Thursday, September 30, 2010

foreign forgotten friday: Hugo Hamilton's Headbanger

Ken Bruen is not the only, or even the first, to create a sad poetry of Irish life in crime fiction. In the late ‘90s, just before Bruen’s Jack Taylor first appeared in The Guards, Hugo Hamilton wrote two novels (Headbanger and Sad Bastard) about a complex cop named Pat Coyne. The language of the books is allusive, poetic, brutal, and often funny, more narrative than dialogue, and the action is based on Coyne’s personality, which has some elements of OCD and Aspergers (he collects facts compulsively, especially about nature, and spouts them as a substitute for conversation or social interaction)

He’s trapped in his own head, in terms of making any real contact with other people; he’s good with his kids, though. The melancholy tone and poetic language suggest a range of writers, Irish and otherwise, from Beckett’s early novels to Donleavy’s Ginger Man to the lyrical noir of Jerome Charyn’s too-little-known Isaac Quartet, four novels that the New York Times described as “like a series of subway stops on the way to hell. ”

In Headbanger, Coyne is a uniformed patrol cop, a Garda, in early-Tiger, rapidly changing Dublin, and while dealing with petty crime on the streets, he fixates on a petty criminal, Joe Perry, and a big-time gangster, Drummer Cunningham, who is in the process of legitimizing himself and thereby insulating himself from police retribution—which just makes Coyne angry. Coyne’s wife, Carmel, is just coming into her own after having three kids, delighting in her newfound talent as a painter, and Coyne can’t drag himself out of his antisocial ways and his obsession with Cunningham.

Meanwhile, Cunningham is murdering witnesses, appearing at charity events, and opening a new night club. While Coyne is pursuing Cunningham, against the express orders of his boss, Perry keeps crossing his path and causing mayhem. All the threads of the story come together in a spectacular climax.

Coyne is a man who just can’t stop himself from going too far. The sequel is a kind of coda, extending the sadness and comedy, but Headbanger is complete in itself.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The second Commissario Trotti book by Timothy Williams

It's difficult to say much about the plots of Timothy Williams's Italian crime novels, first because the narrative is very indirect, requiring the reader to do a certain amount of work in tying together the story, and second because a lot of what's interesting about the books is more fun to discover than to be told about in advance. The second of Williams's Piero Trotti series, published in the mid-'80s, is called The Puppeteer in the U.K. and the The Metal Green Mercedes in the U.S. I can't even explain why the U.K. title is more appropriate without giving away a key plot element (linked to a famous Italian scandal that most of us outside Italy will have forgotten, but which resonates in Italian life and politics to this day).

The Trotti books are set in Pavia, near Milan, but a good deal of the action in The Puppeteer takes place on Lake Garda and in Milan. Trotti's wandering wife is in America (in connection with her work for a pharmaceutical company) and their daughter Pioppi is suffering from overwork (for her college courses) and anorexia. Trotti is visiting a family villa near Garda when a man standing next to him at a bar is shot, a professional hit. In seeking to determine whether the intended victim was the dead man or himself, Trotti discovers connections to an odd bank robbery, an attempt to publicize corruption at another bank, and echoes of a famous murder case from the beginning of his own career.

Among the distinctive features of this series is that members of Trotti's team move on (in a manner also adopted by John Brady in his Matt Minogue series) but are drawn back into his orbit when he needs their help. The characters are richly delineated and the plot is carried forward in alternating passages of vivid visual storytelling and realistic, oblique, and frequently darkly comic dialogue. If you find Williams's style difficult to follow at first, you will be rewarded for persistence in his deepening portrait of the crime, the cops, and the citizens implicated in the events.

Don't expect neat resolutions, though. Like Donna Leon, Williams refuses neat endings and portrays even more definitively than Leon the corruption that forecloses justice in Italy. What Williams does, at least in the first two books, is to tie Trotti's investigations into the big picture of Italian politics and society, through Moro's kidnapping in Converging Parallels/The Red Citroën and a pervasive social plague that I won't mention (just remember that "Beta" is the second letter in the alphabet when it crops up in the name of an organization) in The Puppeteer: The title of the first book in the U.K. refers to a speech by Moro, and the title of the second refers to a phrase uttered by a darker figure in Italian history.

A 2004 interview with Williams at the excellent Italian Mysteries site ( indicates that there is a new Trotti book in the pipeline, featuring a now-retired Commissario. I hope the publication of that book moves forward promptly, as at the rate I’m going I’ll have run out of Trotti books in a few weeks…

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tana French: Faithful Place

Faithful Place is the best of Tana French's three crime novels but may disappoint some who appreciated the college-adolescent, closed-circle ambience of her previous book, the Likeness. Though in fact a minor character in that book, Detective Sergeant Frank Mackey of the Dublin undercover squad, is the main character and narrator of Faithful Place (French has been daisy-chaining her main characters like that through all three so far—and there's an interesting cop in a minor role in this book that we can take bets about, as the lead of a future book; his name is Stephen Moran).

Faithful Place takes us into Angela's Ashes territory, which Mackey himself recognizes. He is drawn back into a family he fled 22 years earlier, in the working class Liberties area of Dublin, when the girl whom he was to have run away to England with (but who never showed up at the rendezvous) suddenly seems to have been murdered rather than to have had second thoughts about Mackey. Mackey repeatedly refers to his family in extreme terms, though to me they seemed only a little less horrible than many a family I've had contact with. And Mackey, who was a senior, respected figure in The Likeness, seems to have regressed to young adulthood here. In fact all the males in the book seem like arrested adolescents (perhaps French's point), and her female characters are a lot more interesting as people, and more believable as disappointed-but-get-over-it adults.

Readers will have figured out well before the end who the murderer is, and Mackey is less a cop here than a member of a domestic-Gothic scenario. He, of course, is forbidden to investigate a crime he is so close to, but, of course, manages to do so anyway (fitfully, at least: it's not really his investigation that breaks the case; he's handed the solution by a couple of unlikely figures, but French pulls off the unlikelihood without stretching credibility).

Ireland is here perched just on the verge of economic collapse, and only one person really seems to see it coming (and he seems to be yearning for the disaster). The fact that we know more about that than Mackey as narrator adds a level of melancholy to an already mournful book. There is some leavening humor in the dialogue among the characters, which ranges from civil to mad-attack-dog to pub banter. Faithful Place (named for a street on which most of the action takes place) is not a pleasant book, but it's a truthful and poignant portrait of a cop and a family under extreme stress (from several different sources).

Friday, September 24, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Overlooked Italian crime

A few weeks ago, author Timothy Williams posted a comment here and asked whether anyone remembered his Italian crime series, which features Commissario Trotti, set in a unnamed city that is apparently Pavia, near Milan, on the Po. I confess that I had never heard of the series, five novels published between the early 80s and the mid-90s. I've learned a bit more about them, and finally yesterday got hold of the first in the series, called The Red Citroën in the U.S. and Converging Parallels in the U.K. (more about the titles in a minute).

Williams is almost exactly the same age as Michael Dibdin and Magdalen Nabb, and in the same generation as Donna Leon, and his novels began to appear at about the same time as those three most prominent English-speaking crime novelists specializing in Italian crime. And Williams's series (based on what I've read about the series and on my not-quite-having-finished the first novel) is the equal of those but is, if not forgotten, at least overlooked.

Is the lack of attention based on there being only five Trotti novels? On the fact that the city of the books is not named, thus cutting a nostalgic tie that visitors to Florence or Venice might feel for the works of Leon, Nabb, and sometimes Dibdin? I can't say, but the un-named Pavia of the series is vividly evoked, as is the whole Italian scene (physical, cultural, and social).

In fact, Williams is a very visual storyteller, in brief descriptions of setting and action between the realistic conversations and Trotti's own somewhat melancholy inner dialogues. The characters are not types, they are fully realized, and the setting is solidly anchored in Italian social history: Converging/Citroën concerns the kidnapping of a young girl, but the incident overlaps with the murder of Aldo Moro (in the background here rather than the full subject, as in Leonardo Sciascia's wonderful documentary novel). The Moro kidnapping by the Red Brigades, as well as the very prominently portrayed and discussed local (Communist-dominated) politics of the city, broaden the story out to become much more than a mystery-entertainment.

The U.K. title, Converging Parallels, comes from a phrase used by Moro to describe the "Compromesso Storico," the historic compromise that brought the Communists into political legitimacy. The U.S. title refers instead to a crucial plot point. For some reason, the U.S. publisher chose to "pitch" the novel as a conventional mystery, while the U.K. publishers were unafraid of the author's larger ambitions. Perhaps the American publisher was afraid of putting off readers, especially 15 or more years ago, with any hint of Communism as something other than a menace.

Judging from my first exposure to the Trotti stories, Williams's series is a bit of Maigret (especially in Trotti's team and the way he uses them) but livelier and a bit of Montalbano but without the overt comedy. Trotti's home life is troubled, with a wife who goes wandering but a solidly grounded daughter, so he doesn't have the family respite that Donna Leon provides to Brunetti. Trotti has his own troubles with the hierarchy in the Questura, and has reason to be as cynical about Italian justice as Brunetti, but Trotti pushes perhaps a bit harder against the social lethargy and under-the-table understandings that frustrate Brunetti. To keep the comparisons going, Williams differs from Nabb in that his detective has returned to his home region (rather than remaining an outsider, as does Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia), and thus has a network of relationships (sometimes distant, but beyond those he has encountered professionally) on which to call. And Williams's writing is far superior to a couple of other Italian crime novelists reviewed here earlier, such as Timothy Holme or Grace Brophy or Christobel Kent. Of the newer non-Italians writing about Italian crime, perhaps Tobias Jones's The Salati Case most resembles Williams's style and quality.

I'll be posting again about Williams, since I also got hold of the second book in the series and have ordered the third (the last two have proved a bit more elusive on this side of the Atlantic, thus far). But I'm delighted to have discovered (thanks to the author himself) the Trotti series and wish that perhaps his new series, written in French and set in Guadaloupe, might find a translator (perhaps the author himself) and a U.S./U.K. publisher.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Crime in Saudi Arabia: Zoë Farraris's Second Katya/Nayir novel

City of Veils, by Zoë Ferraris, is a sequel to the highly praised Finding Nouf, but City of Veils is even better. The world it describes seems almost like those science fiction tales in which a single aspect of the recognizable world is changed, and the result is an alien environment: here, it's not Islam but the status of women that is the factor that shifts the world of experience into the Other, and as with that genre of science fiction, the effect raises difficult questions about our own (Western) experience of reality.

A young woman's body is discovered on a beach near Jeddah, and the investigation falls to Osama, who thinks of himself as separate from the excesses of radical Islam but will ultimately discover the limits of his secularism when his wife begins to take control of her own life. The forensic tech who featured in Finding Nouf, Katya, takes a further step in her profession as she becomes involved in the murder investigation, and she involves Nayir, her collaborator in Finding Nouf as well. Katya is stretching the limits of the role of women in Saudi, and Nayir is stretching the limits of his own devout beliefs, and their relationship stutters on those difficulties. Miriam, an American married to Eric, a bodyguard who has taken a job in Jeddah, arrives back in the country from a month's holiday in the U.S., is stuck by restrictions placed on women first in the airport, when Eric fails to pick her up on time (stranding her in an office set aside for "Unclaimed Women" and then in her apartment when Eric suddenly disappears.

These threads of the story interweave along with the family of the dead girl, whom Nayir is instrumental in identifying. But at every turn, the burqa and all it siginifies is a key element in the story. Katya risks losing her job because she had to claim to be married in order to work. Miriam keeps tripping on her enveloping robe and can't see through the veil's narrow slit when she tries to go out on the street (where she risks attack or arrest by the religious police). Nayir yearns to ask Katya to marry him but is trapped in the inappropriateness of their current relationship.

The investigation ultimately leads to a disastrous sandstorm in the "Empty Quarter" of the desert that is right out of an Arabian adventure story, but the solution to the crime leads back to universals of family, money, and ambition. There is a great deal of detail in Ferraris's evocation of Jeddah, Saudi, and Islam as they are today and as they reflect their historical background. But there's no sense of preachiness or pedagogy: the narrative, the background, and the characters all combine to move the story forward. This is not a screed against Islam or Saudi: Western attitudes are portrayed as even-handedly as Near-Eastern ones, and both are implicated in the crimes. Ferraris obviously knows Saudi Arabia very well and her respect for the culture is as obvious in her portrait of Nayir as her criticism of attitudes toward women are in her portrait of Katya, to take only the two most obvious examples. Regardless of your knowledge (or lack of it) of Arabia, Islam, or Saudi law, and regardless of your familiarity with Finding Nouf, City of Veils is a very good book, and its ending teasingly suggests further developments in a sequel.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Overlooked French crime

I thought I had reviewed Chantal Pelletier's Goat Song here a while back, but when I went looking for the review, there wasn't one. In fact, I could only find one review of the English edition on line (Sharon Wheeler's April '05 review at Reviewing the Evidence, republished at the Eurocrime site). If not quite forgotten, then, Pelletier's only book translated into English (so far) is unjustly overlooked, so Goat Song is a good candidate for Forgotten Friday.

Goat Song was in the first wave of translated crime novels published by Bitter Lemon Press, along with some now-better-known names (Friedrich Glauser, Tonino Beacquista) and has perhaps been eclipsed by some even better known names in Bitter Lemon’s subsequent publishing history (Gianrico Carofiglio, Leonardo Padura) and by the popularity of some other French crime writers (Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti). Goat Song also shares a milieu with Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc series (the sixth of which is set in Montmartre, as is Goat Song), but I think Pelletier is a more interesting writer.

Inspector Maurice Laice is just returning to work from his father’s funeral and is confronted with the intertwined corpses of two employees of the Moulin Rouge, the lead male dancer and a youg female dresser. Maurice, who has become disgusted with sex, is also tormented by his boss, who calls him more-is-less (a bilingual pun on the Inspector’s name) and who forces descriptions on him of her own vivid sex life. The investigation winds through the cabaret scene, Corsican culture, drug dealing, and disastrous families and liaisons.

Maurice (or Momo) is a fascinating and witty character and Pelletier’s language is lively and quirky, turning with comic rapidity from an observation to an image or a train of thought leading in a completely different direction. Not having seen the original French text, I can only imagine the difficulties that translator Ian Monk must have faced, but the result is an excellent and creates a refreshingly different style for noir writing. And noir it is, given the setting and Maurice’s melancholy frame of mind. The inspector’s wealth of personal and professional experience saturates the narrative, though it is told in the third person.

With the news that Jean-Patrick Manchette will soon have a third book in English translation, perhaps this is a good time to seek out a very different French style of crime: Pelletier shares little with Manchette’s very political but classic noir or Manotti’s hard-edges police procedurals; perhaps her Inspector has a bit more in common with Vargas’s idiosyncratic Chief inspector Adamsberg, but with a more melancholy (yet comic) and less intuitive approach to life and police work. Goat Song is short but with plenty of plot, vivid language, bloody murder, and sensual evocation of the Parisian scene.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Adrian McKinty's Fifty Grand

There's plenty of what John O'Connell calls Adrian McKinty's "brutal lyricism" in Fifty Grand, which was published last year (after the international success of McKinty's "Dead Trilogy). Fifty Grand is told in the voice of Mercado, a female detective in the Cuban national police, who makes a revenge journey to the U.S. (through Mexico) after her estranged father (who left Cuba years before) is killed in a hit-and-run auto accident in Colorado. The first two sections, a "flash-forward" to the final revenge scenario and a rape attempt along her coyote-route into the U.S., are more brutal than lyrical, and then the novel settles down into Mercado's attempt to infiltrate the local scene in Fairview (think Telluride) Colorado, home of a vicious sherrif, a pimp-drug-dealer who also brings in unauthorized immigrant labor (including Mercado, masquerading as Maria, who is assigned a job as a house cleaner when she refuses to work as a prostitute), and a crowd of movie stars, would-be movie stars, and Hollywood hangers-on (including Tom Cruise, and you can decide which category he fits into, though he's never "on camera" in this book).

The long middle section, in which Mercado works as a maid, meets some of the actor-crowd, befriends a fellow indentured laborer (Paco from Nicaragua), and investigates surreptitiously the possible drivers of the car that hit her father, is a bit slow--perhaps seeming so to me because I listened to the audio version of the book (courtesy of the digital branch of my local library) rather than reading it. The reader, Paula Christensen, is very good, obviously a Spanish-speaker with a slight Canadian lilt to her English, and is good at voices. But a spoken-word novel takes longer to hear than a print novel takes to read, and when the action gets slow the "heard" novel is slower. There's also a funny multilingual pun that I think is inadvertent: one of the Hollywood types refers to someone else as a "Playa with a capital P," which Christensen pronounces as in Spanish for "beach" rather than in its "Gangsta" pronunciation.

When the action gets started back up, the revenge seems both not well enough motivated (though her father was left to die, he wasn't deliberately murdered, after all) and oddly unsatisfying (a lot of unpleasant people get killed, but perhaps not the right people). There's also a coda, taking Mercado back to Cuba, that is more interesting in some ways than the Colorado sections (which are satirical in their portrait of Hollywood but not that incisive about the U.S. as a broader culture). The intermittent flashbacks to Cuba and the final sections do give an interesting portrait of where Cuban society is in its current state of change (and the anticipation of even more change to come).

Fifty Grand (the title refers to a bribe that sets the value of a lost life) has received good reviews, but it was a bit flat to me (my brother, a big fan of the Dead Trilogy, also obtained the audio version and was not motivated to hear it to the end). Mercado is interesting but she does a lot of dithering in her investigation, and some of the other characters are a bit two-dimensionsl (though to be fair, they're satirical "types" more than full characters). It would be interesting to read about Mercado again, in whatever social/national context she might find herself (a changing Cuba maybe?), but Fifty Grand didn't fully live up to my expectations.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Birthdays, statistics, and dithering on a slow afternoon

I ran across Uriah/Norm's 4th Birthday post at Crime Scraps the other day (Happy Belated Birthday, by the way!), and today I decided to go back to see how long this blog has been going (obviously I don't have enough to do this afternoon). As of a couple of weeks ago, this blog is 5 years old. Also in the not-enough-to-do category, I looked at my statistics at Blogspot and Sitemeter: internationalnoir has 469 posts, and has had 84,000 visits and 127,000 page views. According to the ranking of popularity calculated by Alexa it's the #1,449,267th most visited site on the web, and (more encouragingly) as of a minute ago, it was #43 in Technorati's "Top 100" books blogs (4 places behind Kerrie's estimable Mysteries in Paradise) with a Technorati Authority of 760 (whatever that means—if anybody has any idea, please let me know). Now the question is, what do all those numbers mean...other than reflecting the blogosphere's fascination with statistics.

Jakubowsky collection of International Crime Fiction

The Mammoth Book of the World's Best Crime Stories (in the U.S.) or Best International Crime (the U.K. edition) is Maxim Jakubowski's collection of crime stories from around the world. I don't know about "Best" but it's certainly "Mammoth," the brand of the series that it is a part of. I had high expectations for this collection, hoping to be introducted to many heretofore-untranslated crime writers from around the world. In the end, I was disappointed and, occasionally, irritated by the collection. First, the irritation: there is no biographical or bibliographic info on any of the artists, who are identified in the Contents only by country (and even that doesn't appear on the title page of the story, so that a reader has to constantly flip back and forth to the Contents to identify a writer by even that scrap of information).

The U.S. and U.K. writers, Jeffery Deaver, Ian Rankin, etc.) are the usual suspects, giving their usual style and even their usual series characters (except for Ruth Rendell, who gives her usual style but not her series characters).

Of the international writers who have already been translated, there are some stories that are disappointing (Jo Nesbø's in particular, in my opinion, which has a surprise twist but otherwise not much interest for me, And Camilla Lácberg's, which trails off in manner that suggests young-adult writing rather than crime-writing), and some that are definitely up to their usual standard, though brief (Dominique Manotti, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Leonardo Padura).

But the gems I was expecting among the writers whose names I didn't recognize were few. The best story in the book (for me) is German writer Juergen Ehlers's "Elevator Obstructors," which is a sharp, funny, and vivid tale of an ex-con and his tribulations (and those of people who encounter him) when he gets out of prison. Italian writer Diego De Silva's story, one of the longest in the book, starts well but trails off into a sort of ghost story.

The length of the stories, in fact, may be the problem for me—short stories are a specific genre, they're not just short novels. A few of these stories, like Ehlers's, use the brevity and concentration of the form very effectively. Others seem drawn to cliches of the form, including the aforementioned surprise endings. I'm not much drawn to short stories, generally, and this collection didn't convince me to seek them out.

I'd be curious to know if other readers found this collection to be more satisfactory, though there don't seem to be many reviews in the blogosphere—perhaps a passive judgment on the reception of the book. I, for one, am still looking for an anthology that will open a window upon the world's first-class crime fiction (of which there is a great deal, considering the quality of translated novels that are making appearances in English these days).

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Postcard Killers, by Liza Marklund and that other guy

I just finished Postcard Killers, by Liza Marklund and James Patterson, which I read as a digital galley from NetGalley, courtesy of Little, Brown. The plot is a bit sketchy, told in Patterson's patented short chapters, and the characters are mostly two-dimensional. The story, though, comes alive when Dessie Larsson, a young Stockholm journalist, is on stage. Dessie shares a lot with Marklund's Annika Bengtsson (from her own crime series), especially in the early stages of Annika's career (as in the first of her series's prequels, Studio Sex or Studio 69).

Dessie specializes in petty crimes both in her academic background and in her current work for a fading tabloid newspaper and becomes involved in a serial killer story by being picked out by the killers themselves to receive their message when they arrive in Sweden. The killers have been active in cities around Europe, sending postcards and, later, photos of their victims, to selected journalists.

The victims are carefully posed to mimic the poses of characters in famous paintings, and the plot gets into the world of contemporary art in a way that is not altogether inaccurate (though some aspects are more than a little sensationalized).

One of the earliest victims was the daughter of a New York cop, Jacob, who is now pursuing them across Europe and inserts himself into the Stockholm police's investigation of the first murder in Sweden, as well as into Dessie's life and career. Jacob isn't an unbelievable character, but he's not fleshed out enough to carry the story on his own.

Dessie isn't as fully realized a character as Annika, and her biography is quite different, though there's some common ground. Dessie is from the far north of Sweden, and her family turns out to be very colorful (I won't say more), whereas the shady aspects of Annika's past are more her own personal traumas. But when Dessie is at the center of the story, the narrative and even the setting become more vivid. Stockholm and the north of Sweden are depicted in a lively and detailed fashion, much more so than the several other settings of the book.

I have no idea which sections were written by whom. There's some speculation in the blogosphere that Marklund must have written all or most of the book, perhaps filling in an outline supplied by Patterson. In fact, some chapters read more like an outline than a complete story. But in fact, the sketchiness of some chapters adds to the forward momentum (or at least make it easier to read quickly through them to get back to Dessie's story).

While not quite up to Marklund's usual standard (I have no idea about James Patterson's usual standard, knowing his work only by reputation), Postcard Killers is a fast and enjoyable diversion, and while Dessie seems a bit callow in comparison to Annika or another young journalist-detective, Denise Mina's Paddy Meehan, she's lively enough to carry this straightforward tale in the absence of any mystery. The killers are thoroughly introduced early on, and though the police have doubts even after the murderers are identified, the reader knows who they are. The killers are oddly uninteresting, given the lurid nature of their crimes (and their personal and professional lives); other minor characters, including several detectives (one of them Dessie's former lover) are more fleshed out and believable.

Dessie's family name might have been an hommage to that other Larsson, but Postcard Killers doesn't rise to Dragon Tattoo or Annika Bengtson level, But it's sometimes interesting, it moves along quite well, and I'm glad to have had the chance to glimpse Dessie and her urban and rural milieux. I'm also interested to see Marklund's forthcoming Annika story (the first, apparently, to carry the character's career beyond the first novel, The Bomber), after reading Dessie's story, and I'm also curious to see whether Marklund and Patterson produce further collaborations.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: From Hungary, Cobblestone

This week, because I've recently read two of the Marek Krajewski novels about Eberhard Mock of Breslau, I've been reminded of one of the most remarkable crime novels I've read, Cobblestone: A Detective Novel, by Peter Lengyel, a Hungarian writer better known for science fiction than detective fiction. But Cobblestone is and is not a detective novel. It's a massive story of the beginning of the 20th century, ranging across Europe but centered on a pursuit through Budapest's streets and brothels: a master detective pursuing a master safecracker.

And at the same time it's a meta-novel taking Hungarian history from the end of the 20th century back to the beginnings of the universe. Not only are there layers and layers to this tale, there is also a sudden shift at the middle of the novel that is unlike anything else in any other novel, detective or otherwise—I won't give it away, but it is either a masterstroke or the most irritating device ever attempted in fiction.

But back to the detective story, the tale is a fascinating mosaic of the underworld of Budapest, as well as a fantastic heist story. It unreels like at atmospheric movie, but it is decidedly a novel, not really filmable at all. If anyone's interested, I can give more details. It's not easy to find, but it's not out of print.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Marek Krajewski, The End of the World in Breslau

There isn't anything else in crime fiction quite like the Breslau series by Polish author Marek Krajewski, including the second book, The End of the World in Breslau, translated by Danusia Stok and published in English by Quercus. The most distinctive characteristic of the series is its main character, Eberhard Mock (other than the fact that it begins with the end of Mock's career and works backwards, at least for the three that have been translated so far). Mock is very interesting and very flawed, not a role model for anyone (police or otherwise). His career as a cop depends mostly on the blackmail material he has accumulated on politicians, policemen, and the good citizens of Breslau in the first four decades of the 20th century (Breslau became the Polish city of Wroclaw after WWII).

Mock also has a sadistic streak and a sort of alcoholic manic-depression. In The End of the World in Breslau he is married to a much younger woman, Sophie, toward whom he is alternately attentive and abusive. An extremely sadistic series of murders is taking place, tied to both historical events in the city and a current apocalyptic preacher, but though the crimes are vivid, Mock's pursuit of the murderer is intermittent and more oriented toward historical research than pounding the pavement in search of evidence, and the murderer himself is hardly a figure in the novel at all. Mock's methods of pursuing the criminals and discovering the truth are, as he himself recognizes, neither conventional nor up to legal standards.

Instead, the foreground is occupied mostly by Mock's tenderness, guilt, jealousy, and rage at his wife, who takes revenge on him by plunging into a demimonde of orgies, gambling, and ultimately self-loathing. The result is a fascinating neo-Expressionist tapestry of the city of Breslau in the Weimar era, with Hitler a peripheral presence in German politics. There is plenty of decadence, and no moral center at all, making for a delectable vicarious experience for the reader.

The language and manner of the storytelling match the Expressionist content and Mock's own mental processes. There are frequent leaps and disjunctures in the story, and in the indirect, allusive, and sometimes scholarly prose there is considerable very dark comedy as well as narrative velocity. I'm tempted to delay acquiring the third novel in the series, The Phantoms of Breslau, because once I've read that one, I'll have to wait for the translation of the next one...

Friday, September 03, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Austrian noir from Irish-Canadian

Another reprise this week: from the International Noir Archives. The review below is adapted from a 2006 review of a too-little-known crime novel set in Austria (only available in Canada, as far as I can tell, though some copies are available second hand.

About as international as it can be while being set in one small region, John
Brady's Poacher's Road is by an Irishman living in Canada writing about
Austria. Brady, author of the under-recognized Minogue novels set in Ireland, started a new series a couple of years ago (though so far there is not a second entry in the series) featuring Probationary Gendarme Inspektor Felix Kimmel, whose beat is
small-town Austria in the south of the country, near both Graz and the
Slovenian border.

Internationalism is a theme of the novel too--international
crime (smuggling in particular) in the new Europe. Brady's novels are not known
for ratiocination or even so much for solid policework, though he does focus on
policework. His novels are about talk, the flavor of speech and the networks of
communication, ethnicity, and family that the talk both reveals and attempts to
conceal. Poacher's Road is primarily a long, oblique conversation between
Kimmel and a Kripo detective who is both exploiting Kimmel and helping out his
career. The solution to the mystery aspect of the book is almost secondary, as
is the plot. But then in noir fiction, the plot and the resolution of a mystery
are not the primary elements--noir is about surface effects and the depths that
they reveal. Put another way, noir is about interactions among the inhabitants
of dangerous streets, and the unpleasant realities of the society that is the
larger environment of those streets. Most noir is conducted in narrative (first
or third person), though, rather than conversation--narrative of violence,
first person voices or interior monologues of varying degrees of despair or
resignation (noir not normally being the cheeriest or most optimistic of

Brady, though, gets the indirection of real conversation just
right--concealing as much as it reveals, revealing impressions, emotions, and
facts slowly, as if in negotiation among the participants. And his dialogue is
embedded in the region, particularly noticeable in the Irish novels--here he
puncuates the English dialogue with phrases from Austrian rural dialect
(followed by the character saying the same thing in English, which ought to be
irritating but is surprisingly effective--perhaps since dialogue, if realistic,
is repetitive anyway). This novel may be hard to get--only available in Canada
at the moment--but it's worth the trouble, as another example of a very
talented writer's work.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Listening to The Locked Room

On a weekend drive last week I listened to a recorded books version of the only Maj Sjöwall Per Wahlöö novel that has never been filmed (as far as I know), The Locked Room, translated by Paul Britten Austin and read by Tom Weiner. It was particularly interesting to listen to the book after recently reading Wahlöö's two Jensen novels, because the considerable number of political diatribes in The Locked Room share a good deal with the dystopian social portrait of The Steel Spring and Murder on the Thirty-First Floor.

But Tom Weiner's choices in portraying some of the characters highlights a problem for the recorded book: how to convey regional and class differences in translated fiction. Oddly, Weiner chose to use British lower-class accents for some characters, American accents for others, and British upper-class accents for a couple of others. I would probably have found all-British accents irritating, but mixing up two nationalities was bizarre. I don't know the answer, and translators struggle with this problem in text--but in a spoken version of the book, the accents almost ruined the book. The lengthy editorializing (concerning the Swedish mixed socialist/capitalist system) were also a bit irritating to listen to (more than to read, I think).

The Locked Room was my favorite of the Martin Beck novels when I read them for the first time, just after they were translated 30-ish years ago. Perhaps it was the problems with the oral delivery, but this time I found some aspects (such as the idealized hippy landlady and the Keystone Kops police raid) a bit less convincing. Still, the plot is convincing, ironic, and dramatic and the police investigation leads inexorably to one mistaken conclusion and one troubled and comic interrogation in which Martin Beck seems to have gotten entirely into the head of the interrogatee.

So while I still highly recommend The Locked Room, I won't be recommending the spoken word version. Perhaps someone will fine a better solution to translating and speaking the nuances of Swedish accents.