Sunday, May 30, 2010

Declan Hughes and City of Lost Girls (Irish noir detective)

Declan Hughes is speaking in tongues in his new City of Lost Girls, and it's the voices that matter in this novel. There is the usual first-person narration from is Dublin detective, Ed Loy, plus third person flows of stream of consciousness from Ed's new girlfriend Anne and from the serial killer, plus occasional third-person portraits of Ed in his earlier years, in California and a couple of texts from film history books and newspaper articles. The book has numerous aspects that normally put me off: celebrity culture, the making of a movie full of Hollywood stars (and actual actors make cameo appearances, along with fictional ones), the serial killer, California flashbacks; but all of the voices in the book are compelling, whether it's Ed worrying about the two cases his old filmmaker friend presents him (some anonymous letters and some missing girls, extras on the film), Anne's worry about becoming a suburban housewife, everyone's worries about the Irish economy--even the serial killer is a more personable sort, in the horrible logic of his crimes. One aspect that might be a flaw or a virtue depending on your attitude toward serial killer stories: Only two of the numerous killing episodes are actually depicted (even in the killer’s own narrative), the rest left anonymous. The result maintains a focus on the intertwining voices rather than the lurid crimes. The resolution of the story also undercuts the clichés of serial-killer-dom, aiming to be true to the characters instead. Hughes takes his California-style noir detective back to California, complete with film stars, studio business, and the double focus on low-life criminals and upper class families that has characterized the whole series (the two intersecting in this book in a novel twist). The U.S. edition, published by William Morrow, emphasizes the geography at the Irish end of the story, while the U.K. edition published by John Murray emphasizes the cinematic quality of the book, from the hazy, disturbing image to the tag-line, "Ed Loy in...City of Lost Girls," as if the cover were a film poster and Ed Loy were the star. I suppose each publisher is aiming for a visual angle that's exotic to each of the audiences, and I'm not sure which I prefer: thoughts?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Henning Mankell's The Man from Beijing

The Man from Beijing, the latest of Henning Mankell's Swedish crime novels to make it into English, starts out with a fascinating story, reminiscent distantly of the premise of his first Wallander novel, Faceless Killers. First a wolf and then a dying man discover dead bodies in a hamlet near a small town in northern Sweden, alerting (just barely) the police to check out the group of houses that make up the little village. An unconventional cop is immediately stressed by the 19 bodies that are discovered, groping to discover what has happened and why. That cop, nicknamed Vivi, is immediately one of Mankell's most interesting characters, but after a few chapters the scene shifts to a judge (also female) in southern Sweden who will be the major character of most of the rest of the story. The judge, Birgitta Roslin, is also an interesting person but I found myself wishing for more of Vivi instead. Birgitta's story includes a curious family history, a troubled marriage, and in the course of what (after her initial discovery of a similar crime in Nevada) can hardly be called an investigation (more a blundering hither and thither all the way from Skåne to China) there's an old diary from her mother's step-parents' father (concerning his life in the U.S. running a railroad work crew), a wild coincidence in China (concerning Birgitta's encounter with a security agent after a mugging), and a lot of worried speculation that ultimately leads to a murder attempt and a killing. In an alternate plot, we discover the dark history and subsequent diary of a Chinese family descended from a worker who is kidnapped into near slavery to work on the U.S. railroads and then journeys with much difficulty and travail back to China. Another diarist, one of the Chinese descendants, is a greedy and possibly psychopathic entrepreneur of the present day, and his story begins to alternate with Birgitta's, once the historical phase of the story is told. Though there are elements of the story that resonate with my own ancestors (one of my Swedish grandmother's cousins came to the U.S. to work on the building of the railways, and then moved back to the family farm near my grandmother's original home in southern Sweden, a town not unlike (except in geography) that northern Swedish hamlet at the beginning of The Man from Beijing. But through the whole story, I wished I was following instead the dogged (though mistaken) pursuit of the case by Vivi, an echo of Wallander's dogged and frequently mistaken pursuit of the Faceless Killers. Mankell sometimes indulges in political/philosophical diatribes (explicitly spoken as well as implied in his narratives) and there's plenty of that here, concerning the U.S.'s role in the world, European colonialism, treatment of Africa by the rest of the world, the direction of China, and a proposed re-colonization of Africa. No problem with that per se, and Mankell's style is tilted toward narrative rather than dialogue (so the discussions of global politics are pretty well integrated into the story), but somewhere along the way he lost me in this book. There are some metaphorical connections/coincidences that seem under-exploited (Birgitta's husband, for example, is a train conductor on the Swedish railway) and others leaned upon a bit too heavily (in the Chinese villain's obsession, making him almost too much of an obvious villain and exposing his role in the murders very early along). The conclusion brings some closure, but not really any clear resolution, for Birgitta and particularly for the police investigation (perhaps enough for some readers, but not quite satisfying for me, particularly given the fact that we all know by at least halfway through the book what's going on, at least we know far more than Birgitta or the cops). I was afraid from reading previous reviews that I wouldn't even be able to finish The Man from Beijing, but I found that it has its virtues, in the fluid style of the writing and especially in those vivid and gripping early chapters. But I could not help but wish for more of that, and less of what the novel actually became.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Irish police procedural: The White Gallows, Rob Kitchin

Rob Kitchin’s second novel, The White Gallows, follows Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy through a complex series of cases following the non-resolution of the Raven case (the subject of his first novel, The Rule Book). The White Gallows is a straightforward police procedural (and not a serial-killer story like The Rule Book), told in plain, clear language in such a way as to suggest a dramatic reading (I don’t mean that the story is melodramatic but that the style is both verbal and visual, the story told largely in dialogue both face-to-face and through cell-phone conversations but also with a detailed “embodiment” in various sites among small towns, farms, and estates to the west of Dublin. The straightforwardness of the style is an effective contrast to a story that includes buried treasure, bank robbery, executions, family relations of both violent and sexual natures, and interpenetration of the present and the past. One interesting aspect of the book is its portrait of Ireland as part of Europe, both in terms of present immigration and historical links to a World War II that we (at a safe distance) might assume Ireland to have avoided. The overstressed detective, with too many cases and too few resources, is also an effective lens through which to view a post-Tiger Ireland’s economic and social stresses. The cases involve a con man preying on economically depressed populace, the murder of a very rich German immigrant who has been in Ireland since the late 1940s, an unidentified corpse found near Trim Castle, a gangland attack on a witness that turns into a full-scale war with the police, and a woman probably murdered by her husband. Plus the detective is struggling to save time for his daughter and to deal with a memorial service on the occasion of the first anniversary of his wife’s death. Kitchin handles the overload very well, though, keeping the focus on McEvoy as he bounces from one thing to another, dealing with hostile local police officials, police hierarchy, and press. This is not a thriller: there are no tense rescue scenarios or urban gunfights and only a short car chase, and not every thread is resolved at the end, adding to the sense of reality. McEvoy is not one of those super-confident cops from Hollywood, he’s constantly second-guessing his decisions, he’s frequently grasping at straws, and like Ben Devlin, Brian McGilloway’s detective from Ireland’s northwest, he frequently goes too far, making impulsive decisions and angering powerful people. But he is persistent, and if anything too dedicated to his job (a lot of his second-guessing has to do with the job’s absorption of his time to his family’s detriment). A good procedural isn’t about guessing the solution to a mystery, it’s about piecing things together bit by bit until the truth of the story emerges. In The White Gallows the truths are those of family, money, and history, universals that are in this case well grounded in Irish and European realities of past and present.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Global tour of noir

The friendly folks at the Wicked Writers blog (click here posted a sort of "world tour" of edited posts from this blog (one book to a continent) yesterday. Thanks to Supriya Savkoor, one of the "wicked writers" for offering to put up the post. I edited most of the posts down to about a third of their original length, to keep the "tour" down to a reasonable leangth--does that mean that my posts are three times as long as they should be?

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

International Dagger Speculation

Maxine (in a comment to my earlier post today) challenged me to give my list of 6 most deserving books for the CWA International Dagger (the real winners to be announced at CrimeFest on Friday).
OK, here’s my list, drawn from the eligible titles as given on the Eurocrime blog yesterday:

Dominique Manotti, Affairs of State
Deon Meyer, Thirteen Hours
Zygmunt Miloszewski, Entanglement
Jo Nesbo, The Snowman
Johan Theorin, The Darkest Room
Arnaldur Indridason, Hypothermia

There were several other candidates that I mulled over (Karin Fossum's The Water's Edge in particular, and that one might have gotten in my list if I hadn't just finished Entanglement, but also K.O. Dahl, Petros Markaris, Gunnar Staalesen, Stieg Larsson, and others), there were a number that I haven't been able to read yet, and there were a few that I didn't think earned a place even on the short list (Michele Guittari, Selcuk Altun, neither of which I much appreciated), and there are a number of deserving books that either just aren't to my taste or aren't fresh in my memory. So my list isn't very much good in terms of predictions, I'm sure.

Thanks for the challenge, Maxine. Anybody else have short lists to offer?

Polish noir: Zygmunt Miloszewski's Entanglement

Zygmunt Miloszewski's Entanglement, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and published by Bitter Lemon Press, is part procedural, part puzzle, part secret-police intrigue, and in the end, a coherent whole that's funny, engaging, and even profound. There are multiple references to crime fiction from Europe and America, and the denouement proceeds in part with a clever and original take on the classic "get-them-all-in-a-room-and-see-what-happens" scenario à la the classic country-house stories or Simenon's Maigret books. The story mostly follows Prosecutor Teodor Szacki as he struggles to unravel a case that resembles the "locked room" mystery in some ways: a man is murdered during a weekend group therapy session in a monastery/retreat in Warsaw, found with a skewer piercing his eye and brain. As Szacki struggles with a surfeit of suspects and a paucity of evidence, we get to witness a fully rounded character in a difficult situation: Szacki reads crime fiction, plays computer games, loves his wife and daughter but is sorely tempted by a young reporter, struggles with his reluctant police colleague and his superior (who's more human and complex than many bosses in police procedurals), and exhibits a lot of humor as well as angst. Occasionally we glimpse the scene through the eyes of a mysterious and almost omniscient older man whose ghostly presence becomes more and more important as the story shifts from straight murder mystery to political thriller and back again. And Szacki ends up in the midst of several existential dilemmas, faced with threats to his professionalism, his family, and his sense of self. If the story moves slowly in the early stages, with Szacki's interviews of the therapy group and his investigation into the therapist's unorthodox methods (as well as other cases he has to deal with), the comedy in the prosecutor's comments and observations keeps the tone light and engaging and as the pressure accumulates the story's hold on the reader tightens. When the resolution comes, as Szacki reconvenes the therapy group in a very theatrical way, everything becomes quickly clear, and then gets muddied again. Szacki remains unsure of his situation and his case up to the last sentence and (I hope) into further installmenets of Miloszewski's series yet to be translated. There is, by the way, a diagonal cross through the "l" in Miloszewski that I can't reproduce with my keyboard. My previous encounters with Polish fiction are with Przybyszewski, Witkiewicz, Bruno Schulz, Gombrowicz, and Kosinski (whose Painted Bird includes an assault on an eye even more viscerally disturbing that the one in Entanglement): each with a particular strain of decadence, oddness, and philosophy that can at least be seen in some overtones in Miloszewski's novel--but Miloszewski refers to crime writers rather than those Polish authors and his emphasis in the end is on more recent Polish history and on contemporary Polish life and balances lightness and depression very well in the prosecutor's character and his story. I wish I could figure out how to pronounce some of the names in the story, though--I wouldn't want a pronouncing dictionary to be included in the text, but it's still distracting to keep running over all those names with no sense of how they should sound--my loss or my fault, I guess (and I'm guessing that Szacki is pronounced something like Shotski--anybody know?).

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Scottish crime farce: Donna Moore's Old Dogs

It's difficult to talk about the plot of Donna Moore's Old Dogs without spoiling some of the pleasures of discovery (and I would recommend not reading any reviews or cover blurbs in advance, if at all possible). This is a farce (from the French word for "stuffed")--not a satire because there's not really a moral to the tale, not a parody though there is plenty of reference to old standards of the crime gere--and the plot is indeed overstuffed with a motley crew of thieves, monks, cops, and pompous bureaucrats circling around a pair of ancient golden Shih Tzu dogs that are about to go on display in a Glasgow museum. All of the action points toward the trainwreck of heist attempts, but Moore gives us much more, continuing the action (and the fun) long after the heist itself (she even saves a final fillip for the last page). Suffice it to say that there are twists and turns a-plenty and all the characters, from the most unsympathetic ned (see Moore's blog for a very funny definition of that term) to the most sympathetic heroine (heroines, really, and there are quite a few) bear the ups and downs of the furious plot. Her method is more related to the French farce than to the Dortmunder novels of Donald Westlake (which are very funny but center on a single character and his cohorts); Old Dogs does perhaps take sides among all the characters, but each of them gets his or her due, in one way or another, in terms of "face time" within the story. The book is very funny, as anyone would expect if they've been following Moore's blog, Big Beat from Badsville (see here), one of the most enjoyable crime fiction blogs. I need to go back and get a copy of her other book, Go to Helena Handbasket now. There are two covers for Old Dogs, from U.K. and U.S.--neither really captures the manic energy of the book but each in its own way suggests an aspect or two of the story. I think I like the (as yet unreleased) American version better graphically, but the suggestive combination of tea and semi-automatic on the U.K. version is definitely a funnier visual! Old Dogs is not just for crime fiction fans, but the afficianados of the heist story (in film and fiction) and other subdivisions of mystery/thriller writing will be especially rewarded by the tale.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Rising, Brian McGilloway

Brian McGilloway's new The Rising features his series detective, Ben Devlin being as impulsive or even more than in earlier books. Devlin is a particularly human cop, not characterized by alcoholism or loneliness or depression like so many fictional detectives but by an acute sympathy with victims and friends, and a certain lack of awareness of how his well-meaning actions are sometimes perceived by others. He retains his anxieties (and suffered from panic attacks in previous novels) until he bursts into unwise action (particularly in The Rising), and since the novels are told in the first person, from his point of view, we are intimately acquainted with his intentions as well as his mistakes. In The Rising, he is tossed into a case involving anti-drug vigilantes who are not quite what they seem, post-Good-Friday-Agreement paramilitaries, his brusque and unsympathetic boss, a tragedy in a former partner's life, and tensions at home having to do with his daughter's reaching her teen-anguish years and his wife's continuing irritation at his absences from home. At times his home life and his unofficial investigation into his ex-partner's tragedy take precedence over his official investigation, and all of his activities threaten to disintegrate into disaster and chaos. In fact, Devlin is running frantically from one problem to another, in what we should all recognize as panic mode, when too much is happening on too many fronts. The strength of McGilloway's stories is the ordinariness of his main character and the directness of his writing (along the way, he also tells us a great deal about life on the northwestern borderlands between Ireland and Northern Ireland). The Rising is a book for fans of all varieties of crime fiction: it blurs boundaries between genres as much as between countries and jurisdictions and cultures. The ambiguities that remain at the end are simply a reflection of McGilloway's overall attention to the daily realities (both dramatic and undramatic) that we will recognize as much from our own lives as from the crime columns of the daily paper.