Sunday, May 31, 2009

Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's 2nd Icelandic crime novel

The last decade or so of the economic boom in Iceland saw the growth of a remarkable literary crime wave (especially for so small a country). Arnaldur Indridason is widely known outside of Iceland for his series featuring Inspector Erlendur and Yrsa Sigurdardóttir's second crime novel has just been published in English (translated by the late Bernard Scudder and Anna Yates), and I'm hoping that Árni Thórarinsson's urban noir novels, very succesful in Europe, will soon make their way into English (I may have to brush up on my French if there's not an English translation soon, since Thórarinsson is widely available in French translation). Sigurdardóttir's first two novels are matched opposites, in a way. They both feature attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, but they're more mysteries than legal thrillers. The pattern in both is that of an amateur detective thrust into an investigation by Thóra's involvement in a legal matter. But the first novel, Last Rituals, is a college novel as much as a mystery, and is set in an urban environment. Last Rituals has a serious gothic quality based on the subculture of "urban primitivism," myth, ritual, and sadism inherent in the plot. The new book, My Soul to Take revisits the Gothic realm and revivals of myth in contemporary life, but in a lighter, frequently comic, and rural vein.
Thóra is called to an isolated hotel-retreat designed to appeal to devotees of new-age mysticism (there's an "aura reader" on staff), because the owner of the hotel, her client, is claiming the locals who sold him the property owe him compensation because the site is haunted, and that fact wasn't disclosed in the sale documents. That unconventional legal matter sets a tone of skepticism (on Thóra's part) and comedy (on the narrator's) that continues through gruesome deaths, genuinely horrible events in the past, and Nazi connections (Thóra's German boyfriend says "God, the bloody Nazis…They always turn up sooner or later," a complaint I share, regarding crime writers' frequent resort to the German past). Where Last Rituals was ultimately a fairly straightforward (if somewhat louche) story, My Soul to Take is very complicated, with lots of red herrings (Thóra's client is accused of murder and she keeps coming up with alternative theories of the crimes) and lots of characters (most of whom seem to be suspects). The setting is a variation on the archetypal English country house, and the plot has some aspects of the locked-room mystery (because of a blocked road). Ultimately I found myself pulled along by the engaging Thóra, her mess of a family, and her lover Matthew (returning from Last Rituals) than by the twists and turns of the plot. The resolution seems to be simply one more of the various crime scenarios that have preceeded it, no more or less plausible than any of the others, though the climax is suitably wrapped in a foggy, atmospheric scene. A horrible crime that is shown in the first pages of the book is rediscovered at the end and resolved in a moving way. The Indridason books are more satisfying to my noir-inflected taste in crime fiction (as I expect the Thorarinsson novels will be) but Yrsa Sigurdardottir's two translated novels are a worthy addition to the Icelandic crime wave washing up on English-speaking shores, particularly in the character of Thóra and private life, very different from Erlendur's (as I mentioned in my review of Last Rituals). One minor point for discussion: the U.S. (at the top of this review) and U.K. (in the middle) covers for My Soul to Take offer very different views of the landscape and setting of the novel--does anyone have an opinion as to which is more effective or more appropriate?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Adversary, by Michael Walters

There is a style in crime/detective fiction that I would call "ruminative," in which the characters re-think and discuss the crime and the investigation repeatedly without moving the plot forward, partly (I'm sure) to keep the reader engaged without making him/her flip back and forth to keep up with the characters and the story. Michael Walters's latest Ulan Bataar mystery, with Mongolian detective Doripalam and state security official Nergui, is a book in that style, and in this case what keeps the book from getting bogged down and repetitive is the eccentric and interesting characters, especially of the two main characters. Doripalam has been (as of the first book in the series, The Shadow Walker) elevated to be head of the serious crimes squad when Nergui is asked to join the security ministry as a sort of liaison between the security apparatus and the police. Nergui is a supercop, after a fashion, and he keeps getting involved in the serious crimes unit, to the frustration of Doripalam, who is having some difficulty asserting his control of the department in the face of his own relative youth and the constant interference/presence of his former boss. Doripalam's greatest virtue is his honesty, a rare commodity in an environment corrupted (earlier) by the Soviet system and now (in an independent Mongolia) by encroaching capitalist greed. In fact, the Western influence in Mongolia is a plague, for the Nergui and Doripalam, against which they struggle daily. In The Adversary, the plague is embodied in a crime boss that no one has been able to bring to court, but who appears in court (finally) early in the book because a not-too-bright, obese, nearing retirement, but well meaning detective, Tunjin, has falsified evidence. The falsification comes to light (because the villain has contacts in the police) and he goes free, setting in motion a series of events (and ruminations) that lead to deaths and abductions and a final surprise along the line. The plot is not the source of the novel's energy: things roll along for a long time without much progress in the investigation, until Tunjin becomes a fugitive and then (toward the end) the judge in the original trial is kidnapped, leading to a final confrontation with the crime boss (who has been offstage for much of the novel). It's the lively personalities that provide the interest: The judge is the first prominent Mongolian woman character in Walters's series, and she has a complicated past intersecting with Nergui's. Doripalam's difficult home life is explored more than in the first book. And Tunjin proves to be not so dumb, even if more often on the Keystone Kops rather than the SWAT team end of police effiency and competence. Plus the glimpses of Ulan Bataar and the Mongolian steppes are fascinating and vivid, the setting in itself being strong enough for me to recommend the book. See Maxine Clark's review here at Eurocrime for a more thorough description of the story and a more positive opinion of the plot, but like Maxine, I am anticipating further opportunities to spend some time with Doripalam and Nergui.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Beate Lønn's super power

Just a little tidbit, life imitating fiction or something like that. The characters in Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series are generally ordinary folks, but one police inspector, Beate Lønn, has a super power (one more suited to a police procedural than a superhero comic, though). She has (according to the author) a highly developed "fusiform gyrus" in her brain that makes it possible for her to recognize faces, even if only seen briefly and long in the past. A valuable asset for a cop. As a reader, I'm always skeptical of that sort of thing but there was a short article in today's Washington Post that (although it doesn't mention the "fusiform gyrus") does offer scientific evidence for Lønn's talent. Post reporter Shankar Vedantam writes that "in research being published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, Harvard psychologist Richard Russell and his colleagues have shown that there is a third group of people whose face-recognition skills are unusually good...Russell and his colleagues studied four people with the unusual face-recognition skills, who reported being able to remember faces of strangers they had seen months earlier. Experiments showed that these people could recognize faces even if the features had been changed or distorted, and that they were significantly better at such tasks than average people." The research starts off by questioning the notion that there is the normal ability to recognize faces and there is prosopagnosia (a disability causing lack of facial recognition ability) as the only options for facial recognition. But the research reveals a spectrum of ability, all the way up to those with Beate's talent--reinforcing the realism of her role in the novels, scientifically no less.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Roundup of recent reading

I've been reading more than blogging lately, so this post is a catch-up. A commenter on a recent post about Peru reminded me that Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a couple of crime novels, and I read the most recent (I think) one, Death in the Andes. The novel is a puzzle but not a mystery: it's a maze of interspersed narratives concerning Vargas Llosa's character Corporal Lituma (also featured in his other crime novel), his assistant, several groups of people who are about to be murdered by the terrorist group Sendera Luminoso, and a couple who run a bar in the former mining town (now kept alive by a road construction project constantly interrupted by nature and war) that is at the center of the action. The story is clear enough, and certainly violent enough, but the biggest puzzle is what Vargas Llosa is trying to say about terrorism, indigenous culture, the European culture of the capital city, Lima, and so forth. There's a very interesting article on-line at another blog,, that clarifies Vargas Llosa's position in a very interesting and very detailed manner, dealing with Death in the Andes as well as other novels and essays. I have the other Lituma novel, Who Killed Palomino Molero, on my tbr pile and if I get to it before the library wants it back, I may have more to say about Vargas Llosa--but in the meantime I defer to Ignacio Lopez Calvo at the blog just mentioned. I also recently finished Come the Executioner, by M.S. Power, the author of the remarkable trilogy about the Irish Troubles, Children of the North. Come the Executioner also deals with the Troubles, and it's a mark of the genius of the trilogy and the somewhat lesser accomplishment of Come the Executioner that the newer novel seems dated, as if the times with which it deals are a long way in the past.
But it's still a very good novel of multiple betrayals and the miseries of competing police/army/occupation forces versus local and terrorist interests. But if you read only one book (or series) by M.S. Power, it should be Children of the North (though I have yet to read most of his non-Irish and non-Troubles novels, so I can only speak of part of his oeuvre). The third novel I recently finished is Walter Mosley's remarkable The Long Fall, in which Mosley channels classic noir fiction in Obama-era New York. Mosley's narrator and main character is Leonid McGill, a private detective trying to leave behind some of his own involvement with shady (even murderous) dealings involving organized crime and other unsavory elements of the city. McGill's troubled career is mirrored by his equally troubled home life, and all of the characters are interesting and believable. The plot is ripped from the annals of Phillip Marlowe and Lew Archer, though nothing about the story seems dated (there is a lot of hard-boiled dialogue as well as corrupt rich families, lowering mobsters, and so forth, but there's also the Internet, Wall Street traders, and so forth). But one of the main subjects is so-called "post-racial" America, in which Obama (at the time of the book's writing) could be running ahead of a white opponent for the office of the Presidency but the African-American detective still finds rampant racism. Mosley doesn't ignore what has changed since the era of his post-World-War-II L.A. detective Easy Rawlins, but he highlights what hasn't changed as well (both in racial terms and in terms of the possibilities of the hard-boiled detective story). Anyone who enjoys classic noir will be fully satisfied by The Long Fall (the title refers to McGill's dreams as well as other elements in the story). Apparently this is the first book in a new series, and I'm curious what Mosley will be doing with this character in the future, now that his bona fides have been established with The Long Fall.

Monday, May 18, 2009

political crime novel/satire from Peru

Though pitched by the U.S. publisher (Pantheon) as a Peruvian political thriller, Santiago Roncagliolo's recently translated Red April (the translator is Edith Grossman, which is our--and the author's--good fortune). But Red April bears more resemblance to the dark satires of Evelyn Waugh than to the average political thriller. As in Waugh, the central character is an innocent, through whose eyes we see almost everything, even though it's a third-person narrative (there are a few passages from another point of view, that of a very bad speller, as well as an epilogue by another character). Associate Prosecutor Félix Chacaltana Saldívar has requested a transfer from Lima to his former home in Ayacucho, and the novel begins with his very bureaucratic report on the discovery of a badly burned body. In his zeal to push the case forward, Félix runs up against a recalcitrant police captain as well as the local military commander, both of whom fail to understand Félix's drive to solve the case. Both the police and the military are avoiding the case as best they can, until Félix's persistence forces them to take another tack: they push the prosecutor into a dangerous duty that he unexpectedly survive, and then they use him as a sort of cat's paw in the larger pattern of politics, revolution, and counter-revolutionary repression. This is all happening during Holy Week (a big celebration in Ayacucho) in 2000, as elections (which President Fujimori will steal), in a time when the revolutionary campaign of the terrorist group Sendero Luminoso/Shining Path has been declared by the government to be defeated. Ayacucho, called the Seville of Peru, is between the colonial capital, Lima, and the Inca capital, Cuzco, and was also a center of the war between the government and the insurrection. Its centrality to all of Peru's political and religious stories is an essential quality of the novel.

Holy Week provides a structural and metaphorical frame and the corrupt government and the perhaps not-so-defeated revolutionaries provide a narrative metaphor linked to the larger history of Peru's conflicts going back to the Spanish defeat of the Inca empire. And the tone of the novel (which is comic in a very dark, Waugh-ian way) is provided by the ironic distance between Félix's sincere devotion to the letter of the law (more bureaucratic than ideological on his part) and the reality that the reader (but not Félix) can glimpse. Félix does learn as he goes along, but rather than becoming a hero, our original pity for him turns into something else as the political and personal environment in which he is trapped poisons his life. Félix is devoted to his mother (and there will be revelations about that relationship), he is isolated in the dangerous city he has chosen to live in, and his horizons are very narrow. The comic dimension rather than any identification with the character draws the reader along until the full impact of the metaphorical/political and even mythical dimensions deliver the novel's considerable impact. Red April is a good example of literary craft that embodies and extends a popular genre without condescending to it, and the novel is a substantial achievement at all levels (literary, satirical, crime novel, thriller), making its demonic conclusion all the more effective. As an aside, it's interesting that the U.S. cover uses a quiet (though very red) symbol of Ayachucho's Holy Week while the Spanish edition uses the collision of Catholic and indigenous cultures in a more graphic way--I'm actually not sure which I prefer...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Argentine literary thriller by Guillermo Martínez

Guillermoo Martínez's The Book of Murder isn't really a crime novel, in spite of the title (and the marketing). It's full of literary references (mostly to Henry James, although also to a number of other trendier European authors and philosophers), and it's about the literary novelists favorite subject: literary novelists. No problem with that reflexive fixation, though it's what has so far stopped me from reading the highly praised The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (also not a crime novel). The Book of Murder is really more of a horror story (and there are references to Poe), with the not-uncommon theme of the vengeful author whose writing prefigures actual murders--handled here (at least) without the lurid sensationalism sometimes attached to the theme. A young novelist hires a transcriber when he breaks his hand, Luciana, a young woman who usually works for a better known writer who happens to be out of the country, to take dictation as he works on his current novel. The young novelist is contacted 10 years later by Luciana, who says that the older writer blames her for the death of his daughter and has been conducting a campaign of revenge against the transcriber's whole family. Most of the novel is a series of monologues by the young writer, the young woman, and eventually the older writer (another feature more common in both horror tales and literary fiction than in crime fiction). Two things in the novel's favor: it's short, and its conclusion does achieve a certain chilling effect (which I won't describe, but it relates to the parallel novels by both of the writers and to the older writer's suggestion that an alter ego, a muse, has been "dictating" his story about revenge in advance of the sufferings of the Luciana's family. But this is a self-conscious "text" rather than a more transparently naturalistic narrative as found in, for example, the work of Gene Kerrigan (to name just one recently read author). Not a bad thing, in itself, just a different sort of thing. Martínez is also the author of the The Oxford Murders, which includes serial murder, mathematics, and arcane symbology: a combination that reminds me more of The DaVinci Code than crime fiction, but perhaps someone can suggest whether it's worth considering for the tbr pile.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Håkan Nesser's Woman with Birthmark

Håkan Nesser is known for building a complete fictional world (as Ed BcBain did in the 57th Precinct novels, set in a fictional “Isola”). But there’s another example of “world-building” in Nesser’s newly translated Woman with Birthmark, the kind of reconstruction of reality that a killer engages in when he/she rewrites the rules of civilized society and justifies his/her actions. Nesser’s killer’s reality also recapitulates a common pattern from the art world, in what is called "outsider art." Again and again, in middle age, a previously average person experiences a crisis of some sort (the death of a parent, usually a mother, is the most common event), and afterwards, the individual is seized by the necessity to create something, often a total environment (like Howard Finster's Paradise Garden), sometimes endlessly repeated works of art like whirligigs or paintings. Usually not thinking of themselves as artists (at first anyway) they create a kind of alternative reality, in contrast to their previously “normal” lives. Nesser's Woman with Birthmark presents just such a pattern of crisis and “creative” breakthrough, but in terms of a serial killer. Breaking from his usual pattern, Nesser gives the reader access to the killer's mind from the beginning, though not giving the killer's identity. At the death of her mother, a woman conceives a series of revenge killings that give her not only a sense of purpose but a transcendent satisfaction with explicitly religious and sexual overtones. We also get glimpses of the rather more ordinary lives of the victims, who nonetheless have their own “alternate realities” in terms of events they intend to keep secret from their wives, friends, and associates (and it is that secret reality that makes them vulnerable to blackmail and murder). Inspector Van Veeteren and his crew (whose personalities and investigative styles are given here in more detail than in some other Nesser books) are faced with making sense of the killer’s reality, in order to anticipate what is going to happen next. Nesser's usual wry wit is very much in evidence, as well as Van Veeteren's prickly and idiosyncratic personality. We know more about what’s going on than the police (the only mysteries for the reader are the exact circumstances of the event that provides the murderer’s motive and the exact progress of her murderous plan), so we can observe closely as the detectives try to piece things together. They do not make progress by sudden insights or even discoveries. They plod patiently on and very gradually more information is provided to them, as often as not through no effort of their own. That is the classic “method” of the police-procedural novel, but highlighted here by the amount of advantage that the reader has over the detectives. The plot itself is unremarkable, nonetheless, the novel moves swiftly forward, partly through Nesser’s frequently comic portrayal of the lives of the detectives and partly simply through his seemingly effortless prose. Nesser’s storytelling is layered with his invented world and the more concrete literary and cultural world: Van Veeteren, for example, makes a passing reference to a famous French film that he thinks might parallel the killer’s motive, without explaining the reference to the reader. But such nuggets in the narrative are not academic or pretentious, they simply add texture and depth. The ending is not something out of a thriller or even a mystery novel: the events instead take on a certain inevitability, referred to by the killer as “a sort of dark poetry.” In spite the dark theme and philosophical overtones, the novel has the lightness of tone that is a distinctive quality of the Van Veeteren series (there is even a joke about Scandinavia, as if to indicate that the world of the novel is somewhere outside that geographic zone, in spite of the author’s Swedish background). To say more would be to spoil not so much the plot as the texture or experience of the story. But I should emphasize that, lest let my suggestion of the philosophy in the book put anyone off, the story is brisk and well told, its deeper overtones embodied in interesting characters, lively conversations, and murderous intentions.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Dark Times in the City, by Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan's new Dark Times in the City is slightly less tightly structured than his first two crime novels, Little Criminals and Midnight Choir but shares with them (and with writers like Elmore Leonard) a natural but unexpected flow of events and a natural alternation of comedy and moral dilemma (like life). There is a sort of "flash-back" section that explains and clarifies some of what's been going on, and the whole plot has an inevitable quality without seeming like a clockwork-machine. The Celtic Tiger has disappeared and Dublin's criminals have had to adjust to new, straitened circumstances. The cops, though always present in some sense, are more marginal in this book than in the first two. Danny Callaghan, not long out of prison, steps into the middle of a gang murder that has nothing to do with him and launches a series of events that will threaten him and everyone around him (ex-wife, barowner friend/employer, and even peripheral acquaintances). Gangster Lar McKendrick (from the earlier books) makes another appearance, as well as the gangster whose cousin was killed by Callaghan (the incident that put him in jail). The plot twists and turns repeatedly, overturning every cliche that the reader thinks is appearing on the horizon, with Callaghan always coming back into focus. Callaghan is the closest thing to a "hero" or even a central character in Kerrigan's hitherto crowded and morally ambiguous fictional universe, and he's likable and capable without ever becoming an action-hero of the sort that populates any number of thrillers. Such characters are capable of unbelievable feats of martial arts skill, but there's nothing unbelievable about Callaghan or anyone else in the book. Just as one example, I've mentioned a couple of "buried-alive" plots in recent posts, and that trope recurs in Dark Times in the City, but in a fashion that is totally believable (unlike the burial and revival in The Girl Who Played with Fire, which the reader just has to accept as inevitable and as a natural part of the romantic-thriller quality of that very popular Swedish novel). Kerrigan uses a clean and uncluttered style of writing to tell a true and fast-moving story. Dark Times in the City lives up to Kerrigan's own very high standard of crime writing: urban neo-noir of the very highest rank.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

April in Peru

No crime today, just vacation. Here I am standing nervously above the precipice in Machu Picchu, with the peak of Huayna Picchu in the background. If you want to see more of our vacation photos, there's a sample here, or you can navigate to I didn't find any Peruvian crime writers--if anyone has any clues about that, please let me know.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

A.C. Baantjer

If you do a Google search on the name of Dutch mystery author, for some reason a number of authors show up, including Leslie Charteris, Peter Lovejoy, and Ellery Queen--all accomplished authors (or collectives, as I think Queen is not so much a single writer as a small industry). And all are on the formulaic side of crime writing, as is, in his own way, Baantjer. I recently read two of the Baantjer novels (DeKok and the Dancing Death and DeKok and the Deadly Accord), and enjoyed them but found them rather limited and occasionally irritating (his detective, DeKok, is frequently referred to with the phrase "the gray sleuth," an epithet right out of the Greek epic). There are also some things I don't understand: Although apparently DeKok's name is actually spelled DeCock in Dutch, the detective repeatedly explains his name as "with kay-oh-kay." I suppose that in English, DeCock suggests that famous soft-porn author immortalized by James Joyce, whose characters often refer to Paul de Cock as a writer of dirty books. Does Baantjer repeatedly have his character say the equivalent of "with See-oh-see-kay" in the original Dutch, or is it an affectation of the translations? Perhaps somebody can offer some ideas on the subject. The older editions of his novels, such as the ones I have read, also suffer from production decisions--lurid and somewhat amateurish yellow covers and overly bold type that can be a bit hard to read. And like some other detectives (particular those in the formulaic end of the spectrum), DeKok relies on informers who become running characters with somewhat two-dimensional personalities, primarily bar-owner Little Lowee. All of that aside, the prolific Baanjter (a former detective at the Warmoes station, near the famous Amsterdam red-light district) has a lot of stories to tell and tells them with efficiency and with little flash: he is a direct and skillful storyteller. Plus his ongoing survey of Amsterdam is perhaps the best historical guide to the city in the last half of the 20th century, giving more details than other Dutch and non-Dutch authors who have focused on the city (the ones I've read anyway). So I can't quite decide about Baantjer. Should I read any more, beyond these two and others I've read in the past? There are certainly enough of them to keep me busy, but them Simenon also was very prolific. Baantjer occasionally refers to Warmoes station as the "Dutch Hill Street," referring to the famous U.S. TV series, but the DeKok share little with the show except their effective realism (though the TV reference gives perhaps another clue to Baantjer's skill and appeal--not only have the books been turned into Dutch films, they also have a TV-like appeal, partly due exactly to the formulaic quality I've been talking about, perhaps). So what do you think? More Baantjer for my increasingly tall and tottering tbr pile? Just a small p.s., I haven't posted in over a week because I've been in Peru--I'll post my snapshots (to another blog) if anyone's interested (I'll give the url later on).