Sunday, May 27, 2012

Austrian crime: Wolf Haas, Brenner and God

A few years ago I saw a film based on one of Wolf Haas's series based on a former cop named Brenner and have been hoping since then to be able to read some of the original novels. Now, finally, Brenner and God has arrived in English courtesy of Melville House/Melville International Crime, in a translation by Annie Janusch. The film I saw was Silentium, a darkly comic story based on Haas's fourth Brenner book (Brenner and God is made from the seventh and apparently most recent in the series). Silentium was the Austrian entry in the European Union touring film festival for that year, and there are two other Brenner films, one earlier and one more recent than Silentium.

Though it's the seventh novel in the series, Brenner and God reads almost as if it were the first. Brenner, who left the police force some time before, has found what he now thinks is his perfect job: being a driver for a wealthy developer (who lives in Munich) and his wife (a doctor who runs an abortion clinic in Vienna) and especially their daughter Helena (whom he shuttles back and forth between the parents). While driving Helena along the autobahn between her parents, Brenner stops for gas and Helena is kidnapped. Brenner is fired but becomes involved in the search for the kidnappers, a search that ultimately leads to a number of deaths.

The story is lively and the characters are vivid, but the most interesting aspect of the novel is the voice of the narrator. The story is told in the first person, but not by one of the characters. The narrator, though very present in the story, is an omniscent eye, who knows where the story is going and constantly addresses the reader with suggestions of upcoming deaths and the timeline according to which things are going to happen. The narrator is also constantly indulging in digressions, in a loopy but entertaining monologue. The result is that the reader gets a double benefit: a story that is engaging and has a rapid momentum and a narrative voice that is darkly comic.

There's a disgusting plot element that reminded me of the grossest part of Jo Nesbø's Headhunters (anyone who has read that book knows what I'm talking about) but in a more grotesque but oddly funny way. Brenner comes in for a good deal of punishment before the book is over, in a long tradition of noir detectives who are forever getting thrust into painful and threatening situations. But Brenner rolls with the punches. His marginal professional status is an interesting aspect of the series, allowing Haas to put Brenner into situations beyond the typical police and private detective tropes.

Melville House graciously sent me a galley of Brenner and God (full disclosure) but speaking honestly when I say that my long wait for the Brenner books was delightfully fulfilled with this book. I can only hope that Melville will go back and give us the earlier books (and I'm trying to find the other movies as well, now, all of which feature Josef Hader as Brenner, with Wolfgang Murnberger as director.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

New series from Sweden: Anna Jansson's Maria Wern

I've been watching the Maria Wern TV series, produced by Swedish television and broadcast in the U.S. by MhZnetworks, and have been waiting anxiously for some of Anna Jansson's books (on which the series is based) to appear in English translation. The first has now arrived, as Killer's Island, translated by Enar Henning Koch from Jansson's 11th Maria Wern book, Drömmen förde dej vilse, published in English by Stockholm Text, a new project bringing Swedish books out in paperback and digital form. The first of their books is becoming available late this month (I was able to get galleys from Netgalley).

The Maria Wern TV series is interesting for its Gotland setting and the characters (some of whom appear in the books, but in slightly different relationships with each other). The series is not quite to my taste: I'm more interested in the darker Swedish series, closer to noir, and Maria Wern is a bit more on the cozy side. The books take another step further away from noir, since Jansson is very interested in the conflicted private lives of her characters (at least she is in this book). Both Maria and her friend and coworker Erika are caught in relationships that are not going according to plan, and their love lives take up a considerable portion of the text (it seems like they take up more space than the mystery or the police work, but that's probably just my impression). Perhaps my problem is that beginning with the 11th in the series, I don't have enough background with these characters.

The story itself goes from an attack on a young boy, during which Maria tries to intervene and is beaten and stabbed with a hypodermic syringe, causing her to worry about exposure to blood diseases. Then a series of murders begins, the first very lurid indeed and the next more matter-of-fact. All of the incidents seem to revolve around a very limited group of people, including Erika and her romantic attachment, who is a doctor. When the conclusion arrives, there's a somewhat contrived (and to me not all that convincing) final struggle in the sea.

At the beginning, I was so annoyed by some of the writing (or the translation, a non-Swedish-speaker can't be sure). An example from the first paragraph is, "A pale dusk lay over the creased surface of the sea, lighting up the dark bastions of the city walls and the monastery ruins hailing back to another, more powerful time." And just after the discovery of the lurid murder, one of the detectives feels sick:"The vomit lurked somewhere in the region of his throat. He wasn't sure which exit it would take." There's something both overwritten and unclear about both passages. Fortunately, the writing settles down and from about a third of the way into the book I stopped noticing that sort of thing.

The story kept me reading, but there are other recent Swedish crime novels that make better use of the Gotland setting (such as the books of Mari Jungstedt, whose newest novel, The Dead of Summer, is also appearing in the U.S. thanks to Stockholm Text) and of the myths and folktales of Scandinavia (Jansson evokes the tale of a bride who is drowned and returns to torment everyone, but the Öland novels by Johan Theorin make more extensive and effective use of regional myth). Still, I thought the book was interesting, and will certainly appeal to readers who find much of the recent Swedish crime wave a bit too dark: for instance, Jansson's book has a good deal in common with Camilla Läckberg's series set on the Western coast of Sweden. Both series put more emphasis on the marriages and love affairs of the detectives than do the series by some of the darker Scandinavian series.

Balancing the two versions of Maria Wern against one another, I think I prefer the filmed rather than the written version. Though the cops in the filmed version have plenty of stress and misery in their private lives, the crime at hand takes up a bit more space in the story than, at least, it does in Killer's Island. Perhaps someone who knows the original Swedish novels can offer an opinion about whether Killer's Island is typical and whether my impression of them is tilted by my lack of access to the originals?

BTW, there's a killer parody of the Maria Wern series on YouTube, taken from a Swedish satirical TV show, but it's in Swedish. It also includes a very funny reference to another Swedish crime phenom:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Conor Fitzgerald, The Namesake

Conor Fitzgerald is Irish, writes under a pseudonym, and his series character is an American who grew up in Rome and is an irascible Italian commisario. The cover of his new (and I think best) novel, The Namesake, suggests that he fills the void left by the death of Michael Dibdin, but this most recent book seems to me to have a bit more in common with the excellent series by Timothy Williams featuring Commissario Piero Trotti, though Trotti is considerably different from Fitzgerald's Commissario Alec Blue.

First, Blume is younger (Trotti is on the verge of ageing out of the Italian police when the series starts and retired by the last, still unpublished, novel). Blue is also not a native Italian, and Trotti is very much anchored in the northern Italian region where the series is set. But both detectives are difficult people to be around, personally or professionally, and their methods are unorthodox and their stories complex, with sudden shifts and unpredictable plots. Dibdin's Aurelio Zen shares some of these characteristics, too, but to me Blume is more reminiscent of Trotti, a younger version perhaps, and whose attachments to the past are more to his art historian parents whose sudden death left his stranded in Rome as a child than to ex-wife, daughter, and countryside (as is the case with Trotti)—though both have a melancholy edge deriving from their past.

In The Namesake, a numbers-cruncher at an insurance firm is murdered, apparently solely because of his name, setting in motion a dark and twisting story involving the least known branch of major italian organized crime, the 'Ndrangheta, based in Calabria but now reaching far abroad: specifically into Germany, where a branch of the 'Ndrangheta is involved in a crisis of succession when the old man who is the head of the branch is released from a German prison.

Part of the pleasure in reading the novel is in the twists in the plot, so I won't give away any more. Blume has, since the previous novel, been romantically involved with one of his subordinates, Caterina, and here she's finding him even more difficult as they have become more of a couple. Blume puts her in charge of a the case of the murdered insurance man, which he thinks is going to go nowhere, and is then tempted into a (sort-of) undercover operation shadowing a German cop who is traveling without authorization in Italy, apparently headed for Calabria.

Neither the organized crime aspects of the book nor the relationships between Blue, Caterina, the German rogue cop, the magistrates whose mandates the police are supposed to follow, and the security police develop in a predictable fashion. As readers follow the story, they will also learn a lot about how the 'Ndrangheta operates and why they appear to be the most resilient and dangerous crime syndicate despite being smaller than the better known groups. There's also an underground chamber in which a character is essentially buried alive, driving the tension in the later chapters.

The Namesake ranges more broadly across Italy (from Milan to Calabria) than previous Blue novels. The story itself is also in its broad outlines as well as details quite different, more involving, and frequently funnier (particularly in Blume's relationship with the German) than the previous books.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Timothy Hallinan, The Fear Artist

I've read several crime novels lately that are based on the lingering effects of U.S. policies in Southeast Asia, including the last of Colin Cotteril's Dr. Siri novels and the second of Jake Needham's Jack Shepherd books; the most recent is Timothy Hallinan's The Fear Artist, evidently the 11th novel featuring Poke Rafferty, a series that I had somehow missed up to now (and only noticed now because SoHo Crime sent me a review copy of the new book). Rafferty is a travel writer and long-time resident of Bangkok who seems to have a knack for stirring up trouble.

The U.S. (justifiably) doesn't come out looking very good in any of these three books. Needham's book is perhaps the most contemporary in its outlook, dealing with current policies and financial crimes whose origins are in the U.S. Cotteril's and Hallinan's books deal with the lingering spillover of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam into other countries in the region. Rafferty's book, though, has some of the same basic structure as Needham's (innocent bystander caught up in a high stakes mess not of his own making) but The Fear Artist is more of a conventional thriller in some ways. But with a twist, in terms of what the book's primary concern really is.

The basic elements are that Rafferty is out buying paint to redecorate his family's apartment when an American male crashes into him, dying in his arms, evidently shot by persons unknown. The dying man says three words and slips Rafferty a slip of paper, and he (Rafferty) is picked up by Thai security agents who demand to be told what the dying man told him. Rafferty discovers that there's a mysterious American behind the Thai interest in the affair, and suddenly Poke is on the run from the Thais and the American, who turns out to be Murphy, a ruthless former member of the notorious Phoenix Program and its crimes during the Vietnam War.

It's quite entertaining to watch Poke evade everyone with low-tech resources, some luck, and a friend in the police force, and the plot leads to the inevitable violent conclusion by a circuitous route that includes Poke's half sister, his own gangster father, some Vietnamese refugees, some Soviet-bloc spies more or less retired in Bangkok, an unusual femme fatale, and Murphy's bizarre extended family. Poke's plan to get out of the mess he didn't create strains credulity at some points, but the real point of the book is somewhere else.

There are lots of parallels in the book, not to mention the impending flooding of the city: There are no less than 4 young girls at the margins of society, three of them practically feral children and the fourth (Rafferty's half sister) raised, it seems, in a Chinese gang. There are parents struggling to protect their children (Poke and his wife having adopted a street child, as well as rescuing another young woman from the streets to take care of their policeman friend after his wife dies, plus Murphy's damaged daughter whose sociopathic, nearly feral tendencies have been developed rather than suppressed by her father, and refugees still suffering from war crimes.

In the end, parents struggling with their responsibilities to their daughters is the real theme of the book. Rafferty's relationship with his daughter is a fairly conventional struggle with a teenager, but Murphy's is twisted and strange and in fact, Treasure (the daughter) is a fascinating character that we don't really get to know well enough. Murphy and Treasure are a creepy mirror of Rafferty and his daughter, a structure that's very interesting in a crime novel. Pim, the former child prostitute who has become the friendly cop's housekeeper is another very interesting character, who flees from the cop's house back into the streets when that femme fatale I mentioned comes into his life). It's that triangle, Pim, the cop, and the femme fatale, that provides an ambiguous cliffhanger at the end.

While I lost a bit of confidence in the plot when Rafferty goes after Murphy, the story never descends into amateur-turned-superspy territory (thankfully), and the other aspects of the book are compelling enough to pull the reader totally in. Id appreciate any comments on the earlier novels in the series. In my experience, starting with the 11th isn't a problem because Hallinan does a good job of letting the reader know what's important about what's gone before without recapping unnecessary detail, does the series as a whole hold up well enough to send a reader like me back to the beginning?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

One Blood, Graeme Kent

Graeme Kent's Sister Conchita and Sergeant Kella series, published by Soho Crime in the U.S., has a unique location (the Solomon Islands 15-20 years after the end of WWII) and a unique crime-solving team (a native islander who is both a custom priest and a colonial policeman, plus an American nun). The stories do share some ground with other crime fiction series, both East and West. Sergeant Kella shares a man-in-between-worlds point of view with Nathan Active of San Jones's excellent series set in Alaska. Kent's milieu has the same sort of conenction to the supernatural as Colin Cotteril's Dr. Siri's Laotian series (though Kent takes the other world of the Solomon Islanders a bit more seriously) and Adrian Hyland's Emily Tempest series set in the Australian outback.

But the time-frame of Kent's series adds a new element: the British protectorate over the Solomons is about to end, and Sergeant Kella and other native islanders are preparing themselves for independence, some of them with overtly political ambitions. And politics are, indeed, a major subject of One Blood, the new Kella/Conchita book. Kella is sent to the western islands, beyond the protection of the gods of his native Malaita, and Sister Conchita has also been transferred to the west to assist a group of elderly nuns stationed there. Kella is supposed to be investigating sabotage at a logging operation (though he's known for going rogue, in terms of what he looks into) and an American tourist dies mysteriously during the nuns' open house event.

The parallel investigations (though that may not be quite the right word) take on an edge of not only Solomons politics but also oft he concurrent presidential race in the U.S., where John Kennedy (who was stranded in WWII in the Solomons when his boat, the PT-109, was rammed by a Japanese ship in the middle of the night) is now in a dead heat with Richard Nixon. Some strangely un-tourist-like Americans are nosing around the islands where Kennedy and his crew took refuge, and Kella also runs into a Solomon Islands Indepenence Party that isn't quite what it seems.

Kella isn't really investigating much, though. He talks to the head of the logging camp (after a run-in with its security guards) and mingles with the locals, without making much progress in finding out what's going on. Sister Conchita tries to pressure the authorities to investigate the suspicious death, without much luck, until she and Kella join forces. Even then, though, the plot progresses more through the successive suppositions of the main characters than through any progressive uncovering of evidence. The series is in fact strongest in its characters more so than in its plots.

There are a couple of things in the later part of the book that are a little disturbing (though that may not be quite the right word). In pursuit of a trio that he thinks to be murderers, he adopts some tactics that are tactically smart but at the same time quite bloodthirsty. We get a glimpse of his lineage among the marauding headhunters of the islands that is quite at odds with the mostly humane (though certainly ready for a fight) Sergeant. The story does lead to an entertaining comparison, though, between the headhunters of the region and the denizens of various law-enforcement organizations in the U.S.

All in all, One Blood is a quite entertaining read, if a bit "talky" and sometimes a bit short on exposition. The resolution to the various mysteries is certainly satisfactory. One plot point that some readers may find a bit strained actually has a basis in truth (really, more a basis in rumor) that perhaps only someone as old or older than myself will remember about the Kennedy era...