Thursday, July 31, 2008

John McFetridge's first

I was impressed with Declan Burke's endorsement of the novels of John McFetridge (at Crime Always Pays) and went looking for the 2 already published. I'm happy to report that on the basis of the first book, Dirty Sweet, I'm as enthusiastic as Declan. The comparison with Elmore Leonard is irresistible (even to Elmore Leonard, apparently): McFetridge shares with that master of the form a couple of characteristics: One is voice, the characters speak in language that seems less written than overheard. Another is that the plot seems to grow out of the characters, rather than characters being in service of (even trapped in) a plot, as is the case with some crime novels. Dirty Sweet is a novel of voices, multiple voices. Rather than a narrator telling a story, the characters seem to be telling each other the story (as much as they're telling it to us). Though the multiple characters do seem to be heading toward a climactic convergence, it's not a "climax" in the sense of a tightening web, it's an inevitable meeting of people whose interests focus on something they all want. The story itself is pure noir and very Canadian--the latter in a couple of ways. I don't know of any other country where the biker gangs have become the crime lords. The first time I read a Canadian crime novel featuring mafia-bikers, I couldn't believe it was based on reality, but then looked into the situation a bit, and indeed, the bikers have controlled crime in Canadian cities for quite a while. There's also a sense of Canadian identity, in the characters' discussions of Canadian-ness and Canada's successful products in world pop culture (movie-making, music, etc.), as well as the unavoidable topic of the behemoth on the border just to the south. It's more than just local color that I'm talking about: Dirty Sweet is a Canadian novel (and in particular a Toronto story) in the same way that "tartan noir" is a definable approach to crime fiction, for example. In other words, McFetridge isn't turning out pseudo-American crime fiction any more than he's imitating Elmore Leonard: his voice is original, lively, and addictive. The plot involves a woman who leases office space but happens to witness a murder (a Russian mob hit in bright daylight at a traffic light), the Russian mobsters who did the hit, an internet-porn businessman who happens to be the leasing agent's client, the Toronto homicide cops looking into the hit, plus the bikers trying to horn in on the Russians' business, the naked and nearly naked internet porn performers sitting around talking about their kids' TV viewing, a couple of Mounties, and more: all of the above with parts to play in the story, and all with his or her own voice and point of view. Watching (or, really, hearing) all of the above come together is a treat. I can only imagine that this would be a very difficult book to translate into an audio version, because there are so many voices, with such subtle distinctions among them, that a reader would/will need a lot of talent in portraying them individually as well as McFetridge has done on the printed page.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Comments on recent Crime Always Pays posts

A couple of recent posts on Declan Burke's estimable Crime Always Pays blog moved me to post replies. One is in regard to the speed and effectiveness of blogs vs. mainstream media (Declan's post was itself a reply to comments by Peter Rozofsky on his Detectives Beyond Borders blog). I'm quite happy to see my article in the new Mystery Readers Journal Mysteries Set in Ireland issue (a bit of a plug for myself there--but thanks are definitely owed to Janet Rudolph for accepting my humble offering); I certainly still stand behind anything I say in the article, but it's frustrating (as a blogger) not to be able to keep writing it--to include books published since I wrote it, changing opinions about some authors, etc. Writing a blog spoils one in terms of being as current as possible when an "article" is "published" (not sure if those words from the old-media world really apply to the blog-o-sphere). A blog is certainly a more immediate (if unjuried, unedited, and therefore less "published") venue, not only in terms of staying up-to-date, but also in terms of carrying on a conversation (from Peter to Declan and beyond).
And regarding my article, Declan Burke also aims a friendly diatribe at one of my comments therein, regarding a list of "Irish novels that aren’t exactly crime novels" including "Seamus Smyth’s QUINN (featuring a career criminal and a lot of even blacker comedy).” To wit, quoting Declan: "Glenn? I love you like a mother from another brother, etc., but I have no idea of how Hugo Hamilton’s Pat Coyne tales, and that of Seamus Smyth’s QUINN, ‘aren’t exactly crime novels’. Hamilton, you could argue, offers a crude but quixotic protagonist raging against the world at large, and one who could just as easily be a middle-management figure as an Irish police detective tilting at the windmills of Irish justice or lack of same. But QUINN (1999), a first-person account of a killer-for-hire, is one of the defining Irish crime fiction novels of the current outpouring."
Point taken: but I still think of Quinn as a farce or a picaresque comedy (with murders and other assorted violence) more than a crime novel--I guess it's something about the hit-man-narrator's voice that's very seductive and natural, but more in a comic vein. But maybe it's just not that productive to try to draw distinctions like the one I was (evidently in vain) trying to make: Quinn is certainly a novel of crime, and a very violent and very funny one at that--enough said? Comments?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Mind's Eye, by Håkan Nesser

Yet again, we have reason to regret the translation of excellent crime series out of order. Laurie Thompson's excellent translations of 2 later novels in Swedish writer Håkan Nesser's series featuring Chief Inspector Van Veeteren appeared before Mind's Eye (literal translation of the title would be more like The Wide-Meshed Net), the first in the series. I for one wish I could go back and start the series anew with Mind's Eye--starting with the first book gives a better sense of who Van Veeteren is, a better exposure to Nesser's wry sense of humor, a better introduction to the locale (Nesser's novels are set not in Sweden but in an imaginary North-European country that is a composite of the Scandinavian countries, Holland, etc.)and what would be for me a better introduction to the series. Mind's Eye bears comparison to the police-procedural tradition of Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö, even more so than other current Swedish crime series--the sometimes cranky relations among the policemen, the indirect routes to the discovery of the perpetrator, and the social basis of the criminal situation all relate positively to Sjöwall/Wahlöö more so than the more recent 2 Nesser novels that have been translated (which deserve positive comparison to the likes of Friedrich Glauser not to mention Janwillem Van de Wettering--Nesser's detective is apparently named in homage to the Dutch crime writer. In terms of the setting, this first introduction to Nesser's unnamed country fills in some of the background and raises an interesting comparison to that other great fictional setting, Ed McBain's 87th Precinct. Nesser stakes out a whole country, rather than an island metropolis, but it's a less urban and more diverse setting, giving Nesser more leeway in creating landscapes, but also calling for a very different approach (larger distances, different terrains rather than theater districts and tenements). With other series published out of order, it's a plot that bridges novels that gets garbled (as in Jo Nesbø's books) or back story not explained (as in the Petra Delicado series recently discussed here, or in the case of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's early Pepe Carvalho novels are only now becoming available in English) or references to earlier crimes that the reader won't "get" (in numerous cases). With Nesser's books it's more a matter of perceiving the territory within crime fiction that the author is staking out, including the precurser's that I've mentioned as well as introductions to character quirks and ongoing motifs (like the badminton matches running through Nesser's series). (I should mention that one writer, Liza Marklund, actually wrote her series out of order, beginning to lay out her character's back story with the second Annika Bentzon and continuing to fill in until her story caught up with that first novel, The Bomber.) We now have a fuller sense of what Nesser is doing, and a fuller appreciation of what he has accomplished: the Van Veeteren series is one of the cleverest and most enjoyable of the Scandinavian crime wave, and my earlier cavilling about his novels being "placeless" because of the invented setting is hereby withdrawn: with Mind's Eye, I'm convinced.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

2 from Serpent's Tail: Mehmet Murat Somer and Derek Raymond

Notes on a couple of new (in the U.S.) releases from Serpent's Tail Press: The Prophet Murders, by Mehmet Murat Somer, and I Was Dora Suarez, by Derek Raymond (the 4th in the Factory series, recently reprinted with new covers). The Prophet Murders is a campy serial killer tale told from the point of view of a transvestite Istanbul club owner. Transvestites whose real names are the same as the prophets recognized by Islam are being murdered in ways appropriate to the stories of the prophets. This is a classic amateur detective story, with the obvious difference of the twin milieux: contemporary Turkey and a gay transvestite subculture. A couple of other Serpent's Tail series come to mind as comparisons: the novels of John Dale, veering into gay territory in Australia, and those of Mark Ramsden, steeped in the culture of fetishism and S&M. Not too surprising that all of these would find a home at Serpent's Tail, which specializes in alternatives to the mainstream. Somer's book is funnier than those others, in a very camp way (though not quite as broad comedy as La Cage aux Folles, which is referenced in the book, along with a lot of other pop culture from Turkey and around the world, plus crime and mystery classics). The unnamed narrator's point of view is the source of the humor, the indignation concerning the crimes, and the tight focus on the subculture (though everyone he meets seems to be gay, bi, or in the closet--is there really so much gay goings-on in secular-but-becoming-more-Islamic Turkey today? All we hear from over here is repressive goings-on like the prosecution of Orhan Pamuk and others for anti-nationalist statements.

In I Was Dora Suarez, Derek Raymond's detective-sergeant-narrator is recalled to The Factory, after being sacked in How the Dead Live for assaulting a colleague (among other things), to investigate the axe murder of a young woman and her elderly landlady. The opening chapter details the murders (along with a third one) explicitly and in sickening detail from the point of view of the killer, but it's clear from the narrative interpolations that the detective is inhabiting the mind of the murderer just as he will later inhabit Dora Suarez, through pure empathy and the fragments of her diary. The contrasts among this most hard-boiled policeman's personality, the violence of the crimes, and the tenderness with which he regards the victim is quite powerful. Yet more evidence of the debt we owe (and the lessons that might be still learned) from this master and innovator of noir. Another of Serpent's Tail's specialties is keeping classic noir novels in print, along with new examples of the genre, and we can only be grateful for their efforts with respect to all these niches and the richness of the alternatives they provide in contrast to the blandness of the common run of best-seller and genre fiction.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Casablanca Noir: The Final Bet, by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

Billed as the first Arabic-language procedural to be translated into English, Abdelilah Hamdouchi's The Final Bet is a crime novel of the new Morocco. There's a temptation to compare The Final Bet to the crime novels of Yasmina Khadra, which (though written in French) were the first Arabic police procedurals to arrive in the U.S. But Khadra's novels follow a policeman trying to cope in an Algeria that is falling into chaos in the face of fundamentalist challenges to the government. Hamdouchi's policeman is coping with the collapse of the Moroccan era of repression and police brutality known as the Years of Lead, meaning that the cop can no longer simply beat confessions out of a suspect. In addition, the real detective in this novel only emerges toward the end, in the person of an attorney who manages to solve the crime and save his client (in an almost Perry Mason-ish fashion). But rather than Khadra or Perry Mason, the most accurate comparison is, I think, with Leonardo Sciascia, whose lucid, short crime novels were a means of investigating Sicilian and Italian injustices. Hamdouchi's book is similarly clearly written, short, and straightforward, lacking only Sciascia's ironies. And Hamdouchi is seeking not only to delineate social injustice but to propose a solution, the right of the accused to be represented by counsel during police questioning. The plot follows the case of a young Moroccan man, Othman, married to a much older French woman. Othman is unfaithful and is the sole beneficiary of his wife's estate, so when he discovers her stabbed to death, he's the logical suspect, the person who stands to gain most from his wife's death (a death that, in fact, he'd been yearning for). Stated directly, the plot does suggest Perry Mason, again. But when Othman contacts a former classmate and legal reformer, the mystery becomes linked to the larger social issues. The message, though, doesn't overwhelm the story: it's only emphasized in the last chapter and in an Afterword by the translator (Jonathan Smolin), who gives the political background to the story. As a novel, The Final Bet is a quick and enjoyable read, a bit lighter than Sciascia or Khadra and perhaps a bit more hopeful about the positive resolution of the larger social ills addressed--as well as being more mystery than noir, for the most part. Sciascia's aforementioned irony and Khadra's pessimism arise from the skepticism and despair in the face of intractable problems larger than the immediate story at hand. Hamdouchi's book is a welcome glimpse into the Moroccan milieu and its criminal justice system, and as a bonus, the dustcover design is more striking than the average crime novel (and is even carried over into the design of the hardcover underneath). Plus there's a creeping sense of noir darkness in the implications of the Moroccan past showing through the cracks in the current climate of reform.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Bleak families: Inger Frimansson's sequel

The Shadow in the Water is the sequel to Swedish crime writer Inger Frimansson's disturbing Good Night My Darling, published in the U.S. last year. The body count is lower in the sequel, but the menacing atmosphere remains. The Shadow in the Water includes murder, suspicious police, kidnapping, assault, and even a haunting, nameless pet raven (plus the natural world as mostly an antagonist rather than a haven), but the book is oddly hopeful, leading to something like redemption. Frimansson is interested in the psychological effects of violence, not just in the immediate aftermath but in following years. The surviving characters from the earlier book are 6 years older, around 50 now, and they're joined by new lovers as well as descendants of some of those who didn't survive the first book. Good Night My Darling moved back and forth in time as well as among the characters, but The Shadow in the Water mostly moves back and forth among the minds of a diverse group of characters: Justine (the seriously troubled soul at the center of the first book), Jill (whose best friend died in the first book), Micke (whose father died in the first book), Tor (whose wife died in the first book), as well as Justine's lover and his associates at the hotel where he works. In all, the point of view is splintered among about 7 voices. All of them miserable to some extent, but their misery is enveloped in a sense of threat rather than gloom, threat being much more interesting for a reader than gloom. Violence lurks behind each of the characters, each of whom is damaged in his or her own way. Jill, perhaps the most normal of them, is the stable center of the novel: she is less marked by guilt than her dead friend Berit, though both of them tormented Justine when they were schoolgirls, and Jill's job is portrayed in a very interesting way (she's a sort of boat-traffic-controller on the lakes and canals around Stockholm). Jill is leading Tor toward something like acceptance of the disappearance of Berit (only Justine knows she's dead). But each of the other characters moves toward dealing with psychic damage and pain. At several points, Frimansson remarks on the fact that the presumably weaker member of a couple is actually the stronger, a sentiment and a word that recalls a short play, The Stronger, by Strindberg, the great Swedish playwright. But where Strindberg's point is based in gender resentment (embodied in the male character in his play), Frimansson sees the contradiction in the stronger/weaker dichotomy in more positive terms (a marker of the distance we've traveled since Strindberg's day). I have to assume that Frimansson intends for us to reflect on gender roles in general and Strindberg in particular--not to mention that Strindberg disciple, Ingmar Bergman, with whom Frimansson shares a reliance on psychological distress for dramatic effect. But The Shadow in the Water, while hardly comic, reaches for the succor of ordinary life in the face of extraordinary stress and pain: Where Good Night My Darling erupts in weirdness and violence, The Shadow in the Water observes the outer edges of violence and weirdness and the human capacity to achieve something like normalcy, through age, through the ordinariness of daily life, and even through further violence. It's an oddly enthralling novel, leading the reader to a point rather different from where we expected to be going, and rather different from that of the average crime novel.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Australian cop movie (or art film): Matthew Saville's Noise

Is it easier (or more permissible) for a film to achieve the status of art than for a crime novel to reach for literary heights? I'm wondering because I've just seen Matthew Saville's film Noise, from Australia (which has been making the festival rounds and is now being shown by Sundance Channel in the U.S.)--and reader beware, I can't continue this discussion without revealing a key fact about the ending of Noise. The movie begins with a mass murder on a subway train, with a single survivor-witness, then continues with parallel plots concerning the investigation of that event and the experiences of Constable Graham McGahan, a uniformed cop who begins experiencing tinnitus and having blackouts and spells of deafness. That beginning and the related plot recall the very best of both books and films in the police and detective genres. The soundtrack (really sound design) is very effective in tightening tension while suggesting McGahan's auditory difficulties. The look of the movie (by cinematographer László Baranyai) is simultaneously gloomy concrete suburb and beautifully framed wide-screen (even in the substantial part of the story that takes place within a travel trailer that has been set up as a police post). McGahan, after trying to get soft duty because of his fainting spells, gets stuck in that trailer as the officer on duty on the night shift over Christmas. He has to deal with his hearing problem, boredom, a hostile drunk, a mischievous retarded boy, an even more hostile citizen who has gotten into a bar fight after an argument about the mass murder, and the arrival of the mass murderer on his doorstep, so to speak. In spite of the seeming complication of the plot, the film is subdued, even quiet (in spite of the sound as mentioned above). The understatedness of the story's surface and forward motion is part of the quality of "art" that I was referring to at the beginning of this post, along with the unresolved quality of the ending, which is a resolution only in the sense of the coming together of the elements of plot and metaphor that have gone before. The fear of the survivor of the mass murder (she discovers that the murderer knows who she is) leads her to McGahan along with all those other characters (and McGahan's girlfriend) in a sudden eruption of violence as senseless as the original murder (but perhaps not directly related to it). Not entirely satisfying as a crime fiction, the movie is a vivid and complete work of art. Is it easier to accept that a movie can be a good (if perhaps incomplete) crime story and also a work of art than for a crime novel to achieve literary ambitions without seeming pretentious? Has anyone seen Noise, and if so, do you have opinions about whether it succeeds as a noir story or as an art film? For me, it's the visual and aural dimension of the film that keeps the art and the crime story suspended together, without seeming to condescend to genre fiction (as so often happens when a "literary" author attempts crime fiction). It's perhaps the collective nature of the creation of a film that makes the composite of art and noir possible (paradoxically, since we think of a work of art as a solo production, generally). If a novel ended with metaphorical rather than literal clarity, we might not accept it as a satisfying crime novel, or might dismiss it as pretentiously literary. Is it the relatively compact experience of a 2-hour movie versus the commitment that a 200 or more page book presents to the reader? Would we expect a multi-part TV series to reach more completion than Noise does, after many hours and weeks of watching? With all these questions in mind, and the cautions about plot resolution, I highly recommend Noise to lovers of film and of crime fiction. The only crime film that I've seen recently that comes close to Saville's achievement is the film version of Indridason's Myrin (by Spanish-Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur).

Twisted Noir from Italy: Gianluca Morozzi's Blackout

I you will pardon a short digression into the language of Poststructuralist and Marxist literary theory of the 1980s, Gianluca Morozzi's novel Blackout (recently translated by Howard Curtis and published by Bitter Lemon Press) is "overdetermined," in the sense that rather than a single, straightforward series of related incidents there are a large number of influences underlying a single event. So little of what's actually going on in the story is revealed (while so much is apparently being revealed) that I could not until the very end understand why the story has been made into a "Major Film" as the cover of the paperback announces. Rest assured, all will become clear. It's actually difficult to say much about the plot without revealing too much (though the reader will figure it out a few pages before the ultimate revelation, as the author may well have intended). Three unrelated people converge on an elevator in a high rise in the deserted city of Bologna on the weekend of the August Bank Holiday. We know from Aldo Ferro, is a sadistic serial killer as well as a bar owner and a self-styled ladies' man. We learn a bit less about the other two at first, Claudia (a cocktail waitress whose girlfriend is out of town making a movie) and Tomas (a boy who is about to run away with the girl he met on-line). Their interactions once stuck in the suspended box are tense and not totally predictable (though also not startlingly original) for the central part of the narrative: panic, heat, thirst, personality clashes, despair. There are a few interludes developing further the "back stories" of the characters and the plot and also delaying the resolution of the tension in the elevator, and adding complications to a narrative that starts out as a serial killer thriller, becomes a psychological thriller, adds in a ghost story and a star-crossed lovers plot, and then ties it all together with a completely different plot that I'm not going to reveal here. As I said, overdetermined, and I don't mean that as a put-down--Morozzi's novel ultimately adds up to more than the sum of its parts. What seems for a while like a disappointing though occasionally lively and funny novel of one sort turns into a lively and entertaining satire of itself and of popular culture generally. While there's at least almost enough of the several thriller and sadist plots to satisfy lovers of those genres, the unexpected shift in the plot takes it all to another level. Just as the reader gets over the excitement of being sucked into the sudden and rapid resolution of the stuck-with-a-serial-killer-in-an-elevator story, there's a brief lull and, as Monty Python used to say, "now for something completely different." Overall, Blackout is very enjoyable. I found the two sides of Aldo's personality a bit difficult to reconcile (he's a bon vivant on the one hand and a sadist on the other--aren't serial killers supposed to be moody loners? But maybe that's only on TV shows: remember that Bundy was a charmer and the BTK killer turned out to be a popular church elder, and then there was perhaps the most vicious of all, Gacy the clown). If Tomas and Claudia seem a bit less vivid, they're supposed to be plain, ordinary folks in an extraordinary situation. And Claudia in particular turns out to have depths beyond a mere screaming-girl-victim from a slasher film (though slasher films are also evoked here). All in all, a much better story than I expected even halfway through the book--so stick with it. I don't know about that "Major Film," though--it seems to be removed from Italy and who knows what other changes will be made before it's out there in the movie theaters...

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Italian noir by Michele Giuttari

I don't know of another crime series written by as senior a detective as Michele Guittari, former head of the "squadra mobile" in Florence. His novels are based in part on his experience as a detective, and give insights into investigative procedure, but he also has a tendency to gravitate toward big conspiracies and standard plot devices. I have to mention as well that he evidently persecuted a pair of journalists with an alternate view of a real case that is part of his plot in his first novel, A Florentine Death, jailing one and kicking the other out of the country for the crime of contradicting the cop's theory of the Monster of Florence case in both his police work and his own book on the case. In A Florentine Death, Giuttari offers a serial killer (an unavoidable cliche, it seems, in crime fiction) as well as an overarching conspiracy that's not (quite) as grandiose as that of the Da Vinci Code. In the newly translated A Death in Tuscany, the crime is more ordinary, the murder of a young girl who is possibly an illegal immigrant, and the conspiracies that are offered are less grand (one involving the Mafia, naturally, and the other a group of Freemasons. The latter stretches credulity a bit (though the Masons have frequently put in fictional appearances of a conspiratorial sort) and also reaching for a couple of increasingly common cliches of crime fiction, the trafficking of women and girls and the circle of paedophiles. Some of these prove to be more important to the plot than others. The chief of the novel's squadra mobile, also named Michele and also stationed in Florence, begins the investigation into the girl's death in spite of the appearance of an accidental overdose, but as that story progresses he gets sidetracked into a second case involving the disappearance of an old friend, Massimo (also a character in the earlier novel). Along the way, he runs afoul of Masonic webs of influence, jealousy between the police and the Carabinieri (who have jurisdiction over the case of the missing friend, whom they suspect as a conspirator in another murder), and various cops and prosecutors whose toes he has trodden upon. The group of detectives in the squad, who were mostly just sketched in in the earlier novel, are more fully shown in this one, partly because the second plot line keeps Michele busy enough that his crew takes over the original murder case. And the setting is glorious: not only Florence but the marble quarrying region from Pietrasanta to Carrara and the beaches along the nearby coast. Giuttari has a tendency to repeat certain phrases (such as one to the effect that there are no coincidences) and to include a lot of busywork on the detectives' part (not necessarily a flaw, if you're into the procedural side of things). The ego of his hero (and presumably the hero is a stand-in for the author) is immense, but at least he's not on-stage quite as much in A Death in Tuscany, giving the reader and the other characters a bit of breathing room. After a lot of nose-to-the grindstone investigating, conspiracy theorizing, and worrying about the fate of the missing friend, A Death in Tuscany moves to an ending with two separate but related "exciting conclusions" that work well as a kind of double coda to the police work along the way. A Death in Tuscany is part thriller, part police procedural, and part ego trip. I think I'd be less insistent on the "ego trip" part if it wasn't for the Monster of Florence difficulty, which is highlighted in a new true-crime book by those journalists that Giuttari tried to jail or discredit (The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi). So I'd say that A Death in Tuscany is worth reading for the pleasure, and for the insight into an author with a lot of police experience and with a tragic flaw of his own, in the violence of his insistence that he is right about the Monster case (his theory featuring the same kind of conspiracy that he features in his fiction).

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The other Carlo Lucarelli

I'm taking a break from reading the new Michele Giuttari novel, A Death in Tuscany, to dip back into the first series by Carlo Lucarelli to find its way into English, in the exceptional translations by Oonagh Stransky. Lucarelli's series set at the end of World War II has been much praised recently, occasioned by the completion this year of the Commissario De Luca trilogy in translation (from Europa editions)--and that new attention made me wonder how the series featuring Ispettore Grazia Negro in contemporary Bologna would fare in comparison. Rereading Almost Blue, I found that I appreciated its quirkiness more this time around. Quite different from the war trilogy, the story is structured around the experience of a blind character who listens to a radio scanner, on which he can pick up not only police signals but also cell-phone conversations. The novel itself is made up of voices, in narratives from the point of view of Grazia, the deaf man, and the mysterious serial killer, along with voices overheard on the scanner, the voices of the other cops (frequently disrespecting Grazia), and others. Each of the voices is distinct, and the novel, as a result, is a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Two of the voices are striking and surreal: the blind man has a color sense based entirely on sound (he was blind at birth and has no sense of what sight is like), and the killer shifts in and out of hallucinatory visions concerned with the possession of his body by monsters. The resolution of the threat that the killer poses to the public, to Grazia, and to the blind-listener derives from the interior, hallucinatory reality of the killer rather than from a deus-ex-machina rescue (which is the rather disappointing resolution of the plot of Day after Day, the second Grazia Negro novel). Lucarelli's style is totally different here: showier and more concerned with description of setting. The characters are also "brighter," compared to the more subdued characterizations and dialogues of the De Luca books (the more drab quality suits the war and post-war years of the De Luca books, and the almost televised quality of the Grazia Negro books suits today). One thing about rereading a 10-year-old novel, though, especially one that wore its technology on its sleeve as Almost Blue does)--life is changing very fast, making large chunks of the narrative seem dated (almost historical): noisy modems, e-mail downloaded from Eudora, and that radio scanner's access to e-mail (though Grazia notes that the GSM phones already in circulation in Italy at that time were immune to the scanners). But for a glimpse at the literary dexterity of Lucarelli in a couple of his various incarnations (he also hosts a sort of "Italy's Most Wanted" TV show, among other careers), Almost Blue offers a dazzlingly different experience from the De Luca books (and taken together, Almost Blue and Day after Day offer a vivid reading experience not unlike watching contemporary European crime films); if a bit less complex in their social and political portrait of a society, they portray Bologna more fully than most of the few other examples we have in crime fiction (such as Night Bus, which zips through Bologna too rapidly to give much detail or Aurelio Zen's visit to the city, which is fun but superficial).

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Kemal Kayankaya redux

The most recent Kayankaya novel by Jakob Arjouni, Kismet, was released in English translation by No Exit Press recently (translation by Anthea Bell--I should remember to credit the translators more often). All of the Kayankaya novels channel the spirits of Marlowe and co.--Arjouni's detective stories are some of the purest examples of the hard-boiled, smart-mouth detective still in circulation. All the Kayankaya novels also deal to some extent with the ethnic diversity of today's Germany, which has accelerated as the novels have been released (the earliest books were written before unification, I believe). And Kayankaya himself is a native German of Turkish descent, a fact that colors his daily life in many ways, particularly in the reaction he gets from various people along the way in his investigations. In Kismet, there is a dizzying array of Albanian, Bosnian, Turkish, and German gangs, and the victim of an extortion attempt, a Brazilian restaurant owner, is the "maguffin" that sets the story in motion. Kayankaya and his friend Slibulski attempt to help the Brazilian but are forced into firing their weapons at the mysteriously silent, bewigged, and face-powdered extortionists are killed. The detective's attempt to discover who his victims were and what's going on lead him into the shifting sands of the gang culture of Frankfurt. Along the way he keeps getting beaten up (a normal feature of his investigations) and finds an innovative though destructive way to escape being murdered--in the process of which he acquires a new client: a young Bosnian girl whose mother has been forced into the service of the Croatian gang Kayankaya is pursuing. The girl, Leila, hires him to find her, and the pursuit of her quest as well as his own pursuit of the Croatians brings him full circle, in a plot twist that dramatically highlights the consequences of violence (as well as affirming the detective's alliance with the noir tradition). In the plot's twists and turns, in the wisecracking voice of the narrator-detective, in the vivid portrait of Germany today, Arjouni gives us a striking portrait of the tribalism underlying European nationalisms today. Arjouni is the author of several novels outside the Kayankaya cycle that are concerned with literary subjects and with the culture of rootless youth, but to me the Kayankaya novels are his most effective platform for not just crime fiction but his larger literary ambitions as well. I would say that no one can claim to know what's going on in crime fiction or in the ongoing development of noir and detective fiction in particular without taking Arjouni into consideration.

Friday, July 04, 2008

German gothic from Andrea Maria Schenkel

I have a question for those familiar with the range of German crime fiction. It seems to me that crime fiction in German is more likely to be in the category of psychological thriller than police procedural or detective story (the prominent exceptions that I know of are the excellent detective novels of Jakob Arjouni and the single cop story thus far translated by Pieke Bierman). The recently released translation of Andrea Maria Schenkel's The Murder Farm is both an illustration and an exception to the psycho-thriller sort of thing that I'm referring to. I've also discussed a number of other German thrillers in earlier posts. Schenkel's is different from the others in its transformations of what in the U.S. would be called "Southern Gothic," basically the straitened lives and exaggerated relationships of rural people, and the folk tale tradition that in English is mis-named "fairy tales" (I think in German they're called "Märchen"--correct me if I'm wrong). The Murder Farm has the inevitability and spookiness of Märchen from folk tales through the Grimms. It's told in short chapters that alternate between witness testimony and third-person interior monologues from the point of view of various witnesses or bystanders to the murder of a whole family on a remote farm (after a first chapter from the point of view of an unnamed former resident of the nearby town who is returning to find out what happened, when the police failed to resolve the matter--the witness testimony that follows is presumably collected by him, and perhaps the narratives are surmised by him, but the source is vague). The jigsaw-puzzle effect is very suitable to the horrible crime and the Gothic setting, and the testimony chapters are just long enough (longer and the narrow points of view of some of the speakers might have gotten tedious--at the length Schenkel gives them, their fascinating). What emerges is a not-very-optimistic view of human nature in general and of the post-war era in particular (the events occur 10 years after WWII). Not as dark as, say, The Painted Bird, but reaching toward a view of evil as an inherent possibility in human life and society (even in small groups). The flyleaf blurb says that the ending is "shattering," a somewhat inflated pitch for the resolution of the plot: I'd say "convincing," in laying the blame on the individual responsible, but in a tone similar to that of the novel as a whole rather than reaching a new emotional pitch. So: you readers of German crime, let us know: is The Murder Farm (or Petra Hammesfahr or Ingrid Noll) more typical of German crime fiction than Arjouni or Bierman?

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Iain Levison's hybrid crime thriller

Dog Eats Dog, a new novel by Iain Levison from Bitter Lemon Press, defies conventions in a number of ways. Levison, a Scot, moved to the U.S. and after working around the country now lives in North Carolina. This novel, though, was first published in France, as Une canaille et demie. The novel is part Elmore Leonard (a laconic style and off-hand, comic plotting and character development), part Donald Westlake (hopelessly botched bank robbery), and part Don Delillo (college professor wants to make his name as a sort of Hitler apologist, a device used by Delillo to great effect in White Noise). A female FBI agent is on the trail of the escaped bank robber, who has holed up in the college professor's house. Stated bluntly, it almost sounds like a Key Largo, Cape Fear kind of thing, but Levison manipulates this well-worn territory in his own unique way. At every turn, expectations are overturned. For example, the FBI agent is fed clue after clue by the narrator, but she's in the middle of a mid-life (and professional) crisis and the normal progress of the thriller plot, along the line of those clues, is nullified. The professor both fears and admires the thief, not something unusual in these sorts of plots, but the inevitable confrontation doesn't happen the way you might expect. The conclusion doesn't either, the characters each coming to a resolution in unexpected ways. There are a couple of flaws, particularly in the way academic publications or .45 automatics work, but overall Dog Eats Dog is funny, breezy, and effective.