Monday, May 26, 2008

New from Norway: K.O. Dahl's The Man in the Window

I wasn't sure why K.O.Dahl's "Oslo Detectives" or "Frølich & Gunnarstranda" novels were called that after reading the first one, The Fourth Man, which emphasized Frølich and his personal involvement with those involved in the crime, much more than his superior officer Gunnarstranda. But the second novel translated into English, The Man in the Window, balances their roles in the story, with a slight emphasis on Gunnarstranda this time. The Man in the Window is fairly long and complicated, much more so than The Fourth Man, and also more of a mystery (as Norman Price of the Crime Scraps blog reported in his Eurocrime review of The Man in the Window, the novel shares some structural devices with the cozy or country house mystery). Both detectives are experiencing some complications in their private lives (Frølich is doubting his commitment to his girlfriend and lusting after someone else, Gunnarstranda is mourning his deceased wife and beginning to revive his love life), but neither is personally involved in the crime at hand or the principals who are involved. Each of them has his own personality quirks and his own investigative style, and their conversation is a key element in the story. The novel begins by following the events of a January, Friday the 13th in the lives of a soon-to-be-deceased patriarch of a family in the antiques business and several others involved in his death in some way (his adulterous wife, a taxi driver, an actress, and several others. The facts withheld in these early passages seem less artificially withheld than I feared they might (the surprises in the later parts of the novel are effective in the police-procedural manner--there's no expectation in the procedural, as opposed to the Agatha-Christie sort of mystery, where the reader expects to have the clues to the puzzle from the beginning. Dahl, after the opening chapters, lets the reader follow Frølich and Gunnarstranda as they individually and together struggle to make sense of the murder and collect information about the various family members and others who surround the crime. The narrative is concerned with the revelation of the personalities of various characters as much as events or investigation, always (after the opening passages) through the two detectives' eyes. The methodical, even plodding, investigation is a specialty of the Scandinavian crime novel (as Norman Price also points out) from Sjöwall and Wahlöö forward to most of the Scandinavian novels in translation today. But Dahl's novel is perhaps more methodical than, say, the novels of Jo Nesbø, whose works (as so far translated) have something of the quality of the thriller, mixed with the procedural: Nesbø's Harry Hole is involved in (and threatened by) the criminals and events and subplots in ways unlike Dahl's cops (or those of Sjöwall and Wahlöö for that matter), giving them a forward propulsion largely missing in The Man in the Window--another factor that gives this book a quality of the puzzle mystery, moving forward only as the facts of the case become clear to the police (rather than bursting abruptly into the view of the character and the reader). As much as I admire Nesbø, I also enjoy immensely the stricly procedural approach that Dahl manipulates with much skill. The Man in the Window also has a lot of humor (not so characteristic of the Scandinavian crime novel), in the conversation between the two detectives and elsewhere in the novel: a verbal and situational comedy much appreciated by this reader within a long and complex investigation. All in all, my only complaint is that it's too hard to get Dahl's books in the U.S. promptly after the translations become available.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

urban noir by D

Back in the U.S.A. for a change, I'm reviewing a novel, set mostly in Atlanta (my former home town). There's at least one modern noir classic set in Atlanta, Down on Ponce, by Fred Willard, and it's certainly no surprise that urban noir should focus on one of the centers of hip hop culture and commerce. Atlanta has also in recent years been the site of one of the most spectacularly noir true crime stories, a murder-for-hire carried out by a drifter carrying a shotgun in a box of roses, delivered in dramatically hard-boiled fashion to the Buckhead home of a doomed wife, as well as a famous recent hostage situation and the Michael Vick case. Cake takes the terms of the hip hop or "thug lit" novel seriously but adds some twists from the broader world of noir fiction: D's novel compares favorably with Kenji Jasper's urban noir but also with George Pelecanos, Alan Guthrie, and Charlie Huston's Hank Thompson novels (with all of which Cake has a good deal in common). But Cake also reminds me in some ways of the noirest of classic noir, Paul Cain's Fast One. Both D and Cain are pseudonyms, both novels move very quickly toward doomed and fated endings. D's novel is also short, more in the tradition of classic noir (or Alan Guthrie, among newer novelists) than the contemporary, more expansive noir fiction. The assertively masculine quality of Cake is shared not only with thug lit but also with classic noir (Cake's female characters are mostly hookers, strippers, or baby mamas--the one exception plays the role of fate). The central character of Cake is unnamed, referred to throughout in the second person: there's a trick of cinematography that came to be known in the '80s as "suture," shot and counter-shot of two speakers, with the viewer "stitched" between them by the action of the camera. D's technique has a similar strategy, placing the reader in the position of the protagonist, almost as in a video game, by the use of "you" to refer to his character instead of "he" or "I." In a short, fast novel like this one, the device is very effective. In effect, "you" are on the run from a Brooklyn massacre (from D's previous novel, Got), moving to Atlanta to attempt to reboot your life by going back to school. But you move in with a cousin who's a small time dealer, and you get caught in the middle when a bigger dealer coopts his operation and starts killing people. Like Paul Cain's Kells, D's "you" isn't a thug, he's trying to stick to a principled position, to a certain humanity that's contradicted by almost everything in his situation. The results in both cases are met with the open eyes characteristic of noir rather than the rose-tinted glasses of some other genres, such as thrillers, cozies, etc.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The end of the Havana Quartet

Havana Gold is the last of Leonardo Padura's tetralogy-plus-one of novels about Havana detective Mario Conde, the Count. Actually the books are as much about Havana as about the detective or the crimes he investigates. In my limited acquaintance with Cuban literature, no one evokes that city in so poetic and evocative a way since G. Cabrera Infante (who was an emigre, while Padura has remained in his native city). Havana Gold is the last published but the second in the tetralogy (the fifth novel, Adios Hemingway, was an addendum featuring the same character but not a continuation of the series). As usual, the third person narration is interrupted by other voices, and there are metafictional elements (Conde proposes to write a novel about his current situation and call it Havana Gold (that's the translation, I'm sure the original novel uses its own Spanish title), plus when Conde is looking for something to read (while longing for his new girlfriend) the only book that appeals bears the title of Padura's obscure first novel. Padura's books resemble the Brazilian series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza (which evokes Rio in a similar way, as well as having the meandering plots that characterize Padura's novels), But in a way a more apt comparison is to the detective novels of Yasmina Khadra, in that both are dealing with a threatened regime (Algeria threatened by a government that denies its citizens basic human rights and insurgent Islamic fundamentalists, Cuba's by U.S. embargo and its own clinging-to-communism-and-revolution regime). Khadra's detective is also a writer, though already a succesful one, while Conde remains a writer manque. Neither Khadra nor Padura have any optimism about their societies, though Padura is both more emotionally attached at least to his city and is less overtly political than Khadra. What is distinctive about Padura's detective novels is a pervading melancholy of nostalgia--not a nostalgia for a lost golden age, but for the loss of youthful dreams (not only Conde but all his friends have settled for less than seemed possible in their schooldays at the Pre-Uni that figures largely in this novel). Havana Gold finds Conde caught between two women, one a murdered teacher with an ambiguous reputation, the other a beautiful woman who mysteriously appears in Conde's path, needing her car's tire changed (the car itself being a mark of her position in Cuban society). Conde manages to solve the case of the murdered woman (not by ratiocination but by doggedly following leads and instincts). But the "case" of the mysterious woman leads him down his often-traveled path from love to loss. Not that he doesn't manage some consolation (from sex, from the cooking of his friend Skinny Carlos's mother, and from a tentative dedication to the job to which he is dedicated, without ever quite being a "real cop" or even a real adult (along with his nostalgia for lost youth there is much of the aged adolescent about Conde, with his penchant for picking fights, among other juvenile traits). It is Padura's strength that he achieves much poetry and truth with his flawed characters and within the structure of the crime novel.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

More from Sweden: Camilla Läckberg's The Ice Princess

The first of Camilla Läckberg's mysteries, The Ice Princess, has finally appeared in the U.K. (not yet in the U.S.) in English translation. I say "mystery" rather than "crime novel" because although The Ice Princess has all the elements of noir, it also has elements of the "cozy" and the mystery genre. As one of the characters says about the evil within a small town, "Hatred, envy, greed and revenge, all of it concealed under a huge lid that was created by sentiments such as: 'what would people say?' All the evil, pettiness and malice was quietly allowed to ferment beneath a surface that always had to look so neat and clean." That pretty much captures the duality: a bleakness and malice common to crime fiction and a calm surface more common to mysteries. Whether a small-town story falls on one or the other side of the divide is a matter of emphasis, and Läckberg's novel includes enough naivete and good-natured surface that it falls mostly within the frame of the cozy: within a plot that includes enough horrors for a Gothic novel, the main characters, writer Erica Falck and detective Patrik Hedström, and others react in ways that suggest their own distance from those horrors rather than a weariness or complicity that one senses among characters in noir or crime fiction. There are elements in the plot, also, straight out of Bridget Jones's Diary (a connection suggested by the author herself, within the narrative) that don't fit the noir genre very well. None of that is a criticism, and though my own standards should put The Ice Princess outside the boundaries of this blog, I'm reviewing it anyway--partly for autobiographical reasons. My grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from southern Sweden in the early years of the 20th century, along with her mother, sisters, and brothers. I knew all of them, including my great-grandmother, except for my great-grandfather (who is another story, for another time). In 1973, I had a chance to visit Sweden briefly, and went to the little town of Asarum to look for my grandmother's cousin, who had stayed in Sweden. I didn't find her, but did find her brother, then in his 80s, and had tea with him and his girlfriend. A few years later, I had a chance to live in August Strindberg's apartment, now a museum, in connection with my doctoral dissertation on his autobiographical novels, and also a chance to visit with a well-to-do Swedish family in their summer cottage at Midsommar. My relatives in the U.S. and in Sweden have not really been captured in the Swedish crime fiction I've read so far--which has dealt more with cities, with modern (rather than traditional) rural locations, and with middle-class or urban communities--much more the milieu of my second trip to Sweden than my first. The Ice Princess is the first of the new wave of Swedish crime fiction in which I've recognized small town Sweden (more so than in the Gotland novels of Mari Jungstedt or the northern novels of Åsa Larsson, which resemble Läckberg's books more than others of the Scandinavian wave) and the people I know from that milieu. None of the portraits in Läckberg's novel are exact resemblances to my relatives and other small town Swedes I met, but many of them share (sometimes not very pleasant) characteristics with those I knew. That said, some of the characters are little more than caricatures (like the comic chief of police) and others are sketched in to little effect (like the other cops). There's also a "polyanna" aspect to the story, in the naive responses of Erica and Patrik--but that's a common feature in Swedish crime fiction (noticeable in Henning Mankell and most others), possibly a realistic aspect of the portrait of a culture less acclimated to violence. And for me, Läckberg captures both the dark underside and the real daily life of her fictionalized village, making it rhyme, at the very least, with my own experience of a very similar village (though one that is, I expect, not even now experiencing quite the property boom Läckberg depicts). If I don't find The Ice Princess exactly corresponding to my taste in crime writing, I nevertheless am grateful to her for bringing these characters to life, in all their varied social graces, pretentions, convictions, pettiness, flaws, graciousness, and charm.