Thursday, February 26, 2009

Andean Express, by Juan de Recacoechea

Bolivian writer Juan de Recacoechea's second novel to be published in the U.S. (translated by Adrian Althoff) begins like an homage to the famous Agatha Christie novel suggested by the title: It's the 1950s, and Ricardo, a young man headed for a beach vacation, boards a train in La Paz, along with a colorful cross-section of Bolivian life: a card sharp; a brothel keeper; a priest who isn't what he seems; a newly married mine-owner accompanied by Gulietta, his young wife, and her mother; a cabaret club owner; a cripple; and so on. Almost all of the characters turn out to have a grudge of one sort or another against the mine owner, and Ricardo, of course, is enamored with Gulietta. A murder will occur, naturally enough. But from the beginning there are clues, not to the murder but to the fact that Recacoechea is looking for something other than a murder mystery: there are references to Anna Karenina, Othello, and The Red and the Black, as well as popular romance novels--and Andean Express is at least as much involved in the romance as the revenge, but always with a light touch. In fact, one of the characters refers to the story he's caught up in with the comment that "This could be a Billy Wilder comedy." Recacoechea's first novel to be translated, American Visa, starts out as an ironic comedy of frustration, centered on a man trying to get the document in the book's title, but it veered first into picaresque and then into tragedy. Andean Express starts as a murder mystery à la Christie and veers into farce before becoming a coming of age tale of a sort. Both are pitched by the publisher as noir (the back cover of the new book suggests a pedigree including Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler), but though American Visa has the inevitability and tragedy of noir, it doesn't have a plot typical of noir; and in Andean Express, the murder is a bit too casual and its consequences are not so much tragic as comic. But we shouldn't get too hung up on genre, despite the appeal to noir by the publisher: Andean Express is a lot of fun, twisting and turning through several genres and offering a tasty selection of shady characters, and an entertaining lesson on Bolivia's social and political history. The pace is fast, the tone is light and frequently funny, there's a high-stakes poker game with lots of cheating, and there's a train journey across the high Andean plain: what more could we ask for in a short, well-paced, tale in an exotic location. Plus where else can you get a synthesis of Stendhal and Some Like It Hot?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith

The word that comes to mind after reading Roger Smith's new Cape Town thriller, Mixed Blood, is "overdetermined," a bit of jargon from Marxist literary theory--but also an apt description of a farce-like plot (not comic but violent). Farce, actually, gets its name from the French word for "stuffed," as in stuffed turkey, etc., and farces are always overstuffed with incidents spiralling around a central plot. Similarly Mixed Blood deals with a number of characters (an American family on the run after a botched robbery in the U.S., a bad cop, a "colored" night watchman, a couple of young punks, a Cape Flats slum kid and his mother, a straight-shooter Zulu cop named Zondi--perhaps in homage to James McClure's black cop in his apartheid era series), all revolving around and spiraling outward from a break in on the high-rent slopes of Cape Town's spectacular mountains. One of the central characters, the bad cop, is similarly overstuffed, to the point of comic-book exaggeration: He's fat, racist, smelly, violent, has a rash and hemorrhoids, and to top it off he's a religious fanatic. What happens to him in the end, in retrospect, calls for his being a spectacular figure rather than a simple man, in a symbolic sense at least. In parallel with the structure of farce, the story builds inexorably to a grand conclusion (violent rather than comic, here) bringing all the threads together and resolving almost everything (though I have to say I found the very final event a bit anticlimactic). Mixed Blood is a different kind of thriller than Deon Meyer produces: for one thing, Smith's story is more stylized--less realistic, less interested in character; at the same time, Smith draws a rather more complete portrait of Cape Town than Meyer does in any one of his books. We get the rich and the poor, the walled-in rich and the slum-dwelling poor, the mansions and the tin-roof shacks, the mixed-race coloreds, the now-ascendent blacks, the whites tentatively hanging on to the cliffs of Table Mountain and its related peaks, the tourist and consumer havens at the waterfront--all drawn vividly in all the complexity and beauty of the city itself. It's perhaps due to Smith's wise choice of an outsider (an American gambler-soldier-thief who had gotten caught up in a bad bank robbery, trying without much success to protect his family) as the central character, able from his distinct point of view to reflect on the beauty, the banality, and the violent contrasts of Cape Town. Smith's tale has a drive and an inevitability that makes it a compelling read, and I look forward to his next Cape Town novel, which won't be the next in a series, as he has dealt rather thoroughly with most of the characters in his first novel.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Most of Deon Meyer's crime novels from South Africa are closer to the thriller sub-genre than noir or police procedural, and Blood Safari is no exception. A thriller frequently features a highly skilled (though frequently psychologically damaged) hero who is for one reason or another tasked to save the world, or at least a corner of it. Meyer's heroes and plots are a bit different. His hero in Blood Safari, Lemmer (he doesn't like to use his surnames), is a bodyguard with a shady past, a man who recognizes that he has difficulty controlling his anger. He's skilled in fighting but doesn't carry a gun, and his job is to protect Emma le Roux, a woman who thinks her brother, long thought dead, has reappeared, and along with him a vague threat to her life. She's not a high-ranking politician or a famous journalist or the wife of the President or anything like that. Meyer stakes out a territory closer to daily life than to James Bond, but makes the reader care about his characters and their fates (and by extension, the fate of the new South African society that is their context), without the crutch of high crimes, terrorist threats to the world, etc. Lemmer must come to grips with his past and with changes to his carefully proscribed life brought about during his job guarding Emma, but there's no pat resolution to his struggle with those changes. And when the plot seems to veer toward a common thriller plot, even some plot elements he has himself used before, Meyer twists into something else. Lemmer, who is the narrator, has a lot of rules for conducting his life, and he's now finding them imperfect, particularly as they apply to his fixed views of women. His macho job and his particular form of masculinity are believable elements of the story, without overwhelming everthing with testosterone: Lemmer and Emma, the host of minor characters (good and evil and in between), and South Africa from the Cape to the Safari country in the north, are all vividly and sympathetically brought to life. Blood Safari is more measured and less myth-making than in his previous Hear of the Hunter, and more of a stand-alone plot than his Cape Town police novels (his first four novels are linked, major characters in one book becoming minor characters in another, and vice versa, in the manner of Balzac's Comedie Humaine). I'm a big fan of his first two books, Dead at Daybreak and Dead Before Dying, but he's nevertheless getting better and better, and Blood Safari is very good indeed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Crime safari

I'm off for a tour of Cape Town crime in the next few days. I just finished Deon Meyer's Blood Safari (more on that soon--for now, I'll only say it's an excellent story about a bodyguard, up to Meyer's high standard of crime fiction), then Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith (born in Johannesburg, but a resident of Cape Town), then Margie Orford's Like Clockwork, published a couple of years ago in S.A. but just now making it to U.K. Anybody have other recommendations for South African crime up to those standards? One further note: ABE just published a list of what they say are the 10 funniest books, according to English readers. One of the books on the list is by Tom Sharpe, who also wrote two of the funniest books ever about apartheid (really! trust me on that), before he emigrated from South Africa, driven out before the end of apartheid, in part by those two very funny novels.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Politics Noir

Of the 13 stories in Politics Noir (edited by Gary Phillips and published by Verso) all but two (Ken Bruen's grim take on postwar gangster politics in Belfast and Sujata Massey's venture into an Imam-dominated town in Pakistan for a wish-fulfillment fantasy) are set in the U.S., and only 2 deal with national politics, and those 2 are among the weakest of the bunch (one is a fantasy about dirty pictures implicating Nixon and J.Edgar Hoover, one is a gratuitously mean and unfunny parody of the Clinton-Obama primary campaign, and by far the best of the 3 is Michele Martinez's tale of the rise and fall of a woman with a talent for the realpolitik of Capitol Hill). It's quite appropriate that state and local politics should be mostly the focus of a collection of noir tales, since it's the down and dirty of the local situation that is the heart of noir (and most of the stories touch on sex in some way, another appropriate element of noir). Pete Hautman's wonderful take on bloodthirsty Republican politics and public art in Minnesota is the best of the lot (and the funniest). Twist Phelan's teenager-runs-of-with-the-payoff story is very dark and bloody and effective. Darrell James works a double-double-cross in North Carolina and Black Artemis takes us into hip-hop politics in the Bronx. K.J.A. Wishnia's tale of a P.I.'s crusade against vote-suppression fraud aimed at the Latino community if perhaps the truest (though not the least bleak) of the stories. This is not the best of the many "Noir" this or that collections that have been coming out lately, but perhaps half the stories are interesting and amusing, not a bad average.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Barbara Nadel's 11th Inspector Ikmen novel

River of the Dead, by Barbara Nadel, sends Inspector Ikmen's assistant, Inspector Suleyman, away from Istanbul to the dark and dangerous east of Turkey, in search of an escaped prisoner, while Ikmen follows the trail in Istanbul. The story is very complicated, involving the multiple religions of Turkey, a serpent goddess who dwells in a cave, a monastery, wormwood and drugs, Ikmen's prodigal son, a Fagin-like organizer of boy-thieves, a Bulgarian prostitute, drug addicted hospital personnel, a body that has apparently washed down the Eufrates from the Iraq war, and so forth. One of the characters remarks in the middle of his confession, "it all became confusing then," and if even the perpetrators in the story find it confusing, what hope do we mere readers have. But Nadel maintains control of the story and leads us through both mystical and realistic paths to a bloody conclusion that at least ties up most of the loose ends. This is less a mystery than a police procedural (a rather repetitios one) married to an adventure story (the atheist Ikmen mutters about being in Harry Potter territory, at one point), along with an informative travelogue of Istanbul and Turkey's far east. It's a bit carnivalesque--though fun to read, perhaps because of that quality. Perhaps other readers can let us know if this pattern is typical of the other Ikmen novels (and perhaps they can also recommend whether it might be rewarding to go back and read the series from the beginning).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Brazilian noir: In Praise of Lies, by Patricia Melo

Patricia Melo packs a lot into the 187 pages (in the English translation by Clifford Landers) of In Praise of Lies--deadly snakes, venomous toads, a host of classic crime authors, several sexual betrayals, insurance scams, and international smuggling, to name a few plot points. Her novels have often dealt with lower class Brazilian life (including one turned into the hit-man movie, Man of the Year). But In Praise of Lies is up the social scale a bit: José is a writer who specializes in plaigirizing the plots of classic crime novels for the Brazilian pulp market, under a variety of pseudonyms. He makes the acquaintance of Melissa, a serologist specializing in venomous snakes, while researching a murder plot, and Melissa (in classic noir fashion) manipulates him into a plot to murder her husband, Ronald. As is normal in the world of noir, Melissa is not exactly who she seems to be, and we descend into a pastiche of a plot that José might have stolen from any number of crime novels. Melo is having a lot of infectious fun with the main story and with the plagiarized plot summaries that José is proposing to his publisher, but in the midst of the plot to kill Ronald, José suddenly loses his knack with noir and shifts into the self-help world, a prime territory for parody if there ever was one. But Melo never loses sight of the twists and turns of the main plot, and her novel can be with enjoyment read as straight pulp-noir, with new angles right up to the end. Though Melo clearly has literary ambitions, her parody of noir doesn't condescend to the genre, instead extracting from it a kernel of narrative truth that contrasts with the glib truths of José's career as a guru. Melo's hit-man plot in the novel The Killer and the film version Man of the Year is more straightforward in both narrative and social commentary, and though In Praise of Lies shares an edgy existentialism with that other story, Lies is more fun to read (and would also make a great movie, though perhaps the guru plot would be difficult to bring off alongside the crime plot).

Monday, February 09, 2009

Literary crime from Istanbul: Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, by Selçuk Altun

It seems to me that one of the major differences from a crime novel and a "literary novel" that uses crime novel structures is in the tone. Selçuk Altun's Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is a case in point. For over half the novel, there are alternating chapters from the point of view of Arda, whose father was murdered and whose mother has just died, and Bedirhan, a professional assassin who had murdered Arda's father. Bedirhan wants to quit the profession and is on the hunt for his employer, whose identity has been hidden behind a religious organization that has been commissioning the murders. Arda is relishing in his new freedom from his overbearing mother until he is pointed in the direction of his father's murderer and begins to search for him. What's happening has the hallmarks of a thriller or crime novel, but not the tone, which in Altun's novel is light rather than tense, with numerous literary references that are at least in part clues to the author's intentions (the references include Grahame Greene but also Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster, and the title is a reference to music by Dvorak). Among Turkish novels widely available in English, Altun resembles crime novelist Mehmet Murat Somer (even though Somer's novels are frequently comic) than the postmodern novels of Orhan Pamuk (though Altun's tone is lighter and more playful than Pamuk's). Fairly early in the novel, Arda mentions a family friend named Selçuk Altun, a banker and novelist. That bit of metafiction becomes more important in the last third of the novel, when Altun becomes a puppetmaster within the novel, as well as its author, giving a series of clues about Bedirhan in the form of locations around Istanbul. Arda's quest becomes an unconventional tour of the city and its history rather than a hot pursuit of the killer. Songs My Mother Never Taught Me is both fun and challenging, rather like satire or the dada or surrealist novel The Eater of Darkness, mentioned here last year, particularly in the quirky narrative tendency to veer off into new stories and references that hang loosely from the central thread. Songs My Mother Never Taught Me gives a palpable sense of Istanbul as well as a political and historical vision of Turkey. As a crime novel, it belongs in the more metaphysical and literary branch of the genre, somewhere between Kate Atkinson and Garbhan Downey or Teresa Solana, among recent literary crime fiction.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Hardboiled in Belize

In the Heat, by Ian Vasquez, reads like the start of a series (which it is). Miles Young is a Belizean boxer at the end of his career, looking for one more fight and some other way to make a living after that. His wife has left him with a young daughter to take care of. A character right out of California noir hires him to look for her 17-year-old daughter, who has run away with her boyfriend and a briefcase full of money that her mother was holding for a drug dealer. Much of the dialogue has a George Pelecanos ring--telegraphic and vernacular language, often leaving out articles and noun-subjects, and the deal-gone-wrong, the population of wasters and low-lifes, and the element of revenge that develops also have a Pelecanos-esque quality. Otherwise, the novel resembles a Ross McDonald novel that the mother-employer might have stepped out of, but in a new setting: Belize is rendered in detail without any travelogue-type writing. In the Heat is interesting and enjoyable, without quite rising to the noir heights of some retro-noir writers like Sean Doolittle or Charlie Huston or Adrian McKinty, at least with this first effort--but the characters are appealing, the milieu unusual and interesting, and the story flows easily and naturally.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Havana Fever, by Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura's Havana Fever, translated by Peter Bush and published by Bitter Lemon Press, is a very good book. Padura embeds a crime novel with resonances from Cuban history to Sophocles, from J.D. Salinger to Dickens and Dante. Padura uses his detective-hero Mario Conde from the Havana Quartet (plus Adios Hemingway) as a thread on which are hung several strains of Cuban history. Conde, now a used book dealer (really more of a book scout) discovers a valuable library in a decrepit mansion, and in one of the books there is a clipping about a bolero singer of the late 1950s who suddenly retired (after recording one 45 rpm record). Through the historical and rare books in the library (as Conde and his cohort go through them in order to make an offer to the owners) the colonial history of Cuba is told. Conde becomes fascinated with the bolero singer and her death, and through her Padura tells the story of Batista, the revolution, the mob-owned nightclubs, and the liveliness as well as the misery of the Cuban 1950s. As has been the case in the other Conde novels, the now-former detective and his expanded circle of friends are a collective device through which the history of post-revolutionary, post-Soviet, and contemporary Cuban history are told. And above all Havana, in its decaying glory, runs through everything. The novel is split in half, the first part corresponding to the A-side of the bolero singer's 45 and the second half corresponding to the B-side. But even more, the first half is Dickens and the second half is Dante. The crumbling mansion, the rich history of the old books, and the family dwelling in the house (aged brother and sister plus mad, ancient mother upstairs) are pure Victorian Gothic (there's even an epistolary thread running through the whole book and leading to the apprehension of the criminal). But a murder thrusts Conde back into an investigation that leads him into the Havana barrios where now drugs, gangsters, hookers, and despair reign as in a circle of hell. In both sections, the narrative has a despairing poetry beyond even that of the earlier Conde novels (which were themselves eloquently dark and poetic). The novel is fully a crime novel, but also an elegy for Havana and for Conde, whose trials and tragedies lead to a kind of catharsis and reconciliation that seems to mark the end of the series (I won't give away the ending, which is rooted not only in this novel but in earlier stories). It wouldn't be altogether necessary, though, to read the others in order to appreciate Havana Fever, which stands on its own, as crime fiction and as a powerful and evocative novel. Lest any of the above suggests a ponderous literary tome, rest assured that Padura's writing is accessible, his characters are vivid, and his storytelling laced with lively and even raunchy details of everyday life.