Wednesday, March 26, 2008

revisiting Jo Nesbø

It's rare for me to reread a crime novel until a considerable time has passed (are there some of you out there who do reread them frequently?). Plot is too easily remembered and too much a part of most crime fiction to get a lot of pleasure out of rereading a book that you remember fairly well. But I just finished rereading Jo Nesbø's Devil's Star, because of the disturbed order in which the novels have been translated. The most recently translated, Nemesis, leaves a plot line unfinished that reaches its conclusion in Devil's Star, which actually was the first of the author's books to be translated into English. Since it had been several years since I read Devil's Star, when it was first out, I decided to follow the hanging plot on to the end (again) and also to see whether Devil's Star holds up to a rereading. My conclusion: Devil's Star is probably the best of the 3 Nesbø books we have in English. Nesbø specializes in red herrings and false conclusions, and there are plenty of them here--but fewer than in Nemesis, and to better effect. There are lots of plot elements that could have been cliches (serial killer, blood diamonds, a Nazi past, devil worship, and so on) but Nesbø cleverly undermines the cliche elements and uses each of them in a positive, believable manner. I should also correct one thing I've said before: that Devil's Star begins with a bravado performance that follows a drop of blood through a 100-year-old house. Actually it's rainwater that the narrator follows as it flows into the house, tracing the construction methods and materials along the way through the cracks and picking up a few drops of fresh blood along the way (plus some blood mixed in with the builder's mortar in the original construction): the elegance of that narrative performance actually carries right through the novel, which repeatedly returns to water and to building materials, straight through the end when Harry Hole, the main character of the series, tastes the same egg-like flavor that appears in that first chapter, a sign of the blood in the mixed mortar. One advantage of rereading a large and well-written novel is that, with the plot less important to the reading experience, the structural metaphors of the story (which are in this case, indeed, structural metaphors) become clearer. Regarding characters, the naturalism of Nesbø's style keeps them lively even in a re-encounter. Someone responded to my previous post on Nesbø with a request to explain what I meant when I said that Hole was more "real" than some other Scandinavian fictional detectives, such as Irene Huss--what I mean is that Hole is more completely realized in his internal life, in all its inadequacies, failings, accomplishments, addictions, and so forth. Compared to Hole, Huss seems a bit naive (especially in The Torso), though I must admit that her balance between career and family is perhaps a more "real" reflection of a police detective's life than the more dramatic extremes of Hole's life. But though Irene is sympathetic and fully realized, Hole is more memorable as a character per se (not a good thing, I suppose, if you follow the logic of some of the original pulp noir novels, whose heroes were fairly anonymous). Any arguments, about that statement or my assessment of Nesbø and Devil's Star?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Pars vite et reviens tard: The Movie!

I got hold of a copy of the DVD of what is evidently the first film from Fred Vargas's distinctive series of crime novels, Pars vite et reviens tard by director Regis Wargnier (from the novel known in English as Have Mercy on Us All. I hadn't thought of it before, but there are NTSC, region 1 DVDs produced for Canadian viewers, with English subtitles, of French movies--a source I'll keep in mind for the future. The movie includes almost all of the characters and events of the novel but a substantial amount of the quirky character traits from the novel are obscured by the necessities of a screen play (and some of the actors were a bit surprising, to me, as embodiments of the characters). Camille has a small but crucial part, and Danglard's relationship with her is intact (details that might have gotten lost in a lesser translation to film). I got an unbiased positive opinion on the movie from my wife, who has not read the novels--and there's enough of the novel's nature to make it interesting to someone who has read it. There's a lot of language in Vargas's works that can't make it into the dialogue of a screenplay, after all. One reviewer complained that the movie fails to show the "village within Paris" that is the real subject of the book (even more than the plague), but all the elements of the village are here--shown instead of described, and therefore a bit sketchier. The movie is a vast improvement on the translation to film of The Laughing Policeman, which I recently saw--that has to be one of the worst movies ever made from a great crime novel (Walter Matthau as Martin Beck--I mean, really!) In Pars vite, the intuitive leaps of Adamsberg, versus the rational plodding of Danglard, are also here, seeming a bit abrupt in a movie, but still intact. I seem to be damning with faint praise, when actually I thought the movie was good fun. Perhaps unfortunate that I saw the DVD on the same day as going to the movie theater to see In Bruges, a powerful work of original cinema by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, not based on a novel and therefore tailored perfectly for the movie screen (and seen on a big screen instead of the living-room TV). I'll be watching Pars vite et reviens tard again, though--it's a keeper that I'll be lending out to friends who have (and haven't) read the book.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Jo Nesbø, Nemesis (Sorgenfri)

I can see why Harvill Secker started publishing their translations of Jo Nesbø's novels about Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo police with the 3rd, 4th, and 5th books in the series. The first 2 books sent Harry off to Bangkok and Australia, while the next three are focused mostly on Norway (exotic enough, for readers in the U.S. and U.K., without going further afield)--plus these three novels have a common subplot concerning the criminal enterprise of another detective, Tom Waaler, a drama that extends across all three novels before reaching resolution. But why the publisher brought out the 5th novel first, and then the 3rd, and now finally the 4th, is beyond me, especially given that continued story. That distorted order means that the early readers of Nesbø in English only had to put up with the tension of that extended plot through one long novel instead of three, but the tension of a delayed plot resolution is after all what fiction is about, and knowing the resolution before reading the first two books in which it appears removed some of the reader's pleasure in them, knowing what will happen eventually. The title of Nemesis was also changed in English, but perhaps the original (Sorgenfri, or "carefree" or "sans souci") though it has resonance in the plot, would surely have been a misleading title for a crime novel in English--and both Nemesis and The House of Pain (another title the U.K. publisher considered) also have resonance in the plot, so the title works (better than the distorted order at the very least). These are long books (Nemesis is 474 pages) with a number of red herrings, with insights (sometimes misleading) into the criminal's minds, and with complex plots--but it is the author's skill and language that pulls the reader along through the whole length of the books. The Devil's Star, the first of the books to appear in English, begins with a 7-page bravura performance in which the narrative follows a drip of blood through as it runs through a 100-year-old building, tracing the history of its construction along the way. This passage also provides metaphors with which Devil's Star ends and for the name of Tom Waaler, Harry's real "nemesis" in all of these three books. Nemesis also begins with a cleverly designed opening chapter, threading Harry into a bank robbery in an entertaining way as the reader gradually figures out what's going on. The plot overall is crammed with so many premature (and incorrect) solutions to the crimes that the reader may feel as if he or she (as much as the detective) is being toyed with a bit (though the tension is released and wound back up again repeatedly in the process, an effective device overall). The plot finally comes back around again to its starting point, with much mayhem in the wake of all those mistaken conclusions on the part of the police. And at the end, there is what would have been a tantalizing taste of where the series was going (except that we got that book first, so we know how it turns out, already). I'll stop complaining--but I will recommend these books (and I do highly recommend them) to new readers in the order they were published (Redbreast, Nemesis, Devil's Star--no need to wait for the first one, apparently being translated, much less the second, apparently not being translated). You'll want to shake Harry and point him in the right direction because you know something he only suspects, and you may get frustrated with the Waaler plot as it distracts us (and Harry) from the more immediate crimes that form the plot of each book--and Waaler threatens almost to become that cliche of mystery fiction, the master criminal who lurks behind every crime. But the Waaler plot has the effect of immersing us in Harry's world, the world of the depressed and alcoholic detective--and the world of Oslo, which is very much present in the texture of the narratives, in its present day, its history, and its culture. The characters are lively and fully realized, even the bit players. Harry teeters on the brink of alchoholic despair, in some novels more able to cope than in others, but his troubles, his conscience, and his persistence (with no self-righteousness, no sense of purpose other than to keep on going) are very engaging. He's a more "real" character than some of the other Scandinavian detectives currently showing up (Wallander is quite real, Irene Huss and some others perhaps less so). And I can't resist going back to Devil's Star now, to revisit how the Tom Waaler story develops--a personal testament to the pull that the story has on the reader, and the skill of the author in creating it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New Swedish crime: Kjell Eriksson's Demon of Dakar

The newly translated Demon of Dakar, by Kjell Eriksson is the third novel centered around Detective Ann Lindell of the Uppsala police. Lindell doesn't appear until well into the novel, which follows more closely (from the beginning) the travels and travails of a Mexican peasant, a Zapotec named Manuel Alavez, who comes to Sweden to visit his brother who has ended up in a Swedish jail after being convicted of drug smuggling (another brother died in Germany on the same illegal smuggling operation). The demon of the English title is the unpleasant owner of 2 restaurants in Uppsala (and one of several characters of mixed nationality, perhaps a commentary on contemporary Swedish life), who with his partner has set up a smuggling operation to finance his restaurant empire. The Swedish title, Mannen Från Bergen (The Man From The Mountains), is actually more relevant to the action (and the key metaphor) of the novel, but the editors chose the English title to echo (effectively) the ironic exoticism of Eriksson's first novel in English, the excellent The Princess of Burundi. In the Demon, the exoticism is only partly ironic, since there is considerable time spent on the life of Manuel in a Zapotec village (quite exotic from a Swedish point of view). The strength of the novel is actually in the other 2 strains of the novel: the methodical work of Lindell and the police and the lives of a group of restaurant workers at Dakar, one of the drug smuggler's restaurants. At first, a cook named Johnny seems to be a central figure among this group, but Eva, a new waiter, turns out to be more important, both in her work life and her home life. One of the factors that most determines the kind of novel this is, though, is the fact that the reader knows all along who has murdered the smuggler-restauranteur's partner, as well as what is happening among most of the others involved in the novel's crimes. So this novel is a procedural, rather than a mystery, because we follow the police trying to find the truth, rather than trying to find it ourselves. But unlike the usual procedural, the police here make only partial progress (I won't give away the conclusion, though). The sympathy of the author lies with Manuel, and unfortunately Manuel and his brother are less completely realized as characters than the Europeans in this and Eriksson's other novels. Manuel, whose interior monologue takes up a considerable portion of the novel's narrative, is to a certain extent a "noble savage," occupying a strategic or ideological relationship to Swedes and Swedish society, rather than a full and complex character. His nostalgia for a seemingly pure and honest village life does not entirely ring true (though to Eriksson's credit he does portray the political and social plight of the Zapotecs rather than setting them up as happy peasants). Some other characters, such as Zero, a Swedish-born Turkish teenager, seem to get short shrift (though they could easily have contributed interesting highlights, at least, to the novel) while Manuel's longing for his home takes up large chunks of the narrative. But if I grew impatient at times with Manuel, the novel has considerable merits, not least of which is Eriksson's ability to tell an international story without resorting to international conspiracies (to my mind a flaw in a number of the estimable Henning Mankell's books). The proletarian or quotidian quality of his books is one of their greates virtues: without resorting to cliches, the author gives such a detailed portrait of daily life among the working classes and ordinary people that he deserves to be described as writer of truly "noir" crime fiction, more so that some other current Scandinavian writers. High praise, from my point of view. Next on my stack of reading, I'm happy to say, is Nemesis, by Jo Nesbo, whose Harry Hole character is another kind of "noir" creation: the depressed detective (a very entertaining one, too, judging from the earlier translations of Nesbo's books). So--off to Norway...

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Myrin (Jar City)--the movie

The Independent Film Channel has brought the film of Arnaldur Indridason's Jar City to U.S. movie screens (or at least to the Toronto Film Festival and to On-Demand cable, which is where I saw it). The film has the advantage of several other film series made from Scandinavian crime novels: the actors (though not exactly how readers might have envisioned them) disappear into the roles. Jar City features the land- and cityscape of Iceland in a way rarely seen by those of us who have only experienced the country through travelogues. Director Baltasar Kormákur presents a cold, nearly barren country full of brutalist modern buildings. but in the almost anonymous cityscape, everyone seems to know everyone else (perhaps a comment on the common ground of the police and their usual "clients"). the occasional older building with more character (a church, one house) stand out starkly against the bleak backdrop of both nature and culture. There is a duality of time in the film, two narratives that are converging toward the conclusion: they are differentiated not only by the angle of view on the central events but also by color, one warmer and the other cooler and bluer. Sigurdur Oli and Elinborg, the cohorts of chief detective Erlendur, behave very much like their counterparts in the novels. Erlendur himself is as cranky and anti-social as his literary other, but perhaps not quite so difficult. His daughter, an essential character in the series, is also slightly less aggressive in her problematic relationship with Erlendur in the film. The story is complex and as bleak as the landscape, but as in the book the viewer is pulled in, through the filmmaker's (and the novelist's) considerable sympathy with the cops, the murderer, the victims, the witnesses, and the human condition. That sounds like overreaching for a crime novel, but as with some of the other Scandinavians, the Erlendur novels are quietly ambitious in their approach to fiction and to crime fiction. Whether you already know the Arnaldur Indridason novels or not, the film of Jar City (or Myrin, which means "marsh" or "mire") will be rewarding and moving--plus creepy and at times disgusting. The culinary habits of Icelanders are very much in evidence, along with various forms of decomposition (readers of the novel will know what to expect from this story, along those lines, even more than subsequent Erlendur novels). We can only hope that further films are made from the series (and that those of us outside Scandinavia will have access to them). Anyone else seen Jar City? If so, please let u s know what you thought, and also what you know about the possible future of films based on Arnaldur Indridason's novels.

Friday, March 07, 2008

This Night's Foul Work, by Fred Vargas

Reading in close sequence the latest books in English translation by French female crime writers Dominique Manotti and Fred Vargas is an interesting experience. Both authors are distinguished scholars in other fields, and both use considerable chunks of French history in their stories. But where Manotti's books are very much "placed" in recent social history, Vargas's books float in an alternate universe of imagination, a world that shares certain points with ours (including, in this case, natural history, a rivalry between 17th century poets, French regional rivalries, ghosts, reliquaries, and medieval magic), but it's a world in which "cloud shovelers," as her chief detective Adamsberg describes himself, are more able to cope than the realists or positivists. The story develops slowly, without a clear trajectory until well into the novel, and there are more unexpected revelations here than in Vargas's other novels, almost in a Holmesian fashion. But you don't read Vargas as much for the plot as for her distinctive voice. What other crime novelist could depend on a policeman (a new cop in Adamsberg's unit) who frequently speaks in Racinian Alexandrine verse (which I imagine was the devil to translate into English, since twelve syllable Alexandrines are very far from the Shakespearean iambic pentameter that is more natural in English). The other characters do take note of peculiarity of speech, but they absorb the oddness along with all the other strange people and events that populate Vargas's Paris. Vargas shares something with the fantasy novels of French intellectual Jacques Roubaud, which technically revolve around crime but are set in an imaginary world of lightness and wish-fulfillment. Vargas's stories are not as light (there are bloody murders of both people and beasts in This Night's Foul Work) but there is also a gentle comedy and a series of discrete, almost ethnographically defined communities into which the reader must enter wholeheartedly to appreciate the books. This is not the noir of classic film noir, nor of the American novels that French noir filmmakers so admired. This world is a dark and funny descendant of Sherlock Holmes's mystery-adventure stories, but with gender roles and other social conventions both updated and creatively confused. I must admit that I find the serious and deeply political novels of Manotti more deeply satisfying than the lighter and more satirical fictions of Vargas; but Vargas exploits the profound power of fiction itself to create an experience that draws the reader into a rich, vivid, and unique world of eccentric characters, bizarre murders, and a sensibility that is close to classic South American magic realism.