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.

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