Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Requiem for a Gypsy, by Michael Genelin

The fourth book in the Commander Jana Matinova series, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, is arriving this summer from Soho Crime. The book is chock full of plot elements that resolve themselves not in clockwork fashion but in an almost lurching motion as Matinova uncovers crimes and ethical quandaries involving Nazis, Communists, Gypsies, Turks, International bankers, assassins, and a teenage criminal courier named Em. The action moves from Bratislava to Berlin, Vienna, and Paris.

For all that complication, the book is more direct and also more satisfying than its predecessor, The Magician's Accomplice. Genelin's style is more thriller than police procedural, and that remains true in the new novel, except that the police investigation is the key to all the plot elements. In a prologue, an enigmatic old man is run over in a Paris street. In Bratislava, Matinova and her boss, Colonel Trokan, are asked to guard Oto Bogan, a rich banker who has received a death threat but whose wife is determined to go ahead with a planned gala event. Shots are fired and Trokan manages to save Bogan's life, but the wife is killed.

Matinova is sidelined from the investigation but inserts herself anyway, first without authorization and then with a grudging invitation from a prosecutor who nevertheless refuses to give her key information in the case. As things develop (discoveries including a peculiar menage-a-trois with Bogan, the wife, and her former husband, a banking scheme that is either criminal or outlandish, and the shadowy influence of an international assassin who's supposed to be dead.

Other plotlines include the death of a Gypsy boy whose parents think he was murdered, the appearance of a waif at Matinova's door in the middle of a snowstorm, and an almost heartwarming development for Matinova's lazy and annoying assistant, Seges. While not all the plot elements end up being tied up in a knot, everything is related to the tangled history of Slovakia over the past century. One particularly interesting thread (and the most interesting of Genelin's flashbacks to Matinova's past so far in the series) involves a young man she sees being beaten by the police during a demonstration against the then-Communist government—an incident that divides her from her Party-member mother in unpredictable ways.

I wish in fact that the plot dealt more with those Soviet-infused years rather than the more distant Nazi past. I for one am a little tired of Nazis popping up out of the woodwork in crime fiction. Alas, I suppose as villains (criminal and historical) the Nazis are irresistible. Bratislava is the home ground of the series, but in this novel the cities of Berlin and Paris (and to a lesser extent Vienna) are more vividly evoked. Em, the waif whom Matinova adopts (or perhaps it's the other way around) focuses the tours of these cities both as a young tourist and the center of a criminal vortex. She's partly the daughter and granddaughter Matinova has lost, and partly a master manipulator (Zazie on a crime spree, if you will—if anybody remembers Queneau's most memorable character).

As always, it's dangerous for anyone, especially other policemen, to be around Matinova (as cops from Germany and Paris discover here) and Matinova herself is frequently threatened in Requiem for a Gypsy. Her actions here seem more human and less superhuman than in some of the incidents in earlier books. In fact, though her own story has been more central to earlier books, she seems more human, more a sympathetic character in this latest book.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Jan Marete Weiss, These Dark Things (Captain Natalia Monte 1)

The beginning of These Dark Things, Jan Marete Weiss's new police procedural set in Naples, shows off the author's strengths, description and scene-setting. The crime scene in the crypts and ossuaries of a church aptly named for the souls in purgatory is marvelous, and Weiss goes on to give a first-rate portrait of the purgatorial Naples of today, the Camorra, corruption, and garbage with Vesuvius in the background. The writing is also first-rate, except for a certain stiffness in the dialogue, and the characters and plot are set up in interesting ways: a German student who knows too much about the city's street shrines (and the contract that the Mob has with the Church to collect the donations from the shrines), Captain Natalia Monte of the Carabinieri and her Buddhist partner, various secondary characters from the Church, the University, the Camorra, and Natalia's life.

But neither the characters nor the plot are really developed. It was the descriptions of Naples that kept me reading; except for the power of the imagery, I might not have finished this relatively short (224pp) book. The characters don't progress beyond their initial framing, and the plot is complicated but undeveloped (it's like a string of incidents, without much connection from one to the other). When the solution to the original murder comes along, and the violent consequences to the other plotlines follow, the reader isn't surprised or moved—it's just more stuff added to the string.

But Weiss's writing does promise something that I hope can be accomplished in future novels in the series, enough that I will surely read them when they arrive in print. On a recommendation from someone very well informed about Italian crime fiction, I recently read two other novels in which the setting is the main interest, both by John Grisham (not my usual cup of tea). The novels are The Broker (set in Bologna) and Playing for Pizza (set in Parma, but not a crime novel). Grisham, of course, does know how to construct a plot and can certainly portray three-dimensional characters. But it is mostly a very good tour of these cities of Emilia-Romagna that I took away from the books (and I'd definitely pass along the recommendation of both books on that score). But Weiss and these two efforts by Grisham prove to be evidence that contradicts a complaint heard not long ago that crime fiction is just literary tourism: these books are very good as tourism but do not rise to the level of the best international crime writing, whether about Italy or the rest of the world, writing that uses these settings to construct full, complex, and rewarding reading experiences.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar

Domingo Villar's very interesting first crime novel, Water Blue Eyes, set in the Galician city of Vigo and featuring Inspector and reluctant radio star Leo Caldas, left us waiting impatiently for a sequel, and it has now arrived, published in the U.K. by Abacus and translated by Sonia Soto. A U.S. edition from Little, Brown is apparently in the works, but I haven't seen any evidence that it's available yet. The title, Death on a Galician Shore, is an adequate adaptation of the Spanish original, which means something like Beach of the Drowned. A body of a fisherman washed up on the shore near a fishing village is assumed to be a suicide, though his hands are tied behind him with a plastic cable tie (apparently a common way for fishermen to drown themselves, though it seems a bit odd). The autopsy confirms drowning, but the position of the cable tie and the presence of a head wound suggest murder.

Caldas and Estevez, his somewhat thuggish (though otherwise pleasant) non-Galician assistant, plod back and forth between Vigo and the dead man's home village without finding out much or getting anywhere at all (becalmed, as the narrator says) for most of the novel. That's not really a complaint: it's not only a good depiction of police work, it's an opportunity for the reader to soak in the atmosphere of the village and the life of the fishermen. A link to a more-than-a-decade old incident involving the dead man, in which a ship on which he was working sank, drowning the captain, brings in ghosts and the talismans that the fishermen use to ward off evil spirits, a theme constantly raised by Caldas and others and dismissed as ridiculous by Estevez.

We also learn more about Caldas's family (mainly his father and an uncle) and his lost love (who walked out on him a while back), and about food and what might be called the cafe culture of retired academics on the one hand and fishermen on the other.

The atmosphere and the pace shift suddenly when a new thread of the story emerges and from that point (about 2/3 of the way into the book) the story moves very quickly from one theory of the crime to another, as Caldas is convinced of each in turn and tries to act on them. Having already met the other men involved in that earlier shipwreck in the first half of the novel, we learn a good deal more about them in the last sections, as their role in the various scenarios changes and changes again, Caldas leaping from each newly discovered clue to a conclusion that may or may not be supported by the facts. By the last few chapters things are changing almost too fast, though some of the melancholy turns of events and the buried facts and motivations reminded me a bit of Leonardo Sciascia's subtle delineations of crime in Sicily.

Having set up Caldas as a character very thoroughly in Water Blue Eyes, Villar doesn't take his personal story much further in the new book, perhaps part of the reason that the early sections seem a bit slow, A reader new to Villar might find them much more packed with detail and incident. But in any case, Death on a Galician Shore does provide an interesting take on the "locked room" or village mystery, with a limited set of suspects but a sudden shift of perspective at the end. The atmosphere is interesting and the melancholy tone wholly appropriate to the crime and the ultimately discovered motivation and back story. My interest never flagged, though I was starting to get frustrated with the pace just as it began to pick up.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Finnish noir in German: Silence, by Jan Costin Wagner

Silence is the second of Jan Costin Wagner's crime novels featuring detective Kimmo Joentaa to be translated into English (by Anthea Bell). Wagner divides his time between his native Germany and his wife's native Finland, and his familiarity with Joentaa's country results in a vivid and unforced evocation of the place.

Silence, though, is very much a psychological story, told in looping intertwined narratives that go backward and forward in time, recapitulating events not so much from a factual standpoint as in terms of emotional reality. Joentaa continues to deal with the death of his wife (a major theme in Ice Moon, the first Joentaa book), but his pain is joined here by that of his former partner, now retired, who is obsessed with the unsolved case (33 years before) of a murdered teenage girl.
Another girl disappears in the same location, and her parents' pain is linked to the ongoing pain of the first girl's mother.

And as in Ice Moon, we see a perpetrator's mind from the inside, though in this case it's a witness who could have stopped the murder of the girl but didn't. His guilt and compulsion is another of the very strong emotional patterns of the book. We also see something of the life of the actual murderer, though he is affectless and doesn't actually participate in the maelstrom of the story's narrative.

Silence is an unconventional crime novel and presents difficult emotional states on the part of several characters, but Wagner's writing (and Bell's translation) carries the book forward and keeps the reader interested. There is a sort of resolution at the end, yet the reader knows more than any of the characters (literary irony), maintaining the emotional rather than literal truths of the story.

I'm pasting in the U.K. and forthcoming U.S. covers, as well as the German cover. The U.K./Harvill Secker cover (which has some similarity to the French cover I haven't pasted in) is, I think, the truest to the character of the book.