Friday, December 24, 2010

Helsinki Homicide II, Jarkko Sipila's next Finnish noir

Jarkko Sipila's Helsinki Homicide series (the new volume's title is Helsinki Homicide: Vengeance) is traditional noir in a lot of ways. The style of the writing is very direct, mixing dialogue and narration in about equal parts. That's a significant fact for Vengeance, which reminds me in some ways of the biker-gang novels of Canadian crime writer John McFetridge, except that McFetridge moves the story forward almost entirely via dialogue (and the Canadian writer's wit is frequently in evidence, whereas the humor in Sipila's books is very dry, in a laconic, somehow Finnish style).

Sipila's main character, Suhonen, an undercover cop, sets things in motion simply by seeing a suspicious driver, whom he follows. The driver meets a Russian-Estonian whom Suhonen discovers has ties to drug trafficking between Estonia and Finland, but the plot twists away from that revelation toward the just-released-from-prison leader of the Skulls biker gang, Tapani Larsson, who bears a grudge against Suhonen.

For me, the book began to pick up speed and to compel my interest as the character of Salmela becomes more important. Salmela is a low-life, brain-injured former prison inmate, as well as childhood friend of Suhonen. Salmela's attempt to do one drug deal to provide enough cash to get him out of the criminal life pulls him into the Skulls' orbit and a dangerous assignment from the police.

Sipila avoids cliches throughout: as Salmela spirals downward, his story never takes the obvious turn, and as his situation becomes more desperate, the tale tightens and compels the reader (this reader anyway) forward. Looking back at the first Sipila novel to be translated, which I reviewed here in a rather lukewarm fashion, I like the series more than I indicated then. I mentioned the link to McFetridge, and in the earlier review I mentioned a similarity to Elmore Leonard's casual, realistic plotting as well as to the Jim Thompson school of noir.

What I realize now is that Sipila's style is naturalism. He doesn't strain for effects or play up his hero as a flashy crime fighter. When Suhonen and Salmela are stranded in a tight spot, the outcome isn't determined by flashy martial arts skills or mind-bending feats of detection (or mind-stretching coincidences0 but by a very ordinary aspect of modern life. Sipila is giving a straightforward and believable portrait of conflict in the streets of Helsinki, and giving a gritty portrait of the city as well as a truly noir reading experience along the way.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Peter Temple, Dead Point

I recently heard the audio version of Peter Temple's Dead Point, which I believe is the latest of the Jack Irish novels (correct me if I'm wrong, please). The Irish novels normally have three plots, coinciding with Jack's three careers (as a lawyer, a fixer for a circle of horse-racing enthusiasts, and an apprentice woodworker). The pattern holds here, with Jack involved in the aftermath of a failed betting scheme (and a couple of thefts from people after succesful betting schemes), in a missing-person case involving a bartender, and in the installation of a high-end library in a wealthy woman's house. Parts of the cases become related, but it's primarily Jack himself who ties the book together.

Jack is, in fact, good company. And his first-person narrative works very well in an audio version. The plot moves inexorably forward, but the primary interest is, as usual, the characters, not just Jack but important and even secondary characters throughout the book.

The denouement is complicated, as usual, and so is Jack's love life, as usual. The violence at the conclusion of the missing-person plot is perhaps less extreme than in the previous books, but is a very complicated incident, mechanically. I won't explain more, but Temple renders an almost Rube Goldberg series of events in a believable way.

The Irish novels are perhaps more pure entertainment than Temple's other recent books, but no less interesting for all that. I need to go back and read some of Temple's early books, most of which I missed—any recommendations?

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Irene Huss videos, 2-6

I reviewed the first Irene Huss TV film, from Helene Tursten's series of crime novels set in Göteborg, a while ago, I'm just getting around to reviewing the rest of the first season because the disks I originally received were mislabeled, creating a bit of confusion as to what I was watching. All cleared up now.

The remaining films are 2. The Horse Figurine, 3. The Fire Dance, 4. The Night Round, 5. The Glass Devil, and 6. The Gold Digger. Of these 5, two (in addition to The Torso, already reviewed) are taken from novels already translated into English. SoHo Press has assured us that more of the novels are being translated, but I haven't heard which ones, yet.

The Horse Figurine was actually taken from the first novel to appear in English, translated as Detective Inspector Irene Huss, dealing with a wealthy man who falls from a balcony in the city, while his wife witnesses his death from a nearby taxi. The investigation leads to biker gangs, and to an apartment directly across from the fateful balcony, and along the way Huss's family is threatened.

The Fire Dance deals with serial arson, the stabbing death of an old woman, and an unsolved case from Irene's early career. The Night Round is a kind of ghost story, dealing with a murder on the staircase of an old hospital, murky goings-on among current staff, and the hospital's murky history.

The Glass Devil deals with religion, piety, satanism, and the murder of an entire family. The Gold Digger takes on propoerty developers, on-line poker, investment bubbles, and a possible affair on the part of Irene's seemingly model husband (a professional chef).

Translated to the small screen, all the stories are interesting, but all seem a bit too much like conventional TV cop shows (more so than the books, for some reason). Perhaps the things that make the books distinctive (Irene's very ordinary home life, struggling with two working parents, adolescent daughters, annoying neighbors, etc.) veers into sit-com or stock cop-show territory when produced for TV. Though all the secondary characters among the police get a certain amount of face-time, and all are characterized individually, the focus on Irene herself is also a bit more prominent when visualized for us on-screen.

Those are not major complaints, though—especially if compared to the rest of TV crime fare. Angela Kovacs as Irene is pitch perfect (not exactly how I imagined the character from the books, but better realized than my imaginary version), and the rest of the cast, including Bjarne Henriksen, Dag Malmberg, Eric Ericson, and Inga Landgré, is also very good, though working with material (in terms of their characters) that will be a bit familiar from cop shows around the world. A starring character is also the city of Göteborg and its surroundings, seen here not as a tourist mecca (which is may in fact not be) but as a gritty port city.

So: compared to Swedish TV crime series that rise far above the genre, Irene Huss perhaps gets 4 out of 5 stars. 5 stars would go to the original Martin Beck series starring Gösta Ekman, taken from 7 (I think) of the 10 novels by Sjöwall and Wahlöö (I think they never filmed the Laughing Policeman or the Locked Room, and The Abominable Man was filmed for the big screen by Bo Widerberg as Man on the Roof); 5 stars would also go to the original Wallander series for Swedish TV, starring Rolf Lassgård. The later Swedish series based on Beck and Wallander, starring Peter Haber and Krister Henriksson, as well as the U.K. Wallander, starring Kenneth Branagh, fall into the 4-star category for me, along with Irene Huss—so the Huss stories are definitely in good company (and highly recommended). The 5-star films are able to sustain a mood to a higher degree, and reach for (and mostly grasp) a wider scope than the 4-star ones, to me.

I'm happy to entertain other opinions about either set of rankings though—anyone have any thoughts? My only final thought is that I'm anticipating the translation of further Huss stories into English, whether they've been filmed or not—the novels are in the first rank of the Scandinavian crime wave.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dogs of Rome, Conor Fitzgerald

Halfway through, Conor Fitzgerald's Dogs of Rome shifts from a fairly straight police procedural (featuring a somewhat unusual cop--more on that in a minute) to noir/Elmore Leonard territory. It works very well, except for an ending that seems a bit tacked on (concerning a woman and a dog), though perhaps it helps set up the characters for a series. The lead character is Alec Blume, an American who was orphaned in Italy and stayed there. He's now a Commissario in the flying squad, and there is some cultural friction between the American and the Italians (peanut butter is a significant plot point). There's also a quite different tone (more Irish, perhaps, since Fitzgerald is actually an Irishman living in Rome, rather than American, giving the book a tri-national character) from contemporary Italian crime fiction. There are some kinds of jokes, some language, and that Elmore Leonard quality to the plot of the second half that give the story an international, if not specifically Irish or American, quality.

The story concerns a break-in resulting in a murder (events that the reader witnesses), assigned to Blume's team, but they are hedged in by political implications (the victim's wife is a politician and he himself was an animal activist). There is a TV documentary about dog fights (thankfully not depicted directly, though there is some animal cruelty), a connection to professional gangsters, and cops feeding information not only to the press but to suspects and crime lords.

There's also a knowing young girl (a victim's daughter), an FBI lawyer (and potential girlfriend for Alec), and lots of internal police politics. Some aspects are standard fare for crime fiction, but overall the tone and style are fresh, whether compared to the Anglo-American or the Italian realm of crime writing. Of the several books I've read (or heard) recently, this one was the best written and the most fun to read.

Which cover do you prefer? I like the graphic one, though photos of Rome are never a bad thing.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Tourist (no not the movie)

I'm hoping to do some catching up over the next few days, and to get back to posting more regularly. To start with, I recently heard the audio version of Olen Steinhauer's The Tourist, a spy novel unrelated to the recent (poorly reviewed) Hollywood movie. Steinhauer's tourist is a member of a secret black-ops CIA team based in New York (each member is called a tourist, the department is called tourism, etc.). Steinhauer is very good at depicting the characters as human (rather than as types), and he gets an effective sense of the gray moral areas of the contemporary spy trade. There's even some sly humor. But as a reader who has grown to expect the spy thriller to have a clockwork-like structure that surprises with its final but (looking backward) revelations, I didn't quite get what I wanted from The Tourist (there's a sequel that's well-reviewed--maybe I just haven't reached the end of the story yet). And maybe The Tourist suffers from my having read Mick Herron's Slow Horses first--that's a book that delivers the clockwork structure, the surprise, the irony, and considerable humor.

Milo the tourist has a fateful encounter in Venice, just before 9/11/01, in which his mentor is killed, and then time shifts forward to 2007 when Milo, now on administrative duty, is thrust back into black ops by the appearance of an assassin he has been tracking. But it's not the assassin that provides the tension, it's the consequences within the Department of Tourism, the CIA, and Homeland Security (as well as Milo's own family) that provide the impetus for the plot.

I liked this better than I liked the one of Steinhauer's East European novels that I read--and it provided enough interest and entertainment to get me through a 12-hour drive that I needed to make. It just didn't excite me in the same way that Slow Horses did when I first discovered it. Anyone read the sequel, The Nearest Exit? Does it provide completion for the story?

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Finnish Noir: Raid and the Blackest Sheep, by Harri Nykanen

"Raid," pronounced like "ride," is a Finnish TV series (and a later movie) about a scruffy hit man whose nickname relates to the bug spray ("kills indoors an outdoors" is one version). The series is very entertaining, wryly funny, and follows the strain of crime fiction that flows from Western, cowboy fiction. Raid and the Blackest Sheep is the first of the Harri Nykanen novels (on which the series was based) to be translated into English by the new Ice Cold Crime imprint.

The book is essentially a road novel rather than a mystery, though there are some revelations at the end. Raid is helping a career criminal named Nygren who has returned home to Finland for a kind of farewell tour, settling scores and making amends. A hard-nosed detective is trying to find out if Nygren is planning a last heist, and Raid's friend on the police force, Lieutentant Jansson, is lured out of a rehabilitation center (where he's supposedly losing weight) when Raid calls him.

The result is a wild ride across Finland, with colorful characters among the police and the criminals very much in evidence. Raid himself is a curious combination of laid-back friendliness and ruthlessness, with a dash of very dry wit. Nykanen's writing is quite unlike anything else in Scandinavian crime fiction (even the other Finns), with perhaps more in common with neo-noir writers like Alan Guthrie. The book also has something in common with the dour and off-center comedy of the leading light of Finnish cinema, Aki Kaurismäki.

Ice Cold Crime also publishes the Helsinki Homicide series, by Jarkko Sipila, the second volume of which is in my short stack tbr pile.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Mari Jungstedt, The Killer's Art

Maybe it was just that I was reading it under difficult (family) circumstances, but I thought Mari Jungstedt's 4th "Anders Knutas" book was the weakest of the series as so far translated from the original Swedish. Gotland, the island setting, is portrayed in vivid ways, but the story wavers back and forth among several strands without getting much of anywhere (in spite of the sensational elements of the story), and Inspector Knutas seems incapable of dealing with the investigation or even problems on his own staff (his favorite detective wants to leave). The running subplot of the series, concerning reporter Johan Berg and his true love Emma, puts them in threat (again) and builds up their relationship mainly to crash it down.

The story sounds interesting enough in summary: an art dealer is found hanged from a city gate, with no clues about his killer or a motive. Though secrets are discovered about the dealer and his wife, none get the police very far along in their investigation. The plot moves on to the theft of a famous Swedish painting, Dardel's Dying Dandy (which I think has featured in more than one Swedish crime novel), homosexual prostitution, obsessions revolving around family succession, and the summer homes of 19th century aristocrats and bohemians.

To me, the solution to the crime seems to come out of nowhere, and the concluding sentences reach for dramatic resolution not really justified by the story. Norm liked the book more than me (see here), and I'll bow to his judgement, considering the circumstances I mentioned above, which stretched my reading out over a longer-than-usual period and involved several airplane journeys and hospital bedsides. I'll read the next Knutas novel with hopes for a more positive experience. I have some catching up to do, blog-wise, and will try to post a few times in the upcoming days.