Thursday, March 25, 2010

First thoughts on Jo Nesbø's The Snowman

I may post about The Snowman again later, but for now: Nesbø writes beautifully, with a style that seems simple but is interlaced with humor, metaphor, character, and menace. Though many readers will figure out who the killer is long before Detective Harry Hole does, the fun in reading the book really comes in reading the prose and watching the plot twist and turn through numerous red herrings and false leads until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. There are images running through the text that tie the whole book together, some of them relevant to the story directly, others simply accompanying the tale with their own metaphorical power. Don Bartlett's translation is excellent, as usual. Perhaps not the Harry Hole book to start with, but if this is the one you can get, go for it--any Nesbø book will take you where Harry is going, and with a lot of pleasure (not to mention blood and terror) in the journey. The plot here concerns a serial killer who preys on young mothers and leaves a snowman as a signature. There are too many suspects rather than too few, and along the way as they police close in on one or another, you know they're following the wrong track because there are 200 pages left. But the detective team, including a new partner for Harry, Katrine Bratt, who is intriguing and unusual and has her own very significant impact on the story.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Newest Italian crime series in English translation

Luigi Guiccardi's Inspector Cataldo's Criminal Summer has just been released in English in the U.K. by Hersilia Press, with a translation by Iain Halliday. They've wisely chosen to start the series with the first book (unlike many other series in translation) and this novel augurs well for the series as a whole. It's told in a plain-spoken voice by a third-person omniscient narrator, with a straightforward writing style that's a pleasure to read. It's more of a puzzle mystery than noir, and something of a throwback to an era when the psychology of the characters was of more importance than any sympathy that a reader might feel for them. Cataldo himself is nicely characterized, particularly through his feelings about the "girl he left behind" in Sicily when he took up a post in the fictional small town of Guiglia (near Modena in Northern Italy). She not only refused to move with him, she dumped him when he accepted the transfer, setting up a dynamic between them and also with Cataldo's mother, who thought they were perfect for each other. The mystery at hand concerns a traffic accident from 18 years in the past, during which a man died and a considerable sum of money disappeared. Now someone is reviving the memory of the crash, causing consternation among a circle of friends that includes two competing academics (one more succesful than the other), a real estate agent, a priest, and several others. There's a little academic satire in the story (especially between the two rivals with whom the novel begins), along with some insight into the particularities of the Italian university system (and Guicciardi is himself a historian, but like Cataldo was born in Sicily and ended up in the Modena area), but the action is actually confined to the small town and to Cataldo's interviews with the circle of friends. Cataldo does have an assistant, but he's a minor character: after the introductory chapters leading up to the first murder (and these chapters are very engaging in themselves), it's mostly Cataldo's ruminations, his interviews, and a few glimpses of the murders. Of the recent Italian crime novels I've read and reviewed here, Guiccardi's novel is the most distinctive, mining older traditions of mystery fiction in a very modern fashion. Something about the tone and style strikes me as being very European, turning away from the Anglo-American style of not only of recent authors writing in English about Italy but also some of the recent cinematic and hard-boiled crime writing in Italian. There are evidently a few other Italian crime writers making their English debuts in upcoming months, and Inspector Cataldo's first case augurs well for what is to follow.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Crime in Florence: Christobel Kent's A Time of Mourning

Florence has of course been the scene of crime fiction already, most visibly in the Guarnaccia novels of Magdalen Nabb. Christobel Kent, who has written several novels set in Italy, takes up the mantle of the English-crimewriter-in-Florence, now that Nabb is gone, and the first of her series based on the character Sandro Cellini has just been released. Kent shares some ground (more than just the city) with Nabb, but with significant differences. Both writers focus on neighborhoods, families, and personal/domestic crimes (rather than on globalized crimes, serial killers, conspiracies, and mafia criminals, such as is the case with another writer setting his works in Florence, the Italian former policeman Michele Giuttari). Nabb's Marshall of the Carabinieri is stationed at the Pitti Palace, and this first case of Kent's Cellini hovers around the Carabinieri station at the Pitti and the neighboring Boboli Gardens (but like Guarnaccia, Cellini roams far and wide across the city in pursuit of the facts in the case). But Cellini is a private detective, a disgraced policeman (forced out by departmental politics as well as his own actions). Cellini is, however, not a hard-boiled cop (he sympathizes with victims and others rather in the way that Guarnaccia does). Kent's plot turns rather a lot on coincidence (I'm tempted to say that she treats Florence more like an English village than the city it is, tending toward "two degrees of separation") rather than on perception of character (more Nabb's technique). The narrative is divided among third-person narrations from the points of view of Cellini, his wife, Iris (a young English student whose roommate, Veronica or Ronnie, has disappeared), and occasionally a couple of other chaacters, and in the first part of the novel, the narrative tends to summarize rather than present the dialogue (later, the dialogue is more commonly presented directly, and usually to better effect). Cellini is uncertain about his new profession, and his wife is helping, even pushing him, to set up his office and develop a cleintele. His first client is an elderly woman whose husband has apparently committed suicide, but she doesn't believe he could have done so. The case becomes intertwined with the missing student (the first of the coincidences) and we get inside the private art school where both young women were studying drawing. The story moves along rather slowly, with some reference to the "Room with a View" sort of English fiction set in Florence (Iris is in a sense a traveling companion for her roommate, engaged by Ronnie's mother) as Cellini uncovers some facts and has others presented to him by characters he encounters, but the pace picks up in the last third because of a sense of urgency created around Iris and her own search for what has happened to the vivacious and troublesome Ronnie. Kent also frequently (and to good effect) uses the novelist's trick of ending a chapter just before a new fact is revealed, delaying the revelation until other elements of the story have caught up. A Time of Mourning is at the opposite end of the crime spectrum from Tobias Jones's The Salati Case, recently reviewed here: where the story and the detective in Salati Case are both hard-boiled, the detective and the story in A Time of Mourning are rather soft, more in the fashion of the cozy. Even the covers of the two books suggest the difference in content: Jones's book shows dark, narrow streets of Parma and Kent's shows a rather idealized view of the Arno (and the river does, in fact, play a specific role in the book). Both novels use their respective Italian locations effectively (though Kent is more specific about on- and off-the-beaten track sections of Florence), but the two books appeal to different tastes in crime writing. I have to say my taste generally runs more to the hard-boiled or noir, but Kent's novel is far better than the aforementioned Giuttari's Florentine fiction, in terms of the writing and the plotting, and certainly a valid pretender to Nabb's crown as queen of Florentine crime.

Monday, March 15, 2010

New detective series set in Italy: Tobias Jones's The Salati Case

Tobias Jones is the author of a nonfiction book about Italy, through the lens of an Englishman, the author himself, who moved to Parma. His new detective series starring a loner private detective named Castagnetti is set in an unnamed city that is surely Parma (note the frequent references to the local ham), a locale that is vividly evoked (along with the nearby cities and towns, as the detective travels from place to place by car and train in pursuit of the truth about a man who disappeared 14 years earlier, while waiting for a train. The man's mother has just died, and a notary (a much more important official in Italy than elsewhere) hires Castagnetti according to the dictates of the mother's will, to determine whether the missing man (and her heir, along with his brother, of her estate) is alive or dead. Jones refers in interviews to his admiration for (and debt to) Ross Macdonald, and indeed the current detective novels that Castagnetti's story resembles most is Declan Hughes's Macdonald-homage series set in Dublin. But there is perhaps a bit more of Chandler's Philip Marlowe in Castagnetti, as well as Macdonald's Archer. Both Hughes and Jones portray broken families in the context of troubled societies, but Castagnetti is moodier, more alone than Hughes's Ed Loy. His only friend is less a personality than a property owner who hosts Castagnetti's beehives, and perhaps the most personal moment in the story shows the detective turning honeycomb into bee balm, a pot of which he presents to a charming but reluctant witness in an attempt to elicit information. The story is complex, and with a jaundiced view of Italian politics that will be familiar to readers of Italian crime fiction by natives and immigrant authors like Donna Leon (or for that matter readers of nonfiction and newspaper articles about Italy). The Salati Case is fairly short, 260 pages in an "A format," mass-market-sized paperback, but is a thoroughly fleshed out tale full of interesting characters. It's also less bloody than many current crime novels, though there is violence against murder victims and against the detective himself: Jones begins not with a corpse but with a missing person, and when he encounters violence against himself, it's in (somewhat delayed) response to a bit of detective bravado that the reader may find as just cause for the beating he gets. One quibble, and perhaps someone more knowledgeable than myself about Italian police matters can help with this: Castagnetti seems to be looking for his Carabinieri contact at the Questura; I thought that the national police were found at the Questura, while the Carabinieri, a military police force, had their station elsewhere. There's another Castagnetti case in the works, and it will be interesting to see where Jones takes his Parma detective. There's also another new detective series set in Italy (in Florence), by another English writer, Christobel Kent, whose A Time of Mourning (which shares a bit of pacing but not much in tone with The Salati Case) will be reviewed here soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shane Maloney: Sucked In

Australian author Shane Maloney has been compared to Carl Hiaasen but his books actually have more in common with Garbhan Downey's comic crime/political novels of Northern Ireland (though Maloney's comedy is a bit less manic than Downey's). It took me a while to get a copy of the 6th and most recent of Maloney's Murray Whelan novels, published a couple of years ago, but the wait was worth it. Though Murray (a first-person narrator) wise cracks as usual Sucked In is a bit more seriously political than its predecessors. The story begins with a body emerging from a draining lake (shades of Arnaldur Indridason, though in a much lighter vein) and continues with a detailed tour through the politics of the state of Victoria. It's nearing the end of the millennium, and Murray is now a member of the state parliament, and his Australian Labour Party is, as usual, out of power. Another death, related to the corpse in the lake, creates an opening in the federal parliament and party officials, national and local, are jockeying for position in the race to fill the seat. The murder mystery is at the center of the political struggle as well, but the book is really not a "Murray Whelan Thriller" as the cover blurb promises: there's a bit of violence and a bit of blackmail, but the focus is mostly on political matters. For anyone familiar with Murray, the political focus will be no surprise and no disappointment, but for those unfamiliar with his career, it might be better to start from the beginning (or perhaps with the pair of TV movies made from the first two books some years ago, intermittently available outside Australia, Stiff and The Brush Off). Once hooked, it's Murray's voice that will lead you on through his personal travails and (very occasional) triumphs. Plus some very funny sex scenes, particularly in the new book.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Slow Horses, by Mick Herron

I began Mick Herron's new Slow Horses with some hesitation, not knowing anything about the author and not being a huge fan of the "MI5" or "CIA" thriller. And Slow Horses is indeed about MI5, the U.K. domestic intelligence service (and subject of the TV series that's called "Spooks" in the U.K. and "MI5" in the U.S.). But Herron is not a conventional thriller writer, and Slow Horses is not conventional in any way. Just when you think you know what's going on, the novel twists away into something different, often enough that the effect is comic rather than annoying: Herron isn't tricking the reader, he's creating a story that, while remaining a thriller, is a farce with a deeply cynical attitude toward the intelligence establishment (more so even than "Spooks" or Le Carre), the government, and the general public. It's very difficult to say anything about the plot (or even the characters) without spoiling the plot (and the fun), but in its barest bones, Slow Horses is about a group of agents cast out of the inner circle of the organization (literally and figuratively) for various reasons (mistakes like leaving a computer disk on the train--one element stolen from reality). In fact, the first chapters of the book are about a spectacular mistake on the part of what seems to be the central character, River Cartwright (whose very name suggests a different sort of novel), and his attempt to redeem himself by stealing a file from a flash drive that he is not supposed to see. But the process he sets in motion shifts and twists so that a reader is pulled along both by the plot (murky though it is at times) and by the pleasure of the chase that the author provides. This is one of those novels that uses all the resources of writing--it is very much a written story rather than a film-on-the-page, like so many thrillers. Even when you think you've caught Herron in a typo or an inconsistency, beware of making any assumptions (even that is perhaps too much of a spoiler). If anyone has any recommendations about Herron's other detective and spy novels, please pass them along: I'm definitely looking for another one...