Thursday, November 27, 2008

La Serenissima in noir film and fiction

I've been reading Donna Leon lately, preparing for a quick trip to Venice in a couple of weeks (I'm speaking at a conference there on December 12th), and tonight I also watched the quintessential movie of wintry Venice, Don't Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie (from the mid-1970s). First, the movie: I don't know of another film that is told almost entirely with visual elements. The dialogue is often quiet and always oblique, sometimes in Italian with no subtitles. The original short story by Daphne DuMaurier provides only a suggestion of a story, and Roeg fills it out with visual metaphor, such as the frame I'm pasting in here, showing a blotch on a photo of the inside of a church--a blotch that is extremely important visually in the film but impossible to explain in any rational, linear narrative.

Venice is a central character, with its narrow, dead-end alleys, winding canals, and propensity for getting you lost. Don't Look Now is a horror story, a detective thriller, and a story of love and loss, but all of the above are told obliquely, almost off-stage, building slowly to a violent conclusion that is related to what's gone on earlier mostly in overlapping images. I can explain further, but too much explanation ruins the fragile structure (and pleasure) of the movie. I have a personal connection to the film, as well: When my wife and I were as young (and skinny) as Sutherland and Christie in the film, we were standing at the Accademia stop on the vaporetto (water bus) line in Venice and saw two magnificent funeral boats (all shiny black, with gold trim) pulling up to the dock, where a film crew was waiting for them. A year or so later, when we went to see Don't Look Now, we saw the scene again, in the movie--this was what we saw being filmed, without knowing. My connection to Donna Leon is more off and on. I was a big fan when she was first published in the U.S., and desperate to get her newer books in the period when she had a dispute with her American publisher and was unavailable here. When the books started becoming available again, I lost interest a bit, somehow finding the typical pattern of the novels (ineviably ending with cynicism about the possibiltiy of justice rather than any more typical "satisfying" conclusion to her the story. But I've started reading her again, rereading the early novels and catching up with the newer ones, and I have to say that she is both unique among crime writers and head and shoulders above most. No one has evoked the physical and social reality of Venice as well as Leon, and her plots are as devious and twisting as the streets and canals of the city. her cynicism (or that of her detective, Guido Brunetti, are the logical outcome of not only Venice and Italy but also a world that was rapidly globalizing as she has been writing. The comedy of the novels also seems to me now to be a more essential element, not only the dark comedy of the bleak conclusions but the brighter comic touches in Brunetti's interaction with his grasping, incompetent boss and his own lively (and more sympathetic) cohorts Sergeant (and then Commissario) Vianello and Signorina Elettra (plus his vividly drawn family). I won't talk about any specific novels now, I'm interested at the moment in acknowledging her importance to the field of crime fiction and the unique pleasure of reading her stories. If anyone has any other suggestions as to the best (out of the many) crime novels and films set in Venice, please post them here--I'd love to find other examples, though I'm also happy to stand behind my opinion of the film and the author I'm proposing as two of the very best examples.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Grace Brophy, A Deadly Paradise

First, the second book in Grace Brophy's "Commissario Cenni" novels set in Umbria is better than the first one, The Last Enemy (which I reviewed here some time ago). A Deadly Paradise is set mostly in and around Perugia, with excursions to Venice and Rome, and the Italian setting is evoked effectively, without overdoing the local color. Cenni's bristly personality is also effective, and his interaction with other police is mostly with his assistant, Elena, and his boss (a typical grasping and ambitious Questore, or top cop, from so many police detective novels). But I had difficulty getting involved very much in the plot itself: the victim and her circle all are believable characters but unpleasant without quite rising to actual evil. Nazi counterfeit pound notes are dragged into it, along with Venetian aristocrats, the Red Brigades, several cats, nosy neighbors, a hermaphrodite, and a romance sub-plot regarding the Commissario's long-lost girlfriend (glimpsed, of course, from the deck of a passing vaporetto on the Grand Canal). It's actually not quite as overheated as my list suggests, and for long passages the story is entertaining and colorful; but as the main plot crept toward its conclusion, I find that I just didn't care who the murderer was, who got the dying aristocrat's money, or whether Cenni gets to pursue that elusive former lover or has to wait for the next novel in the series. What Brophy has in mind, I think, is a combination of Donna Leon's Brunetti series and Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series, of Venice and Sicily respectively--but in both those cases the complex plots wind inexorably to a satisfying resolution (whether justice is served or not). Brophy's story doesn't have that quality of inevitability nor the dailiness of a procedural's investigation. Comparing this series to those of Leon and Camilleri may not quite be fair, and Brophy's Umbria is certainly coming alive in this book--but I didn't get that sense of regret and satisfaction that finishing a Commissario Montalbano can provide, nor the sense of almost gleeful pessimism about the elusiveness of justice that Leon often serves up in her conclusions. I'm interested to see where Brophy goes from here, though.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sophie Hannah's forthcoming The Other Half Lives

All fiction is about creating worlds with words, but crime fiction is about competing realities and the conflicts and ironies (not to mention violence) created by them. Sophie Hannah's crime novels are about various voices, each creating a reality: one is always in the first person, the voice of a woman who struggles to reconcile her world with some kind of dissonance or create a strategic alternate reality. In the other half of the story, DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse struggle to bring the alternate realities of the first-person narrator and the crime into coherence with "official" reality, while also struggling to bring their own personal realities into some relation to each other. In her not-yet-published The Other Half Lives, even more than in her earlier novels, competing realities are conjured by talk, often in oblique conversations that reveal the distance between the various characters' points of view on what's real. Ruth and her boyfriend Aidan have concealed from each everything important about their lives. When he challenges her to reveal a secret (and not knowing that she has still concealed the most important fact about herself), he reciprocates by admitting that he once murdered a woman--but it's a woman that she happens to know is very much alive. We overhear their continuing lies to each other, to the police, and to everyone else they know. Even the action sequence in the violent conclusion moves forward mostly in alternating conversation and interior monologue. There are several suggestions through the novel of the analogies between fiction writing and the world-building that the characters are exercising in their talk and action, as well. The result is a sophisticated, spiraling narrative that investigates the motives (and the repercussions) of ordinary life, the extraordinary circumstances that interrupt our lives, and the language that we use to maintain reality and cope with exigencies. Along the way, Hannah also portrays a particular niche in the art world (some of her characters are artists, some are arts professionals or collectors)--in particular the hype that supports certain kinds of art and the consequences for an artist of turning his or her back on the overheated world of major collectors and art fairs. The artists are painters whose work is rather unfashionable, appreciated only by collectors and others who recognize their talent in forcefully depicting human narratives (suggesting the talent of the crime writer, in fact, in several ways). The one object that suggests the flashier part of the art market is in fact a vivid (but private) "installation work" that grows directly from the tortured mind of a central character in the drama (a complex "artwork" whose resonance might be envied by a lot of artists, in or out of the fashionable "scene"). Hannah keeps the story away from the celebrity-driven realm of art, mentioning the Saatchi Collection but not portraying it, for instance, so that her story doesn't get sidetracked into a potboiler thriller or a roman à clef sort of book--she wisely keeps her focus on the characters (both the ones specific to this story and the ones common to all her crime novels), whose voices are vivid and believable even when what they are saying is difficult for us (or the police) to believe. There are also some very funny sequences, as well as a character-based wit that has always been important in her fiction.

All in all, The Other Half Lives is a compelling novel that is sustained by clearly drawn characters and complex but controlled storytelling, rather than clichés of plot, genre, and action. Hannah never condescends to genre, though--all her novels are clearly crime fiction, though also very hard to categorize, having as they do elements of various forms within and beyond the genre, mixed together creatively. I don't have an image of the cover to post with this review--there's not one available yet. So here's a cover image of one of her poetry collections, which in fact has a very noir-sounding title. I'll add The Other Half Lives cover when the it shows up on-line and the book is closer to its release date.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Slovakian detective vs. criminal conspiracy: Siren of the Waters, Michael Genelin

From what little I knew in advance, I expected Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters, featuring Bratislava detective Jana Matinova, to be an East European police procedural--it's not that. Instead, it's a combination of that procedural with a Fantômas-like adventure, plus a post-Bond/post-Cold-War spy thriller (think of movies like The Transporter), and threaded among all of the above, a Milan Kundera-like story of Communist-era Czechoslovakia. No single thread dominates, with the result that the villainous conspiracy Jana gets involved in (concerning human trafficking) never quite comes into focus, but we hardly notice as the action shifts from Bratislava to Kiev to Strasbourg to Nice (at Carnival, no less), culminating in a costume ball (Carnival and the costume ball being part of what suggests the elegant crime novels of the early 20th century, including the Fantômas stories, as well as Bond). Just exactly why Jana gets pulled in all these directions is not all that clear, and there are lots of coincidences, but the whole thing is enough fun (among all the violence) to pull the reader along rapidly. Basically, Jana and her incompetent warrant officer, Seges, are called to an accident scene and find a number of female corpses plus one male corpse. The makeup of the group of victims suggests a pimp and prostitues, and following that lead brings Jana into a pan-European investigation of trafficking and into the view of at least two international gangs (as well as into the company of a detective in the Ukraine, a Russian cop, his sister, Jana's estranged daughter, and a bunch of people connected to the U.N.).
It takes a certain suspension of disbelief, and it's not a gritty urban noir (though it does have a dark sensibility), but having just read this first entry in a new series, I'm looking forward to next year's Dark Dreams, which promises to be just as wild a ride. There are some aspects, though, of the conclusion of Siren of the Waters that were not quite satisfactory to me, regarding both Jana's personal life and the final "reveal," though I can't really explain my reservations without giving away too much. If there's anyone reading this who has already read Siren of the Waters, I'd appreciate hearing from you what you thought of the book, and in particular of the ending--thanks in advance for your comments.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Grave in Gaza, Matt Beynon Rees

A schoolteacher in Bethlehem turns amateur detective, his daughter designs a website for his new trade, and family is the overriding value system--all that sounds like the foundation of a cozy mystery series. But Matt Beynon Rees's series featuring Omar Yussef Sirhan is set in Palestine, and there's enough intrigue, crime, gangsterism, infighting (not to mention the occupation) to fill dozens of noir crime novels. In the second book in the series, A Grave in Gaza, Omar Yussef enters Graham Greene territory (but bleaker): sent to the Gaza strip to inspect U.N. schools there, he becomes involved in a sequence of murder, torture, kidnapping, and misery that is not for the fainthearted reader. The plot is not tightly constructed, because there are too many villains and the corruption is too pervasive for a single, linear plot. There is instead a moving evocation, from a Palestinian teacher's point of view, of the grim realities in one of the most dangerous places on earth. There is, however, a neat twist at the end that not only draws together the various threads of the plot but also makes a human statement at odds with all the inhumane activity that has gone before.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Donna Leon, Suffer the Little Children

I'm lagging a little behind Donna Leon's publishing schedule. I read (or heard the audio version, actually) Through a Glass Darkly not too long ago, and just read (heard, again) Suffer the Little Children, published last year. I haven't quite caught up--The Girl of His Dreams came out a couple of months ago. Leon's novels of Venice, starring laconic Commissario Guido Brunetti, is unconventional in many ways, as evidenced by Suffer the Little Children. Though a reader knows that the two plots (concerning a pharmacist engaging in fraud and a baby-selling ring) will converge, they do so in unexpected ways. And as is usually the case in Leon's books, there's no gunplay, no dramatic arrest, and in this case not even a corpse. The opening is certainly dramatic, armed men breaking into an apartment and assaulting the inhabitants, but the conclusion is a dramatic twist of a sort that is vintage Leon--a twist that is a downbeat, tragic mistake (though involving justice of a sort, and her novels often end with no justice for the victims). Venality, righteousness, ideology, sympathy, and desperation are elements swirling around a sterile doctor desperate for a child, a self-righteous pharmacist who believes evil should be punished, a neo-fascist father-in-law, and the usual appearances of Brunetti's family and his associates (competent and incompetent) at the Questura. There is also Leon's usually comedy (often ironic), though Suffer the Little Children is more melancholy than funny--Through a Glass Darkly was the funniest of the series so far, at least of the ones I remember. I mentioned in my post about Through a Glass Darkly that I can't figure out why the reader, David Collacci in that book and Suffer the Little Children, renders all the dialogue in English with an Italian accent, which is both strange and a bit irritating. But the reading moves along briskly, and this and the previous novel proved good company on a road trip yesterday. I'll think I'll turn to printed rather than recorded books for my next Leon story, though.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Hurting Distance, by Sophie Hannah

Hurting Distance, Sophie Hannah's second novel featuring Detective Sergeant Charlotte "Charlie" Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, is in some ways a more conventional crime novel than the first and third entries in the series, but no less satisfying for that. Hurting Distance is just as complex as the other two, but the police have a bigger role (and Charlie has a much bigger role). Hannah alternates a first-person narrative from a victim or witness's point of view with a third-person narrative focusing on the detectives, and her first-person narrators are spectacularly unreliable (the unreliable narrator being a literary device more common in so-called "literary" fiction than in crime fiction, though there are numerous examples from Christies Roger Ackroyd forward). The whole structure of her first novel, Little Face, is built on the unreliable narrator, and the newest novel, The Point of Rescue, uses an unreliable diary narrative in a very clever way. The first-person narrative of Hurting Distance is certainly unreliable from the detective's point of view, she's lying constantly to them--but her narrative is addressed not to the reader or to the police but to her lover, who has disappeared. She tries to convince the Spilling CID to investigate, but her only evidence is that he's failed to show up for their regular Thursday tryst and when she went to his house, whatever she saw there gave her a panic attack. Faced with police who are barely going through the motions of an investigation, she comes up with another reason to look for him, based on an event buried in her past. In the process, she kicks off a series of events that leads into horror scenarios of dominance, rape, and multiple victims. Hannah is too good a writer, though, for these sensational and salacious elements of the story to descend into cliche. The humor (especially in the interaction among the detectives, several of whom are more fully characterized here than in the first novel) is more pronounced here than in Little Face, especially in the first half of the novel, and the sense of threat is also heightened. In fact, there's the genuine spark of a lively thriller in Hurting Distance, more so than in either of the other 2 Zailer/Waterhouse books so far. The more direct story line and livelier plot, though, don't take away from the high standard of writing that characterizes all of Hannah's work. The emotional complexity leads to twists in the story that resonate in power relationships that we will all recognize from our own lives, and though a reader may anticipate a few things before the police do, and there are interconnections among characters that tiptoe right up to the edge of credulity-straining coincedence, but there are still surprises in store right up to the end--and the realism of the characters encompasses and explains the coincidences. The emotional truths that Hannah leads her characters through also have devastating consequences for a number of characters, both recurring ones and those particular to this book. Taken together, all these factors create a propulsive forward motion and a memorable crime novel. Now I have to go back to The Point of Rescue and see how threads begun in Hurting Distance play out there, elements of the newer novel that I may not have "caught" because I didn't have access to the excellent second novel in the series before reading the also excellent but quite different third one (reviewed here some time ago).