Friday, August 29, 2008

Allan Guthrie's Savage Night

Two Way Split and Kiss Her Goodbye, Allan Guthrie's first two novels, are pure neo-noir. Savage Night is a bit of a departure (I haven't read his third novel, Hard Man, so I can't speak to that one). Savage Night is a blacker-than-noir, splintered story that calls forth comparisons not only with James M. Cain or Jim Thompson (Guthrie's title is taken from one of Thompson's odder novels) but also varied branches of literature from Magnus Mills's fables or Charlie Williams's backwater noir to the revenge tragedies of John Webster and Cyril Tourneur. Savage Night is a clockwork, each of the disparate elements (big and small) of the novel gearing inexorably toward one another, something like Pulp Fiction but with even more inexorability. The story starts near the end, with one of the murders that link the Park family and the Savage family, who are quickly becoming (and exceeding) the Hatfields and McCoys of Edinburgh. (I had dinner with the descendants of the Hatfields and McCoys in Kentucky a few years ago, but that'sa story for another time). At first, a reader might well wonder why he or she should be interested in these doomed lowlifes, Guthrie's dramatis personae. But I quickly became enthralled by the twists and turns of the back and forth plot, which takes on an inevitability as it moves forward (and backward, and then forward again) and also has the character of a comic farce in spite of all the bloodshed. Small details that seem like no more than colorful character development come back as essential elements of the story. Sudden shifts and bizarre situations (such as a brutalized naked man with a blanket hanging off him like a cape brandishing a saumurai sword), funny though they are, have a perfectly logical relation to the plot. Another very violent and very funny novel, Graeme Gordon's Bayswater Bodycount comes to mind, but Savage Night is more tightly structured and written. Guthrie's style in Savage Night is at once simple and complex, dumping you into the plot with no background or explanation, keeping the language straightforward, and offering a persistent reader the rewards of discovery as the story accumulates rather than developing in a linear fashion. This is an impressive novel and at the same time a lot of fun--right up to a poignant ending in which the story is sublimating into the air rather than reaching for a pat conclusion.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Likeness, by Tana French

The Likeness, Tana French's sequel to her blockbuster first novel, Into the Woods, has mostly been reviewed positively, but often with some reservations. It is, like its predecessor, a long book for a crime novel (over 450 pages), and it's based on a central conceit that has to be (for some readers, with difficulty) swallowed whole for the book to be appreciated. The first person narrator, Detective Cassie Maddox, moves the story along slowly, mostly in narrative rather than dialogue (though there's plenty of talking, aimed more at character development than plot). The premise is that a dead woman resembles Cassie so much that she's asked to go undercover to impersonate the victim, to live in a group house with her four best friends, literature students at Trinity College in Dublin. The leap of faith required by the reader is that this impersonation is even remotely possible--although French makes her ability to sustain her relationship with those friends somewhat more believable than her ability to maintain the victim's teaching and research duties at Trinity. Cassie's narrative voice and her character are interesting, and a novel featuring her as the central character was something I have been looking forward to since reading Into the Woods last year. But I have to admit I was disappointed. My problem is that the characters seem shallow and immature, friends clinging together in a tight community rather like characters in young-adult fiction (a band of outsiders rebelling against the "real world" of their parents. The adolescent quality of the friendship is captured in a quote from one of the circle, speaking to the others: ""We used to tell one another everything…Didn't we? Or is that simply the way I remember it? The five of us against the world, and no secrets, ever." The Likeness is essentially a coming of age story, but French's Cassie is a bit old for the role. And Cassie makes some difficult-to-swallow errors of professional judgment: concealing key facts or evidence at several points for no readily discernible reason. A couple of reviewers have related French’s novel to Donna Tartt's The Secret History, because of both novels' focus on tightly wound (in more ways than one) circles of academic youths (as well as their mostly banal academ-esque conversations). The comparison with Tartt is an apt, and to me not positive, one. But I did keep reading, a testament to the French's writing skills, though I can't resist quoting a line from the novel that is something less than skillful: "'Where have you been?' Daniel hissed." Maybe I'm just being picky, but how do you hiss the line "Where have you been?" If anyone thinks I'm being too hard on The Likeness, please let me know--meanwhile, I'm turning with a sigh of relief to Allan Guthrie's Savage Night, which I picked up at the same time as The Likeness.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jar City film and A Little Trip to Heaven

It's good to hear (courtesy of Declan Burke at Crime Always Pays) that the film adapted from Arnaldur Indridason Icelandic noir police-procedural novel Jar City is getting some theatrical distribution. It ran on the Sundance Channel cable TV network in the U.S., as a consequence of its success on the festival circuit, but more people deserve to see it (I reviewed it here on March 8th of this year). It does stay fairly close to the novel in outline, but its biggest strength as a movie is the director's total control over not only the scenario and actors but also the color and sound. It's a very bleak setting: this is not a tourist's view of Iceland, it's the underside and the underside of a very cold place. Perhaps the closest relative, in film terms, is some of Aki Kaurismäki's early films based in Finland. But as a pure crime story, Jar City (released on the Sundance Channel under its original Icelandic title, Myrin). The director, Baltasar Kormákur, had previously done a crime story that updates James M. Cain in interesting ways: A Little Trip to Heaven is a tour de force for actor Forest Whitaker, but also a bleak tale of violence at the fringes of Canadian society (significantly, the film is like Jar City set in a very cold climate--perhaps a key element of the director's filmic world view). A Little Trip to Heaven, which is easier to find than Jar City, deals with an insurance adjustor's investigation of a death that at first looks like a traffic accident and later turns into a murder case that subsumes everyone involved. With significant overtones of Double Indemnity, Kormákur carefully makes his own mark in the differences from that noir standard of film and fiction. The relationship between the insurance adjustor and the woman in the case is obliquely similar to the Cain story, but in a bleaker and edgier direction. And, as in Jar City, the tale is told laconically, without spoon-feading the audience. But unlike Jar City, taken from a novel in a crime fiction series, the ending of A Little Trip to Heaven is more about an existential theme in the story than the resolution of a crime (the twists and turns of the crime having been made clear just before the end). Jar City was a bit more to my taste, but if you like the backwoods noir of Cain or, more recently, Daniel Woodrell, A Little Trip to Heaven is a pure example of the genre, with added philosophical ambitions, textural design and direction by the filmmaker, and some excellent performances.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Adrian Hyland, Moonlight Downs or Diamond Dove

The U.S. title is Moonlight Downs, and the original Australian title is Diamond Dove, but whatever you call it, Adrian Hyland's first crime novel navigates with aplomb some difficult territory. First, his central character (and narrator) is Emily Tempest, a young woman--not easy for a male writer to speak convincingly in a female voice; second, Emily is half-aboriginal (or First Australian, I'm not sure what the correct terminology is--a lot of the terminology used in the book is language used by whites to describe blacks, accurate depictions of outback language but hardly a clue as to how the people would themselves prefer to be described by outsiders). And much of the book deals with the native culture of the outback, both among the actual native cultures and the colonial settlers (miners, ranchers, etc.) who have by now been there long enough to establish a sort of native culture of their own. Other Australian writers have touched on European/Aboriginal relations but this is the first to make it here to the U.S. that is so immersed in the culture (Hyland knows the outback and its cultures firsthand). The novel is, appropriately enough, not a straightforward mystery or crime plot, but also, fortunately, not an attempt to take on a pretense of being a "dreaming." Hyland chose his narrator well: she's able to navigate among all the cultures and is an outsider (and therefore an observer) to all of them. She's also a sort of bull-in-a-china-shop, not always looking (or considering) before she leaps into a situation that she doesn't' fully understand, thus kicking up disputes, and even deaths, with her actions. But the novel is also thick with texture (without laying it on too thick): it's a story, not an anthropology text or a Carlos Castañeda kind of thing. There's mysticism in it, but it's included among a kaleidoscope of views about what's happening. The story progresses slowly, more in characters interacting with one another than in an investigation (in spite of the "Emily Tempest investigation" tagline on the cover of the U.S. edition). Emily has just returned to Moonlight Downs, the camp in the outback where she grew up, and she wants to find out who killed the local elder who was a kind of patron for her in her youth (and also the father of her best friend of those days, Hazel). Emily is outside the network of "skin names" by which the society is organized, but is an adopted daughter of a sort. Everybody thinks a local wild man/lunatic committed the crime, but Emily's not so sure, and in provoking the police to investigate a white rancher's possible involvement, she kicks over a hornet's nest. She does do a bit of investigation, but that's not really what moves the story forward or solves the crime. The reader stays involved because of the web that Hyland weaves with the elements of the tale: the characters, Emily's very particular (and narrow) point of view, the cultural frictions and land disputes among whites and blacks, the dreamings and taboos of the indigenous culture, the breakdown in both that culture and the European one in the face of drought, sun, alcohol, violence and a host of other difficulties. Even the characters portrayed negatively remain sympathetic in some ways, and always interesting (except for some rowdy characters from the seedy town nearest the camp. The Australian title of the book refers to Hazel's dreaming, not a casual feature of her life but an essential fact of her place in the universe, and thus an essential feature of the novel, skilfully maintained as a consistent metaphorical thread by the author. When Emily finally discovers the identity (and motive) of the killer, there's a dramatic and violent denouement, the only really action-oriented part of the book, but a satisfying wrapping up of the various themes and images that have brought us to that point along with her. This is a quite different sort of book than the crime novels of Garry Disher or Peter Temple or Shane Maloney, the best known of the Australian exports, but it stands comparison with all of them in its language, its evocation of a particular (and particularly Australian) culture, and the dramatic hold it has on the reader. A question: The Australian cover is more "Australian" in referring visually to the dreamings and to the place, Moonlight Downs, though the Australian title refers to the dreaming in particular. The American cover refers to some creatures in the story, but the title refers to the place. Which is more effective as a cover, or a depiction of the contents? I have to say that, to me, the Australian cover conveys more about the contents of the book and the American cover makes it seem almost like a Western (indeed a quality of the book shared with some other Australian crime novels, as noted elsewhere in this blog and others).

Friday, August 22, 2008

Forgotton-books-Friday: Sin Soracco's Edge City

Patti Abbot ( is inspiring a number of writers and bloggers to write about a “forgotten novel,” and she’s posting their articles or links to their blog posts on the subject. She asked me to dig up a forgotten book for her August 22nd edition of the forgotten books, and here’s what I came up with:

There are a number of writers today who are using the noir genre in creative and original ways, but there are fewer who have a truly original voice. Sin Soracco’s 1993 novel Edge City is one of those rare originals. There is little to compare it with, Jack O’Connell’s compelling and almost Gothic noir fantasies of the rustbelt are the only crime novels that come to mind with even a roughly similar voice. Edge City is a convict’s fever dream of her first few days on the outside. It’s a wild, fast ride (too fast for complete sentences, sometimes—fragments flow quickly past the reader’s eye) from Reno’s release from prison to her meeting with her parole agent to her fleabag hotel room to the weird and wonderful Club Istanbul, all the way to her involvement in dirty politics, drug deals, and murder. She’s a skilled thief who got caught, who recognizes an old friend (a Native American woman who’s reinvented herself as a Middle-Eastern belly dancer) and veers off into a world of noir imagination. The post-industrial setting in which the Club Istanbul is located is never named, but it’s obviously at the edges of San Francisco, beyond the tourist zone. The premise, a sleazy bar that features resident musicians and belly dancers instead of a sound system and strippers, a visiting hip Arabic-punk band backing up an egomaniac male belly dancer, and an owner who is an art columnist, is as high concept as Jack O’Connell’s radio subculture, porn theater, and freak-show comics (and the imagining of those high-concept settings and the immersion of the characters in them is the talent that Soracco shares with O’Connell). Both Soracco and O’Connell give us a vision of a noir hell—in Soracco’s case an infernal illusion of freedom experienced by the paroled convict. Soracco’s previous novel, Low Bite, is a novel of the prison itself. Fair warning: the plot of Edge City nervously tightens to a fever pitch of theft (of objects and information) and murder, and then quickly unwinds, like the stories of Elmore Leonard or John McFetridge; the plot is less the point than the deliciously dark and anxious language and atmosphere. In the New York Times review that greeted the publication of Edge City, Marilyn Stasio said of Soracco that “there's fire in her garish portraits of the damned souls who inhabit her apocalyptic world.” I’ve been hoping over the years for more of Reno, or a sequel featuring another apocalyptic world, but the only appearance of Soracco’s fiction that I’ve found is a short story in the recent San Francisco Noir collection published by Akashic. In that anthology, Soracco gives a short third-person monologue in place of an author’s bio. It reads, in part, “She makes up her life from whatever’s around—if there’s nothing handy, she goes somewhere else. The center remains steady: the intense visceral pleasure of stories. She says, ‘One day our stories will bring the bastards down.’” A fitting description of the texture and the underlying impulse of noir fiction.

Glenn Harper

Thursday, August 21, 2008

More forgotten books

I was going to post some more forgotten books yesterday and today but as I looked through them or regurgitated them from my brain I discovered that some of them would just as well stay forgotten. Still, there are a few I thought about that deserve at least some mention, before I post my "forgotten book" tomorrow as part of Patti Abbott's ongoing Friday series on the subject. 1. Only By Mistake, by P.J. Kavanaugh is a thriller of the 39 Steps variety (the book The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan, not the movie by Hitchcock, which is quite different). A city guy is on the run in the country, in this case on the run from an IRA man and hiding in a cottage on a Scottish island. Kavanaugh is a poet and critic, but doesn't condescend to the thriller genre in Only By Mistake. But it's a period piece in its portrayal of the IRA, in its politics, and in the language and plotting. So only to be recommended if you like the Buchan sort of thriller, and a '50s sort of plot and setting. 2. Madame Solario is an anonymous novel published in 1956 and reprinted several times since (the author, Gladys Huntington, has only recently been revealed). The novel was in its day notorious enough in Europe that a French book was published with the title "Who Wrote Madame Solario," with all sorts of speculation. The various paperback reprints, pitching it variously as a romance novel, a historical romance, a sex romp, or a Henry Jamesian novel of intrigue among the international visitors to an Italian mountain retreat. It's actually a comedy of manners with very ominous overtones, set before World War I in a genteel decadence that is about to collapse. There's a Russian with a gun, a notorious adventuress, a young, callow Englishman, and a wonderful and palatial hotel that apparently still exists in Northern Italy. It's a great read, if you're up for that sort of thing, with an unusual narrative structure (first and last sections through the eyes of that callow Englishman, middle from the p.o.v. of the omniscient narrator), a very indirect style, and a slow pace that builds the romantic comedy and the barely contained violence at the same time. Not a bodice-ripper romance novel and not a thriller, but a subtle, complex story of sex and the roles open to women in a repressive society. 3. I also thought of mentioning the novels of Timothy Watts, about whom I hadn't heard anything in a long time. I was a big fan of his first two books, published by SoHo Press, Cons and The Money Lovers (noir thrillers about capable con men and ex-cons caught up in plots they don't understand, kind of James M. Cainwith a contemporary, Elmore Leonard, edge to the hard-boiled formula. But I see that in addition to a third novel, Steal Away, from a few years ago, there's another one, Grand Theft, from just a couple of years ago--so I guess Watts's books don't really qualify as forgotten.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Forgotten on my bookshelf: Francis Carco's Perversity

This is forgotten book week here and elsewhere around the web: I’ll be posting my official “forgotten book” of the week on Friday, but in the meantime I’ve been thinking about some forgotten books, and looking around my bookshelves, I discovered a book I had forgotten I owned, Perversity, by Francis Carco (a pseudonym of Francois Carcopino-Tupsoli, a French author of some literary renown). Perversity is a 1920s portrait of slum life in Paris, written with a lot of underworld slang that is ably translated or transformed by Jean Rhys (an amazing and very dark writer in her own right), though the translator is listed as Ford Madox Ford, her mentor and lover (see Rhys’s novel Quartet or the movie based on it). None of the other translations of Carco’s books have been so fortunate and the colorful language of the streets is reportedly lost in them. I have the original English-language edition of 1928, but Black Mask recently reprinted one of the paperback editions, which should qualify the book for consideration as a crime novel, or noir, or pulp.

J. Kingston Pierce at The Rap Sheet has posted a quote by G.K. Chesterton, "The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life." Carco’s book certainly contains a sense of the poetry of modern life, though entirely from the darker end of the spectrum. The French literary establishment certainly understood what we would call crime fiction in the way described by Chesterton: that is to say, as more than simply popular literature, but there are a number of French literary novels of crime or the underworld that have been received on this side of the Atlantic as pulp (see the various paperback covers of Carco’s books attached herewith, as well as a similar cover for a French paperback of another of his novels).

When I took Carco’s book down off the shelf, I realized that I’d never actually read it, though I’ve been carrying it around as we moved from place to place for at least 25 years (it was given to me by an artist and friend in Atlanta). I discovered a bleak portrait of the underclass, portrayed as violent and almost subhuman, except in the liveliness of their language. Carco’s Perversity is a dark ride into the lives of 3 individuals whose prospects and horizons are very limited: a prostitute, her brother, and her lover, all confined to a tiny slum apartment that is the primary setting. Perversity is not a pleasant read, except in one’s appreciation of the writing and the translation, which are both lucid and direct. Maybe perversely (no pun intended) the brutality of the book and the writing were an antidote to the overly intellectual writing in France at the time (or the literary experimentation profusely demonstrated by The Eater of Darkness, which I reviewed yesterday), and therefore was regarded as literary because of its very un-literariness (perhaps a lesson we should all take to heart in current disputes over the literary worth of crime fiction, as in this year’s Booker Prize flap). The volume translated by Jean Rhys also includes a short story about a knife that is better in a lot of ways than the novel itself, about a punk who decides his knife is not the his weapon of choice.

Truth be told, the bleakness and near-bestial quality of Carco’s work is hard to take in large doses, better sampled perhaps in the story. Though there’s quite sufficient parallel between Perversity and the American pulp fiction to justify those paperback covers for Carco’s U.S. publications. American pulp, though, is frequently leavened with comedy of an intentional or unintentional sort plus straightforward descriptions of violence and intrigue. What distinguishes Perversity from genuine pulp is perhaps the intensity of his grim portrait, with no comic relief and a long, grim buildup to a couple of short bursts of violence: so if its unliterariness is what makes it literature, maybe its very darkness keeps it from being truly noir? And maybe Carco "Americanized" his name to suit what he and his audience thought of as a brutal, American style of writing, thus making it more interesting to the French (as in all the American pulp novels made into French movies by intellectual filmmakers over the years)? In any case, maybe this is a book best forgotten or at least filed away among the forerunners of the modern crime novel.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Forgotten books: The Eater of Darkness, Robert M. Coates

There's been a lot of stuff in the blogosphere lately about forgotten books, and my own entry on the subject will be appearing in the series that Patti Abbot is publishing on her blog,, But First! as they say on those late-night TV commercials, I have a few thoughts on some other forgotten books that are at least loosely in the crime genre. The first and possibly most forgotten is The Eater of Darkness, by Robert M. Coates, which had a hardback edition in 1929 and a paperback edition in 1959, and that's it. The book has a lot in common with Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, which is often listed by writers and bloggers as a crime novel (more of a ghost story, really, but that's for another time). Both O'Brien's and Coates's novels also have something in common with the estimable Declan Burke's web novel, Gonzo Noir, published on his blog, Crime Always Pays. What they all have in common is literary experimentation based on pulp- and crime-genre themes and tropes. In the case of the earliest of these three, The Eater of Darkness is the story of Charles Dograr, a young American who returns from France to New York and meets a strange old man who has invented a sort of laser-like death ray. The old man tricks Charles into pulling the trigger, after a fantastic description of the ray penetrating buildings and people as it is focused by the old man on his intended target. From there, Charles becomes infatuated with the power of the weapon and helps the old man plan an elaborate bank heist that will use the weapon to remotely kill the armored car guards and bank employees and anyone on the street during the heist. Along the way, Charles becomes involved with a young woman related to Charles's first victim, a beautiful woman who has been watching him from across the street, an elaborate plot twist or two involving the bank job and other things, and the woman he left behind in France. The plot seems to be strictly in parallel with thrillers of the novel's day, and even much crime fiction that has been written since--except that the exposition is wild and unpredictable and the conclusion, while quite different from the famous ending of The Third Policeman (recently endorsed by the TV show Lost), takes the same liberties with a straightforward story. The Eater of Darkness has been called the first Dada novel in English (and it was indeed published with the help of Gertrude Stein)--I wouldn't go that far, but it was decidedly written under the influence of the literary upheavals of the early 20th century. However, Coates was more interested in playing with the conventions of the thriller than with breaking new literary ground (and for that reason resonates with Flann O'Brien's other masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, another wild comedy). All the twists and turns are impossible to describe, and the literary hijinks are both sophisticated and funny--but one of the most interesting and entertaining aspects of Coates's novel is that the thriller plot works, in a sci-fi, Three Stooges sort of way. When I first read The Eater of Darkness, I made the mistake of trying to make straightforward sense of it--is the story a dream of one of the characters about another, absent one? Is it a fantasy about America, like Kafka's amazing Amerika (another book that The Eater has something in common with)? But it really only works if you disengage the brain and all your tendency to interpret or make sense of it. If you can do that, it's a lot of fun (if you can find a copy--and there are still some floating around that don't require you to rob an armored car to pay for). Coates, by the way, went on to write a pretty good ghost story, Wisteria Cottage, as well as a bohemian novel, Yesterday's Burdens, and other literary books, as well as being the art critic for The New Yorker for a while. In the intro to the paperback edition he seems partly proud and partly embarrassed by the youthful exhuberance of his first novel. But don't let his later credentials or the ambivalence of the adult literateur put you off.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Noir/Mystery from Saudi Arabia: Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris

Reading Finding Nouf, a first novel by Zoë Ferraris, is something like reading science fiction, the culture described is so alien to an outsider. It also reminded me in some ways of Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale. But it is indeed a mystery, though the whodunnit aspects of the novel are actually a smaller part of the impact of the novel than Ferraris's intimate description of Saudi Arabian life, told in the third person voice, in which not only the oppression of women is evoked in depth but also the pain and loss inflicted on men by that very same oppression. The central character, Nayir, is a Palestinian and devout Muslim who grew up in Saudi Arabia and has become a desert guide (aspiring, almost, to the intimacy with the desert exhibited by the Bedouin). He is unmarried, and at many points in the novel his melancholy over that fact is palpable (as when he sees a man with four wives). He in fact does not even know any women, partly a result of his status as an outsider with no family. When the sister of Othman, a wealthy friend disappears, probably in the desert, Nayir is enlisted to help first with the search and then with a private investigation into her death (when the family pressures the authorities to call the case an accident). Othman also enlists his fiancee, Katya, a half-Russian/half-Saudi who has flouted convention by getting a job in the medical examiner's office, to help in the investigation--a good thing, since Nayir will not be able to even talk to any of the women involved in the case. And it's really the extent of the gender divide, and the extent of its consequences, that are the most striking and evocative elements of the novel. Ferraris's delineation of the divide is compelling, leaving the reader open-mouthed or shaking his/her head at many points. The waste of human life that is a product of the oppression is also explicit, but at no point does the author or narrator preach. In fact, the devotion to Islam of Nayir is at the very center of the novel, and the changes forced on him by his experiences in the course of the investigation are more central to the story, really, than the solution of the crime (which, although believable, isn't as metaphorically satisfying as the character portraits and the picture of the society that Ferraris accomplishes). This is indeed a mystery, more than a thriller or a noir novel, in that Nayir and Katya are repeatedly going over the same meager evidence as they try to make progress (and their progress is very slow and difficult for the first half of the novel). But the atmosphere of repression, the portayal of the culture's rigidity and the small, marginal attempts to escape it by those individuals not fundamentally in support of it, create so bleak and unrelenting an image that the novel is darker than many gritty noir crime novels. At some points, the setting and the occasional entrances by Bedouins recall some of Paul Bowles's novels, particularly The Sheltering Sky and The Spider's House, though Bowles is concerned more with an outsider's experience of the culture and the desert (and is describing Morocco not Saudi Arabia); plus there is a mysticism in The Sheltering Sky that is mostly missing in Finding Nouf--The Spider's House delves more deeply into the daily life of an Islamic country than The Sheltering Sky, and the consequences for inter-cultural relationships (and is a much better book, to me--I find The Sheltering Sky a bit more of a young person's book at many points, and The Spider's House is much more subtle). Bowles did write a pretty good thriller, as I recall (Let it Come Down), but that was set in South America as I recall. Anyway, back to the point: Finding Nouf includes various outsiders including some Americans, but always from the point of view of the Islamic culture in which Nayir is immersed. Nayir's own growth (and the opening for Ferraris to create a series out of her characters) occurs in a comic thread in which Nayir acquires a Columbo-style trenchcoat (not exactly suitable for the climate but an outward sign of his new status) and in the interrelationship of Nayir and Katya, as he struggles to define his role with respect to a woman who doesn't conform rigidly to the sex roles enforced by fundamentalist Islam of the Saudi variety (and by dreaded religious police and informers who are practically everywhere). Some plot points that you think are going to turn into cliches instead become touching signs of Nayir's personal growth in relation to his religion and his awareness of women as people, and as I said before, these moments and the overall embodiment in Ferraris's prose of the terrifyingly strict rules and laws of the country are the real impact of the book. Although the oppressive environment may make the novel difficult to read, much less comprehend, for many readers, Ferraris's novel uses the crime/mystery genre to delineate the inside of a culture more thoroughly (because more complete in its portrait of women's position within it) than other recent crime fiction set in Arabic and Islamic countries. Yasmina Khadra is more concerned with a male point of view and with politics in his police novels, Matt Beynon Rees is more concerned with the intricacies of the particular Palestinian situation, Mehmet Murat Somer is more interested in the transvestite subculture within a Turkey that is at least constitutionally secular, and Abdelilah Hamdouchi is particularly interested in civil and legal rights of those caught in the judicial process. One novel that does capture the fundamentalist Islamic world in as frightening a manner as Ferraris is Moghul Buffet, by Cheryl Benard (also a woman and an outsider with, like Ferraris, intimate personal experience in the culture)--but Moghul Buffet is a wild and funny book rather than a subtle and intimate portrait. Finding Nouf offers the reader a cosmic shift of viewpoint, into a regime that is otherwise difficult to penetrate as either a traveler or a reader.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ottavio Cappellani's first

In anticipation of the release of Ottavio Cappellani's second novel to be translated into English (A Sicilian Tragedee), I went looking for the first one, Who is Lou Sciortino, in spite of a negative review from Publisher's Weekly posted on the Amazon website. The Publisher's Weekly reviewer compared Cappellani unfavorably to Elmore Leonard--what's with the Elmore Leonard comparisons? Does every novel dealing with the mob, or every comic crime novel with a meandering plot, have to be an Elmore Leonard clone? In fact, Who is Lou Sciortino is quite a different book from anything Leonard has done, and though it's not a perfect book, it has its rewards. First, Sciortino is a farce, with murder in place of most of the sex in a traditional farce. The plot deals (loosely) with Don Lou Sciortino of the New York mob and his grandson, also named Lou Sciortino, who's in charge of a film company that is really a money laundering operation.
When there's a bombing in his office, Lou Jr. gets sent off to his grandfather's home town, Catania, where he's supposed to hook up with Lou Sr.'s old Mafia buddies. But a filmmaker, a Mafia hairdresser, a would-be rocker who has turned to robbery (and mayhem) to support himself, a shopkeeper, a Jayne Maynsfield-like actress, various thugs, bodyguards, and "picciotti" (soldiers or "boys") twine around each other in sometimes calculated and sometimes casual violence when not attending barbecues, plotting more money laundering operations, and one-upping each other. The result doesn't make much sense as any kind of linear plot: it's really the story of what Corriere della Sera called a "post-modern Catania" and a post-modern Mafia as well. Here, as in Yeats's famous line, the center does not hold. The old ways have broken down (and even the grandfathers have to finally admit that the good old days were not so great), and what's left behind is a chaos of ambitions, offended honor, meddling grandfathers, sex-starved young people, and the various children, hangers-on, would-be mobsters, and picciotti who are caught between all of the above. The real pleasure, and perhaps Cappellani's real aim, is in the language. The skillful translator, Howard Curtis, has wisely chosen to leave much of the Sicilian slang in the original language, and we gradually become accustomed to the obscenities and interjections particular to the area, as well as much Mafia language, such as "picciotto." I happened to see a 1960s Italian movie last night, Mafioso, which is also comic (until it isn't), concerned with the Mafia's reach into the life of an engineer who has moved north to Milan but has come home for a visit. The movie and Cappellani's book illuminated one another in several ways, both in language (a number of references in the movie were clearer for having read Cappellani's book) and in the underlying theme of the ordinariness (along with the perniciousness) of life with the mob. In Mafioso, we are eased into the sordidness by the comic central character, and in Sciortino, we are momentarily eased into the place of the title character by the use of a second-person narrative at the beginning and end of the story, "you" are being narrated and addressed. That literary trick (fortunately not sustained for very long) implicates the reader and announces that the language and style will be central to the book (rather than plot), and perhaps warns a reader looking for an Elmore Leonard clone to look elsewhere. On the evidence of advance p.r. (admittedly not all that reliable), it looks like Cappellani's second book is going to be a better novel, but Who is Lou Sciortino is fun and also gives detailed information about the speech and the structure of a city infested with mobsters and Mafia history but also easing into the diversity and openness of the 21st century.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Monster of Florence according to Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

The new true-crime book by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi on the famous Monster of Florence case is not a definitive version of the serial murder case. The first half is a delineation of the crimes and the response of the Italian police and carabinieri to them. The second half is a sorry tale of the miscarriages of justice and downright stupidities of the police and the judicial system, extending to the persecution and arrest of the two authors of this book for, apparently, the heinous crime of proposing a theory of the crime opposed to that advocated by the detective in charge of the case (and now crime fiction author) Michele Guittari and some of the public prosecutors involved. The Monster case has inspired several novels and movies (including Thomas Harris's Hannibal and the movie based on it, a Magdalen Nabb story, and Laura Grimaldi's The Suspicion, not to mention several nonfiction books including the one Giuttari brought out just weeks before Spezi's own book appeared in Italy and the first of Giuttari's own novels). So the story, though not well known in the U.S. except for a recent network newsmagazine segment on Preston and Spezi, has been widely discussed and analyzed. What's different about the P/S Monster book is that it's about the mangled investigation and its consequences more than it's about the murders. And Preston is a novelist producing a non-fiction text, but with some of the sensibility of a fictional account. The account, though, becomes more and more about Preston and Spezi as they are targeted (spitefully, it seems) by the investigators. In a way, the last half of the book is a harrowing memoir more than investigative reporting--revealing not only the authors' difficulties but also a few really stupid things they do (given what they already knew about the police and judiciary involved in the investigation). So it's a hybrid, albeit a fascinating one. And it gives a perspective on Giuttari the novelist that makes me hesitate to continue to read that policeman/author's novels any further—Preston's acccount convinces me that Giuttari's experience as a detective does not, in this case, make him a reliable portrayer of the profession. Is that fair?

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Andrea Camilleri, The Paper Moon

Newly arrived in English (translated by Stephen Sartarelli) is The Paper Moon, a Salvo Montalbano novel from Sicilian crime star Andrea Camilleri. As always, the prose is lucid and carefully controlled: We see everything from Salvo's point of view (though the story is told in the third person). The complexities of the tale involving a pharmaceutical salesman, his sister, his lover, and a second thread concerning politicians, the mafia, and drugs intertwine through Salvo's relations with his fellow cops (including the tongue-twisting Catarella), the police bureaucracy, and the seductive (in very different ways) sister and lover. And as usual, Salvo figures out what's going on just a step ahead of the dogged police investigation. There is a comfortable charm to these stories (not unlike the Botswana tales of Alexander McCall Smith) based on Salvo's irritable character, the comic relief of Catarella's attempts at speech, and the detailed portrait of the culture and cuisine of Sicily. However, beneath Camilleri's stories there lurks a dark and complex world of ruthless crime families and the tentacles they extend into the political and social life of Italy. The police cannot investigate some crimes directly, but only with elaborate fictions and misdirections that may or may not achieve justice or the prosecution of the guilty parties. So part of the particular charm of Camilleri's novels is an irony and an overt or covert violence that, together, give his books quite a sharper edge than Smith's Botswana tales. There is a kind of bitter comedy in the Montalbano novels that is lighter but of the same kind as can be found in Leonardo Sciascia (where the comedy is of dark and tragic proportions but the prose is nonetheless lucid). It's partly Salvo's own personality (emotions and appetites included) that gives a more accessible quality to Camilleri, in contrast to the more political and intellectual edge of Sciascia. The same can be said of the filmed versions of the two authors' books: Sciascia's novels have been made into existentially ominous crime films, and the TV series made from Camilleri's books is funny, entertaining, and revealing about the personalities as well as the criminalities of Sicily (as well as being very faithful versions of the novels, with a group of very effective actors impersonating the characters). In short, The Paper Moon is a vivid and justly anticipated continuation of a brightly written series with very dark undertones.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

George Pelecanos, The Turnaround

The new Pelecanos novel builds slowly, delineating the consequences of the characters' bad choices 30 years in the past, through the first half of The Turnaround. In the last half, the pace picks up as the narrator brings to the fore the consequences of current bad choices.The narrative voice is vintage Pelecanos, a blend of interior monologues by the characters and a particular narrative point of view, a moral center within the mayhem and potential disaster that the characters are going through. It's both aspects of the narrative voice that make the author a distinctive voice in crime fiction today: the characters speak, in their dialogue as well as those interior monologues, in believable, class-conscious voices. And the narrator himself speaks with an ethical voice that passes judgment on what the characters are saying, doing, and thinking. There's no irony here: when a character lies, the narrator points it out. There's a sharp contrast between this style of writing and, for example, John McFetridge, who is on my mind because I recently read his two published novels set in Toronto (and placed as firmly there as Pelecanos's novels are placed in DC). McFetridge's narrator is not always ironic, in that the reader is not always privy to information that the characters are not (though the characters are busy concealing that information from us and from each other). But the story is carried by the voices themselves, rather than being balanced by a narrative voice providing a moral center. The result of the difference is that McFetridge keeps the reader off balance and builds considerable humor into the structure. Pelecanos lets us know what's going on and where it's all going, and only includes humor in the by-play among characters when they're joking with each other: he's otherwise serious about what's happening and what sort of lesson or conclusion should be drawn from what's happening. I mentioned bad choices, and that is frequently Pelecanos's focus, but always within a social context that explains (without excusing) the bad choices. Where The Turnaround departs from Pelecanos's previous work is in the pattern of violence: Most of his previous novels ultimately turn to revenge, exacted explicitly and violently at the conclusion, and with a clear line between the good guys and the bad guys, though each may be equally violent. The Turnaround is more ambiguous, which I'll get to in a minute. In my previous post, I mentioned the maleness of the narrative (another contrast with McFetridge, whose female characters are among his most interesting creations, always central to the story), and there's also a working-class focus: Pelecanos includes characters from all walks of life, but he's most interested in working people, and those who are struggling up into the working class. He tends to treat some groups as clueless, among them the wealthy and particular social types, including (in The Turnaround) a tendency to characterize Asians as shopkeepers who won't meet the eye of their customers. The result is an intensity of focus that drives the story relentlessly forward, and perhaps drives some readers away (those excluded, caricatured, or not interested in the ethical/moral center of the novels). That, I think, is one source of the tendency these days to say that Pelecanos is not so much a crime novelist as a novelist: he has perhaps sacrificed some segments of a mass audience in order to intensify the allegorical quality of the drama (no accident that one of his most recent--and best--novels is called Drama City, a title that is not just a joke about DC the city). The Turnaround is about a group of white youths who make a racist choice, to drive through a black neighborhood taunting a group of black youths standing innocently on a corner. The white boys' car reaches a dead end and they have to turn around to confront those they wanted to torment. Thirty years later, the black kids are suffering from the results of their own bad choice (beating one of the white kids and killing another), while the surviving white kids are now 50-ish and marked by the event in subtler ways. The plot is one of Pelecanos's most interesting (though I have to say I think the two previous books, Drama City and The Night Gardener, are his best novels so far, as complete pieces of work). When two of the black men approach the two white men for very different reasons, moral dilemmas give way to more immediate consequences. There are also side plots involving one of the black men who is attempting to take over a drug-distribution network, the families of the two central characters (one of the white men, Alex, who has carried on his family diner business but has lost a son in Iraq, and Ray, one of the black men, who has become a physical therapist at Walter Reed Army Hospital, both thus drawing the war and its consequences into the story). Toward the end, Alex is measuring a windowless building that he owns that, in other Pelecanos novels, would have been a killing floor where the characters already headed for collision would have met in violence: but in this case becomes something else: a turnaround for the characters and for the author (not to mention a late surprise, in a more "crime fiction" fashion that the book has up to that point prepared us for). The novel that begins with a death does indeed end in death, but at arms' length rather than first hand, from the central characters' point of view, though in plain and explicit view of the reader. Divine revenge, perhaps, in an unlikely form, with victims that belatedly call forth some sympathy--though Pelecanos is careful to invoke the neutrality of God with regad to human violence and war. This is the first of Pelecanos's novels to be published after the end of The Wire, the amazing HBO series that he was involved in as a writer. And some of the complexity of The Wire in plot and vision has affected the novelist. That change was perhaps reflected in the unresolved quality of the ending of his previous novel's serial killer plot, but is here reflected in different kind of resolution. And as always, there are echoes of the early novels in specific details (like a stereo shop) that make Pelecanos's work not only a portrait of working-class Washington DC and environs, but also a detailed personal universe.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The new George Pelecanos: first thoughts and a question

I'm reading The Turnaround, the new novel by George Pelecanos, and have a few comments to start off with--plus I have a question for other readers. First, I started reading Pelecanos's books about the time his third novel came out, and I thought then and still think that the early novels, the Stefanos series and Shoedog, were a brilliant update of noir, crime, and pulp fiction, completely rooted in place (the D.C. area). After those early novels, Pelecanos found his true subject: American men from their 20s to their 50s who are trying to live up to (or outlive) their fathers' expectations. And it is definitely men's voices that his novels portray. There are women in the books, but they're only portrayed in their relation to men, and even the narrator's voice (always in the third person) is an interior monologue from the male characters' point of view. That's not necessarily a flaw, it's just where Pelecanos's particular universe is located. And location is my question for other readers: I live a mile or two from Pelecanos, though I've never met him. Every day, I drive or take the Metro through Pelecanos country: the streets and highways of Washington DC and Montgomery County Maryland (particularly Silver Spring, an unincorporated "urban district" in the county). One of the special pleasures of reading Pelecanos's books is seeing my own neighborhood(s) through his eyes, in the context of a crime novel. Typically, I know the streets he's describing, can even pinpoint the location of, for instance, the Pappas and Sons coffee shop that's an important part of The Turnaround. My question is, do other readers find the "placed" or quality of being rooted in a place to be an essential part of reading Pelecanos's stories? And are there other takes on the basic dramatic situation that he returns to again and again, that search for the proper place of a male human being in the culture of America in the mid 20th and early 21st century?

McFetridge's Second

Everybody Knows This is Nowhere brings back some of the characters in John McFetridge's first book, Dirty Sweet, but as bit players. Everybody Knows includes more police procedural and more mob insider stuff than the preceeding novel, and splinters the point of view among a larger cast. In fact, different readers might identify different characters as the "protagonist" or most interesting character--McFetridge has made several of them central enough and interesting enough that no one of them takes definitive center stage (and a number of them are of "a certain age": McFetridge likes to foreground the thoughts and interests of people on the near and far side of their 40s). Perhaps the city of Toronto is more of a central character than anyone else (and the reference in the title, taken from a Neil Young song, is to current and former attitudes to the city). And where the characters in Dirty Sweet seem, as I mentioned in my last post, to be telling the novel's story to each other, in Everybody Knows, they are mainly lying to each other, and keeping the reader in the dark in ways that move the story forward in an indirect, meandering line. The indirection and the meandering are actually some of the author's strengths: the novel is about talking, and talk that both reveals and conceals not only the events but also the personal truths of the speakers. The "maguffin" is an Iranian immigrant who plunges to his death, onto the hood of a car occupied by a john and his "date." From that event there emerges a sequence of characters: a marijuana grower under house arrest (and her daughter and partner in the trade), several cops (of French, Native, Scottish, South Asian, and several other backgrounds, emphasizing the multi-ethnicity of the city), a prominent biker-gang member in from Montreal to shake up the local drug trade, several biker "hangarounds," a barge captain and his weed-growing partner, and more. The Montreal biker-in-a-business-suit (Richard), the grower (Sharon), the barge guy (Ray), and two of the detectives (new partners Bergeron and Armstrong) are the most frequent speakers (and points of view), anchoring the narrative's "sex. dope. immigration. gang war. filmmaking," as the p.r. from the publisher, Harcourt, would have it in this Toronto that might be "the new L.A. of crime fiction." Though the author is not constructing a traditional mystery or procedural with a "reveal" at the end, there are several surprises that, in retrospect, the reader will see as the logical undertone to the stories and lies that have been accumulating all along. This is a very cold-blooded bunch, including both those who end up dead and those who either get away or take control. McFetridge is building a running history of his city, something like Pelecanos is doing in D.C. or Deon Meyer in Cape Town, with characters coming in and out of focus over a number of stories and novels. And no matter how cold they are, they're good company for us and for each other (one of the things that McFetridge's cast of characters shares with the writer he's often compared to, Elmore Leonard). I for one am eager to follow their their further conversations and exploits.