Thursday, October 28, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: crime in Singapore

Not so much forgotten as inaccessible: Jake Needham's The Ambassador's Wife was published in Hong Kong in 2006 and is about to be reprinted in Singapore by Marshall Cavendish Editions; but there hasn't been, and evidently will not be, any circulation outside of Southeast Asia.

The Ambassador's Wife features Inspector Samuel Tay of the Special Investigations Section of Singapore CID, but it's really about Singapore more than Tay. In fact, Tay is in a way a personification of Singapore: Westernized and somewhat insecure, but very efficient and dedicated to his job. Tay is in fact wealthy, but stays with the police rather than lapsing into a life of leisure.

He's presented with a puzzling case when a woman's body is found in the Marriot Hotel, in a room that was not supposed to be occupies. She is battered, sexually abused, and posed, but the scene has been thoroughly cleaned. When she eventually identified, the American embassy becomes involved (I won't say why, unless spoilers are requested) and Tay is assisted and/or obstructed by an FBI agent and a security officer from the embassy.

The case presents few leads but ultimately leads Tay on a deadly trip to Bangkok. In a way, the book is a Bildungsroman, leading Tay toward a maturity that, despite his years, he has not previously achieved. By the end, his attitudes toward the case and those involved has shifted considerably, and his own insecurity and ambivalence is at least partly cleared up. What starts as a somewhat dark but conventional detective novel darkens and deepens considerably by the end. There are a number of false leads and a few loose ends, but the conclusion makes sense in terms of Tay's personality and his personal journey.

But the city state of Singapore (and to a lesser extent Bangkok) is the main character: there have been only a few Singapore crime novels available in the West, including one by Hwee Hwee Tan, a couple by Gopal Barathan, and the most recent in the series featuring Inspector Singh, by Shamini Flint. None of those gives quite as comprehensive view of the city and its citizens as Needham gives here. The Ambassador's Wife most closely resembles Flint's books, among the Singapore crime novels, but the Singh stories retain a cozy quality that Needham steers away from, into noir territory.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The third Qurke, by "Benjamin Black"

Elegy for April is the third book about Dr. Quirke, Dublin pathologist in the 1950s, by John Banville, writing as Benjamin Black. The book is very well written, allusive and involving. The story relies on a good deal that a reader will know from Christine Falls, the first Quirke book, and will perhaps baffle someone who picks it up cold.

The plot, which is fairly static for the first 270 of its 293 pages in the U.S. edition, concerns April, a friend of Phoebe, Quirke's daughter, who has not been heard from by any of her friends in several weeks. Most of the book is Phoebe and Quirke going around together or separately inquiring of April's relatives and friends and looking around April's flat.

There's no investigation to speak of (unlike other fictional pathologists, Quirke's job isn't exploited by Black/Banville for plot potential), though Quirke involves his friend Inspector Hackett, and there are a few sexual encounters to liven things up. But mostly the book is Banville's prose, elegant in its flow and incisive in its particular images. The book as a whole is curiously both heavy and light, though perhaps not quite heavy enough for literary ambitions but too light for a crime novel, really.

When a sort of resolution is reached (by means in part of a very specific automobile that has been lurking in the plot, waiting anxiously for its moment of pertinence), it involves the same kinds of damaged families as inhabit the contemporary crime novels of Declan Hughes, but passed over quickly in those final 23 pages. Elegy for April is a quick read, probably of most interest to people who got involved in Quirke's character and story in the first two books (and who will be interested to discover his hesitant steps out of intoxication and into a relationship), and to lovers of efficient and lively prose (more efficient and certainly lighter than Banville's books under his own name).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Åke Edwardson, The Shadow Woman

The first of Åke Edwardson's Erik Winter crime novels to be translated into English, Sun and Shadow, was apparently the sixth in the order of the series's original publication in Sweden. That was followed by translations of the seventh and eighth books in the series, and then by the translation of Death Angels, which was actually the third in the order of first publication. Now the fourth in the series (right after Death Angels, whose Swedish title actually means Dance with an Angel) has now been published in English by Penguin, translated by Per Carlsson: The Shadow Woman, whose Swedish title, Rop från långt avstånd, actually means "cries from far away."

But all that confusion shouldn't put anyone off The Shadow Woman, which is a first-class police procedural. The investigation is a particularly frustrating one, which concerns the disccovery of a body near a lake. Winter and the police cannot discover who the woman was, and a parallel narrative about a young girl who is taken from her mother during some sort of getaway from a crime, gives the reader a sense of the anxiety that will befall Winter and his team later in the book (though not in quite the way that the reader may think).

There are several other plot lines int eh background, most of them concerning biker gangs, evidently a big factor in Southern Swedish crime (and even bigger in Denmark, where Winter eventually needs to go for answers).

My only quibble with the book is that one clue that unravels the final elements of the story is withheld from the reader in a way that other clues are not (Winter knows about that clue but we don't). Not a big deal, but in a story that is about the frustrations of a police investigation that has too few clues and too little information, withholding that one clue grates a bit.

Still, The Shadow Woman is a compelling story, and one of the best of the Erik Winter series. I was not a huge fan of Åke Edwardson after reading the first couple of books to appear in English, but I'm convinced now—he's in the first rank of Swedish crime writers. One question for dedicated readers of Scandinavian crime: I can think of a number of Swedish crime novels in which the detective travels to Denmark during the investigation, but I can't think of a single time when the detective travels to Norway (except for a chase scene in The White Lioness in which Wallander crosses the Norwegian border in pursuit of the killer). Are there trips to Norway that I'm not aware of?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Forgotten Friday: from Wales

On the occasion of the arrival in the U.S. of the new Robin Llewellyn book by Welsh writer Robert Lewis (Bank of the Black Sheep), I thought I'd say a few words about the first book in the series, The Last Llanelli Train, about which I haven't seen much discussion in the blogosphere (all of them have been published by Serpent's Tail). The Llewellyn books are a saga that marries the noir of Jim Thompson to the bohemian depths of down-and-out writing from Knut Hamsun's Hunger to Charles Bukowski to Irvine Welsh: but Lewis's writing is funnier than Hamsun's (which doesn't say much, but there's indeed a lot of very dark humor in the Llewellyn stories) and the books have more in common with Welsh than Bukowski. And each volume is remarkable for a fact that Lewis shares with at least one other writer, Argentina's Ernesto Mallo: at the end of the first book, the first-person narrator and hero has fallen so far that it's hard to imagine the possibility of a sequel (and at the end of the second book, Swansea Terminal, it's impossible to imagine—lending an additional temptation to see how Lewis manages the third book). A character tells the detective, "you're not going to sink any deeper than you are already I simply can't believe that's possible." Lewis seems to take the comments as a challenge.

Llewellyn (pronounced as "Lou-Ellen" by several people he meets) is a private detective in Bristol whose alcoholism occupies more of his life than his job (the later books will take him back to Wales, where he's from). Locked out of his apartment after a typical day's binge, and attempting to sleep it off in his office, he gets a phone call from a woman who wants him to entrap her husband into a sexual encounter to give her ammunition for a divorce. The price he asks for the job is matched by her demands for video documentation, and the entrapment proceeds slowly through successive drinking bouts, encounters with people to whom he owes money, and intermittent attempts to find a suitable prostitute and the equipment necessary for the job.

The plot twists several times in the last half of the book, not least in revelations about Llewellyn's past (details of which are more pertinent to subsequent novels). Who the woman who hired him turns out to be, who's really paying the bills, and what the plot is all about lead up to a conclusion that's satisfying in its unconventional approach to the genre. None of the Llewellyn books are for the faint of heart, though the darkness is leavened by the humor of a character who seems to have nothing left to lose, and then loses more (which is why, I guess, the books have been aptly compared to Beckett).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

River of Shadows, by Valerio Varesi

I seem to be going back and forth between Italy and Sweden these days, watching the Irene Huss TV series, continuing to catch up with the Commissario Trotti series by Timothy Williams, with new books by Åke Edwardsson, Conor Fitzgerald (Dogs of Rome), Mari Jungstedt, and Massimo Carlotto waiting impatiently on my table (a little excursion to Ireland possibly, in addition to the Conor Fitzgerald homeland, since I have a copy of the newest "Benjamin Black" from the library). I've just finished Valerio Varesi's River of Shadows, set in Parma and the Po Valley and featuring Commissario Soneri.

The book's first chapter is a bravado piece of writing set in a boatmen's club along the Po during an impending flood. Amid the conversation among the boatmen, a barge docks and then drifts away, and as the barge flows downstream they get intermittent radio reports on its seemingly unguided trip downriver, as it collides with a bridge and then runs aground. The chapter reads almost like a play, with the action restricted to the clubhouse and its immediate surroundings and the action reported in conversations and radio reports.

With the second chapter, we meet Commissario Soneri, a detective who's not fond of new technology (even cellphones, much less computers) and who tends to abuse his coworkers with his sometimes contradictory instructions, delivered frequently by telephone as he wanders around his domain not so much investigating as absorbing the environment. Most of the policemen are sketched in effectively but not in depth, with the exception of the long-suffering forensics specialist and a melancholy maresciallo of the Carabinieri. The boatmen in fact take up most of the space of the story, as Soneri spends a lot of time among them, asking questions or just listening and watching. One of the most lively characters is Soneri's girlfriend Angela, who's quick to be angered by Soneri's thoughtlessness and to be excited by risky sites for sexual encounters.

Soneri's investigation concerns an old man who fell (or was pushed) out of a hospital window and his brother, the captain of the runaway barge. Along the way, we learn a lot about the river and the towns along its banks, about the food and wine in the bars near the boatmen's hangout, and about the history and politics of the area (particularly the lingering effects of partisan/fascist conflicts at the end of Mussolini's reign and about the later history of the Communist Party in Italy (also a factor in the Trotti novels).

River of Shadows, though, is not a book of facts but of impressions and emotions, which are as murky as the mists along the river. Soneri discovers some of what has been going on but can prove little of it, and seems to make his discoveries not by logical reasoning but by sensory impressions of the people and the setting. He travels back and forth between Parma and Torricelli (the town where the boatmen live) and to some mysterious places along the way (including a ghost town submerged in the river after the war). The solution to the crime is also more effective in its emotional truth than in a solution to a puzzle.

Varesi's book is notable for its difference in style and tone from the other Italian mysteries that have been translated (and indeed from English and American crime fiction). Though some readers may be frustrated by the repetition inherent in Soneri's constant trips along a limited path and his return over and again to a small group of terse watermen, those who persist will be rewarded by a story that achieves more than the sum of its parts. I'll be very interested to see more of the series, to experience how Varesi's style changes (or not) when the river mists are less of a metaphorical and physical presence. And to see what Angela comes up with next, too. Translated by Joseph Farrell and published by MacLehose Press.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday

I've been working my way through the overlooked Commissario Trotti series by Timothy Williams, and this week I'm only going to give some highlights of Black August, the 4th novel in the series, which holds up the high standard that the author set in the first 3.

this one zeroes in even more closely on the irritable Trotti himself. Evidence of a possible suicide by drowning have appeared, and then an old friend of Trotti's (from the first novel) is discovered murdered in her apartment. Trotti's daughter, Pioppi, is expecting her first child (in Bologna) and the detective is anxiously awaiting news. He's warned off the murder investigation (since he's not part of the new Murder Squad) but continues to pursue it in his own way, giving evidence of why the Questore (sort of a police chief) doesn't trust him.

Trotti rides roughshod over his assistants, other cops, witnesses, and informants—getting to the truth but at considerable cost. Black August takes Williams's investigation of this difficult character to new levels. The city (more or less Pavia) is evoked in detail, and some of Italy's ongoing social problems (in particular immigration and the lack of facilities to care for the mentally ill) are a major focus.

If you haven't discovered the Trotti books, and if you're willing to do some work (Williams doesn't spoon-feed readers, and a lot of the dialogue is indirect in an interesting but oblique manner), all of them are highly recommended (if you can find them). Crime fiction publishers are missing a bet by not picking up the series (especially since Williams says that a sixth, unpublished novel is finished).

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

From Ghana: Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods

Kwei Quartey's Wife of the Gods has a lot to recommend it. Darko Dawson is a
detective in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He's sent to a small town where an
AIDS volunteer and medical student has been killed—the same town where his
mother's sister lives and where his mother disappeared without a trace years

There's a lot of local color in the language, the setting, and the action, which
concerns several traditional healers and a general belief in spells and witches,
as well as common ordinary adultery and crime. There are also striking elements
to the story, in particular the portraits of crimes against women (enslavement,
rape, the very provocatively evoked "wives of the gods," and more).

I suppose my impression of the novel is colored somewhat by the books I've been
recently reading, which have been carefully but obliquely constructed, leaving
much more than the identity of the killer for the reader to figure out.
Quartey's novel makes it much easier for the reader: in that way it's more of a
cozy, though there's certainly nothing cozy about the outlines of the story.
Darko several times exhibits rash and violent behavior such as isn't found in
the usual cozy, as well.

But the good guys and the bad guys (including cops) are mostly clearly
separated, with shades of gray only in a few characters, including Darko
himself. Several nasty characters (particularly a cop and a fetish priest) are
caricatures of destructive behavior. An interesting dilemma is raised, regarding the urge to preserve indigenous traditions while at the same time providing effective medical care, but the indigenous medical practitioners are not given much respect here (and Quartey is a better judge than I as to whether they deserve any, as he is both a doctor and a native of Ghana).

Family is a big part of the story. Darko is happily married but his son is ill,
having been born with a heart defect. His mother-in-law takes the boy to a
traditional healer, against the boy's parents wishes and with bad results. The
detective is personally drawn into the story not only by that event but also by
the fate of his mother and by the reunion with his aunt during the murder case.

The spectrum of current African crime fiction (mostly from South Africa, though there's a promising new Nigerian book, Adimchinma Ibe's Treachery in the Yard, that I haven't gotten hold of yet) runs from Alexander McCall Smith at the cozy end to "Michael Stanley," and, increasingly noir, to Jassy Mackenzie, Deon Meyer, and Roger Smith. Quartey's story falls somewhere between Smith and Stanley, dealing with terrible and dark events but in terms of family and ordinary human motivations (rather than extreme situations and emotions, however common those may be in a violent society).

A noir novel could certainly have been written (not to mention a lurid one) from the materials that Quartey assembles, but perhaps the crimes against women and the anti-modern religious atmosphere are more clearly evoked against the quotidian background that Wife of the Gods provides. One interestign fact-let: the cover used on at least the hardback of the U.S. edition uses a kinte-cloth pattern, rather than the symbolic pattern that actually plays a part in the story, while a cover that I see on-line (the first one shown above) uses a more appropriate pattern (but I can't find anywhere that the book has so far been published with that cover).

Friday, October 08, 2010

Foreign Forgotten Friday: Overlooked Italian crime

Timothy Williams's third Commissario Piero Trotti novel was called Persona Non Grata in the U.K. edition and The White Audi in the U.S. (continuing the trend of the U.K. publisher going with the author's title, one that has something intrinsic to do with the story, and the U.S. publisher plucking out an automobile incidental to the plot as a "hook" for the series). Once again, the taciturn and somber detective is portrayed in an almost kaleidoscopic fashion, in dialogue among characters who are talking past, rather than to, one another and in terse but elegant narrative that moves forward in slanting leaps rather than pedantic plods.

The 11-year-old daughter of Trotti's former driver (when both were stationed in Bari) has been attacked with a knife while she slept, and her father (now a taxi driver) gives a description (based on a glimpse of the fleeing assailant) that seems to match her older sister's boyfriend.

But other things are going on simultaneously: an abandoned newborn is discovered, after the mother shows up at the hospital in distress, and a priest appraches Trotti about murders related to Trotti's own brother's death during the fighting between Fascists and Partisans in the '40s.

Trotti is assisted now not only by the long-suffering Pisanelli (who has advanced in the ranks and doesn't actually work for Trotti now) and his new driver and assistant, a female officer who gives Trotti as good as she gets in the dyspeptic interchanges typical of his relations with his subordinates (and even superiors, witnesses, and everyone else). There is a pattern in Trotti's relationships with women that deepends as the series goes along (his wife is now completely absent, and his daughter is studying in Bologna).

There is a sadness in the book that goes beyond Trotti's usual melancholy (for reasons I won't go into), and the social background here is Fascism (as the Moro kidnapping lay underneath the story of the first Trotti book and the "years of lead" did the same in the second). Trotti has become "persona non grata" even in his own department by the end, but it is his insight and persistence that draws the elements of the plot into a conclusion that isn't quite justice but is, for all that, reflective of the critical eye that Williams casts on the Italian social landscape.

Highly recommended, as with the first two in the series, and I'm currently reading the fourth (Black August, for which there was no U.S. publisher, hence no automotive title), which is just as good.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Irene Huss video #1: The Torso

The first film in the Swedish TV series based on the Irene Huss novels of Helene Tursten is The Torso (The Tattooed Torso in the original Swedish, apparently). The first book in the series, Den krossade tanghästen or, in the English version, Detective Inspector Huss, was filmed out of order: not sure whether the film people wanted the more sensationalist story of The Torso as a lead-in, or perhaps the "tattoo" links to a certain other tattoo of international fame.

The film is in some ways a rather typical cop show, with a villain stalking the investigators and ultimately threatening the detective's family. But the factors that make the books interesting also apply to the film: Irene is not a gloomy alcoholic, she's a happily married (to a chef) professional. The police team is actually almost (but not quite) gender balanced, with three women important to the series (I wonder whether that's typical of the actual police situation--the various books and films lead us to believe there are senior cops more prominent in Sweden than elsewhere).

It has been a couple of years since I read The Torso, but the film captures the characters and scenes very much as I had imagined them. The actor playing Huss, Angela Kovacs, is not quite how I had pictured the detective, but (once having seen her in the role) she becomes Irene in much the same way that Luca Zingaretti has become Commissario Montalbano for those who have seen that excellent Italian conversion of books into TV films.

There are 6 Irene Huss films that have made it into circulation with English subtitles, three taken from the books that have been translated. So one of the virtues of the DVDs is that three of the untranslated books are available in film translations rather than language translations, since apparently SoHo Press is not translating any more of Tursten's books. Perhaps the availability of the films (and the link to that other tattoo, as well as to the film company that filmed THAT series) will encourage SoHo or someone else to get moving on Tursten translations. It's one of the best of the Scandinavian series, not least because Irene is so normal (rather than tortured or spectacularly flawed).