Friday, February 29, 2008

Dominique Manotti: Lorraine Connection

Dominique Manotti is an economic historian, and her novels have a historical quality: normally set in the recent past, in a specific social milieu and often tied to a specific, actual event, her novels tell the story of France's modern social evolution, for better and worse. But Lorraine Connection is a bit different from the others that have been translated so far. Like her policiers set in Paris, the style is fast: a third-person, present tense narrative moves breathlessly through the story. But unlike the others, Lorraine Connection has the same pseudo-documentary quality as the best political cinema (Battle of Algiers, Z, or more recently Bloody Sunday): real events in economic and corporate history are linked with a wide cast of characters (all of them flawed, even amoral or ruthless--another quality common to the policiers). None of the characters is a central character in any normal sense. One character that a reader may become attached to appears early in the novel and another more than a third of the way in. Neither is involved directly in the conclusion. But if a reader sets aside all expectations and succumbs to the faux-documentary style, the splintered narrative, and the basis in factual events, the impact of the novel is intense. It is the darkest of noir stories, investigating the damp underside of the global economy and its own central actors. Manotti apparently turned to noir fiction to adequately portray what had become of the society into which her idealistic generation of intellectuals in France were born and for which they had attempted to instigate change. Her analysis is pessimistic without giving up, paranoid without tipping over into conspiracy theories (instead she grounds her story in the facts, rather than the theories, of conspiracy. I'm a big fan of her police novels, but Lorraine Connection is more powerful, more disturbing, and even, if you give yourself up to her narrative style, more absorbing. Just to state a part of the story, to give you an idea of the story, the sequence of events begins with an industrial accident in a rural factory, leading to a labor action, a factory in flames, privatization of defense and high-tech companies, intrigue among corporate committees who lose out in the privatization competition, murder, revenge, coverups, more murders, blackmail, extortion, theft, painfully difficult families, and a melancholy detective. Enough for a wild, entertaining, and even informative ride.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Crime fiction in Palestine

I'm getting to Matt Beynon Rees's Palestinian crime novels late--the second one is already out, I see. The Collaborator of Bethlehem is structurally an "amateur detective" novel, but in tone and development it's really much more like the Algerian police trilogy of Yasmina Khadra or the Berlin novels of Philip Kerr (I see there's a 5th in that series out now, too). Like Kerr and Khadra, Rees is depicting a city in which crime is pervasive in the social structure--in the Berlin novels by Kerr, it is of course the Nazi regime and its aftermath that provide the background; in Khadra's trilogy it's the turmoil of an authoritarian regime under attack by fundamentalist rebels; In Rees's novels, it's a territory in which the powers of order are constantly undercut by the Israeli army (not demonized here--they're mostly an anonymous force literally on the horizon, until tanks roll into town, with a mission for which civilian lives and property are irrelevant) on the one hand and by gunmen on the other. When a Palestinian Christian tries to run off the gunmen using his house to shoot at the Israeli's across the valley (and thereby drawing fire onto the house), the Christian, an outsider in the community, is denounced as a collaborator (after a Muslim is shot by an Israeli sniper). As you can tell, though the plot is simple, the context is very complicated. The amateur detective, Omar Yussef is a schoolteacher who thinks of the denounced man as a protege, and his quixotic effort to save the man and prove that one of the gunmen actually was the collaborator is the story. But the narrative is really less interesting than the portrait of Palestine, which is very detailed and very pessimistic, seeing no resolution for the innocent townspeople of whatever religion. The ending is actually a discordant up-note that seems, to me, to be tacked on when the writer realized that a series was possible. Not that the detective really accomplishes anything in the end, he just resolves some of his own problems after another unfortunate death, and begins to think of himself as a detective (despite his lack of effect). The solution to the mystery is likewise a bit artificial: the actual collaborator is a character whose behavior is inconsistent in ways that I can imagine some will find interestingly three-dimensional but that for me was just inconsistent. But Rees's command of the atmosphere of the book is admirable and effective. I'm off on a French crime tour at the moment (new books by the two leading French women crime writers--in translation anyway--Fred Vargas and Dominique Manotti. But sometime down the line I'll return to Rees to see if his venture into Gaza is as good as his portrait of contemporary Bethelehem.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Mysteries of China and Laos

One of the reasons I started this blog was to try to figure out (in public, so to speak) why I liked some crime novels and didn't like others (and in the process it's also why I narrowed my focus on noir fiction rather than mystery fiction, and on translated and overseas--from a U.S. perspective--writing rather than American writing). A pair of fairly recent novels about Asia bring me back to that discussion: why is it that I enjoy Qiu Xiaolong's Chief Inspector Chen Cao novels set in contemporayr Shanghai (the new one is The Red Mandarin Dress) and don't appreciate Colin Cotterill's Dr. Siri novels set in 1970s Vientiane, Laos (the one I'm currently reading it Anarchy and Old Dogs, from 2007). Xialong's language (I'm probably using his name wrong--does anyone know if Qiu is actually his family name?) is often stilted, his character absurdly correct on matters like sex, and the current novel goes doen a much overtrod path--the serial killer plot. Cotterill's Dr. Siri (not to mention his friends) is a clever, sarcastic character swimming upstream against a corrupt and inept socialist regime that in theory at least he agrees with. Other than the period setting (I don't go in much for period pieces, though the Siri novels aren't set all that far in the past), Cotterill's books seem like the dark-but-funny, exotic-locale stories that I should like, and Xiaolong's Chen novels are often slow, not comic, and include some absurd plot devices (like the coincidence between the two cases that Chen is involved in (or is trying not to be involved in, as he attempts to take time off to pursue a literary degree). I think the reason for my taste in this case is that the Chen stories are crammed with Chinese expressions and cultural behavior, while the Siri stories frequently sound like a bunch of Brits and Americans plopped down in the middle of a Southeast Asian revolution. References in Cotterill's novel tend to be about the Beatles, or a character's experiences in Paris (logical enough references given the colonial history of Laos), or a chacter's "rugby player knees." It's almost as if an overzealous translator has tried to convert the dialogue and narration from conversational Lao into conversational, mid-Atlantic English. On the other hand, Xialong's stilted language is a believable equivalent for the distinctive speech patterns of a culture still grounded in politeness and deference to etiquette and authority. Plus the Chen novels are crammed with larger and smaller depictions of contemporary Chinese culture, with all its contradictory combinations of Communist ideology, capitalist realities, and Confucian spin. It's telling that the cruelest parts of The Red Mandarin Dress are not the murders but the examples of cuisine that are too repulsive to repeat (a hint--have a look at the cover of the U.K. edition and imagine the dinner table it depicts--that would be the mildest of the eating habits in the story). In a book that is extremely aware of Western theories of psychology and literary criticism (perhaps too much so--though integrated into the narrative through the Inspector's literary studies), these cruelties are plainly emblematic of the culture that Xiaolong is portraying from the safe distance of his current teaching career in the U.S., a Chinese civilization caught between not only the "two systems" but also the superstitious and traditional ways that survived the Cultural Revolution and the cynical and rootless ways flooding into the country today. By the way, I included photos of both the U.K. and U.S. covers of The Red Mandarin Dress because the U.K. cover hints comically at what's actually in the book while the U.S. cover suggests a romantic or erotic tale that isn't delivered in the novel (though sex is present, behind the scenes, in many aspects of the investigation and in the inspector's private life. So, the verdict: I find myself turning the pages of Anarchy and Old Dogs without feeling myself much involved in the story, but I forgave the cliche's and the stiffness of The Red Mandarin Dress (not to mention the extremely frequent repetition of the title phrase throughout the book) because of a palpable sense of immersion in a very foreign place. Maybe a compromise with my crime fiction standards? Should I not be judging on its cultural insights if my topic is instead the crime fiction "chops" of the author?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Glauser's 4th

The fourth of Friedrich Glauser's mysteries, The Chinaman, is as quirky as the first three--and each of the books is a distinctive take on the crime novel. The Chinaman starts with an exotic Holmesian premise, a dead man found spread across a recent grave is recently returned to his Swiss homeland after a lifetime at sea. And the detective called to the scene, Sergeant Studer, as it happens, encountered the dead man (nicknamed the Chinaman by the detective, for his oriental appearance) months earlier in a rural inn--and the Chinaman had asked the detective to investigate his murder in the future. But the story is actually more Dickensian, limited to the inn, a poorhouse, and a horticultural college, all in the small town where the body was found. Some elements of the Agatha Christie cozy sort crop up (and Christie and several other crime writers, including Simenon, are mentioned in passing as Studer finds their books on various townspeople's shelves)--but perhaps a bit too many poisons, hostile townspeople, and shootings for a conventional cozy. As with Studer's first case in Thumbprint, also set in a small town, there is an inexplicable claustrophobia that sets Glauser's stories apart from conventional mysteries. Even in the third of the books, Fever, with its adventure novel quality and its settings spread across Europe and North Africa, there is the atmosphere of tense, paranoiac claustrophobia. In The Chinaman, there is an exotic murder in a greenhouse that resonates particularly with me: When I was growing up my family had greenhouses, and from time to time I helped "bomb" them with insecticides. I'd set the boxes of insecticide on the floor at one end of the greenhouse, stick a sparker into it as a fuse, and light it. I'd walk quickly toward the exit at the other end, and if I looked back, I'd see the fog of poison billowing up around the flower beds and rushing toward me. The murder in The Chinaman isn't quite like that, but it involves what Glauser calls a glasshouse, an insecticide fog, and a character who is locked in. And as was the case with our greenhouses, one of the poisons available to bomb the glasshouse is nicotine, which we used to use until safety regulations forbid it (because it would kill anything). Glauser's characters vent the scene of the murder before entering, also a familiar task from my own experience, but they don't seem to worry much about residual poison inside (something that always spooked me, remembering that onrushing fog of gas, when I went into the greenhouse the next morning). But personal connection to the plot aside, Glauser's novel is a sometimes comic, twisted take on the mystery novel, right down to the final confrontation with the murderers (in the fashion of both Simenon and the cozies, with the suspects gathered together in the room). Studer's considerable sympathy with some of the downtrodden and unfortunate characters in this story feels genuine and adds a vital, human dimension to this distinctive tale from 1939. The more of Glauser that we have in English (thanks to Bitter Lemon Press) the more we can appreciate the achievement of an author who could craft these intricate tales in spite of his own struggles with schizophrenia, addiction, and incarceration. One more word of praise for Bitter Lemon: while all the Glauser books have attractive cover designs, The Chinaman's cover captures the off-center quality of this novel in particular, with an acid yellow color and a weird perspective in the photo of a body lying across a grave.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Donna Leon, Through a Glass Darkly

I've just heard, rather than read, Donna Leon's fairly recent Through a Glass Darkly, her novel of the Murano glass factories near Venice. I've always done better with adaptations of Leon's novels, particularly the entertaining German television versions (though it's a bit strange to hear Commissario Brunetti et. al. speaking German). I enjoyed the audio version of Through a Glass Darkly, in any case, more than others of Leon's novels I've read or heard. I've never been sure what it is about Leon's novels that I've found irritating, but this audio version helped me clarify my problem. Her narrative is curiously static, a series of "blackouts," staged encounters among the characters involved in the mystery and in Brunetti's conflicted relationships with his superiors and bureaucrats in general. These encounters move the story forward, but within each set-piece, not much happens except for conversation that is more or less indirect in relation to the murder at the center of the story. This method works very well to edge the reader toward Leon's famous inconclusive endings (her murderers rarely seem to go to jail, protected by family, by conspiracies of silence, and by the powers that be in Venice). But the novels are hardly thrillers, and there's frequently not much going on. In the case of Through the Glass Darkly, a lot of these scenes are quite funny, in satirical and ironic dialogues that Brunetti has with his wife, with the estimable Signorina Elettra, with his boss the Vice Questore, and with various workers and their families on the island of Murano. There are also, of course, numerous grotesqueries regarding the murder, but curiously, a gruesome death draws little comic interplay among the presumably hardened cops--most of whom flee the scene retching. In an American novel or movie, there would have been much banter regarding "crispy critters," or some such. Perhaps the Venetian police are less hard-hearted. In any case, the story concerns pollution from both large and small industry, as well as the environmental and human disasters that flow from them--a large subject brought down to very human specifics in this novel. All in all an involving and entertaining book--though still with one irritating aspect: the characters seem to be limited to a single expletive, though they use that one word a great deal ("bastard"). I've never met or hear an Italian who so severly limited his cursing to a single word, much less that one--they're language in the scatalogical vein is usually much more colorful and creative. And I also have one quibble wiht the audio version, as read by David Collacci: his voice is fine, his tone excellent, but for all the dialogue, he gives the characters stagey Italian accents. Why would they speak to one another with an accent--they're speaking Italian to one another, except when they are pointedly speaking the local Venetian dialect. Why should an English translation of what they're saying be delivered with an Italian accent?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

one more Theresa Schwegel

I started reading Theresa Schwegel's cop novels because I read a newspaper review of her most recent one, Person of Interest, that sang its praises to the heavens, saying it succeeded both as a crime novel and as fiction. That comment should have been fair warning, since I'm always suspicious of claims that a crime novel is somehow of "literary" quality. But partly because Schwegel's books are set in Chicago, on the north side (where I lived for a while) I started her first book, Officer Down, which I thought was pretty good, so I got the second one, Probable Cause, which I didn't like quite as well, but it was still OK. The third book, though, the one I had read about in the first place, fulfills all my worst fears about books that claims are made about, to the tune that they to "rise above" the genre. Person of Interest seems, indeed, to be one of those contemporary "difficult marriage" books as well as a police procedural type of thriller. But it succeeds as neither and covers warmed over territory in both areas. It's difficult to care what happens to characters who are seem to be digging themselves deeper into their misery mainly to keep the plot going, plus if you back up from the plot and look at it as a whole, there are a couple of whopper coincidences. By the time the story reaches its violent phases, well into the story, they seem flat and contrived (one incident, pouring black widow spiders down somebody's shirt, is prepared for in the logic of a Chinese gang plot but still seems to be merely reaching for an exotic plot device). Krimileser, the author of the excellent German crime blog Internationale Krimis, reached the conclusion, in response to my earlier positive comments about Schwegel, posted a reply that my post had persuaded him to read her books, and that he found her second book, Probably Cause, disappointing, an "awkward book full of clichés and skewed plot constructions." I have to say that now I've reached the same conclusion about her third novel, though I still might recommend Officer Down as an interesting take on cops, Chicago, and crime fiction.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Stieg Larsson: Scandinavian crime wave strikes again!

I'm finally getting around to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (more about that title in a minute). In addition to being a great read (even at 533 pages in English translation, the story flows effortlessly forward), Stieg Larsson's novel is self-consciously a "text" in the semiotic sense (and it's a tribute to the author's skills that it's "text-ness" is never a burden to the reader). What I mean is that the references to literature (specifically crime literature) abound in particularly appropriate ways (more appropriate and effective than the tossed-off references or tributes common in Ken Bruen's novels). The main character in this book (the first of what is called the Millennium trilogy) is investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (publisher of Millennium magazine, hence the series title): after Blomkvist achieves notoriety by solving a series of daring robberies, he is inevitably referred to by a witty reporter as "Kalle Blomkvist," a nickname he hates. The reference is a bit lost on American readers, since the title character's name was changed in translations of Astrid Lindgren's boy-detective novels (Kalle Blomkvist in the original, Bill Bergson in translation). The reference is a sly clue to the reader about the author's approach, as well as a signal to watch what the reporter is reading: He's attracted to various pulp writers, and the nature of those books sometimes signals a shift in the narrative. When the story shifts from the investigation of a family's sordid past to the possible discovery of a ruthless serial killer, Blomkvist has gone from a Sue Grafton detective story to a Val McDermid serial killer novel (and a bloody one at that). About that title in English: Like Astrid Lindgren's English-language publishers, Maclehose Press has changed things around. The original Swedish title, literally translated, means "Men Who Hate Women." The current title in English, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, refers to the other chief character (and a more central character in later episodes), Lisbeth Salander, but the English title says little about the book itself. Perhaps a clue is the title of the second book in the trilogy, which Maclehose is reportedly leaving alone, in a literal translation: The Girl Who Played with Fire. Are they looking for a self-conscious "series" title? Will the third volume be called "The Girl Who Knew Too Much," or something like that? In any case, Salander is a fascinating character, an unsocialized "wild child" something like Carol O'Connell's Kathleen Mallory (but Salander is actually more believable and more interesting, though prodigiously talented and anti-social in similar ways). Crime novels have certainly gotten longer and fuller than in the classic days of Simenon and early McBain, but there are only a few crime novels that can sustain the length that Larsson does (and the sequels are apparently even longer): one other who does manage the trick is Jo Nesbø of Norway (what is it about the Scandinavians--rapidly catching up in numbers of books and numbers of pages after a late start in the international crime stakes). Larsson and Nesbø share the talent for writing a long novel that stays interesting all the way through, and a few other qualities, despite differences. Larsson's "detective" in this novel is a disgraced reporter (rather than a disgraced cop), but without the painful emotional history of Nesbø's Harry Hole. And Hole carries the novels almost single-handedly (at least in terms of running characters), whereas Larsson focuses on a pair of central characters. But Larsson is evidently performing a "deconstruction" or survey of crime fiction: in addition to Blomkvist's reading matter and his name, the three novels evidently take different models from within the genre (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is along that Grafton-McDermid-O'Connell spectrum), and at least one of the later books seems to be more of a thriller, political and otherwise. It's easy to see why the Millennium trilogy is a big hit in Sweden, and I'll be waiting impatiently for the final two volumes (final because Larsson died before the series achieved its current fame). I may return to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for another comment or two, but that's all for now--who else has read it? Does anyone have any comments?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Swansea Terminal

The sequel to Robert Lewis's The Last Llanelli Train is already out in the UK and will be out soon in the U.S., from Serpent's Tail. Swansea Terminal isn't about a train station: Robin Llewellyn, the down and out private investigator of the earlier novel is all the way down and all the way out now. The first part of the novel seems to be treading familiar literary territory, the extreme alcoholic, with all the attending pathos and dark comedy: familiar from Charles Bukowski to Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor books. Both those effects are here in abundance, but Lewis adds an ironic structure andn a crime plot that together give a shape to what is often (in books on alcoholics) shapelessly emotional. I must admit that I almost quit the novel when it seemed as if Llewellyn would stumble from bar to bar and humiliation to humiliation for the whole book--no matter how well written (and Swansea Terminal is indeed very well written) an alcoholic haze is not that entertaining or enlightening. The structure is provided by Llewellyn's last case as a private investigator (which he shirks) and by his sorry life history, in the form of the son he abandoned years before. In both cases, where the plot is going is not where you think. The humor in this novel (much touted by the publisher) is of the very dark variety, and comes more from the ironic plot structure than from banter or comic situations: the conversation and the playing out of events are uniformly bleak. But when the crime aspect of the story kicks in, in the second half, Llewellyn's miserable life history moves toward an almost epic quality (though remaining resolutely down and out). There's a passage worth quoting that provides the logic and the self-loathing inherent in this most noir style of noir: "ironically, down here, in the land of the lawless, as guarded and dishonest as it is, there is a lot more nakedness in your relationships with those around you...Sometimes, I guess, you can feel some wisdom in your disillusionment, some truth in your corruption, that others who do not suffer the same way are missing. You can tell yourself that society can only be seen properly from underneath." The quote goes on to provide further illumination the noir portrait of the bottom of society (it's page 151). There's also a telling comment concerning Llewellyn's membership in a select society, the terminally ill: "We call them courageous because they terrify us." At the end, Llewellyn's struggles and his outlook on life takes on the moving comic resignation of Beckett's characters. One aspect of the book that narrows its scope is the lack of women (even the bottom layer of society is not exclusively male, after all). The one woman character, whom Lewis ultimately calls a "our Cathleen ni Houlihan," a telling critique of modern Wales, perhaps, is portrayed in unrelentingly negative terms. The missing female characters provide an excuse to compare Lewis's Welsh noir with that of John Williams, whose cycle of Cardiff novels is a much more diverse portrait of the underclass, male and female. While Williams is more interested in a cast of characters, Lewis providews a practically apolyptic vision from a single character's narrow point of view. Both are interested in much more than genre fiction, and both challenge the conventions of crime fiction in interesting ways.