Thursday, June 24, 2010

foreign forgotten friday: Czech noir circa 1968

One of the staples of contemporary crime writing is the detective struggling against a police hierarchy that will not allow him to solve a case, because of sensitive social or political issues, usually concerning people who are for various reasons above the law (sometimes "national security," sometimes social prominence or political clout). Two examples I can think of are the forthcoming Collusion by Stuart Neville, wherein the "special branch" of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (though no longer called the special branch) will not allow Inspector Lennon to investigate what's actually happening because of the lingering power of certain parties formerly at war in the Troubles. In almost all of Donna Leon's Brunetti novels, the detective is unable to bring the criminal to justice not because he doesn't know what happened but because the villain is too well connected socially (to prominent citizens or the government) or criminally (to the Mafia). In today's "foreign forgotten friday" entry we can see another version of the theme: Repeatedly, Lieutenant Boruvka of the Prague police, in 1968, cannot bring murders to justice because Communist Party members are untouchable or the crimes committed reveal truths that are politically untenable. Josef Skvorecky wrote the stories that make up the four books featuring Boruvka in the years just before and just after his emigration from Czechoslovakia to Canada in 1968. The last book (The Return of Lieutenant Boruvka) deals with the detective after he has himself fled the Eastern Bloc, and the first two books, Sins for Father Knox and The Mournful Demeanor of Lieutenant Boruvka, are collections of entertaining puzzle mysteries with social and political overtones. The End is a collection of stories that collectively add up to be a novel, concerning the days just before and after the Soviet invasion that closed off the Prague Spring in '68, not from the point of view of political activists, students, etc., but from the point of view of a melancholy civil servant, a cop, who retains enough humanity to be dismayed by the obstacles thrown in his way by those who would conceal what really is happening. The stories frequently feature Boruvka's young daughter Zuzana, a who is, at the beginning of the book, pregnant and unwilling to name the father but is at the point of marrying someone who isn't. The cases concern a prostitute who has overdosed on an unlikely drug, a missing-person cold case that is revived when a body appears, two teenage girls shot with a military weapon, a murdered delivery driver who came up against corrupt colleagues, and the death of a retired bureaucrat who may have been investigating "anti-state activity." Boruvka isn't brilliant but he's dogged and humane, qualities that might serve him well in other circumstances but here cause him grief. He provides an entertaining if melancholy glimpse into the crimes committed by individuals and by governments in a previous time, as well as the personal tragedies and small triumphs that a humane person may suffer. Maj Sjöwall says that the subtitle of all the Martin Beck novels she wrote with Per Wahlöö, The Story of a Crime, refers to the social welfare system of Sweden in the 1970s, not to the crimes committed by characters in the novels. Skvorecky tells the story of a different crime, that of the Soviet-imposed Communist government and bureaucracy of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, told, as with the Beck novels, through the filter of the ordinary crimes that Boruvka has to deal with. Skvorecky has used the detective form elsewhere (notably in The Miracle Game), but never with as light a touch as in the Boruvka stories, a lightness that is a perfect foil for the heaviness of the interference Boruvka experiences and the gloominess of the social milieu.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Shamini Flint's Inspector Singh at home in Singapore

Shamini Flint's new Inspector Singh Investigates: The Singapore School of Villainy is the third in her Southeast Asia series that in previous episodes has visited Malaysia and Bali. Actually it was also the first: I reviewed her first novel, Partners in Crime, some time ago, and she has rewritten that story partly to make it consistent with the now-developed series (and she told me that she wished she'd just written an altogether new story, since it was more effort to rewrite the existing one that it would have been to start over). But the new version is an improvement on the original, which occasionally veered toward a romance rather than a crime novel, with the most central character being not Inspector Singh but one of the lawyers in a firm with a large office in Singapore, Annie Nathan. Now Flint has turned the whole plot over (in some ways that I can't suggest without spoilers), and though much of the material from Annie's point of view remains, the focus is more in the short, portly Sikh detective, who's a more promising focus for what is becoming a long-running crime series. Annie's partners in the law firm are a true nest of vipers, each a criminal (in some sense) in his or her own right. When the senior partner is murdered in his office after hours, it's the partners who are the primary suspects because the office requires key-card access. But one of the cards is missing, and several characters, including both the murdered man's current and ex wives, have good motives. Whereas Partners in Crime relied on an Agatha=Christie-esque confrontation to reach a resolution, the new one calls more upon Singh's instincts (though the original confrontation scene is still there, in altered form, as one of many red herrings. Overall, The Singapore School of Villainy is a good detective story, an enlightening glimpse into the corners of a prosperous but highly controlled city state (and not a tourist-board whitewash), and an investigation of the many forms in which one may besmirch one's own character and reputation. High marks on all counts. Plus we get to see Singh on his home turf, with a great deal more of his wife, his boss, and his fellow cops, fleshing out the portrait of Singapore murder squad and life in the city state. And for anyone who has access to Partners in Crime, it's interesting to see a writer at work, turning a story into quite something different, while retaining much of the interest of the original.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Stuart Neville: Collusion

A good writer can find a story in what seems like there's not one: Stuart Neville's The Ghosts of Belfast (known in the U.K. as The Twelve) ended with little hint that there was more story to tell, but Collusion is indeed a fully realized sequel as powerful as the first novel. The threads that Neville pulls from the ruins of Gerry Fagen's life at the end of The Ghosts of Belfast include the eerie connection that he has established with young Ellen McKenna, as well as Gerry's promise to Marie, Ellen's mother, when he leaves her with a cell phone number for him. Also, readers of Ghosts will remember that Ellen's father, who abandoned Marie before his daughter's birth, was (as a policeman) the cause of Marie's estrangement not just from her family but from her entire community. The father, Jack Lennon (as a Catholic who enlisted in the police when it was still a bastion of Protestant Loyalism) suffered the same loss, and he's still an odd man out in the newly reorganized police of Northern Ireland. The other central character who remains from Ghosts is Bull O'Kane, one of a few survivors from Gerry's rampage. O'Kane, now in a nursing home he has eerily taken over entirely, has hired an assassin, known only The Traveller (implying a never-verified link to the outcast community of Travellers), and a good deal of the new novel follows his own rampage, echoing Gerry's in many ways. Gerry is now illegally in the U.S., though we know that, like Adrian McKinty's Michael Forsythe in The Bloomsday Dead, he will be pulled back home to protect someone who has no real claim on him. There's a dimension of Collusion that goes beyond Bloomsday Dead, related to the setting of Neville's novels in the North: the Collusion of his title refers to relations among British Army, the police, the Loyalists, the IRA, and so on, during the long violence so recently becalmed.
Both Michael and Gerry were gangsters of a sort, but Gerry was political, and also, thanks to his ghosts, has nightmares if not exactly regrets about his career. Now that he has satisfied his ghosts, his nightmare now is psychological and perhaps psychic vision that hovers over the whole story like a premonition. When the violence (and this is a very violent story) begins to escalate, there's an element of two famous movies in the story: the first Terminator and the great Grand Illusion (if you know those movies you'll probably guess the grim comedy that Collusion shares with them--if not, let me know and I'll post the answer). And as the violence and also the pace escalates the novel becomes more and more compelling, the more so because as it moves along there are twists that take the story beyond the obvious directions. The first and more ambiguous of the two covers posted here is apparently the U.S. design, and the other, plainly showing a gunman and one of the novel's scenes, is the U.K. version. I think I like the hazy U.S. one better than the pulp-y U.K. one in this case, though both are evocative. One of the sites on-line that advertises the release of Collusion suggests that one of the characters who survives the novel may be the center of yet another unlikely sequel: once again, perhaps, Neville will (fortunately for readers) find a great story in the ashes of the current one. I for one will be waiting impatiently: Collusion is a disturbing, unrelenting, and vivid trip into the nightmare aftermath of social, criminal, and personal death and destruction.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday

At Patti Abbot's suggestion, I'm starting a "foreign forgotten friday" series of posts on forgotten or too-little-known crime novels from outside the U.S. (and mostly outside the U.K. too). First, I want to acknowledge a couple of presses who published some of the books I'll be talking about: it's too infrequently noted that Serpent's Tail Press and SoHo Crime were carrying the banner for translated and non-U.S.-U.K. crime fiction for years before the field caught on with the wider reading public, and years before some of the now-prominent small presses in the fiels came to be (Bitter Lemon, Europa, etc.)--that is to say, long before the mainstream publishers discovered or acknowledged that there's great stuff out there beyond the Atlantic-crossing between New York and London. The first book I want to offer in the series is one from Serpent's Tail that is apparently now unfortunately out of print (though there should be a number of second-hand copies floating around in book stores and the internet ether). I've talked about it briefly before: Pieke Biermann's Violetta, featuring Berlin police detective Karin Lietze, published in its German original the year after the fall of the Wall. Biermann's detective is caught up in several murder investigations that involve racism, a serial killer, a band of vengeful feminists, and other denizens of an apocalyptic, millennial Berlin. The novel is a satirical and kaleidoscopic view of Berlin street life just as the Soviet bloc was coming apart but before the fall of the Wall, is amusing and entertaining, and I wish more of her work were available in English. Violetta is a self-conscious "novel," in the sense that there is literary as well as social satire, and the point of view jumps all over the place, but the surface level of the narrative itself is always lively, frequently funny, and at the same time very dark. Biermann's novel is in a way a meta-noir, a commentary on the form, as well as having some nostalgic looks backward toward the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood's famous stories. Violetta is a lot of fun to read, and shares a bit (in the detective's point of view, mostly) with Alicia Gimemez-Bartlett's Petra Delicado novels from Spain: both have a comic tone (though Violetta is darker and perhaps more decadent) and where Petra is (at least at first) hesitant and inexperienced, Karin Lietze is at the world-weary peak of her career. Once again, I wish that there were more of Bierman's work available in English, and perhaps at least that Violetta will find enough buzz on-line to encourage Serpent's Tail to bring it back into print. One further comment about "foreign forgotten friday": is anybody interested in a challenge? Look for forgotten crime fiction from beyond your own borders (and language) and let us know what you find.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Toronto Noir: John McFetridge's Let It Ride/Swa

John McFetridge's third crime novel is called Swap in Canada and Let it Ride in the U.S. It's a sequel, of sorts, to the first two (Dirty Sweet and Everybody Knows This is Nowhere)--and perhaps Let it Ride/Swap is not the place to start with McFetridge (though I would definitely recommend reading him, starting from the beginning). McFetridge is telling a story with a big canvas, not with a single main character but with a complex and shifting cast of characters that flows from one book to another. And Swap/Let it Ride provides both a new story and some amplification and background to what happened in the first two books. It's also even more cinematic in the style, with narrative that sticks to the point of view of the person "on camera" at any particular moment, and elliptical, sometimes street-slangy dialogue that's very realistic, once your ear (and eye) gets used to it (some is in quote marks, some not, sometimes there's "he said" and sometimes not): the style moves very fast, shifting among the characters in short sections headed with the names of the characters who're at the center of that section, within the longer chapters. There's also no introduction to the characters, old or new: but trust me, go with the flow and it will all start to come into focus, moving unpredictably toward an unconventional end, rather like Elmore Leonard (to whom McFetridge is favorably but perhaps too often compared, since his voice is distinctively his own even though he pays homage to the Detroit master in several ways in the new book). The main threads of Let it Ride/Swap are: the continuing saga of the biker gang that has moved west from Montreal and is taking over all the crime action in Canada; Get, a young U.S. Army vet from Detroit, who has come to Canada to meet with J.T., a Canadian Afganistan vet that he contacted while overseas (both using their service to set up networks for importing drugs and guns (J.T. is about to become a "full patch" in the biker gang); Maureen McKeon, a city cop who doesn't really want to go home at night to her house-husband and new, colicky baby; Sunitha, a "rub and tug" sex worker of Indian descent who moonlights as a female "Omar" (if you remember The Wire), stealing from massage parlors and straight businesses, and dreaming of a bigger and more dangerous score); mobsters of the biker and Italian varieties; several characters from the previous books, gangters and not; and a few others. There's no artificial "clockwork" plot bringing all of them together: instead, it's character that drives the story forward, through dialogue, toward several conclusions that only seem inevitable once you've reached them. There's a lot of background to the biker gangs in Canada, explaining much of what was assumed in the earlier books and moving the gang's story forward into a new phase. The violence and the power of the gangs (and the powerlessness of the cops to do much about them) might seem to give a dark, pessimistic tone to the story, but instead, there's a strange positive attitude for at least the survivors of the events: you might not want to meet any of these people (cops or bad guys) in dark (or even bright) alleys, but they're very engaging in McFetridge's telling of the tale. Among Canadian crime writers, McFetridge is the one who's next book I'm most looking forward to, and his on my A-list of international crime as well.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Michael Stanley's Second Kubu Bengu novel

I usually save the discussion of covers for the end of a review, but the contrast in cover and title of the U.S. and U.K. versions of the new "Michael Stanley" novel, A Deadly Trade in U.K. (published by Hodder Headline) and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu in U.S. (published by Harper Collins) editions is particularly stark. I think I prefer the photographic evocation of the African landscape (though the title is actually a bit of a red herring) of the Headline version, but the Harper/Collins version's graphics are definitely suggestive of African art, and the U.S. title has a certain Pirandellian ring to it that evokes the central mystery (and the overall tone) of the book in an interesting way. Thoughts? Michael Stanley is of course the pen name of the writing team Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, South African natives and long-time friends whose writing career began with a provocative idea for getting rid of a corpse (ultimately resulting in A Carrion Death and the creation of their main character, Kubu, whose name means Hippo in Setswana, the language of Botswana where the books are set, and whose name describes his physique). A Deadly Trade, to use the more compact version of the 2nd novel's title, begins with a murderous night in a safari camp in northern Botswana, to which local cop Tatwa Mooka is called and, feeling the need of more senior assistance, calls his friend and superior officer Kubu, who comes up from the capital, Gaborone. The set-up is rather like a locked-room mystery, and many aspects of this series resemble traditional mysteries and cozies: Kubu's family life is rather sweeter than one might find in the case of a noir detective, and many of the secondary and incidental characters are drawn with almost the same assumption of basic goodness as one finds in the Botswana novels of Alexander McCall Smith. But within those characteristics, A Deadly Trade is essentially a police procedural, hammering away at a crime that grows more complex as it is investigated, rather than simpler. And the placid home life of Kubu is disrupted by threats and kidnappings as the spreading disorder pushes in. It's not just the murders and the villains (actual and suspected) that deepen the tone of the novel, there's also (as the mysteries begin to be solved by Kubu and Tatwa) a portrayal of southern African realpolitik, in the relations among the governments and police forces of the region and also in the "traffic" at the heart of the novel (I can't get more specific without giving too much away). The contrast among the political complexities, murderous crimes, and positive (rather than gloomy and flawed) main characters create a whole that will probably be interesting and enjoyable for McCall-Smith fans as well as procedural and noir fans (maybe stretching the limits that each group has set for itself, in terms of genre boundaries). The portrait of Botswana gives a sense of culture and countryside but also a sense of a peaceful, almost innocent, people caught between larger and more dangerous forces on all sides. Perhaps someone knowledgeable about the country can offer an opinion about the accuracy of Michael Stanley's portrait of the country and its residents, but from the outside it seems rather accurate and certainly sympathetic and believable.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Giuttari, Downing, and Jungersen

I suppose everyone goes through patches where everything you pick up to read disappoints, and I'm on a string of those. Not that they're bad books, necessarily, they just don't hook me in. I started reading Christian Jungersen's The Exception last week and just haven't been able to get into it: it's about 4 women who work for a genocide information organization in Denmark--but the book isn't about genocide, for the most part, it's about the tension that develops among them in the workplace. The premise is actually brilliant, an investigation of evil and of the structure of personality (are we all multiple personalities?) boiled down to the intimate level of people who work together and mutually irritate one another. There are also death threats (from outside the group), kidnapping, heroism, and eventually murder: but mostly it's the four characters being irritated and irritating. Maybe I've been in too many workplace situations like that, but I just couldn't take the atmosphere in this fictional workplace. The Exception is very well written and flows along smoothly (though it's a bit long), and there are some nice twists along the way, some of them having to do with the title and the possibility of doing evil, a very interesting topic, and a fruitful one for crime fiction. I just couldn't stay with the characters. I've started David Downing's Stettin Station several times and just end up putting it down every time. It's well written and very evocative of World War II era Berlin, already at war but since the Americans haven't entered the war yet, the main character, who carries a U.S. passport, can remain on in the city as part-journalist and part-double agent. I'm not a huge fan of historical mysteries, particularly anti-Nazi ones, but what keeps stopping me is that this particular book is about movie stars (in Nazi films, rather like the plot of Inglorious Basterds, which I though was an awful movie) and top brass in the hierarchy, more than about the grim everyday life (which was the strength of Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir books, in my opinion). I'm sure most readers will disagree, maybe I'm just getting up on the wrong side of the book cover lately. The most recent of my string of bad reads was Michele Giuttari's The Death of a Mafia Don, which I also started and dropped several times before making it all the way through. The best part of this book is that Giuttari's main character, Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara of the Squadra Mobile of Florence, is offstage a lot more than usual. The book is more interesting when the other characters, even the mafia ones, are at center stage instead of the pompous, self-impressed Ferrara (plainly based on the author, a former Florentine cop). The book is (like the others in the series) so earnest, too, without any leavening of cop humor or any side interests on the part of the main characters. And I kept getting a sense of déjà vu about the plot--I realized that a lot of the plot overlaps a great deal with seasons 6 and 7 of the Italian TV drama about the Mafia, La Piovra, even in terms of settings (the demolished town of Gibbelina for one--though to be fair this earthquake-destroyed town with it's center paved over in a cement cap like a nuclear accident--is too good to pass up). La Piovra ends rather differently, though, with little of Ferrara's ultimate success in bringing anyone to justice. Millions of readers worldwide can't be all wrong, though, I guess--I'm just being dyspeptic again, probably. I do enjoy riding around Florence with Ferrara and the other characters: a bit of nostalgia-by-crime-novel that's very pleasant.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Crime in Argentina

Ernesto Mallo's Needle in a Haystack (translated by Jethro Soutar and published by Bitter Lemon Press) uses unconventional means to tell a difficult story. There are two threads to the tale, one beginning with Detective "Perro" Lascano, who is dispatched to a site where two bodies have been discovered, and finds instead that there are three bodies, showing evidence of two different crimes. One of the crimes is political (this is the era of the "disappeared" and the dirty war, with the military freely attacking dissidents in the interests of power and ideological purity). The political crimes can, of course, not be investigated. but Perro takes the third body as a personal project, along with his friend the medical examiner. Along the way, he also discovers a young radical woman on the run who resembles his deceased wife, and who disrupts his comfortable but empty life. The other thread deals with Amancio, a privileged but feckless young man who can't support his lifestyle or that of his wife and has resorted to money-lenders (giving rise to a good deal of anti-Semitism, since the loan shark is a Holocaust survivor). Amancio has recourse to a school friend who is now an Army officer as well as to the loan shark's greedy younger brother as he digs himself further into debt and approaches financial and social ruin. Along the way, many aspects of 1970s Argentina are explored, including the expropriation of the children of the disappeared and the moral justifications indulged in by the power structure for this and other atrocities. There is a time gap between the two alternating sections of the tale that narrows toward the end, when the stories collide. Building up to that point, the novel seems less like a crime novel than a philosophical tale, but the investigation and the crimes reach a fever pitch in the last half of the book. The unconventional structure of the dialogue (sections of italic text with no indication of who is speaking, or where one speaker stops and another starts) are a little distracting at first, but go with the flow and you'll quickly adjust to the technique and have no trouble telling once voice from another. There are numerous literary references (to Joyce, Borges, etc.) but they don't distract from the forward motion of the narrative. Needle in a Haystack deals with difficult material but never bogs down into tendentious hectoring. Mallo was himself a member of a revolutionary movement, but his narrator carefully maintains a focus on each of the characters without tilting the bias toward the revolutionaries, the military, or those who are simply coping as best they can with the situation. This vivid and humane novel is the first of a series (though at the end you will wonder how Mallo manages to do a sequel), and also the basis of some movies. I find myself anxiously awaiting translation of the sequels (much as I was anxious for the subsequent volumes of the very different De Luca series by Carlo Lucarelli).