Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jake Needham's The Big Mango

The Big Mango, by Jake Needham, is a confident thriller that builds up to its explosive conclusion, rather than blowing up people and things from the beginning. The story is more in the line of Eric Ambler than that of many recent thrillers, taking an ordinary guy and thrusting him, in frequently comic ways, into an unfamiliar and unfriendly situation. The writing is clear and evocative, whether in portraying San Francisco in the early chapters or Bangkok for the majority of the book, and the characters are lively and interesting. The story is set in the '90s (originally published in Asia in 1999, The Big Mango was reprinted in 2010 by Marshall Cavendish in Singapore; the only editions so far have been limited to Asian publishers and distributors). Eddie, a small-time lawyer and former Vietnam-era marine, starts getting threatening mail and visitors that refer to his time in Vietnam, when he worked in a squad involved in guarding the Embassy in the waning days of the U.S. presence.

The maguffin is the stuff of legends, urban and otherwise: it seems the gold and currency from the Bank of Vietnam vanished during the chaos of the U.S. departure, and someone (several someones, as it turns out) thinks Eddie's former Captain knows what happened to the money, and maybe Eddie does too. After a visit from the Secret Service, Eddie gets an offer from a mystery man offering him a lot of money to go to Bangkok to look for the Captain and the money.

From there, Eddie becomes involved with a shady crew: his old Army buddy, a laid back bookstore owner and Native American; an American in Bangkok who writes a column on the nightlife there; a DEA agent; and various other Americans, Thais, and Vietnamese. It's a story told from the point of view of outsiders, seduced by Thailand but not blind to the pollution, corruption, and violence of the capital city. The other book I've read by Needham, The Ambassador's Wife, is quite different, more of an insider's look at another Asian crossroads city, Singapore (also seen with a jaundiced eye). And The Ambassador's Wife is a police procedural or mystery, whereas The Big Mango is more of a slowly building adventure story.

On the basis of these two books, I'm now a fan of Needham's writing, and wish that the more of the books were more accessible: maybe his books are a prize to be sought by travelers and noir readers who find themselves in English-language bookstores in Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, etc.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crime metaphors in non-crime fiction

I've noticed lately that crime fiction seems to have become a touchstone for writers who want to write about contemporary life, particularly city life. A book I just finished, Sleepwalker, by John Toomey, is a comic portrait of an Ireland just poised on the brink of the boom going bust. The only crimes inflicted by or upon the characters in the book are emotional: there are some very funny scenes depicting the miseries that families inflict upon themselves and outsiders, and the main character, a slacker drifting along miserably from job to pub to bed, stupidly inflicts pain on everyone who loves or even likes him. The writer plays comically with fictional structures like the famous "unreliable narrator," and one of the comic turns concerns the narrators intrusions into the story.

But at a couple of points, Toomey invokes crime and crime fiction as a means of putting his story into context. In one passage, he contrasts the peaceful, if miserable, lives of his characters against the violence going on offstage, in the city only glimpsed by the reader and the characters themselves. More explicitly, he depicts a demoralized character thusly: "The things he thought he had earned on his own steam had been laid down beside him, like a framing murder weapon, carefully placed at the scene while he slept, ready to incriminate him and strip him of all credibility further down the plotline."

Just a passing metaphor, perhaps, but also a means of casting the characters miseries into a harsh comic light by the use of a framing device much more serious than what is actually confronting him. Comic crime fiction does some of the same sort of thing (I'm currently reading, or rather listening to, a Donald Westlake novel). So crime fiction and its particular toolkit are in a way a standard for considering modern life seriously, and also a means of viewing lives less stressed comically. Does that make any sense? Does the notion described above say anything about a novelist like Kate Atkinson who uses crime fiction as a serio-comic framing device for "literary" fiction?

Or perhaps I'm just overinterpreting, sequestered as I am in a warm house on a very cold day. Sleepwalker, by the way, is a funny book (perhaps not quite funny enough) and a cold, hard look at a culture on the brink of a disaster. It's published in the U.S. by Dalkey Archive Press, which has a particular interest in comic and off-center fiction around the world.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

New Catalan Crime: Teresa Solana's A Shortcut to Paradise

Teresa Solana's new novel featuring unlicensed detective twin brothers Pep (or Borja, his alter ego) and Eduard carries forward the satirical style of her first novel, A Not So Perfect Crime, as well as the tantalizing view of everyday life in Barcelona (among both the high and the low of Catalan society), along with a plot that is a bit more of a puzzle mystery than in the first novel. But Pep and Eduard are no brilliant crime-solvers: they have to pay (bribe, almost) a retired cop to solve the mystery for them. The pleasure, indeed, is not the solving of the crime as much as the comic twists and turns along the way.

At numerous points, A Shortcut to Paradise (translated by Peter Bush from the original Catalan) made me think of the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. In particular, a chapter on one character's prison experience and another character's ultimate fate are reminiscent of the cruel farce of Waugh's satires. There's also a wild party that spirals out of control.

Solana also provides much comedy based on the literary scene of Barcelona, apparently (given the disclaimer at the end) pointed at specific targets. But as a reader unfamiliar with those real-life literati, I can attest that the comedy carries through without knowing the references. There's also some literary comedy concerning the literary value of certain kinds of writing, culminating in a final, extended joke regarding the fate of a posthumous manuscript.

But as with Eduard and Pep's first outing, a lot of the pleasure in reading the book comes from spending time with the disarmingly normal detectives, muggers, murderers, and falsely accused throughout the book, viewed through Eduard's first-person narrative and through third-person glimpses into the lives of others in the story.

I hope Solana keeps up this wonderful series: further comic and criminal forays into Barcelona life, and further installments in the brothers' lives (Eduard striving for an ordinary middle-class life and Borja dreaming of nobility, sort of) would be most welcome.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Jassy Mackenzie's second Jade de Jong (South African Noir)

I liked the first Jade de Jong novel by Jassy Mackenzie, and the second one, Stolen Lives, is even better. The first half of the novel dragged me along relentlessly. There's a plot line that in the second half seems a bit tacked on (though it leads to a twisty and cliff-hanger-y ending) dealing with a character who could be very interesting but isn't fully developed—but overall the novel (and that second half) are very good indeed.

Jade, having returned (in the first novel, Random Violence) to her native Johannesburg to bring her private detective business there—as well as to a) inflict some revenge and b) reestablish contact with the object of her (mostly unrequited) passion, detective David Patel of the J-burg police. Patel refers a client to Jade thinking that it's just a woman in need of straightforward bodyguarding, after her husband has disappeared, but the case becomes complicated when the Jade and the client are shot at and later the husband is discovered nearly dead from extreme torture and their daughter is found to be missing. Then David's son, who has been living with his estranged wife, is kidnapped...

There is a parallel case developing in England, concerning brothels and human trafficking, which ties into Jade's case and links to a deadly and mysterious character at the fringes of both: an African man whom we glimpse in a pawn shop and other locales in several chapters interspersed with the English plot and Jade's case. The threads come together in an unexpected way, forcing the reader to reassess his or her opinion about the characters. And Jade herself is very interesting: we follow not only her professional exploits but also her troubled relationship with David and a discovery about herself and her heritage that she makes in connection with her current case.

The novel offers once again a dynamic glimpse of post-Apartheid South Africa in all its grime and glory, as well as thematic consideration of violence and its roots in culture (and perhaps genetics), marriage, and desire: it's among the best of the substantial crop of South African crime fiction now becoming available.