story's events and in intervening years. It's an interesting story, effectively told, though without the sympathetic quality provided in Carofiglio's other books by the engaging personality of Guido Guerrieri, his running character in that series. The Past is Another Country is more noir, quite different from his other books, and a valuable addition to the cluster of Italian crime fiction available in English (rather than Italian stories by U.S. and U.K. writers who live or travel there, of which there has always been an abundance--more on that topic in my next couple of posts).

Word Verification, I'm afraid

Sorry folks, for anyone who wants to post a comment to this blog--I'm getting so much spam as comments that I'm going to have to install "word verification" for a while. Sorry for the inconvenience, I guess it's a fact of life on the web today...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

New Italians next

Some new Italian crime novels are in the queue for the next reviews: The Past is a Foreign Country by Gianrico Carofiglio (his first non-legal novel), the next-to-last Michael Dibdin/Aurelio Zen novel (somebody explain the appeal of the Zen novels to me, I just don't get Dibdin, in spite of the appeal of his "tour of Italy," setting the novels all over the country), and the first in a new Italian series by a non-Italian, The Last Enemy by Grace Brophy. The Carofiglio review will follow in a couple of days.