Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Garry Disher, Port Vila Blues

On the heels of Australian author Garry Disher's new Wyatt novel, titled Wyatt appropriately enough, Soho Crime is bringing out the 1996 Wyatt novel, Port Vila Blues, in the U.S. for the first time. For fans of dark, straight-ahead noir from the '40s to Donald Westlake, Port Vila Blues will be most welcome. Wyatt is extremely capable in his chosen profession (thief), but his talents (planning, patience, etc.) are supplemented by luck of both the good and bad variety.
One of the pleasures of the Wyatt series is the combination of character and plot. The secondary characters are all vivid and fully realized, and the reader will frequently find him or herself predicting how they will function in the plot as the story progresses--but Disher is very likely to undercut those expectations. His stories don't so much mesh like clockwork as veer realistically toward a common future point (an approach to plotting that he shares with, for example, Elmore Leonard or the aforementioned Westlake).

Wyatt himself is a cipher, even to the reader who is privy to his inner life (offered to us through Disher's omniscent narrator. We often know the secondary characters (those against whom Wyatt is plotting or vice versa) more fully than we know Wyatt. But the reader gradually is able to piece together the trajectory of Wyatt's life, at least in broad strokes, to see how he reached the present.

Even not knowing that the novel was first published in 1996, there are many elements that suggest that the '90s is the time frame of the novel. No one is using cell phones, and Wyatt thinks back to the origins of his career in his service in the Vietnam War. Other characters histories are also traced in such a way to suggest that they've traversed about 20 years since the 1970s. An Australian reader may discover other cues to the time of the novel's action. But the most significant fact of the novel's time dimension is that Wyatt is finding his milieu much changed: he looks back on his earlier career as a different era, giving the story a sense of time having passed, situations having changed.

Wyatt in this book begins with a well-planned robbery, based on information derived by his long-time partner (now very ill). Besides the money he expects to find in the safe of a politician's house there is something extra, a "lagniappe" that initiates a chain of events that will take Wyatt and the rest of the cast (mostly men, but with one very interesting female character) from Australia to the city of the novel's title, on the Melanesian island of Vanuatu. It's a lively ride, with a satisfying conclusion that drifts on beyond the last page.

Of the two covers reproduced here, the top one is the new Soho Crime one, and the lower one is, I think, an earlier, Australian edition. I have to say I like the older one better, though both do capture something of the stark, noir atmosphere of the story.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The last Dr. Siri novel by Colin Cotterill

I haven't read all the Colin Cotterill novels starring Dr. Siri Paiboun, the only coroner in Laos in the 1970s, but the atmosphere of the books is remarkably consistent throughout the series. That means, for better or worse, that if a reader (myself, for instance) doesn't really engage with one of the books, the same is likely to be true for the rest. And this post is less a review than a meditation on that engagement or lack of it on my part.

Cotterill doesn't pretend to be writing crime fiction. The novels have almost as much in common with science fiction as with the mystery genre (with the spirit world substituting for the strangenesses of alien worlds). If you aren't familiar with the series, various spirits share Dr. Siri's body with the doctor himself. And the twists and turns of the plot often (as is the case with Slash and Burn, reoortely the last in the series) have more to do with demonic possession or other intrusions into the wideawake world as with anything happening solely in that quotidian realm.

The stories also have accumulated a cadre of regular characters, each eccentric in his or her own way, as the series has progressed. Among them there is a constant stream of banter that in some ways is really what the books are about, as well as being a source of the considerable comedy.

So perhaps my lack of enthusiasm for Dr. Siri says more about me than about the series. I started this blog as a way of exploring my own tendency toward one kind of crime writing rather than another, and the kind that I was and still am finding myself gravitating toward is a grittier and more realistic style, reflected in the color reference in this blog's title. Not that I don't enjoy comedy in noir, I do. Some engagement with the workaday world, though, seems to be a requirement for me. Dr. Siri's advantures include a lot of actual politics and history (in Slash and Burn, Air America and the Vietnam War as well as American politics) but the stories bear the same sort of relation to those realities as, say, The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming bore to the Cold War. In other words, a comic or satirical relationship, and a relatively broad and good-natured comedy.

In Slash and Burn, Siri is offered an opportunity to put together a team that will investigate the case of an American helicopter pilot missing in action during the Vietnam War, on a sortie in Laos, along with a U.S. delegation that includes military, political, and civilian participants. Translation is a constant issue, as well as differing (and cloudy) motivations for the current search as well as the helicopter's original mission. The spirit world is a it less prominent than in some other Siri adventures, but does play a key role at several points; but the resolution of the story's mysteries has ultimately to do with this world's obsessions, ones that are as old as history.

I haven't read the first of Cotterill's new series yet: perhaps someone could comment on whether it is similar in tone to the Dr. Siri series or would recommend it to noir-obsessed readers such as myself. But in any case, Slash and Burn brings to a close a unique body of work that crosses and stretches a lot of the boundaries of genre fiction.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Bangkok, Phuket, Washington noir: Jake Needham's Killing Plato

Hardly anyone seems interested these days in developing a story slowly, gradually tightening the net around the reader. Most crime novels start with violence and keep up a hectic pace. But speed and murder aren't the only way to hold a reader's interest. Another is the employment of brisk writing and interesting characters. Jake Needham's Jack Shepherd novels fall into that category: as I mentioned in my review of the first novel in the series, Laundry Man, the series is in a first-person narrator that is cool, funny, and good company. As with Laundry Man, the second novel in the series, Killing Plato, starts quietly, with an encounter in a bar between Shepherd and an American fugitive who is hiding in plain sight in Thailand in order to avoid prosecution for financial crimes as well as a possible murder. Rather than jumping into the relationship, Jack rejects the offer of friendship and employment, a classic ploy of fiction, the delaying tactic. But instead of being frustrating, we experience the delay as if we're friends of Jack's, sympathetic and happy to see where this will lead.

The novel shifts the Eric Ambler style of spy novel (an outsider gets caught up in the dangerous game is the usual Ambler pattern) into a post-Cold War cynical world of financial crime, casual murder, and spiralling conspiracies. I mention Ambler not only because of the plot but also because of the tone: Needham's prose is never overwrought, Jack's voice is always natural even under stress. His stress in this case flows from being increasingly caught up in the fugitive's web but also in a sad but totally believable subplot concerning his life with Anita, his love interest here and in Laundry Man.

The conspiracies intertwine up to a point where they seem to implicate everyone from the U.S. president to Al Qaida, but after bringing forward (through dialogue with some of the conspirators) the more extreme threads of the overall pattern, Needham narrows ominously down to terrible verisimilitude and a coherence with historical events in the final passages, making the dark conclusion all the more credible. The unresolved threads of the plot trail out beyond the confines of the novel into the reader's daily life (and evening news).

The contrast between the increasing darkness of the story and Jack's lively voice has the dual effect of keeping the story moving and drawing the reader quietly into the depths of corruption, power, and money. There's a new sequel, and I'm anxious to see how Jack scrambles back from the edge of this political and emotional precipice.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Cameo on The Killing & other video reports

Did anyone notice who showed up in the AMC version o The Killing, in the first episode, as a new character (the District Attorney? Three points for guessing (answer below, and it's nothing to do with the image pasted in here, see below also for the photo identification). I found the 2-hour premiere to the new season of The Killing a bit confusing, though they're trying desperately to recover from that disastrous season-ender for the 1st season. The new characters promise a new story arc that overlaps in part with the original Danish Forbrydelsen, and I'll keep watching at least long enough to see if that develops in an interesting way. They've got to win me over, though.

On other fronts: The Italian series Nebbie e Delitti (Fog and Crimes in the subtitled version running now on MhZ Networks in the U.S.) is an excellent adaptation of the Commissario Soneri series by Valerio Varesi, shifted from the novels' Parma to Ferrara (and that series is the source of the image above). Just when it seemed like they were going down the "damaged detective" road, with Commissario Soneri brooding over his dead wife a la the defective detective, Monk, they found a way out of that trap and moved forward. I thought the first episode was very good, the second at least good (and that's where the "wife" plot was dealt with), and the third one excellent. Looking forward to the 4th and hoping that MhZ will pick up the further seasons.

Speaking of MhZ, I see that a limited selection of their imported mystery series are now available at Netflix (apparently only as DVDs, not streaming video). The more available these series are, the better for all of us. If it sounds like I'm boosting that network, I am--it's the only U.S. network with the courage to run subtitled shows, and I wish them the best.

Other series they've run recently or are running now: A Case of Conscience (also Italian) about a crusading lawyer (good but maybe a step below the quality of Fog and Crimes or Montalbano); Those in Power: an excellent Swedish series about women in politics--not a crime series but the best thing I've seen from Swedish TV so far; Don Matteo (a conventional mystery series and not to my taste, but set in Gubbio); East-West 101 from Australia (a police drama about strains between the Muslim and Euro-australian communities); Anno 1790--a Swedish period crime drama that I didn't like much at first but grew on me very quickly; plus reruns of Beck (more on that series another time), Coliandro (likewise--this cop show set in Bologna is a lot of fun), Wallander, etc.

So, who showed up on The Killing? Sofie Gråbøl, doing very well with the English dialogue, with only a few vowels sounding more Danish than English (and not out of place at all, given the large Scandinavian presence in the Seattle area).

Sunday, April 01, 2012

James Thompson, Lucifer's Tears

On the positive side, Lucifer's Tears (the second Kari Vaara novel by James Thompson) drew me in totally. The story, involving several threads that do and don't come together in the end, narrated by the guilt-ridden and troubled central character, moves quickly and kept me turning the pages all the way. On the other hand, by the end, I was a bit disappointed by several aspects of the book.

Vaara is now in Helsinki, following the rural investigation of Snow Angels, a disaster that leaves him with chronic migraines and a constant fear that his now-pregnant wife will miscarry again. The book begins with a very gruesome case that serves mostly to introduce Vaara's new assistant, Milo, an inexperienced but intellectually arrogant young man, and to establish Vaara's low status in the murder squad, to which he'd been appointed at the conclusion of the Snow Angels case. Several mentions of Dante are pertinent to the setting and psychological state of the detective (and the title of the book): the central circle of Hell in The Inferno is frozen rather than boiling hot, an appropriate image for a cold winter in Helsinki and the human horrors that are going on there.

The story really gets moving when the focus shifts to three other cases, the death of a Bettie Page lookalike who is a minor celebrity and the owner of a workout gym; a seemingly minor incident that causes Vaara to assault a young man who's harassing children; and a charge from the Interior Minister to cover up evidence that a national hero from the World War II era is actually a war criminal, implicated in the Holocaust. Along the way, we get a good (and interesting) dose of Finnish history, a subject of which most of the world is woefully ignorant.

In addition, Vaara's American wife Kate announces that her brother and sister will be arriving to help her out before and after the end of her pregnancy. It's essential to the story that Vaara's in-laws are each in their distinctive way extremely annoying. But as a reader, I found them as annoying as Vaara, and by the end of the book they had begun to make the story as irritating as they were themselves.

Thompson finds a unique way of bringing the threads of his story together, but the resolution has little to do with Vaara's investigation. In fact, Vaara and Milo discover a lot about the fitness guru and her husband, enough to know what was probably going on but not effetively enough to do much about with what they know. With Vaara suffering from those headaches constantly, dashing back and forth to help his wife and to deal with the disasters caused by his American visitors, and dealing with the politics of all his cases, there's really not all that much focus on any investigations.

Shortly after finishing Lucifer's Tears, I started two very different books, Jake Needham's Killing Plato (newly available on Kindle, featuring Needham's Jack Shepherd character) and Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza's first novel, The Silence of the Rain (which I originally read 10 years ago). Both describe difficult situations and fraught families, but each in its own way is a calm and straightforward story (Plato a thriller anchored in the narrator-hero's personality, Rain a detailed and dogged investigation of what the police assume is a murder and the reader knows is a suicide). Each is tight and atmospheric, the stories complex but essentially coherent, and neither has the tortured central character of Lucifer's Tears. And I'm afraid I find Jack Shepherd and Garcia-Roza's Espinosa better company than Thompson's Vaara, and the stories more satisfying.