Monday, August 31, 2009

Petros Markaris: Zone Defence (Athens noir)

There are two "Inspector Costas Haritos" novels by Petros Markaris already published in English (Deadline in Athens, also published as Late-Night News, and Zone Defence, with a third promised soon (Che Committed Suicide). I reviewed Deadline in Athens some time ago but was slow in getting hold of Zone Defence because of the title: I assumed that football would be a big element of the plot, and I'm not that interested in sports-themed mysteries or crime novels. But Zone Defence is mostly concerned with horrible families, corrupt politicians, bribe-taking doctors, rigged opinion polls, and fraud masquerading as everyday business strategy. Football does play a role, low-level Athens teams are part of the big fraud scheme and football strategy supplies the Inspector with a scheme to protect himself from suspects, politicians, and his own boss. Two murders (which will inevitably become intertwined) call Haritos back from his island vacation: a corpse is uncovered by an earthquake on the island where the inspector's family is visiting relatives and an Athens club owner is shot outside one of his clubs. Haritos is pulled back and forth, with his boss demanding the island corpse be identified and the murderer caught but the club owner's death to be shelved as unsolved. Throughout, there is considerable comedy in the police work, the cranky Haritos's relationship with subordinates and superiors, and his family life (his wife Adriani alternates between watching reality TV and worrying the detective about his health), but also frequent references to the era of the colonels (the repressive and violent Greek junta--and if you aren't familiar with that period of Greek history, go out and rent the wonderful Costa-Gavras movie Z--and be sure to watch it straight through to the text at the end that explains that one-letter title). With all the pressures on him, it's no wonder that Haritos is irritable or that stress is taking its toll on his health. The investigation suggests organized crime, political corruption, and even a Ross-McDonald-style family drama (stick around for the end to see which is the ultimate cause of the situation, and for Haritos's very-much-in-character cliff-hanger that will pull the reader forward toward the next installment). There's a lot of back and forth on the streets of Athens, seemingly constantly jammed with traffic, and it's very much modern Greece that's portrayed here (in depth). Occasional references to early Greek history are sparked mainly by street names that honor historical figures whose lives resonate directly or indirectly with the contemporary plot and characters. (I can't figure out that cover image though...)

Friday, August 28, 2009

Sjöwall/Wahlöö at the movies

I've been talking about film versions of north-European crime novels in the past few days, a good time to mention the one film of the Martin Beck novels by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö that Sjöwall has endorsed, the 1977 film of The Abominable Man (retitled as Man on the Roof or Mannen på taket in the original Swedish), directed by Bo Widerberg (famous for his Elvira Madigan outside of Sweden) and starring Carl Gustaf Lindstedt as Martin Beck. Man on the Roof is available in the U.S. (second hand only) as a VHS tape, but outside the U.S. There's evidently a DVD available. The film is shot in documentary style, in available light (but without the busy camera motion of more recent documentary-style fiction films), so that the screen is often very dark and frequently the image is grainy. There's no explanatory material--we see a murder in a hospital and then we follow the very-un-theatrical policemen as they puzzle over what's going on. It's a senior policeman who's been murdered, and he's the "abominable man" of the title. As in the book, Beck relies on Lennart Kollberg, his much younger but solid colleague, to bounce ideas off, while the other detectives, including Einar Rönn (who plods along) and Gunvald Larsson (who irritates everyone but takes action as necessary) take various roles in the story. Larsson is played with some flamboyance (especially in his '70s outfit, now looking ridiculous and perhaps meant as ridiculous by Widerberg) by Thomas Hellberg. The Larsson role was played to great effect (and with a more understated but still stylish wardrobe) by Rolf Lassgård (years before his role as Wallander in the original series for Swedish TV). The movie moves slowly and deliberately, frequently focusing on Beck's face, which shows concern but not much else, until the killer takes up a position on the roof of an apartment block and starts shooting people with a sniper rifle. Then the very dark comedy of the novels takes over as the police scurry to control the scene and in the process make everything worse. The achievement of the novels and this film is in making Beck's team (mostly) sympathetic while attacking the police force and its methods at every level, from patrolmen to the chief. Overall, Man on the Roof is understated right up to the ending, a cliffhanger that would never be resolved on film, since the subsequent novel, The Locked Room, has never been filmed for TV or the big screen, as far as I can tell. Though I can see why Sjöwall preferred this movie to all subsequent films of the Beck series, in its fidelity to the books, the TV series (with Lassgård, as mentioned, plus Gösta Ekman as Beck) is also very, very good--Ekman (whose father by the same name was a famous Swedish actor as well) is the equal of Lindstedt in showing Beck's concern and empathy without overstating anything (the other TV Beck, Peter Haber, is not quite so understated). The series featuring Ekman is not available in the U.S. on DVD, though all 6 films were shown some years ago first in the American Film Institute film series in Washington and then on MhZ TV network, in its early years of showing international crime series. Of the two cover images I'm reproducing here, based on the same helicopter photo, the American VHS emphasizes the action and the Swedish DVD cover hints at the chaos of the plot (and is therefore more effective, I think).

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Outsider in Amsterdam: The movie

In the Kittling: Books blog today, Cathy Skye posted a review of Janwillem van de Wetering's Outsider in Amsterdam here, and coincidentally I saw a 1979 Dutch movie made from the book (with the title changed to Fatal Error, and the movie has also been released with the title Grijpstra & de Gier), with Rijk de Gooyer as Grijpstra and Rutger Hauer as De Gier. Though de Gooyer sounds like an interesting person (Nazi hunter in WWII, worked with CIA in Berlin), the movie is available as a DVD only because it's an early appearance by Rutger Hauer. The picture on the DVD box, by the way, seems to be from a different movie. The movie itself (contrary to Skye's impression fo the book) is quite dated. It's not only the clothes, but the acting, camera, direction, pretty much everything. There is a lot of comedy in the movie, some of it intentional, and a bit of surrealism (a floating mouth appears sometimes when the cops are listening to the disembodied voice of the police dispatcher, a woman. Hauer is OK, but hasn't really come in to his own as an actor at this point. And the movie is unfortunately dubbed into English (a feature that the Amazon website, which evidently produced the DVD, didn't mention) rather than subtitled, so we not only lose the actor's real voices, the dubbers tried to Americanize the dialogue (talking about the IRS when the cops complain about taxes, using even street names that seem to have more to do with the U.S. than Amsterdam. Amsterdam is definitely a character in the movie as in the books, but the lighting in the movie is often so dark that it's difficult to see much--atmospheric, perhaps, in some scenes, but the screen is sometimes virtually black. So the movie is only a relic, amusing at best. It does illustrate some of the reasons for the ponderous pacing that Skye noticed in the book: van de Wetering is really more interested in his characters (the spiky Grijpstra, the Asian-obsessed de Gier, and the particular characters involved in each book's murder), in comedy, and in social observation than in a straightforward murder mystery. As a movie, Fatal Error has more in common with two TV shows, Barney Miller (of the same error, and more interested in comedy and characters than crime) and the two versions of the Life on Mars series (but particularly the U.K. original), because of the period clothing and policing but also because of the mixing of plot with odd and sometimes mystical sidelines). It was fun to watch, but I wonder whether the more recent Dutch TV series made from the Grijpstra & de Gier books might be better--or whether the British TV series made from Nicolas Freeling's Van der Valk books (also set in the Netherlands and from the '70s) might be worth looking for...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

M.S. Power and Dealing with Kranze

M.S. Power has had something of a specialty in sociopaths in a number of his novels. His first, Hunt for the Autumn Clowns, features a mentally challenged young man who is missing, among other things, any sense of wrong or guilt (and we experience his mind from within in part of the narrative). The Children of the North trilogy features a number of men who are willing to do literally anything in the service of their political cause, whether that be the maintenance of order or the overturning of it. Bridie and the Silver Lady centers upon a young girl who has been molested by her father, retreating thereafter into an amoral egocentricity and delusion that turns murderous. The Stalker's Apprentice and its sequel, Dealing with Kranze (for which I haven't found a cover image, so I'm using an image of the film of Stalker's Apprentice here, and more on that in a minute), deal with Marcus Walwyn, who is simply a pure sociopath: he feels no empathy and feels no emotion other than (occasionally) fright and anger. In the first novel, he kills two people with such dispassion that the reader almost passes by the events without "seeing" them. The murders have no emotional impact for us, no more than for him. But the first novel has a counterweight, in Inspector Maurice Birt, who is the focus of the central third of the novel and half of the final third. In Dealing with Kranze, we only get Marcus's point of view, and it is a claustrophobic one indeed. There is an emotional flatness to the entire book, and when the murders begin, late in the novel, Marcus feels only a tinge of melancholy that his plans have been completed, leaving him without something to do. The reader, as well, gets little emotional payoff from the murders: neither pleasure nor shock. That emotional flatness is the prime achievement of both books: rarely has sociopathy been so completely portrayed, without sensationalism. Lest it seem that there is no payoff at all for the reader, there is considerable black (very black) comedy in Marcus's narration, as he plots his way through daily life and through his "practice murders" and those that are his actual aim. A good deal of the comedy is satire, its target the jingoism of class: Marcus has inherited his mother's class consciousness though he wouldn't admit it, and his view from the very high perch of the English upper middle class, looking down upon all the unfortunates not among that elite crew, is quite funny. And Power, who is Irish, frequently pokes fun at Marcus's attitude toward the Irish. There is a particular irony in the reading experience: the gap between Marcus's experience and our own is so large that we can appreciate his world with the same kind of dispassion that he experiences with regard to everyone else. There is also one of those ironic endings, the criminal tripped up by an unseen flaw in his plan (whereas Stalker ended with an ambiguity regarding a third murder). We can't like Marcus, but we can't hate him: we mostly watch him with fascination and a weird kind of appreciation. But there is a flaw in the first novel that is to some extent corrected in the second. In The Stalker's Apprentice, we never really understand how Marcus is selected by his puppet-master Kranze. We see how Kranze manipulates him, through a manuscript, but there is a big leap of faith in Marcus being the one, the perfect one, who chances upon the manuscript. Given the portrait of Kranze as a master manipulator, would he have left it to chance regarding who would read his story and become his pawn? Is he just unbelievably lucky to get his manuscript to the perfect reader at a publishing house (or is it perhaps Power's wry comment on the publishing industry, in which every writer depends on just that kind of luck). When Marcus seeks a puppet to carry out his plan regarding his revenge, every step is clear. We know how and why the person is chosen and exactly how he is manipulated. Power spares us the cliche of the publishing world that might have accompanied the end of Kranze: though his editor-in-chief tempts him, Marcus is NOT writing his own history, not writing (in other words) the book we are reading. I wonder whether the film version of Stalker's Apprentice uses the ambiguous ending of that book or the rounded-off irony of the sequel?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Wallander: The Tricksters

The Tricksters (Swedish title, Den Svaga Punkten, which means something like the weak point or the weak spot) is the 6th of the new Wallander series produced by Swedish TV, with stories supplied by Henning Mankell but scripts written by others. For some reason, the MhZ Network, which is running the series on U.S. TV, seems to have run 5 of them, not having yet shown one called The Darkness, which evidently features Wallander's daughter Linda and her partner/boyfriend Stefan more than Wallander himself. That plot is relevant to my impression of The Tricksters (the English title really doesn't make much sense), which to me has far too much of Wallander and far too little of Linda (there's a bit more of Stefan than of Linda). The new Swedish Wallander is played by Krister Henriksson, without the sloppiness or manic-depression of the two others who have played the role (Kenneth Branagh and Rolf Lassgård, the best of the three, to me--he more convingly captures the loner, the opera fan, the conflicted relationship with Linda, and overall the complexity of the character). In The Tricksters, he's chasing after clues that keep piling up after a horse trainer is found dead in his horse barn, by two young girls who have been learning riding there. The plot moves from possible accident to murder to a Nazi neighbor to compulsive gambling to S&M, blackmail, and more. A bit too much plot in fact, too much of the police Saabs and Volvos running back and forth from the crime scene to Ystad police headquarters to the various homes of those involved. On the plus side, this film, like some of the Mankell novels, shows the horse country around Ystad and a bit more of the town than some of the other films. And Kurt (almost) gets an age-appropriate girlfriend, who provides a more emotional coda to the movie than the actual plot manages to do. Still, it's enjoyable enough TV-crime-show fare, and I look forward to more in this series (and in the Varg Veum series) from MhZ (which should be more widely available on U.S. cable and satellite systems than it apparently is). MhZ also returns in September with the 5th season of the famous La Piovra (Octopus) series, delineating the rise of the Mafia as an ever-present force in Italian society and politics.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Jef Geeraerts, The Public Prosecutor

The Public Prosecutor, by Belgian author Jef Geeraerts (translated by Brian Doyle) is a very dark thriller that reminded me alternately of Dominique Manotti's crime novels and Evelyn Waugh's satirical novels. The novel has a terse, almost pictorial style, with multiple points of view (which is what reminded me of various of Manotti's books) and a dark, dyspeptic view of humanity (and of the characters in the story) reminiscent of Waugh's early books, in which there are no heroes and no positive outcomes. Albert Savelkoul, the closest thing to a central character in the novel, is an Antwerp public prosecutor with a good deal of power and plenty of money (some of it not strictly legal), but also a wife he detests and a mistress who is beginning to wander. Courtesy of his wife and son, he will soon also have Opus Dei, the dark underside of Catholic piety, to contend with. What ensues is comic but without jokes: the plot's machinery purrs along toward a conclusion that will not be foreseen but is inevitable, once you get there. There's plenty of violence (social, psychological, and literal) but no murder until the very end. Instead of a crime investigation, the reader sees various self-interested parties in conflict, conspiring against one another even when they don't know that the other is pursuing them. Private investigators working for Opus Dei set in motion one plotline when the bungle a surveillance, leading to the death of a dog (theirs) and a horse (their target's). Savelkoul is thrust into an investigation of his own while his private life shifts from complacency into fears for his health and the discovery of perhaps the love of his life.
He's also plotting against the unseen forces that are ranged against him, and using unsavory associates in ways that implicate him in their violence. Apart from Savelkoul, the most vivid characters are the several Opus Dei members that are seen conspiring to strip Savelkoul's family of their money and property (for the glory of God and Opus Dei) and the family's Polish maid. The Opus Dei sections are quite descriptive (though who knows how accurate) about that secretive organization: chilling in their depiction of ruthlessness and the members' extreme piety. Some readers may not be happy with the conclusion, but Geeraerts is not writing a conventional thriller, he's investigating corrupion in Belgian politics and in religious extremism of the home-grown variety. A sunnier ending would betray his satirical and social purpose, as well as violating the tone and thrust of the story. The Public Prosecutor is one of the sharpest, darkest, and in its own way most enjoyable of the estimable Bitter Lemon Press's recent publications. The actual Bitter Lemon cover suggests the class pretensions of some of the characters--an alternate cover that's posted at is more ominous and ambiguous, but are actually a depiction of a woman with a horse, suggesting one element of the story and also the upper-class ambience. All in all I think I like the one they actually published better.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Allan Guthrie's Killing Mum

Killing Mum is a tasty morsel, a short and fast sequel, of sorts, to Allan Guthrie's funny, moving, and terrifying Savage Night. It's in the Crime Express series of small-format, short crime fiction (Killing Mum is 96 pages). Carlos Morales, who runs a murder-for-hire business, receives a package commissioning him to murder Valerie Anderson, who happens to be (though few know it) Carlos's mother. It's also addressed to "Charlie," a name that only his wife and his mother use for him, and they don't get along with one another. Killing Mum is tighter and more straightforward than Savage Night, with a smaller cast of characters (basically Carlos, his wife and mother, his baby, and his "firm's" hit man (really just a boy). And the focus is more straightforward, basically following Carlos as he seeks to find out who wants him to kill his mother, first by asking her if anybody wants her dead, then by setting up a "sting" of sorts that goes spectacularly wrong. Guthrie's style is lucid and his characters reveal themselves mostly through their speech, giving the story a terse and realistic quality. Though it doesn't have quite the inevitability nor the comedy of Savage Night, this short novel is another fine contribution to hard-core noir by one if its finest contemporary practitioners--and you can read it in almost the time it would take to watch the movie that its propulsive and "no distractions" style suggests.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Janwillem Van de Wetering, The Maine Massacre

I recently heard an audio-book version (from Recorded Books) of Janwillem Van de Wetering's The Maine Massacre (though the image reproduced here is the cover of the SoHo Press edition of the novel, set in Maine rather than Amsterdam but featuring his usual cops (though Grijpstra is only in it briefly). The Commisaris, aging and a bit feeble, needs to go to a small town in Maine to help his sister, whose husband has just died. Grijpstra, worried about his boss, schemes to send Sergeant De Gier to the same town on an international police exchange program. The Dutch cops discover a series of murders flowing from issues of property development, preservation of nature, and class. There are frequently funny observations about the U.S. from a Dutch cop's perspective (Van de Wetering actually lived in Maine, at least part-time, in a small town, where he died, actually), and one of the pleasures of the audio version is hearing the reader, George Guidall, approximate the Dutch pronunciation of the cops' names (something I'd always wondered about--and Guidall seems to know something about Dutch pronunciation). Van de Wetering actually describes the Dutch "g" sound in the novel as sounding like someone had swallowed a fly and was trying to cough it up. De Gier's fashion sense is quite funny--his outfit is stuck firmly in 1979, when the book was published; Van de Wetering surely meant the sergeant's clothes to seem funny, especially in the wildly inappropriate context of the Maine woods, but they're funnier still for anyone who remembers the clothing of the era from the perspective of today (or anyone who is embarrassed by his own old photos dressed in the clothes of the era). The mystery aspect of the book is fairly typical of the series--I have to say, though, that I miss the atmosphere of Amsterdam, in which Grijpstra and De Gier swim comfortably, as opposed to the alien environment of small-town America. I've discovered that there is a fairly recent Dutch TV series based on the Grijpstra-De Gier books, by the same production team as had earlier produced a series based on the Baantjer books. Unfortunately the series is inaccessible here--though there is an old movie version (1979) of one of the books (Outsider in Amsterdam, I think) that IS available here (under various titles, mainly Fatal Error or Grijpstra & De Gier) because it's an early Rutger Hauer movie (he plays De Gier, appropriately enough). I've sent for a cheap DVD and if it's any good I'll review it here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Varg Veum 2 (movie based on Gunnar Staalesen character)

Last night the MHZ Network in the U.S. ran the second of the Varg Veum movies based on Gunnar Staalesen's Norwegian crime novels. The title is Sleeping Beauty (originally titled Tornerose, which I think is in fact the Norwegian name for Sleeping Beauty--who was called Briar Rose in in the English translation of the Grimm tale, before Disney got to her). This one develops Veum's character a bit further (by exposing him to corpses, middle-class families, and gangsters), plus the girlfriend he established a bit of a relationship with at the end of the first film reappears (but it seems, from the plot, as if she won't be a regular in the series). The relationship between Veum and a senior cop is also developed a bit further, extending their antipathy to new levels. Sleeping Beauty's plot is a bit over-determined, including murder, incest, pedophilia, drugs, runaways, child prostitution, sex among neighbors, homosexuality (considered by a teenager's father to be worse than his drug abuse), insider trading, organized crime, police stakeouts, attempted matricide, and a pair of broken marriages (and I may have forgotten some plotlines by now)--but the 90-minute film doesn't seem overstuffed and the story moves along at a fast but not frenetic pace. And Bergen looks more pleasant (with its bay, hills, old quarter, charming center city apartments, and spectacular upper-class houses), though almost as cold, as in the first Veum film. The series is a bit more action oriented than the various incarnations of the Wallander series, but at the same time, Veum is a more complex character than Wallander: Veum has had a career change from social work to private detective, both with an emphasis on aiding children, and he's alternately hard-boiled and vulnerable. He does share with Wallander a certain lack of fashion (or even grooming) sense, though: Veum is taller and thinner than the 3 Wallanders I've seen, but his stubbly beard is more trendy--though his long, perpetually dirty-looking hair brings down his "look" a bit. I'm not sure how many more of the Veum films MHZ is running, but it looks like there are 6 that were produced for Norwegian TV: Here's hoping we get them all, and more in the future (maybe we'll see what summer in Bergen is like?).

Friday, August 14, 2009

M.S. Power and The Stalker's Apprentice

For forgotten-book Friday: Rob Kitchin's recent, highly praised police procedural The Rule Book is not the first book to propose a series of murders that follow rules set forth in a book (though Kitchin's may be the first in which the murderer is also the author of the book). It's a common enough theme, and there's another Irish writer who has used it two novels and a third that is a sequel to one of the first two. Nathan Crosby's Fan Mail, by M.S. Power (whose brilliant Childred of the North trilogy has been mentioned here several times) is a combination of the book theme with a Dick Francis plot (though Francis should have only hoped to write as well as Power). The novel concerns a serial killer novel set in the horse-racing world in England; the author-narrator is dismayed to receive letters announcing that the letter-writer is using the novel as a template for his own series of murders. The plot is conventional enough, and the book is best in its comic elements and in the interplay among its very well-drawn characters.
I've just finished Power's The Stalker's Apprentice, which is about a "reader" at a London publishing house who comes upon the manuscript for a novel of multiple murder and begins using it as the model for his own spree. The Stalker's Apprentice (which was made into a TV movie a couple of years ago) is very different from Power's Fan Mail book not only because of its setting in London rather than the racing world, but also because there's some ambiguity about whether the writer of the manuscript is manipulating the main character (who is also the narrator for about half the novel) into committing the murders. I had actually begun to tire of the killer's narrative until I reached the second section of the novel, which (along with alternating parts of the final section) focuses on Inspector Inspector Birt and Sergeant Wilson, the detecties in pursuit of the killer. The cops are interesting and quirky, and for me the police procedural opened the story out of the claustrophobic but oddly affectless world of the killer into a more involving tale. The tension builds as the story moves toward a final murder that is implied in the manuscript (and is the basis of the cops' theory of the crimes), but that killing becomes part of the devious interrelationships of killer, writer, and cops rather than a direct element of the narrative. The ambiguity of the ending implies a sequel--and there is one (it's on my tbr pile), Dealing with Kranze. I don't know whether Power planned the sequel from the beginning or wrote it to capitalize in the success of The Stalker's Apprentice, but it promises to take the story in interesting directions. Power has also written several other books that are, in one way or another, crime novels. His first book, Hunt for the Autumn Clowns, is a bizarre but frequently very funny rural Gothic tale of a slow-witted boy and his Irish-Faulkerian-sexualized environment. There are a couple of murders, but the pleasure in reading the book comes from the eloquent narrative and its twisted logic. Power wrote at least one other police procedural, Vengeance (which I had looked for for years and only recently found), also on my tbr pile, and one other Gothic tale, Bridie and the Silver Lady, which turns the spooky fairy tale on its head (the pubescent girl is the monster rather than the monster's prey). I was led into the search for Power's crime books by the powerful experience of reading Children of the North, but his other books are of various sorts and though always interesting a bit uneven. Clowns is funny and horrifying, in something of the same way as Patrick McCabe's Butcher Boy (though the books are quite different); Power's Come the Executioner, is very like a post-Cold War spy novel or thriller, with the setting of the Troubles in Northern Ireland; Fan Mail is a fairly conventional mystery novel; Bridie is a disturbing tale of psychology and supernatural visitation; and Stalker combines some of the elements of all of the above, along with a chilling portrait of an attractive, upper-middle-class English sociopath or two. What they all have in common is an attention to character and a style that varies from lucid to comic to startling. Two questions about movies: has anyone seen the film of The Stalker's Apprentice? And has anyone seen (or does anyone remember) the TV film made from a Bill James's Harpur & Iles book? I think the film was called "Harpur & Iles."

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Johan Theorin, The Darkest Room

In The Darkest Room, Swedish crime writer Johan Theorin skillfully brings together several disparate elements: a series of ghost stories, a thriller, a mystery, and a series of historical vignettes about the various ways to die in a cold, unforgiving environment. Like Theorin’s first novel, Echoes from the Dead, In the Darkest Room (whose original Swedish title is Nattfåk, meaning “night blizzard”) is set on the Swedish island of Öland, in the Baltic sea, south of Gotland. The first story evoked the towns and the prarie-like Alvar, and the second evokes the houses and lighthouses along the eastern coast of the island. The characters are as disparate as the plotlines: a young Stockholm family moving into an old lighthouse-keeper’s manor house with a plan to renovate it; a B&E crew made up of pair of meth-head, violent brothers and a local guy who’s only in it as a cure for boredom; a rookie cop and an amateur detective who lives in an old-folks home (that last character is a holdover from the first novel, and his appearance is telegraphed by an early encounter between the thieves and a ship-in-a-bottle). There are also the ghosts of sailors lost at sea, a young wife, a junkie sister, and various previous residents of the manor house—we meet the ghosts in a running narrative that turns out to be a confessional of sorts, as well as in stories from island residents, spooky presences encountered by various characters, the thieving brothers’ Ouija Board, and physical evidence in the house and its barn. Echoes from the Dead updated folktale motifs, and In the Darkest Room does the same (especially with one overarching metaphor related to the English title that becomes actualized in the second half of the book), but emphasizes both the unwilling dead and the weight of history. The novel is interesting from the beginning, naturalistic but spooky as well as well written, but as the threads of the tale begin to converge, along with the Christmas blizzard of the original Swedish title, the pace picks up to that of a thriller (and the translator, Marlaine Delargy, deserves a lot of credit for maintaining that pace in lucid English)—you’ll find yourself ripping through the almost 400 pages. But the climax is reached more in terms of character than violence (though there is violence), as in almost the style of Elmore Leonard rather than a standard thriller-writer’s climactic violence. But what the novel leaves the reader with (even after a coda-like ending that brings the book back toward the mystery genre) is a sense of the continuity of human dwelling and dying in a fully realized, particular place. And where a number of Scandinavian novels have dealt with the new immigtion problems, Theorin looks toward a different kind of “intruder” into the calm, uniform surface of Swedish life: the continuing presence of those who are gone but not quite forgotten. I’m pasting in three covers again, U.S., U.K., and Sweden, two of which offer (naturally enough) takes on the storm-and-lighthouse motif and one, the U.S., a scene of snow, forest, and glowing redness of dawn or dusk in the far north (another, less obvious motif in the book). Graphically, I like the Swedish and U.S. ones better than the U.K. one, which also emphasizes the sea a bit more than the others.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Karin Fossum, The Water's Edge

Karin Fossum likes to shake up the formula for her crime fiction (and for crime fiction generally) in her Inspector Sejer novels. The latest to be translated into English, The Water’s Edge (Den som elsker noe annet in the original Norwegian, literayy "he who loves something else), is no exception. A normal pattern for a crime novel (as for a crime TV show like Law & Order) is for a witness to discover a body at the beginning, and then the witness isn’t heard from again (except possibly as the subject of an interview). Fossum sets up a conflict between the husband and wife who discover a pedophile’s victim at the beginning of The Water’s Edge, and then carries that conflict forward through the rest of the book, as they argue about what they witnessed and how it has affected them (there’s even a hint of something else at the very end, akin to the end of Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, but I won’t telegraph that detail).
There’s a bit of the usual investigation, feature Sejer and his partner, the younger Skarre, but a large part of the narrative that focuses on them is taken up with an ongoing discussion between them of what pedophilia signifies about the perpetrator and his social/familial context. There’s also quite a bit of text devoted to the victims’ families and to the killer, and the pedophile becomes almost a sympathetic character, in a twisted way. The result of the combination of the more meditative, interior monologues and the dialogues between the cops and the glimpses of the married couple's daily life is a splintered image, a kaleidoscope or jigsaw puzzle that in the end emphasizes the daily tragedies of normal life as much or more than the awful crimes.
Fossum's ending (really there are plural endings, as each thread of the plot ends separately) emphasizes both the awfulness of the ordinary and what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, carrying forward the dark, brooding story beyond the end of the novel and into the reader's life--a most effective ending for a noir crime novel. Another query about covers: The U.S. and U.K. covers above are very similar, but I like the graphic and foggy quality of the U.K. one better myself (that's the one in the middle of the post). The Norwegian cover is much more explicit about the crime at the beginning of the novel--perhaps too explicit? Or are the English-language publishers afraid of visually addressing the pedophilia theme on a cover?

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Delhi Noir

On the occasion of a radio appearance by Hirsh Sawhney (editor of Delhi Noir, Akashic's new book in its international noir series) along with blogger extraordinaire Peter Rozovsky, I'm posting a review of Delhi Noir today. Check Peter's blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, for details of the radio show, which should be available on the Wisconsin Public Radio website as a live feed or an archived audio. I don't know how Akashic does it--they find writer/editors all over the world that know just who to solicit new noir stories from in a given city. Delhi Noir has the usual high quality of the series along with an unusual continuity of tone (beyond just the setting) in the stories, so that the book reads almost like an episodic novel rather than a collection. Part of the tone is the language: the speakers in these stories (and there's a lot of dialogue) are polyglot, native speakers in a jumble of the native languages of Delhi and India, and there's a helpful glossary at the back of the book--though the stories so skilfully weave the non-English terms and the slang into the dialogue that a reader usually does not need to break the rhythm of the story to check the glossary. The overarching motif is the conflict of rich and poor, new wealth and old social practices, in the city of Delhi today. Sawhney makes the point in his introduction that Delhi doesn't have the tradition of crime fiction that exists in some other Indian cities, perhaps (says Sawhney) because of the character of the capital city's denizens, who aren't interested in the cruelty and inequity that might burst the bubble of their booming rise to capitalist or bureaucratic bliss. And cruelty and inequity are here in this collection in abundance, ameliorated by comedy, revenge (particularly in the science-fiction crime tale that ends the collection), and frequently a melancholy acceptance of the way things are at the bottom of the social structure. Rather than singling out individual writers (some still living in Delhi, some elsewhere in India, and some in the Indian diaspora) for praise, for now I will just advise you to get this collection asap, whether you're interested in India, international noir, crime fiction, or just good writing. Akashic scores again with Delhi Noir.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Norwegian crime novel translated in Italian film

Girl by the Lake (La ragazza del lago), Andrea Molaioli's award-winning first film as director in 2007 was an adaptation of Karin Fossum's 5th Inspector Sejer novel (the first to be translated into English), Don't Look Back. The translation to Italy (and to film) is surprisingly effective. The evocation of the lake (site of the murder) and the town in Fossum's novel were very vivid, and Molaioli's visual equivalent is entirely coherent with the original, transformed from a small village in Norway to a village in northern, Alpine Italy, near Udine. Inspector Sejer becomes Commissario Sanzio (played with understated brilliance by Toni Servillo), but is the same tall, glum, terse policeman. The plot is simplified and changed in several significant ways without taking anything away from the dark, emotional truth of the story. And Fossum's brilliant, misdirecting beginning is preserved perfectly. The visual storytelling of the film, alternating with the dialogue of the police investigation, evokes the story in (of course) an entirely different way that Fossum's novel, but the directness of the translation points out the visual quality of Fossum's own storytelling. And the dialogue, against that background, emphasizes an essential, almost metafictional quality of the police procedural as a genre: storytelling is the subject and the medium of the form. Everyone in Girl by the Lake is telling a different story, and the police keep adapting their own version of the story as facts become known. The viewer (or reader) becomes tangled in all the stories, straight through to a final resolution (or approximation of a resolution). Girl by the Lake is a very quiet cop movie, suited to both the setting and this particular story: a lyrical evocation of dreadful illness and tragic events.