Sunday, June 29, 2008

A new (original) Petra Delicado

Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett's first Petra Delicado crime novel, Death Rites, has just been released in English (after the second and third books in the series). The annoyance of having access to the books out of order is balanced in this case by the pleasure of discovering some of the details of the life of the Barcelona inspector and her sergeant-partner, Fermín Garzón, that were a bit confusing in the novels published so far. It's a cliche that partners in cop books (and movies and TV shows) hate one another at first, but Gimenez-Bartlett's take on this chestnut is interesting because the characters are interesting. We find out more about Petra's two marriages and Fermín's one, along with the early stages of the relationship of the two cops and the sergeant's living arrangements (which will be further developed in Dog Days). As the two learn to work together, they pursue a serial rapist who marks his victims with a circle of wounds, but their investigation is frustrating and they're one step ahead of the press and the police hierarchy, who would be happy to see a woman detective fail (and be sent back to her posting thus far in the Barcelona police, the documentation office). The rapist is pursued in true police-procedural fashion (rather than puzzle-mystery fashion), but when the plot shifts to murder, readers may realize who the killer is before the cops do--but the puzzle is less the point even in the murder plot than the procedural and the personalaties of the pair of police investigators. Plot not being so much the point of these novels, I'm less motivated to reread the next two books in the series than I have been with some crime novels published in translation out of order. But I'm happy to have this first installment both for the pleasure of clarifying who Petra and Fermín are and how their relationship developed, and for this further evidence of the skill of the author. Like Gimenez-Bartlett's other novels, Death Rites is frequently funny but investigates dark corners of social and interpersonal life in post-Franco Barcelona, giving glimpses of that fascinating city. Her main characters are vivid and eccentric, and Petra's voice (as the first-person narrator) is a fascinating blend of a 40-ish European woman's feminist, intellectual, insecure, determined, and even sentimental traits. Petra, her macho-but-open-minded, near-to-retirement partner, and the quirkiness of the plots make these books (as with a number of others published by Europa editions) some of the most interesting and enjoyable examples of recent European crime fiction. Gimenez-Bartlett's books are quite different (and in interesting ways) from those of the other and more famous practitioner of Barcelona crime, Manuel Vazquez Montalban, whose early novel Tattoo will be coming out soon from Serpents Tail.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Crime in Singapore

The notoriously crime-free island state of Singapore (equally notorious for executing or caning some of thse who do practice criminal trades there) is the setting for the first in a new series of "Asian Crime" fiction from a Singapore imprint, Heliconia. Singapore has actually been the scene for a few other crime novels, from Foreign Bodies, by Hwee Hwee Tan (which mixes crime, post-adolescent angst, and even spiritual awakening) to the comic novels of Gopal Baratham (two of which have been published by Serpent's Tail) to the post-WWII street kids of Ming Cher's Spider Boys to the criminal (but not really crime-novel) enterprise of Paul Theroux's Saint Jack (a book said to be banned in Singapore itself). The new book, Shamini Flint's Partners in Crime, is a legal mystery, as was Foreign Bodies, and both novels also share a split perspective anchored by a single woman who is a young lawyer. Flint's lawyer, Annie N..., is mixed race (her actual cultural background obscured by that partially concealed family name), giving her a certain ability to negotiate among the various racial groups in the complex culture of Singapore. I'm including the older cover for the book, which highlights the author's own cultural mix as well as the plot of the story, rather than the newer one, which merely features an orchid and an abbreviated signature. Annie becomes involved in a murder investigation when she is called to a late-night partners' meeting at the law firm where she has recently been made partner, to find the head of the firm bludgeoned to death at his desk. The rest of the book is primarily a series of character studies, conducted much as a police investigation would progress: by a series of interviews and dialogues. The partners, all of them suspects, gradually reveal their own character flaws, sustaining the narrative without quite creating the suspense or anticipation expected in a crime novel. In that sense, Partners in Crime is more of a mystery, less a procedural or noir sort of crime fiction. The notion of "unlikely suspects" applies more to the romance between Annie and another lawyer than to the mystery, though it's difficult to anticipate the solution to the puzzle. But the unlikely romance is actually a bit of a cliche, as is the final confrontation. Nevertheless, the novel is professionally done, moving along in short "takes," each from a different character's point of view (the Sikh detective, his young Chinese assistant, and several of the lawyer-suspects, who are mostly English ex-pats). And the Singaporean setting blends the wealthy ex-pat community with the lives of the professional policeman and his working-class assistant, Filipina maids, male prostitutes, etc. etc., within the glitz of Orchard Road and Raffles Hotel, the old graveyard of the book's original cover, and the bars and boardrooms of the city-state. The book was a little hard to get, and not cheap, but I enjoyed it, and will I happily add it to my short shelf of Singapore crime. Heliconia is evidently coming out with a crime in Malysia next, which could be interesting...

Monday, June 16, 2008

Anne Holt, What Never Happens

What Never Happens (The Final Murder in the U.K.), the second of Anne Holt's Norwegian crime novels, has arrived in English, following last year's What is Mine (Punishment in the U.K.). I had some problems with What is Mine, but the new book is very satisfying, onn several levels. What Never Happens takes on the most clichéd of all popular crime plots, the profiler-and-serial-killer plot, and turns it inside out. There is an element of literary legerdermain, almost of metafiction, that I can't go into without giving the plot away, but even before that aspect of the book kicks into gear, Holt undercuts the profiler plot by turning it into a domestic conflict--Johanne and Adam, the FBI-trained profiler and high-profile cop of What is Mine, return and are now married. In addition to the strange daughter Johanne brings to the marriage, they have just given birth to a baby daughter, and Adam is supposed to be taking some paternity leave. But someone begins killing celebrities, Adam returns to work, and Johanne is asked to help with the case. But the stresses of having a new baby intertwine with the stress of the case and Adam and Johanne bicker and fight through almost the whole story. One of the charms of What Never Happens is the very real, tense but also comic portrait of a family under both normal and abnormal stress. As in the earlier novel, the point of view shifts between Johanne, Adam, several other characters, and the murderer (whose identity is only made clear late in the story), but the narrative from the murderer's point of view (which I found distracting and unnecessary in What is Mine) works pretty well here, leading gradually toward the final "reveal." And where What is Mine ends with a series of climactic coincidences, What Never Happens undercuts a reader's expectations (and the conventions of the serial killer plot) at every turn, right up to the final pages of the book. The contrast between the complex murder plot and the very ordinary (but tumultuous) family life of the principals is very effective. Several narrative sections from other characters' points of view seem beside the point and simply distracting, but each one eventually ties into the overall narrative, like pieces of a puzzle that is not a clockwork machine but a varied and believable social pattern, with overtones of politics, show business, and literary crime. The U.S. (and Norwegian) title, What Never Happens, resonates in the motives of the killer, the lives of some of the victims, and ultimately the way the plot works out (and doesn't work out). All in all, a very dark, sometimes funny, and finally complex crime novel that satisfies on many levels--a substantial addition to the Scandinavian crime wave.

Past and Future crime fiction

As I read various crime fiction blogs, reviews, etc., that I've mostly been talking about recent publications here, with occasional glimpses backward. But there are numerous (and currently relevant) international crime titles that I read before starting a blog and I have every intention of going back to re-read some of them to refresh my memory enough to write something about them. The first that come to mind are the first two Carlo Lucarelli books to make it into English: Almost Blue and Day after Day, which are quite different from the recently completed translations of the De Luca trilogy. My memory is that they are more like a TV cop show (though a good one) whereas the De Luca books bear up to comparison with the best of crime films (The Conformist comes to mind, of course). Another pair of exemplary crime novels I haven't read recently are the two Jean-Pierre Manchette novels that have been translated, Three to Kill and Prone Gunman (Thanks to Eurocrime and The Rap Sheet for initiating discussion of Manchette once again). Manchette's politics remain relevant (something Peter of Detectives Beyond Borders pointed out in his review of the last De Luca novel by Lucarelli, posted at Words Beyond Borders) and Prone Gunman is a distillation of all that is exciting and interesting about crime fiction. Three to Kill I remember as being more conventional, but this is a good time to go back and revisit both. There are a number of new books, too, awaiting attention here: A Florentine Death (by former Commissario Michele Giuttari, who not coincidentally persecuted a couple of reporters for pursuing a different line of inquiry on the famous Monster of Florence case than Giuttari himself was pursuing in his day job as a cop or his moonlighting as a writer. Giuttari actually threw the journalists into jail, accused them of involvement in the murders, and kicked the American journalist of the pair out of the country. Should all that (which made it into a U.S. TV network's evening magazine news program) color our reception of Giuttari's novel? Also: the new novel from Norwegian Anne Holt, the most recent Jakob Arjouni detective novel from Germany, a new addition to the very short list of crime novels from Singapore, and the 3rd policier by Barcelona-based Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett (though this new translation is based on the first of her crime novels, in order of their original release). A rich assortment of crime reading--both present and past.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The last Magdalen Nabb

The last Marshall Guarnaccia novel by Magdalen Nabb has recently been posthumously published, and it is with pleasure that I say the book is Nabb at the height of her powers. The Marshall of the melancholy countenance, eyes tearing up in the sun as always, is confronted with what at first seems an ordinary death, the murder of a young mother in her home, perhaps a burglary gone bad--but a crime that the Marshall knows will become complicated, because it has taken place in a wealthy household at the edge of Florence. Wealth and power are always unwelcome complications for the Carabiniere NCO. The crime will present the Marshall with an abundance of problems, indeed, though not what he originally thought. The book's title, Vita Nuova, comes, of course, from Dante. The reference is ironic, since Nabb's book deals with sex rather than love (the topic dealt with in Dante's book), but also direct, in that the Marshall is forced to confront the possibility of embarking on a new way of life. As is usual in the series, the narrative is nearly stream of consciousness, in the third-person but carefully confined to the Marshall's point of view (at least one of Nabb's novels departs from this form, but most adhere to it). This carefully controlled narrative form is perfect for telling stories of Florence's neighborhoods (especially the vicinity of the Marshall's Pitti Palace station), through the sympathetic eyes of an acculturated outsider (the Marshall is Sicilian but has been in Florence for a long time now). His voice, his internal conflits, even his self-deprecating manner with others (and even himself) are a perfect foil for the tourists, bureaucrats, mannered aristocrats, petty criminals, and shopkeepers that populate Nabb's Florence. Through Guarnaccia, Nabb reveals not only the crime (slowly, through his dogged efforts rather than through ratiocination) but the life of the city (beyond the museums and monuments, among the people that live along the narrow streets and up in the surrounding hills). In Vita Nuova, we soon know that the grieving family is not what it originally seemed, and an often cliched plot concerning sex slavery is developed (subtly and at arms length, more through the Marshall's concern for individuals caught up in the plot than through salacious direct narration of events and encounters)--but only at the end are the threads brought together in the Marshall's realization of what really lay behind the murder. As is also usual with Nabb, some elements of the story are not quite settled satisfactorily (though not in the frustrated-by-bureaucracy fashion of Donna Leon's stories), while other elements are ended with the improving lives of some characters. The mood of Nabb's books is often very dark, and the mood of her hero is almost always melancholy (those dark glasses of his seem as much to protect him from society's blunt truths as much as the sun that he is "allergic" to)--but there is always some compensation for him and for the reader in the Marshall's return to the respite of his family life, and the author's portrait of the families disturbed by crimes both horrible and petty. I started reading Nabb's books from a bit of nostalgia for Florence, where I lived for half a year, many years ago, but her books are richly rewarding on their own, both as crime fiction and as a portrait of a unique place, whether you recognize that city from your own experience or only from the author's loving portrait.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

my secret previous existence

I recently discovered that I had a previous life. Almost seven years before I was born, I apparently had a story published in Sinister Stories, one of the infamous pulp magazines of the 1940s. The contents page appears at the right, followed by an image of part of the first page of the story, and then, in case you haven't figured out what sort of magazine Sinister Stories was, there's an image of the original cover (which suggests, to me, the sadistic scenes of the original Flash Gordon movie serial--one of my fond memories from early TV, which re-ran the old serials endlessly).

I didn't run across an original copy of the magazine--Wildside Press has been bringing out reprints of some of the classic pulp mags. And I haven't been able to find anything else about that "Glenn Harper" who was the author of what is, in fact, one of the less lurid (though no better written) tales in the collection. Many, if not most, of the writers in the pulp mags used assumed names that they might only use once, or might adopt as a running nom de plume. If I'd actually had "Death Loves My Wife!" published in a mag with an S&M-kinky cover like Sinister Stories, I might not have used my own name, either--the cosmic joke is that it IS my name.

Basically, the story is about a man whose wife is seduced by her dead former husband, who tries to drown her--she's saved by the hero who makes her recognize her love for a living husband, and he pulls her (nude, of course) body out of the water. The rest of the stories in the collection range from heavy-breathing Indiana Jones sorts of things to monsters and some sexist violence such as is suggested by the mag's cover. It's interesting to have this vivid reminder of why the designation "pulp fiction" was once an insult, though there's little actual sex depicted. Even the segment of pulp fiction that I read in the mid-20th century (mostly science fiction) and in my later years (more the Jim Thompson kind of thing) ws pretty lurid, especially in the way it was packaged, but it's interesting to see the more disreputable end of the spectrum in all its dubious glory, even if one of the tales bears my name.

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Swedish crime novel of a different sort

Among the very large crop of Scandinavian crime novels being translated these days, there is one that stands out as completely different: Carina Burman's The Streets of Babylon: A London Mystery. The translator is the aptly named Sarah Death (her translation is lucid, fortunately--perhaps the most exemplary aspect of this publication, particularly apt since the novel deals with the subject of literary translation). The title gives away part of the novel's difference: it's about Victorian London, at the time of the great world exposition (early in Victoria's reign). The narrator/author (I'll come back to that designation in a minute) is a Swedish author of popular novels (so popular that she is recognized repeatedly in the novel by her English fans) is the oddly named Euthanasia Bondeson (the oddness of her name is remarked upon in the novel, but still strikes me as silly). Euthanasia's young niece and traveling companion, Agnes, disappears not once but twice, the second disappearance setting the novel's plot into motion. On a trip to London to see the world's fair and the famous Crystal Palace which housed it, the disappearance of the author's niece instigates a search for her through slums and fine houses, among transvestites, titled artists, prostitutes, and so on. One of Euthanasia's fans, the chief detective of Scotland Yard, resists Euthanasia's attempts to play amateur detective, but ultimately appreciates her talents in that area. Of course, there are inevitable echoes of the Whitechapel murders (not too explicit, fortunately) but the fate of Agnes proves to lie elsewhere. The whole plot is cheerily told in a style that is part potboiler and part an excuse for the charming and eccentric authoress to gather material for her own next book (hence my earlier use of the term narrator/author to describe her). There are numerous literary references (Dickens and Wilkie Collins make an appearance, Euthanasia reluctantly reads a novel by one of those "Yorkshire sisters," and is ultimately won over (could it be Wuthering Heights that she's reading? Jane Eyre? It's not quite clear--if you recognize which it is, please let me know). The whole thing is charming, but the believability quotient is pretty low, resulting in a lack of much sense of threat concerning poor Agnes's plight. And in the end, Euthasia is sailing away for future adventures and (presumably) further Carina Burman novels, suggesting that she has in mind a kind of travelogue of the mid-19th century world, in the form of potboiler novels starring our intrepid amateur detective. I understand that The Streets of Babylon is popular in Sweden and beyond, and I at least was interested enough to finish it (and I appreciated the occasional glimpses of Sweden in that period--a few years before the birth of August Strindberg, whose novels were the topic of my own doctoral dissertation, as it happens). But I don't really go to crime fiction for "charming," even if the charm is contrasted (as it is here) with the dark and dangerous aspects of society at the time. For me, Burman's charm quotient overbalances her social conscience and even the slums seem to gain charm from Euthanasia's presence there. A novel that, perhaps, is not digging in the muck but casting perfume over it. Too sweet for me. Anybody have a varying opinion? I'd love to hear a defense of this odd (to me) Swede.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Carlo Lucarelli's Via delle Oche

The last installment in Carlo Lucarelli's De Luca trilogy is out in English translation, and as glad as I am to have a chance to read it, I regret that this is indeed the last installment. The De Luca novels are short, swift incarnations of a swiftly changing era in modern Italy, the end of the war, the partisan control of the countryside, and the post-war elections (which set the tone for much of Italian history since that time). De Luca is in part a portrait of an actual detective that Lucarelli met while doing academic research (the actual encounter is outlined in a preface that accompanies each of the De Luca novels). The real cop served the fascist government, the partisan resistance, and the post-war government without seeing any contradiction in his shifting loyalties. De Luca, on the other hand, can't eat, can't sleep, and is constantly threatened in this last installment with the consequences of his association with the political police of the former fascist government. In a series of short chapters introduced by headlines from contemporary newspapers, De Luca investigates an apparent suicide in Bologna that leads to the legal brothels of that city. We find out a great deal about the brothel business and about the complex and violent politics of those years (communist, nationalist, Christian Democrat). De Luca tries to operate simply as a cop, without reference or preference regarding the politics in the streets and within the police, but he is stymied at every turn. It is to Lucarelli's credit that though the specific references to politicians and parties unknown to a foreign reader who is not an expert in Italin history, the events and difficulties that De Luca lives through are ultimately clear (as clear as they are to the obstinate and unaffiliated detective, at least). The solution to the mystery is hardly the point, it is De Luca's own plight and his dogged attempt to fight the attempts to keep him from investigating that carry the story forward, as well as the beautifully drawn portrait of Bologna and Italy in a complex and troubled time. I'm tempted to go back and read the trilogy again, as a single novel (and even all three don't add up to the length of some contemporary crime novels), but each of the 3 books is really self-contained, a snapshot of a distinct slice of society and time, in Rome, the countryside, and Bologna, under the shifting political realities. And De Luca doesn't really develop as a character through the series: he is in fact curiously opaque and uninvolved. He is a device, though a fully human one, that casts a light on his surroundings and reveals the truth without revealing much of himself. His inability to sleep or eat (and his consequent drowsiness and stomach pains) are less character traits than metaphors for a person and a people stressed and strung out by the effort of remaining human in inhuman times. Not that the stories are heavy with metaphor and dread: there is considerable humor surrounding the humorless De Luca, and considerable humanity. The books are terse jewels of crime fiction, and are entirely different from Lucarelli's other novels in translation (which are excellent in an entirely different, perhaps more cinematic, way).

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Denise Mina's Slip of the Knife/Last Breath

Denise Mina's most recent Glasgow novel featuring Paddy Meehan (Slip of the Knife in the U.S., The Last Breath in the U.K.--somebody explain to me the title change between the 2 editions...) contains all the elements of a thriller/potboiler: The English secret service, Irish nationalists (pre-Good Friday), the assassination of a naked, hooded victim, the release from prison of a child-murderer, and a ruthless murderer on the loose (along with various heavies in supporting roles). But as we have come to expect from Mina, the novel is less consumed by all these thriller trappings than by the family drama in Paddy's life, shifted forward several years. Paddy is now an established columnist (having gone through her "dues" as a copy boy and junior reporter in earlier installments of the series) as well as an unwed mother. Her complicated Irish Catholic family (a minority position in the social hierarchy of Glasgow) has list its timid patriarch, unsettling what had been a tense balance of forces, her brothers are off in England, her sister is in the convent, and until Callum Ogilvy (child murder from a previous novel and cousin of her former boyfriend) is released from prison and Paddy's former lover is murdered, Paddy is perched at the edge of the good life. But these events push her back into chaos, personal and professional, and give her a new role: fierce defender of her young son. That mother-son relationship is the center of the novel, rather than the plot itself: this is not a novel of action but of character portraits of tense, threatened people (well drawn and entirely believable). The text is introspective or ruminative, even when the narrator's eye strays away from Paddy. The tone and the structure are drawn from tragedy, a tradition and a tone that pervade the book (underpinning the character- rather than plot-driven narrative), though with frequent comic touches, especially in the dialogue among characters. Noir fiction tends toward tragedy--I suppose thrillers and mysteries tend more toward the romance (certainly an ancient form, though not quite so much as tragedy) in formal terms. But like much crime fiction, Mina's tragic noir stops short of the murder rate of classical tragedy: some, at least, of the main characters are still standing at the end: Slip of the Knife has an almost sunny ending (if Mina's regular readers can imagine such a thing) in spite of the murders and attempted murders (some of them with surprising perpetrators and accomplices. There's almost too much plot in Slip of the Knife, but Mina's tone and characters are so carefully drawn and controlled that the novel never slips into cliche--and after all the whole Paddy Meehan series rests on the thriller-like career of the "real" Paddy Meehan, who appears again in this novel as a leitmotif of "our" Paddy's now succesful, though still troubled, professional and personal life.