Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rage, by Gene Kerrigan

Irish crime writing was already booming before the economic bust in that country, but the collapse seems to be supplying even richer material for the writers there. The gritty realism of Gene Kerrigan seems to have anticipated bad times, as if his style of noir has only now found its proper environment.

His new novel, The Rage, is a very good book that very effectively evokes the decline in the Irish economy and sense of national identity. Bob Tidey is a detective who is determined to the right thing for the victims and their families, and his efforts lead him into a professional and personal quagmire. Vincent Naylor, recently released from prison, is a hard man who's trying to control his impulses, not to go straight but to make the risks of his actions match his possible gains, especially in the complex and daring robbery he has in mind.

The strength of Kerrigan's writing is that the cop and the thug, not to mention Tidey's obstructive bosses and Naylor's criminal associates, are fully human. Tidey struggles with his duty and his conscience and his relationship with his former wife. Naylor struggles with his anger, his impulsive older brother, and his sense of justice (which is fueled by the rage of the book's title). Naylor seems on sounder footing in his relationship to the new woman in his life, a better match than he deserves. One minor character who is essential to the plot, a nun, gets more and more complex as the story goes along, drawing in the traditional virtues (some of them no longer seeming so virtuous) and recent failings of the Irish church. She in particular could have been less interesting and more of a bit player in the hands of a lesser writer, and sh adds a lot to the depth of the story.

The plot is subtle and thoroughly believable, with a lot of killing but without using death as a casual plot device. I've been a fan of Kerrigan's since he started writing fiction (I haven't read his nonfiction crime writing, but I understand it to be highly regarded), and like Maxine over at Petrona-land, I found his third book, Dark Times in the City, to be very good but not quite as darkly effective (emotionally and dramatically) as his first two novels. But The Rage is very good indeed, and I found in it some of the grim poetry of the first two books (which Maxine found less evident in this book), as well as a very original approach to crime writing, responsive to both the demands of storytelling and the truth of a realistic portrayal of a very specific social milieu.

I'm pasting in two covers, the one that seems to be the official Harvill Secker cover and one that seems to be an alternate (it shows up only on a couple of Australian sites—perhaps an official Aussie cover?). The Aussie or alternate one is closer to the actual story, but the official one is more tensely ambiguous. But neither really evokes the power of the story that they purportedly depict.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

All Yours, by Claudia Piñeiro

All Yours, Argentine writer Claudia Piñeiro's second novel to be translated into English (in this case by Miranda France), is really more a satire than a crime novel, and it's sometimes quite funny, in a dark way. While that's also true of her first book, Thursday Night Widows, that novel is a bit more complex and realistic. All Yours is more like a novella, with a plot that takes a couple of twists and is narrated in several voices but is much more straightforward that the earlier book.

Ines overhears a phone conversation between her husband, Ernesto, and a woman, and suspects betrayal. She follows him and witnesses a confrontation between Ernesto and his secretary: he shoves her and she falls against a tree stump, breaking her neck. Ines sneaks away without confronting Ernesto, and what follows (mostly in her voice but also briefly in his and occasionally in what seem to be police documents) is a tale of self-deception and revenge and a final twist.

Interspersed with the main story is the story, mostly in dialogue, of Ines and Ernesto's teenage daughter, who suffers from typical teenage angst and a few more serious problems. But her story veers off from the main plot without really reconnecting to her parents' tragedy. I don't know if the book would have been better if her story were more developed or simply left out, but it seems underdeveloped and not that relevant as it is.

But All Yours is a quite interesting social satire, making fun of middle-class suburban life in a more straightforward way that Thursday Night Widows. It's a quick read and remains light and entertaining. In a way, it's the flip side of the social portrait given in Ernesto Mallo's dark novels of the military dictatorship and its aftermath. Piñeiro's world is the shallow bourgeois social miasma that has followed a more overtly dangerous political past. The cover, by the way, is very effective as an image, and suggests the sexuality inherent in the story but isn't otherwise very much related to the plot.

Friday, August 26, 2011

China, thrillers, and a "forgotten friday" entry

Rock Paper Tiger, by Lisa Brackmann, is more of a thriller than a crime novel. There are probably or likely murders, but no corpses; lots of violence and many threats, but not much effort to solve a mystery. What it reminded me of in an odd way is a wonderful book from the 1960s, Lionel Davidson's The Rose of Tibet. The Rose of Tibet was much praised when first published and has been revived from time to time, but it's still worth reminding people about a book that is in part a throwback to the great adventure novels of previous centuries, updated to the 20th century's global politics.

First, Rock Paper Tiger: the story revolves around Ellie Cooper, an Iraq-war veteran and former medic who saw a few too many things during the war that now threaten her psychological balance, her marriage (to another Iraq vet), and even personal safety. She finds herself adrift in Beijing, having left her husband, sent there by a security company (sort of a small-scale Blackwater). He found a Chinese girlfriend and she left him, having already left the Christianity that was (besides the war) about all they had in common.

Ellie has fallen in with some fringe groups she drifted into while studying Chinese: some Internet role-game-players and some artists, in particular. On a visit to an artists' compound (a vivid glimpse into the overheated world of Chinese contemporary art and its conflicts with a suspicious and paranoid government) she briefly meets a Uighur who may be a freedom fighter or a terrorist (depending on your point of view) who is apparently on the run. Then her artist friend disappears. Then she's invited into the different but possibly overlapping worlds of art collectors and game players, while simultaneously being pursued by various threatening groups (sometimes hard to tell apart) from various governments and interest groups, all of whom want something from her (it's not too clear exactly what) and all of whom are willing to exert violent force to get it.

What ensues is a wild ride back and forth across the new China, with glimpses of the old China. It's in these sections that the resemblance to The Rose of Tibet occurred to me: in that book, an Englishman who had come to Tibet to look for a missing brother is thrust into the role of protector for a young boy and a beautiful woman, with whom he travels in haste across the mountains, with the Chinese army in hot pursuit (it's during the Red Army's invasion of Tibet). Davidson's story is marvelous, a wild, sometimes funny, sometimes erotic, sometimes even spirtual quest or flight that never lets up. Don't listen to me, go read it. Graham Greene meets H. Rider Haggard, as reviewers have remarked. Or Eric Ambler (another writer unjustly gathering dust) meets Edgar Rice Burroughs. There's nothing quite like it (even among Davidson's other, in different ways also excellent, books. It would have made a great movie, if anyone managed to do it right, though it's probably impossible to do it now (special effects would kill the story).

Brackman's novel is almost as intense, a good trick given how vague the threats to her and the goal she is supposedly seeking are. the book has a bit of a cyber-punk edge (in the gaming and its devotees) as well as some serious consideration of the extent to which both repressive and supposedly democratic governments will go in the era of globalized terror and global paranoia. I enjoyed the story and its propulsive motion, and also felt a not-unpleasurable sense of having been conned, when the threats against Ellie more or less evaporate. The real point of the story, I suppose, is Ellie's growth, her shift from a passivity that even predates her PTSD war experience. Her voice is paramount, and Brackman's chief achievement is that the reader never doubts her and remains interested in her and in her voice.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Norwegian noir: The Shadow in the River, part 2

The Shadow in the River, a 2005 Norwegian crime novel by Frode Grytten, is classic noir with a wry edge. It could almost be Chinatown, with the incest changed to adultery and the water rights manipulation motivated by development changed to industrial theft motivated by globalization (there's even a sly reference to the movie). It's a Jim Thompson novel with a political theme (the same racism and xenophobia recently used as an excuse by a deranged Norwegian nazi) and a bit of Samuel Beckett's absurd comedy.

Grytten vividly evokes a grim post-industrial landscape and its citizens (some winners but most losers as their town dies). The narrator and central character, Robert Bell (I wonder if the anglo name is itself a noir reference) is the pessimistic wise-cracking anti-hero of noir, this time a reporter on the verge of losing his job rather than a down-and-out detective.

The plot is not complicated. A young man has drowned in the river, his car forced off the road. He had been fighting with some Serbian immigrants, and everyone is happy to assume that the foreigners are guilty of the crime. In the first half of the novel, Robert lethargically investigates the crime, which has attracted national attention, while occasionally seeing his brother, a police detective, around town and in press conferences.

The brother finally appears directly in the second half, first to ask Robert to accept a TV station's invitation to appear on a news show to discuss the investigation from their different points of view and then to confront Robert about the fact that has become the central tragedy of Robert's life: he is in love with, and having an on-again off-again affair with, his brother's wife.

There's murder, racial hatred, adultery among brothers, plus blackmail, manipulation of the town industry's bankruptcy…plus the worldy and wry voice of the narrator—all the elements necessary for first-class noir. Plus an element of the absurd in both the plot and Robert's attitude, as well as globalism, to bring the story up to date.

Grytten has written a series of short stories based on Edward Hopper paintings, certainly a noir topic, but no other crime fiction that I'm aware of. I had been putting off reading The Shadow in the River because I'd read reviews that made it sound grim and self-consciously “literary,” but the book is winning in its style and its development of the noir form. If you're in the mood for something dark but funny, downbeat but vivid, I'd highly recommend it.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Frode Grytten's The Shadow in the River, part 1

Split my review of a short book into two parts might seem odd, but this is an odd book in some ways. The reviews I'd read of The Shadow in the River (translated from Frode Grytten's Norwegian by Robert Ferguson) mostly emphasized the dark and grim qualities of the book; to be honest, it didn't seem very inviting, and it was pretty expensive every time I looked for it, so I forgot about it. Recently I noticed an ex-library copy on-line that was cheap enough to give it a try.

The beginning is indeed a bit dark and grim, concerned with a reporter, the discovery of a body in the river, and small town pettiness, and the style is clipped and indirect, not pursuing the crime so much as portraying the reporter in his own voice. But once it gets going, the book has a lot of bitter humor. Especially toward the middle, where I am now in my rapid progress through the book, with the swarm of national newspapers descending upon the small, decaying, formerly industrial town of Odda, the comedy is quite broad, though still dark (almost Evelyn Waugh-like in tone, and Waugh, too, took on the press).

The humor reminded me of a line repeated a few times in Jan Costin Wagner's The Winter of the Lions, not a book (or a series) much noted for its humor (though th odd sense of humor of somoe of the characters is referred to occasionally). In a book whose characters are called Kimmo Joentaa, Ari Pekka Sorajärva, Tuomas Heinonen, Kai-Petteri Hämäläinen, etc., every time the name of an emergency-room doctor is mentioned, Valtteri Muksanen, some one says "Funny sort of name" or something like that. Does anyone recognize if that's a joke (to a German or Finnish reader)?

More about the plot of The Shadow in the River soon.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Winter of the Lions, by Jan Costin Wagner

Structurally, the third Kimmo Joentaa novel to be translated into English (by Anthea Bell (from the German original of author Jan Costin Wagner), is a straightforward police procedural. Joentaa, still finding it quite difficult to cope with the death of his wife (a major theme in the first of the novels, Ice Moon) is called out to a crime scene where one of his team's own crime techs has been murdered savagely. The attack came while the man was cross-country skiing, early on a winter morning (just before Christmas, a season where a number of recent Scandinavian crime novels have been set). Christmas in Finland is evoked quite vividly by Wagner.

Another attack suggests a direction for the investigation, confirmed by a third, but there are no clues to work with. It's a bit unusual for police procedurals to concentrate on a mere detective, not the head of his unit or team. Joentaa is very much the eccentric outlier, doing what he's told but then moving off on his own tangent (which he frequently finds it difficult to explain to his colleagues). H latches onto an idea and slowly works through it until he finds some kind of thread to unravel.

The slowness of the investigation's progress and Joentaa's constant memory of his wife (particurly her last moments) give the book a melancholy, even poetic quality. The narrative sticks with Joentaa for the most part, but shifts into the head of a troubled woman who seems to have something to do with the crime, but her relation to reality is vague, and we get little sense of who she is until Joentaa begins to clarify for himself what has happened. The reader is pulled in by impressions rather than events: the interest is more in how te crimes happened rather than who is the killer. The charaterizations are somewhat quirky: some characters are fully fleshed out and others are sketched simply with a few elements of personality or their relationship to someone else.

The selection of covers (from the U.K., Germany, and France) is telling: The U.K. cover suggests a frozen forest, when most of the story actually takes place in the cities of Tuku and Helsinki, and a good deal of it happens in the context of a TV talk show rather than a forest (though admittedly the first crime scene is adjacent to a forest), and the film industry in Finland plays an important role in the story. The window looking out on an icy scene (the German version) is more closely evocative of the book, but the French version, of a woman peering in a window, suggests in its use of contrasting haze and clarity more of the psychological realities that the novel turns upon.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Manuel Vazquez Montalban at the movies

Last weekend, I watched the only film version of one of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Pepe Carvalho novels that I've been able to find with English subtitles, Rafael Alcazar's 1993 film El Labirinto Griego (The Greek Labyrinth, taken from the novel published by Serpent's Tail in English translation as An Olympic Death). There are several other movies and at least two TV series based on private detective Pepe Carvalho and on Vazquez Montalban's novels, but all made for a Spanish audience and not available with subtitles.

But oddly, for El Labirinto Griego, even though Vazquez Montalban was involved in the screenplay, the character's name was changed from Pepe Carvalho to Juan Bardón, and certain other facts about the novel and the life of the detective are changed (plus several of the more colorful running characters are left out). Does anyone know why the name was changed? Copyright problems, given the other film and TV companies that have bought the rights to the Carvalho books? There's also not much about food in the movie, a big departure from the books.

In any case, An Olympic Death/Greek Labyrinth is a somewhat odd book turned into an even odder movie. The plot twists and turns without much logic, leading the detective on a merry chase through a Barcelona that is being transformed by the upcoming Olympic Games (and not for the better, to listen to the detective and other Barcelona natives in the story): In particular, Pueblo Nuevo/Poble Nou (correct me if I have the name or spelling wrong, please), a working class and industrial neighborhood being razed to build the dormitories for the teams. Along the way, the detective and his clients are threatened and the detective is in trouble with the police.

The plot is loosely wound around a man and woman from Paris who hire the detective to find her husband, a Greek painter and artist's model who has run off with a new lover. She keeps justifying her search by saying he is the "man of my life," the title of another book in the series (a much later one). Bardón/Carvalho leads this pair through a tour of Barcelona at night at this specific time in history, visiting a decadent artist's party, a few bars, a warehouse where a couple of theatrical events for the Olympics is being rehearsed, and an abandoned warehouse where the painter has been living. There are a few surprises when the painter is finally found (a bit predictable, though, and tied to the time of the writing and filming), but mostly the story hinges on the emotional experiences of the characters, the detective included. His daughter (I don't remember a daughter from the book, but someone can perhaps let us know if that's a character invented for the movie) is played by a very young Penelope Cruz (her first film, at least that's what's reported in the film's reviews), and the style of filmmaking is visual rather than narrative (sometimes to the point of annoyance, in my opinion, sapping some of the narrative motion). I thought the actors were well chosen, though (even the Galician/Catalan detective is actually played by an Italian).

But this is the one we have if we don't speak Spanish. I'd love to see the TV series (one from the '80s, I think, and one from the '90s, and there are perhaps others), if anyone has a source for subtitled version or can encourage the distributors to subtitle and release them. Some basis for comparing the Laberinto film to the other versions of Pepe Carvalho would be very interesting.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles

I've been a fan of Kjell Eriksson's crime fiction since his first book featuring Uppsala detective Ann Lindell and her colleagues (The Princess of Burundi) appeared in English translation a few years ago. He has a distinctive voice that separates him from most of the Scandinavian crime wave authors and might make his books less likely to be made into TV or theatrical films.

The distinctive quality of his books, very much in evidence in The Hand That Trembles (published recently by Minotaur in Ebba Segerberg's translation), is a what I think of as a "dailiness." These books are not thrillers, they focus on the everyday lives of people (some of them cops) who happen to be involved in crime, in one way or another.

This new novel features several overlapping plots, beginning with the early and recent history of a man who grew up in rural Sweden, near Uppsala, and ultimately shifted from a career as a plumber to one on politics, as a socialist county commissioner. Most recently, he has vanished from Uppsala and reappeared under an assumed name in Bangalore, living a humble life as a gardener and sometime English instructor in a local school. Why he undertook this journey and why he vanished is a major aspect of the story.

Back in Sweden, in a winter that is a radical contrast to Bangalore, Ann Lindell reluctantly takes on the case of a foot discovered along the shore: reluctantly because the site of the discovery is near the home of her former lover, the father of her young son and, and her longing and loneliness are major factors in this book and the series.

During the investigation, she discovers an almost "locked room" situation, a group of houses apart from the mainland, where a few older people and some middle-aged bachelors live, as well as a younger woman who is a painter (and whose hands are among the trembling ones of the title).

Ann is also involved tangentially in the cold case that her former mentor is investigating, as he recovers from brain surgery, the unsolved murder of an old man in Uppsala who turns out to have been a Nazi sympathizer. While the case of the severed foot moves forward slowly but relentlessly (as Ann and a local colleague speak to the "locked room" houses over and over again), the other threads of the book move along in sudden twists and turns, as threads from Spain, India, and Sweden intertwine. Though there's little likelihood of a reader discovering who severed that foot much before Ann does, there are considerable surprises elsewhere in the story.

So The Hand That Trembles is a police procedural, but also a close-up portrait of a group of people as they live through ordinary and extraordinary circumstances, navigating lost opportunities, regrets, longings, and everyday responsibilities. None of them are stock characters, and it's that "dailiness" that is the prime experience in reading the book, transported though we are to a small city in Sweden and a garden in India.

Eriksson's books relate much more closely to the everyday realism of Swedish crime writing that goes back to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and that is sometimes evident in Henning Mankell's writing, rather than to the thriller writing of Swedish authors from Stieg Larsson to Liza Marklund. Though I enjoy the thrillers, I am myself more drawn to the quieter, more reflective, and more character-driven works by writers like Eriksson.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Ernesto Mallo, Sweet Money

The sequel to Ernesto Mallo's remarkable Needle in a Haystack, Sweet Money, is scheduled to be published in the U.S. in October, in a translation by Katherine Silver (published by Bitter Lemon Press). Every reviewer of Needle in a Haystack remarks on the surprising fact that there could be a sequel, since "Perro" Lascano, the central character in what we are told is a trilogy, lies dying in the gutter at the end of the first novel.

But Mallo is not engaged in the kind of magic or comic realism that characterizes the life-after-death of the central character of the detective novels of Paco Ignacio Taibo II of Mexico. Mallo's detective is nursed back to health under the protection of a dishonest but wily policeman who is arranging to become the chief of police in Buenos Aires after the end of the military government--and who needs an honest cop like Lascano. But just as Lascano is achieving his recovery, his mentor is shuffled off the stage by a cabal of corrupt police who not only don't need Lascano, they target him for murder.

At the same time, a smart bank robber is released from a prison and follows a plan for his future that quickly falls apart, leaving him in need of cash. His solution is a robbery that has several unfortunate aspects, including a killing, an arrest, and the hidden source of the money stolen. Lascano, hiding from the police, is offered a lot of money to find the surviving robbers and the money before the police do. Lascano needs the money to escape from the police who want to kill him but also to find the woman who got away, his lover from the first novel.

The style of the writing in the series is direct and straightforward, with dialogue presented in blocks of italicized text, with no indication of who is speaking. A reader quickly gets used to the odd presentation of dialogue, and immersed in the multiple pursuits that make up the plot. The charactrers and the story are quickly but vividly drawn, but what Mallo is after isn't so much plot and character as a wider portrait of a society so poisoned by the violence of the military dictatorship (portrayed in Needle in a Haystack) that the new democracy is characterized less by freedom than by greed and corruption. A pervading theme is the kidnapping of dissidents' children, "adopted" by members of the ruling military.

Sweet Money is a grim but not heavy story. Mallo makes us care about the characters and about their shattered social milieu. And the blow that Lascano receives at the end is a final twist that, again, makes a sequel seem unlikely and at the same time inviting.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

The Hypnotist, by "Lars Kepler"

The new Swedish thriller The Hypnotist, by the psuedonymous Lars Kepler provoked a Swedish media swirl around the nom de plume and discovered that it hides the identity of a married couple, writers Alexandra and Alexander Ahndoril). The identity of the couple was long-revealed before the recent publication in English translation by Ann Long, and in any case the writers (who appaently have a reputation as literary authors in Sweden) are unknown in the rest of the world so there's no thrill of discovery. Reviews of The Hypnotist in translation have varied from positive, to positive-with-some-complaints, to negative. I find myself more to the right-hand side of that spectrum, I'm afraid.

Joona Linna, he central investigator starts out to be an interesting character, but oddly in a novel of over 500 pages, he remains paper thin, merely a bundle of quirks (he's always right and not afraid to say so; he's Finnish; he has a tragedy in his past). More fully realized is the eponymous hypnotist and psychiatrist, Erik Maria Bark, enlisted by Joona to help interrogate a boy after most of his family is brutally murdered and the boy is left for dead.

The plot is interesting and "cinematic," as several reviewers have commented (and a film is apparently on the way): short chapters broken at the point of some crucial revelation; lots of brutality; vivid scene-setting. There are numerous red herrings, and even the main thread of the plot gets left behind a couple of times (once for a very--very--long trip to the hypnotist's past therapy sessions (though the sessions produce both clues and more red herrings, as well as an explanation for Erik's abandonment of hypnotism until the present case, I found these passages distracting rather than revelatory). There are very clever twists, especially in the unveiling of the killer's identity and the shift to a new plot thread (when the hypnotist's son is kidnapped).

I found the conclusion to be operatic--i.e. extravagant and not that believable, though linked to both the main plot and the hynotist's flashbacks. There's also an odd dichotomy between vivid and violent murder and a curious unwillingness to fully embrace the tragedies that the plot veers toward. I can't explain what I mean without giving too much away. I enjoyed the book more than my review my indicate, but found it too long and found Joona in particular to be too undeveloped (maybe he'll get his due in a sequel). I keep separate mental lists of new crime novels that I recommend to friends and others that I don't. On balance, The Hypnotist falls into the latter category--but I'd love to hear from other readers and bloggers that have a more positive reaction to the book (would you recommend it to a friend, or to a friend who's a big fan of the Scandinavian crime wave? Would you recommend it as the first Swedish crime novel they should read?

There are very different covers for the U.S and U.K.: I like them both, graphically, though the U.S. one focuses on a narrow plot point that's hinted at earlier on but only fully present very late in the story.