Friday, December 28, 2007

Peter Temple has a distinct style, a kind of in-medias-res effect that extends from the plot to the sentence structure. The Broken Shore reads as if it were the third or fourth novel in a crime series, when in fact it's a stand along novel. Details from the past of Senior Detective Sergeant Joe Cashin, who is at the center of the story and at the focus of the novel's third-person point of view. At first, I thought I had missed some earlier episodes in Cashin's career, but when I realized what was going on, the splintered quality of the story and its style became clear. Indirect dialogue, leaving much as simply understood, forces the reader to interpret and to make suppositions--or simply to go with the flow. It's as if at all points, the reader is overhearing a conversation in progress, and people and incidents referred to in passing without explanation will only be clarified at some other time. Singo, for instance, is referred to several times in the first half of the novel, but who that is is not clarified until the second half, and then only slowly. The story is also told indirectly, as Cashin discovers the people and events connected to the beating of a wealthy man in his own home. Cashin is himself "damaged goods," on a sort of leave from his Homicide job, assigned to a small station in Port Monro. In spite of having roots in the community (the old ruin he lives in belonged to an ancestor who died while trying to dynamite the place), he remains an outsider: able to be an observer to the racist attitudes of the white community to the Aboriginal community living in a nearby settlement. Cashin in fact has Aboriginal cousins, though he lacks any personal or social sense of solidarity with those other outsiders. There is powerful but understated imagery in the book, regarding the "broken shore" of the title, but the novel is primarily "dramatic," rather than poetic--the emphasis is on dialogue as well as some indirect internal monologue on Cashin's part. The conversations that move the story forward are ironic and oblique, especially in in the sometimes joking, sometimes aggressive talk among the cops. Once in the flow of the book, the reader is tied into the narrative (interpolated into the story) through the necessary effort of keeping up with the pace of the dialogue and with the gradual unfolding of the truth. The resolution of the story is a bit conventional, given the indirect route getting there. Again, there is some suggestion of a novel in a series in the way things are resolved, but not quite--as if leaving something for the next book. But the buzz around the book is deserved, regardless of any conventional elements, because of the quality of the writing and the clear portrait of racism in its most casual an its most destructive manifestations. Does anyone have any recommendations about which of Temple's stand-alone or series novels to seek as a follow-up?

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

December reading

While I've been waiting for some new crime novels from Italy, Scandinavia, and elsewhere, I've finished a couple of big books that are only sort-of crime fiction as well as the first two of Theresa Schwegel's police novels (I'm waiting for the 3rd one, which promises to be her best so far). The big books are Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games (the police detective and the gangster are surrogates for bigger issues that finally bring the twin narratives together at the end--a very good novel, but be prepared for a long haul if you start on it) and Gentlemen, by Klas Östergren (which claims to be part thriller and part spy story, but is actually a meandering satire about Sweden in the '70s--an interesting excursion of you're interested in Swedish culture and literature, but not a crime novel at all). Schwegel's books are interesting in several respects: most crime novels are about detectives or civilians rather than uniformed cops, which is Schwegel's "beat." Her books resemble Wambaugh's or those of John Westermann (whose Long Island cop stories are better than the reviews on Amazon would indicate). Schwegel's tales are also set in the North Chicago neighborhoods where I once lived, an extra bonus. Her stories are cynical (or realistic, if you wish) and involving--bringing the daily dilemmas of working police to the forefront (instead of serial killers or human trafficking or the other standard fare of the run-of-the-mill police novel in the U.S. I'll report on her new Person of Interest when I get hold of it. In the meantime, I'm finally catching up with the much-reviewed and highly recommended Broken Shore by Australia's Peter Temple--more on that later.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wyatt's 2nd and 3rd, by Garry Disher

The 2nd of Garry Disher's Wyatt novels is like a Southern Gothic (I compared Kickback, the first volume, to classic Westerns a couple of weeks ago). Wyatt wants to get the money back from the mob, called the Outfit, that hijacked his heist in Kickback, but needs to get a bankroll. Leah, a contact in small-town Australia, offers him the possibility: a payroll carried by a small armored car company that travels around the smalal towns in her area. Wyatt sets up a team, involving one slimeball and a slow-witted man right out of Sanctuary or No Orchids for Miss Blandish. But, as usual in this series, things go wrong. Wyatt jis supposed to be a master thief, or at least a master planner, but his glory days are behind him and he can't "get good help" anymore--his hijack is hijacked and he's on the run again, moving into volume 3, Deathdeal, which reunites him with the woman who set up his job in Kickback (and who double-crossed him then).

At the end of Deathdeal, Wyatt is telling himself that his luck can't get any worse, as he heads into a casino--but throughout the first three novels of this intriguing series, his luck couldn't be any worse. That brings out aspects of his character that we wouldn't see if his life was going according to plan, a big job now and then to finance travel to distant, quiet places. Instead, both his resourcefulness and his ruthlessness are on display. If volume 2 reads like Southern Gothic, volume 3 is like a pulp detective novel, something by David Goodis or maybe Charles Willeford--the people surrounding Wyatt are venal, greedy, vindictive, and often stupid. And as in classic noir, the characters with redeeming qualities are often convicts or other down-and-outers. The social portrait that Disher gives us is bleak and depressed, and described in terms that are more direct and grim than the more sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of the same social scene in his other crime series, featuring police rather than thieves. Disher has such control over his voice and his technique that we accept each of these very different series on its own terms, and though I find myself more drawn to the police precedurals, I'm still trying to get hold of the rest of the Wyatt books.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Slide, Ken Bruen and Jason Starr

The new Hard Case Crime book by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr picks up (in more ways than simply plot) where the previous one, Bust, left off. The pulp end of the crime fiction spectrum is so stylized, in the pure form of the genre, that an author constantly risks tipping his story over into parody. Most of the Hard Case Crime series stays tantalizingly on the "serious" side of the line, but Bruen and Starr, this time, shift joyfully over into the "comic" side. There are in-jokes in abundance, with Bruen appearing as a mugging victim and copies of Bust and other Hard Case books lying around as set decoration. Presumably, the 2 authors wrote alternate sections of this 2-pronged story, with Bruen contributing the Irish serial killer plot (one of his specialties) and Starr the modern entrepreneur gone to seed plot (definitely his specialty)--but in both cases they've turned their usual style up a notch, obviously having fun with the terms of the genre as well as their own previous works. Max, the entrepreneur of the (mostly) New York story, thinks he's tough when he tries to talk "street," which he does idiotically badly. Slide, the would-be serial killer, does an equally bad impression of Al Pacino in Scarface. The two female characters, Angela (from Bust) and Felicia (a stripper, of course) have in common that they have spectacularly bad judgment when it comes to both men and money. The plot is fairly simple: Max (the entrepreneur held over from Bust) wakes up in an alcoholic haze, somehow having landed in an Alabama motel. Discovering the joys of crack, he recruits his Southern contact, an unbelievably naive, Bible-thumping young dealer, as his supplier for a new career as a New York crack dealer. Meanwhile Angela, having fled to Ireland after Bust, falls in with a sadistic but not-too-bright would-be serial killer (whose nickname is Slide) and follows along on his crime spree from Dublin back to New York, where the two stories will inevitably collide in mayhem. Bruen's sections (I'm guessing, but it's pretty clear) are a combination of his Brant and his Taylor series, but freed from any constraints regarding violence, sexism, and self-parody--I've never been a big fan of the Taylor series (though I've always liked the Brant books), but the seriousness of those previous novels (even Bust) is clear when compared with the wild comedy of Slide. Parody can be a lot of fun, but there's a risk that comes along with it: can the reader ever again take pulp-noir fiction seriously after experiencing its comic travesty in a book like Slide?