Sunday, November 29, 2009

New Brazilian Noir

We have a good opportunity in the next few months to compare two very different crime novels coming out of Brazil: Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd (translated by Benjamin Moser and published by Henry Holt), published recently, and Leighton Gage’s Dying Gasp (written in English and published in late 09 or early 10 by SoHo Crime). Though there are a number of similarities, the books could hardly be more different. Both Garcia-Roza’s Chief Espinosa (chief of a precinct in Rio near the city’s famous beaches) and Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva (of the Federal Police and based in Brasilia) work with a small number of trusted detectives within the context of a corrupt police force aned a violent society. In each series, a considerable amount of the narrative is focused in the chief inspector, though in this case we get a bit more of Espinoa (whose childhood is related to the case at hand in Alone in the Crowd) and by contrast a bit less of Silva (who seems almost peripheral to the story in Dying Gasp). Gage’s novel takes on political and social issues and Garcia-Roza’s is occupied with psychological and philosophical matters. Gage has given us a thriller dealing with human trafficking, child prostitution, and snuff films, as well as the near-total corruption of the local police in an Amazonian town: all big subjects portrayed in very violent, even lurid tones (though the act of violence toward which the whole story has been leading is offstage, as if to spare the reader this final obscenity). Both novels feature a central conflict that relates to homosexuality among women, as a personal issue in Alone in the Crowd and as a topic of shame and discrimination in Dying Gasp. Even the detectives’ personal lives provide a vivid contrast: Espinosa confronts a situation that threatens his easy weekend relationship with long-standing lover Irene; the tragedy of Silva’s family (several of whom have been murdered and his wife left an alcoholic wreck) a constant background for the violence of the society and the current story. Garcia-Roza offers a portrait of personal crimes (rather like those of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, whose late work is cited in Alone in the Crowd) flowing from the personality and life-history of a character from Espinosa’s past. Dying Gasp moves quickly toward the resolution not only of the prositution-and-snuff plot but also a loose thread from the first Silva novel. Alone in the Crowd moves slowly, as the suspect ruminates on his love of walking in the middle of the city’s crowds and the detective puzzles over the crime, the suspect, and forgotten incidents of childhood. Garcia-Roza is working at a slight, philosophical distance from the violent streets and favela-slums that are Gage’s main target. Gage’s epigraph, from Job, explains the books title, but his postscript is more helpful, giving statistics backing up his portrait of child prostitution and offering a claim of reality to counter the commonly held opinion that snuff films are an urban legend; his aim here and elsewhere in the Silva series is to give us some sense of the overwhelming problems of contemporary Brazil—an aim in which he succeeds admirably. Garcia-Roza’s epigraphs are from Poe and German philosopher-critic (and Holocaust victim) Walter Benjamin, regarding the essence of crime and the crime novel, indication of his intellectual aims, very sympathetically and successfully realized here and in the series as a whole. The epigraph from Benjamin is particularly interesting for both novels: “The original social content of the crime novel is every individual’s loss of bearings amid the big-city crowd.” Garcia-Roza explores that alienation through the lens of his characters, while Gage gives us a vivid image of the violent, ultimate cases of loss in the cities and towns of a culture divided against itself in rich and poor, civil and criminal, principled and ruthless, and altogether unreconcilable populations (perhaps an image of post-apocalyptic anarchy already existing in the favelas, jungles, and brothels of Brazil). Espinosa (whose name derives from that of a classic philosopher) has the privilege of pursuing small-scale, personal crimes and meditating on their meaning, with the favelas held at some distance, only briefly mentioned; Silva deals with big issues and large-scale crimes that give little hope or time for considerations of human nature other than in terms of its violent extremes. We are certainly privileged to have in English these very different angles on a Brazilian “social content of the crime novel” (as well as the very different crime fiction of Patricia Melo), and perhaps we need both in order to have some chance of understanding that culture, in its realities, potentials, and dangers.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cape Greed, by Sam Cole

Cape Greed, published pseudonymously by South African collaborators Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens, is a hard-boiled detective novel in the tradition of Deon Meyer's early Cape Town novels, translated from the Afrikaans as Dead Before Dying and Dead Before Daybreak, before Meyer moved on to writing thrillers and into modern mythmaking. The detectives of Cape Greed are Mullet, nicknamed after his retro haircut, and Vincent, both ex-cops and neither a terribly appealing character at first. Vincent is closer to Deon Meyer's cops and ex-cops: he's a drunk who's mourning for the death of his wife in a traffic accident that may have been a murder. Mullet, who left the police for less dramatic reasons, has an ex-junkie, one-legged girlfriend, Rae-Anne, who wants to move in with him--but Mullet is a commitment-phobe. Mullet talked Vincent into joining him in a private detective agency that is muddling along with divorce work until each is hired by one of two women for cases that seem separate but are joined in the murky world of abalone smugglers and Chinese triads. One of the women wants Mullet to follow her husband and the other wants Vincent to stake out an abalone farm along the Cape's west coast, but we also follow the exploits of Tommy, the abalone poacher who may have killed Vincent's wife in revenge for Vincent putting him in jail years before. (Abalone is in short supply but in big demand among Chinese men, for the same reason as Rhino horn and with similar ecologically disastrous results.) If it all sounds complicated, it's actually a tightly woven narrative whose several strands that are intertwined with the diverse racial and political strands of contemporary Cape Town and move forward quickly and inexorably toward confrontations that manage to avoid the usual cliches. The reader ends up sympathizing with the two sad-sack detectives, and I hope Nicol and Hichens keep up the collaboration: Sam Cole is a writer worth following, even if he's a fiction himself.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Poisonville, by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta

Massimo Carolotto is a leading Italian crime writer, known in the English speaking world for crime novels and semi-fictional narratives about his own experience as a fugitive from the Italian justice system. Marco Videtta is a well-known Italian screenwriter. They've collaborated on a novel, Nordest, translated by Anthony Shugaar as Poisonville, that is as much a bleak satire as a crime novel. The Italian title refers to the industrialized Northeast region of Italy, controlled for many years by a few families not of the Mafia sort (thought there is cerainly that presence in the Northeast as well), but of the wealthy and aristocratic sort, who control all aspects of life including the justice system (according to this novel at least). The story is told partly in the first-person by Francesco, whose fiancee, Giovanna, is murdered at the beginning, and partly by a third-person narrator who gives us the points of view of a motley group of other characters, including aristocrats, middle-class young people, and thugs. There is a bit of authorial sleight of hand at the beginning, obscuring the identity of the murderer, though readers will probably figure out by the middle of the book who the real murderer is (long before Francesco or the one policeman who is interested in the truth). According to Francesco himself, "Giovanna's murder had become the setting for a story abounding in savory plot twists, turns, and surprises," describing the media response to the event but also aptly describing the novel itself. Along the way, the leading families are implicated in an earlier murder and fraud aimed toward controlling a landowner's assets, the illegal dumping of toxic waste from factories (the literal source of the English title), and the rotten core of the region's social structure--the targets of the satirical pens of the authors. Bleakly funny, the tone is noir or satirical more than conventional crime novel, and it's difficult to care much about what happens to any of the characters, including Francesco. But it's a fascinating portrait of contemporary Italy, and further evidence of the multifaceted skills of Carlotto, whose solo works are quite different, and of the skill of his collaborator.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Consorts of Death: latest Varg Veum in English by Gunnar Staalesen

The fourth Varg Veum novel by Norway's Gunnar Staalesen, The Consorts of Death, was recently released in English translation by Don Bartlett (published in the Euro Crime series by Arcadia Books in the U.K.). The novel has a complex time-line, beginning in the present day (it was originally published in Norway in 2006), skipping back to the 1970s as Varg, then in his child-welfare career post, encounters a neglected boy that everyone calls Johnny Boy; then we move forward to the 1980s as Johnny Boy, now a teenager, is suspected of murdering his foster parents and asks to speak to Varg (by now a private detective) in the middle of what seems to be a hostage crisis; then we move back to the present when Johnny Boy, a bitter man just out of prison, has Varg on his hit list. Along the way, we also get a glimpse of a murder case from the mid-19th century that has resonances with the 20th and 21st century events. The whole pattern investigates the difficulties that some kids have with the child welfare system (and with their original parents), as well as Varg's attempts to (not very succesfully) help Johnny Boy. Most of the action is away from Varg's usual territory in Bergen: the pages set in the 80s are mostly in the hill and lake district outside Bergen, and the present-day passages are more in Oslo than Bergen. There are some eloquent passages when Varg meditates on his and the system's failures, and the story is mostly carried forward in Varg's personable first-person voice. Staalesen shows great skill in keeping a very complex story coherent: characters and events weave in and out, with personal and metaphorical connections among them all along the way. There are some surpises at the end, as well, when Varg finally discovers what's been going on in the several murders and in Johnny Boy's life. Staalesen's novels take on social issues, but there are many passages in this book that are right out of classic noir (though Varg isn't the usual noir hero, he has too much hope for his clients' fates). There's a lot more Varg Veum in Norwegian, and I for one hope for translators and publishers to fill in the gaps in what has been translated. In the meantime, we have the Varg Veum TV series from Norway (and there's an episode waiting for me that I'll be reporting on soon).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Donna Leon, About Face

I thought I was catching up with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series but while reading her 2009 About Face I discovered that there's an even newer 2009 title, A Sea of Troubles. But that gives me another Brunetti to look forward to. About Face ranks with the best of the series: it's a tragedy, as so many of them are, but in this case there is a very particular echo with the classical world that Brunetti often retreats to in the books he likes to read. As usual, his complicated relationship with Paola, his wife, and her aristocratic family is central to the story, which seems to be moving in several directions (concerning the ongoing Italian garbage crisis, investments in China, a mysterious friend of Paola's mother, conflicts with the Carabinieri over jurisdiction in a couple of murder cases, and intrigues within the Questura (the police station) in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Venice where Brunetti works: Leon's plotting is sophisticated enough, though, that though she brings the threads into proximity she resists the impulse to tie everything up in a neat bow. The tragedy is not only the murder plot, with its classical echo, but also the entire social, legal, and political situation of Venice and Italy.
Though frequently funny, Leon's novels are always melancholy, a most suitable mood for a story so embedded in the fading glory of the serene city--and as usual Brunetti is an excellent tour guide for we the readers as he makes his way through the unique setting (evoked in quite different ways by the three covers I've pasted into this post, from the American, Australian, and English editions). Leon's novels are perhaps not to everyone's taste, in the melancholy tone and plotting, but she is a unique voice in the crime-fiction world and perhaps no crime writer is as well suited to portray her chosen city.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Niels Arden Oplev's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Danish film director Niels Arden Oplev was in my neighborhood on Saturday to show his film of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor in the original Swedish), at the American Film Institute (which is about 4 blocks from my house). Several things to remark about the film: First, from Oplev's comments, he says that he was determined to use only Swedish actors, for verisimilitude, a wise difference from the normal Euro-TV practice of placing German or French or Italian actors in key roles (to buy off international collaborators among the producers, I presume). Oplev was actually very funny in his comments, with the starting point that he at first refused the project without having read the book, dismissing it as a thriller, only to accept later after the producers contacted him again and he remarked to his neighbor that he'd been offered the project--the neighbor immediately went in her house and brought him the book to read, which he took as an omen. One point to make about the film is that there has been some criticism of the choice of Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth Salander--unfounded criticism based perhaps on the "glamor" shot of her (pasted into this post), which makes her look older and not as small and boyish as Larsson's Lisbeth: in the film itself, she fulfills the requirements not only in physical appearance but in the manner with which she conducts herself in her embodiment of the character. She's very good, playing her as withdrawn, angry, and cautious in her relations with people--though not as an Asperger's victim (or any other kind of victim). The rest of the cast is also good, Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist is very natural in the role. Two of the actors are a bit distracting for anyone who has seen the Beck Swedish TV series: Peter Haber, who plays Beck as a normal guy in the series, is here quite spooky and complex; and Ingvar Hirdwall, who is, I believe, Beck's weird and comic neighbor in the series, is here quite natural and normal. The plot of the story is handled very well by Oplev, reducing some of the long passages of research in the book to short collages to get the story down from about 600 pages to 2.5 hours, but there are a couple of plot points that are changed--one in particular (that I won't go into to prevent plot spoilers) seems to leave a big hole regarding the relationship between 2 central characters, something that will have to be explained or justified in the next film which turns in considerable part on the missing detail. But altogether a very satisfying film version of a book that must have presented the director and his writers with a lot of problems in the translation from text to film: highly recommended to the fans of the book as well as anyone who hasn't read the book.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Slovakian Police Procedural (or thriller), vol. 2

The pure detective story or police procedural has an odd structure: the central character is essentially peripheral to the story. He/she is an observer and investigator, but the prime mover of the story and the prime event (the murder and murderer, or for that matter the murderee) are elsewhere. From the beginning of the genre, though, the detective or cop has gotten involved, frequently getting beaten up or threatened, sometimes taking his/her own violent action, and very often the detective's personal life is an element of the narrative. But when the detective's personal life becomes a major center of the story, the novel veers into the realm of the thriller, wherein the main or series character is central, rather than peripheral. Michael Genelin's Dark Dreams, the 2nd in his Commander Jana Matinova series about a Bratislava cop, is for that reason more of a thriller than a detective story, as was the first book in the series--that's not a criticism, it's simply a characterization, a signpost to readers to let them know what sort of book (and series) this is. That said, Dark Dreams has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, there are a lot of substantial women characters beyond Jana herself, on all sides of the various conspiracies and crimes that make up the story. Genelin also offers an atmospheric and detailed portrait of a struggling democracy in today's Eastern Europe. The plot is unconventional: it has a realism that refuses to bow to the conventions of the crime novel, in that there are a lot of characters (and a lot of villains), moving in a lot of directions, across a considerable geography (from Nepal to Vienna), with substantial political/social insights, and the story moves unpredictably without following all the threads to any expected conclusion (though readers will have figured out some things long before the cops do). The result is absorbing and always interesting, without quite reaching a conclusive, cathartic climax (though many of the threads of the conspiracies are indeed resolved). Certainly interesting enough that I'll be watching for the next installment in the series.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Shamini Flint: Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul

The 2nd Inspector Singh novel to be published by Piatkus Press (and the third overall) is more confident and accomplished than the earlier stories. Singh is a more rounded character (he was pretty one-dimensional in the first of the novels, which is apparently to be reissued in the "Inspector Singh Investigates" series as The Singapore School of Villainy, though its original title was Partners in Crime). The plot of the Bali novel is layered: one crime conceals another, which we ultimately find conceals another still. After the Bali bombing (the real one that we all know about), Singh is sent to Bali to give assistance (along with a number of Australian police, who have a more obvious reason to be there). When a piece of a corpse's head is discovered among the dead with a bullet hole in it, Singh (with no expertise in terrorism) is asked to investigate the solo murder buried beneath the mass murder. With the assistance of an Australian cop that is similarly not involved in the main investigation of the bombing, Singh maneuvers among a group of emigre Anglos and a small Indonesian Muslim group, whose stories Flint tells as an omniscient narrator, as well as showing them through Singh's eyes. The novel is quite involving, especially for the first half. As the mystery becomes more clear, there is a bit less momentum for a while, but at the end the novel shifts into thriller-gear and moves along quite quickly. Some of the characters, cops, emigres, and terrorists, seem curiously naive, and there remain some elements of the romance novel, as in the earlier books in the series, but overall "A Bali Conspiracy" is effective in dealing with a terror incident at arms length, through the structure of a detective novel, and the rising quality of the series raises expectations for later books, perhaps returning to Singapore and perhaps continuing the crime tour of Southeast Asia.