Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Good Thief's Guide to Venice, plus Fatale

Chris Ewan has produced "Good Thief's Guides" to several cities already but the book set in Venice is the first one I've picked up. The books are not, of course, tour guides or thievery guides, but clever crime novels. The two covers illustrated here, from the U.K. and the U.S., illustrate the two halves of this book: the genuine appreciation of the city of Venice and the comic approach to the crime novel (the U.K. cover seems to be designed to capitalize on the cover's blurb from Colin Bateman, in fact).

But Ewan's novel is not as funny as Bateman's books, at their best. It's not so much a comedy as a light-hearted crime novel. Charlie Howard is a professional housebreaker who has sworn off his life of crime to pursue his other profession, writing crime novels featuring a housebreaker. There are a few times when the book becomes "self-conscious" or a "metafiction" in a comic way, but for the most part, the story is told straight, in Charlie's own voice.

Charlie's voice is self-centered but also self-critical, and he's good company. He's wakened in the middle of the night by a female burglar who steals only his prize possession and the magic talisman that keeps his writing on track, a framed, signed first edition of The Maltese Falcon. She leaves clues that lead finally to her challenge: she'll give the book back if he returns a briefcase to the home of a wealthy Venetian count; and he's forbidden from opening the case.

There are surprises and twists in the plot, but the point is not really the danger to Charlie, his agent Victoria (who's staying with him in Venice), the count, the book, or the burglaress, any more than the various threats are the point of, say, The Pink Panther (and Ewan's Guide is in a way a throwback to that sort of comic crime).

Charlie's a bit obtuse about some things, and in some ways hardly seems to rise to the level of "master thief" that is ascribed to him (maybe that's more well established in the earlier books). Charlie's meanderings around Venice are interesting glimpses of the city, and the story is entertaining, while not being either laugh-out-loud funny or serious about the genre. Given the light tone, I found the book to be a little long.

Fatale, on the other hand, is very short. Jean-Patrick Manchette is a revered French crime novelist, two of whose books have already been translated, Prone Gunman and Three to Kill, both of which I liked. Fatale, though, seems artificial or contrived, a thesis novel more than a fully realized fiction. It's about a female hitman with a very complicated way of doing business that's only gradually revealed.

She's the center of the story, but isn't much fun to be around. Her skills are employed ruthlessly until things start to get complicated in her last job, which is mostly the subject of Fatale. But I found it hard to care much about her, the job, or her victims. I have a sense that Manchette didn't intend for us to get too involved: he's not so much telling a story as a fable or parable. I don't know whether this is more obvious here, with a female heroine, than it was in the other two novels, both of which centered on men: I may go back and re-read the others to see if that's the case.

However, it's an intense book in the mode of classic noir, a descent into hell without any redemption. For that alone, the book is well worth reading, and the shortness of the text makes that easier to do. But prone gunman is, as I remember, a more fully rendered hitman story.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Gianrico Carofiglio's Temporary Perfections

The new Guido Guerrieri novel by Gianrico Carofiglio (translated by Antony Shugaar) is a lot of fun, in spite of the dark-toned plot. I've been mulling over the differences between character-driven and plot-driven crime fiction lately, and Temporary Perfections is decidedly character-driven. Guido is a first-person narrator, and he's clever, introspective, full of interesting digressions, and generally fun to be around. The plot moves slowly forward, frequently interrupted by those digressions, up to a point near the end when suddenly things start to happen, after Guido achieves a particular insight.

The Guerrieri novels are mostly set in Bari on Italy's east coast, but Guido goes to Rome a couple of times in the new book, for a couple of different reasons. So we get a flavor not only for the provincial city but also the capital, both from a legal and a non-legal perspective.

Guido is asked by a friend to help a couple whose college-age daughter has disappeared. The Carabinieri, in charge of the case, have stopped looking and are about to shelve the case, because there aren't any leads and because the daughter is of age and may well have simply decided to disappear.

Guido goes about his usual legal business while also interviewing the detective in charge of the original investigation and several of the daughter's friends, without really breaking any new ground. Along the way, he develops relationships with two women, one close to his own age (the owner of his favorite bar) and the other much younger, one of the daughter's friends. The bar owner's dog will also play an indirect role, but the younger woman begins to take up more and more of Guido's time and interest, along with his deep misgivings about consorting with a woman almost half his age.

Though the mystery is interesting and its solution is complex and moving, the novel stands or falls on Guido's voice, and fortunately he's a delightful character, someone that we'd love to be sitting across a dinner table from. Though there are running characters in the series, it's basically a one-man show. There is a stark difference between Carofiglio's stand-alone novel, The Past is Another Country (made into an interesting film) and the Guerrieri stories, though in fact the stand-alone deals with a lot of the same people and issues as Temporary Perfections. The difference is Guido, who is our window on the dealings of young people veering into crime and vile behavior, while in Another Country, all we have are those same young people. By means of Guido's voice, we have both a clearer view and in the end more sympathy with these people whose behavior eases from self-interest into sociopathy.

There are different publishers and different covers for Temporary Perfections in the U.K. and the U.S. The U.K. cover (the one posted at the top of this review) is both clearer and more specifically atmospheric than the U.S. one (which suggests Rome, an important but after all secondary setting) more than Bari, though I confess some bias toward the U.K. edition's publisher, Bitter Lemon, who brought the Guerrieri series to the world originally.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Outrage from Iceland

Outrage, Arnaldur Indridason's newly translated Icelandic crime novel, is a departure from the series featuring the dour detective Erlendur, while still being part of the series. Erlendur has gone walkabout, in the fjords where his brother was lost, his body never found, in a storm many years before (the event that has marked the rest of Erlendur's life).

In his absence, Elínborg, Erlendur's female colleague, steps to the foreground of the series (Sigurdur Óli, their other colleague, also features in the book, but in a smaller role than Elínborg). Crime writers have often shifted focus from one running character to another, but rarely has it made such a dramatic difference in the mood of a book: Elínborg is not exactly cheerful, but she lacks Erlendur's gloomy outlook, and her family (all of them alive, not so common among fictional detectives) is constantly in her mind.

The case at hand involves rape and roofies (the date rape drug). In a preface we see a young man on the prowl in a club. But when the police arrive at a crime scene (spoiler alert) in the first chapter, it's a man's body that's found, not a woman's, and he's wearing the T-shirt that the predatory male's potential victim was wearing in the preface. In addition to a difficult case, Elínborg is dealing with (in her own family) a hostile teenage son who's a bad influence on a younger son, an exceptionally intelligent daughter, and a foster son who has abandoned the family that took him in.

Elínborg's passion for cooking (noted in earlier books in the series) is also a strong thread in the story, not only in her own home (where she seldom has time to exercise her talent) but also in the case (where subtle odors play a major role). As in the books featuring Erlendur, the shift away from traditional Icelandic culture to a more homogenized modern one is an important theme, but the shift from Erlendur's point of view to Elínborg's provides a less gloomy and reactionary perspective on the phenomenon.

The subject of rape is investigated in some depth, with special emphasis in the damage that the crime does to the victim's life and mental state. Elínborg claims no special insight because she's a woman, but perhaps the author chose to bring her to the forefront in this case because of her more possibly more sympathetic attitude toward the victims. Yet she does not hesitate to pursue the possibility that the victim of the rape at the center of the story may (when she finally finds her) be the perpetrator of the murder. Other actual and potential victims of rape and murder are offered, giving shades of emphasis about the crime, the victims, and the attacker.

It's always puzzled me that Arnaldur (Icelanders actually go by their first names rather than patronymics, a fact that gives the stories an interestingly informal quality) emphasizes Erlendur to the detriment of his other, quite interesting, police colleagues: perhaps he was thinking the same thing, since Elînborg, when given free rein to dominate the book, is indeed quite interesting, fully the equal of other female detectives in Scandinavian fiction (by male as well as female authors). While I'm curious to know what is happening with Erlendur (there a very few clues, none of them very positive, in Outrage), I'd also be glad to read more about Elínborg in the future (Sigurdur Óli seems not quite so interesting: a more impulsive than intelligent detective).

Outrage follows the pattern of the subgenre of police procedurals, though perhpaps less completely than in Dregs, reviewed here recently. There is a mystery at the heart of Outrage for which some clues are supplied to the reader and the detectives, and we may guess at some aspects of the facts of the case (some of which will be upturned by the development of the tale), but still Elînborg's skill is supplemented by her unique insight perhaps more than is the case with William Wisting of Dregs, whose talent is in organizing the investigation and remaining open to new facts rather than in any special insight. Just goes to show that two excellent books in the same sub-set of crime fiction can demonstrate quite different approaches. I hope that it won't be too long before we get another installment in this series, no matter which detective takes the main role.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Dregs: Norwegian police procedural

Dregs, by Norwegian crime writer Jørn Lier Horst, is a first-class police procedural. Horst has had some time to perfect his craft: this is apparently the 6th in the series featuring Detective William Wisting, and his 8th novel, but the first to be translated into English. Though it's always preferable to start a series with the first book (to my mind), Horst does a good job of keeping the reader informed about the characters' past, so we English-speakers won't get lost.

The book is set in Stavern, in southeast Norway (near the city of Larvik, where Horst is himself a policeman). Wisting is called to the shore where a left-foot running shoe has washed ashore, with the foot still inside. This is the second recent Scandinavian crime novel to feature a foot-washing-ashore (Swedish writer Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles arrived a bit earlier), but apart from that and the fact that both are police procedurals, the books don't have a lot in common. Horst's book is a bit more straightforward, while Eriksson's ranges quite far in time and geography. Plus in Horst's book, the reader sees only a few brief scenes that either Wisting or his daughter Line (a journalist) don't see (there aren't scenes from the viewpoint of the killer or victims).

In Dregs, too, more shoes come washing ashore, all for the left foot (which is also present). Wisting and his team quickly align the case with the disappearances of a group of old men and two women, but no one can figure out what's going on, or why the missing people's feet (rather than whole bodies) keep showing up. Simultaneously, Line is in town (she normally works in Oslo), working on a feature article about released prisoners. One in particular has captured her interest, and eventually his story becomes intertwined in the investigation—but not in an obvious way (nothing about the story is obvious).

Wisting is a very interesting character (and the novel is more character-driven than plot-driven, unlike a couple of other Scandinavian crime novels I've read recently). Wisting is feeling his age and waiting for results from a doctor's visit. Like many other fictional detectives, there's a tragedy in his past (the death of his wife and Line's mother), but unlike many others, he has partly moved on and is now in a positive relationship with a woman in the town. Line, as well, is in a relationship, but one that her father is not entirely happy with.

All in all, it's a very realistic story, focused on the characters and the slow progress through the investigation (leading through spirals of information, going through the facts again and again from various newly discovered angles—as in any good police procedural). It's not a puzzle mystery, since neither the reader nor the police are in possession of the information necessary to solve the case until well into the story. The police procedural format is more satisfying to me than the puzzle mystery, for reasons I don't fully understand. But the pleasures of the procedural are very much in evidence in Dregs.

The title works very well, too—various shades of meaning of "dregs" surface at various points. Horst is one of the best writers of the current crop (a new Scandinavian crime wave in English translation): nothing like the books of Stieg Larsson, and actually not much like those of Henning Mankell either (though they share the procedural format). Horst's style is low-key, but very involving, vivid, and persuasive.