Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kind of Cruel, by Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah's crime stories (set in and around Spilling and featuring detectives Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse) are unusual in several ways. First, though set in small English towns, they're hardly cozy: She mines the darkest corners of suburbia like few other writers have been able to. Second, her running characters are frequently at the fringes of the narrative rather than at the center.

I've missed the past couple of Zailer-Waterhouse novels (there are seven in all, and I quite enjoyed the first 4). They require a certain amount of attention to appreciate all that is going on, and therefore a certain commitment of time. But once started, the books pull the reader in and on (and I will certainly go back and fill in the taps in my Sophie Hannah reading).

The new book, Kind of Cruel, combines mystery, tension, character, and comedy in a way that Hannah's readers have come to expect. And in this one, the humor grows out of not only the running characters (Zailer and Waterhouse are spiky and interesting but the other cops are distinctly characterized and frequently but usually unconsciously funny, not to mention Charlie's sister), but also in the central character of this story, Amber Hewerdine, who is acerbically intelligent and does not suffer fools at all. Other characters who are at the center of the various threads (and sometimes are the narrators of those threads) include a sincere hypnotherapist, Amber herself, and various members of Amber's numerous and distinctly odd extended family.

Amber and her husband Luke took in the daughters of her best friend when the friend was murdered by an arsonist, and in the midst of working out this instant family, Amber is suffering chronic insomnia. When she visits a hypnotherapist for help with the insomnia, she meets an annoying fellow patient and kicks off a series of events and encounters that will eventually illuminate several cases that the police have been unable to solve.

Waterhouse seizes upon Amber as a witness, though her relationship to the crime he's investigating is sketchy at best, and his superior officers are displeased (not an uncommon situation for Simon). Zailer is no longer working directly with the CID, and her involvement complicates (rather than simplifying) Simon's relationship with his fellow officers (not least because she and Simon are now married, their own relationship itself quite odd).

The story is quite complicated, requiring some repetition of facts and relationships as various characters involve themselves in various ways, but the repetition creates a spiral within the narrative rather than bogging it down. The voice of the hypnotherapist is an intrusion of psychotherapeutic ideas that are mostly helpful, even if a reader might find therapy-talk in general a less-than-entertaining mode. The psychotherapy is in the end necessary to the story, because the motive, especially, is quite complex. Without the therapist, the impulse behind the crimes might not seem credible, but from the hypnotherapists point of view, everything finally comes together in a convincing, but very dark way that gives a realistic but perhaps pessimistic coda for the troubled family relationships that have been the subject of the novel all along.

One word about cover art. I think Hodder has done a great job with the covers of Hannah's series, suggesting the domestic interiors that are not simply the setting for the series but the zone of both safety and horror lurking in the characters' lives.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

No Sale, by Patrick Conrad

Patrick Conrad's No Sale, translated from the original Dutch by Jonathan Lynn, is set in Belgium, mostly in Antwerp, but it's real venue is the silver screen. Victor Cox is a professor of film studies, specializing in film noir, on the verge of retirement when his estranged wife is killed by a hit-and-run driver and dumped into the water along the docks. Two policemen, Lannoy and Luyckx (the latter known as the Sponge) suspect the professor and, as murders accumulate, continue to meet and interrogate Cox throughout the novel.

The murders seem random but Cox increasingly suspects that they are planned to coincide with the plots of noir films or the lives of actresses who starred in them or women whose lives were the sources for movie plots. Because the professor sees life mostly through the lens of the cinema (mostly, but not exclusively, American movies), the reader will hear a lot about film history even beyond the plots that coincide with the murders. Film noir is, indeed, not only the setting but the subject of the book.

Lannoy and the Sponge occupy one level of the narrative, and the professor and his diaristic musings form another. Every murdered woman seems to have some connection to Cox, but as several years pass, there's no evidence to link him to the killings. Then, as his involvement with a young student grows, the professor begins to lose the distinction between his waking life, his dreams, and the film noir plots he knows so well, the source of some confusion and much comedy. He even begins to suspect that he may have murdered the women while inhabiting an alter-ego.

The solution to the crime has a bit of a Nabokovian flair, and there is much local color along the way, in the noir-ish underworld of Antwerp as well as the fictional world of the cinema. The novel is clever and entertaining, more of a "meta-fiction" in a way than a straightforward story. But Conrad takes seriously his commitment to fiction and doesn't betray the reader's trust, the way some meta-fiction (and Nabokov, in fact) sometimes do.

No Sale (the English title comes from an incident in the movie Butterfield 8, while the original title was Starr, after one of the characters and her historical double) is another entry in Bitter Lemon's interesting and quite varied list of world crime fiction.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jake Needham, A World of Trouble

A World of Trouble is the third of Jake Needham's "Jack Shepherd" novels set mostly in Thailand (though both this book and the previous one, Killing Plato, range pretty far afield). At the end of the previous book, Jack is seemingly at a dead end: his wife has left him and everything else has fallen apart, too. At the beginning of A World of Trouble, he's not much better off. He has moved to Hong Kong, but his only client is a former Prime Minister of Thailand who's now in exile in Dubai, and Jack is in Dubai with his client (also the 98th richest man in the world, as it happens).

Jack is a financial expert, but his management of he ex-Prime Minister's vast wealth gets a little complicated when Jack is asked to get a very large sum out of Thailand and is required to travel to Bangkok to manage the deal. Several characters from previous books (including a cop and a couple of contrasting characters from the Thai intelligence agency) come into the plot as Jack deals with the Prime Minister's business as well as his own demons.

Needham is good at making the Shepherd stories focus around Jack's financial expertise even as the story veers into politics and violence. This time, the story involves enough (and realistic enough) Thai politics that the author feels it necessary to assert on his own blog that no one should seek any parallels between his book and the real Thailand. It's to the author's credit that the disclaimer is necessary: A World of Trouble draws a completely believable portrait of a society on the verge of collapse, and of the meddling of certain American agencies in the process.

But the story doesn't go for the thriller-cliché. Just as it seems that Jack will be thrust against his will into the role of hero, the story takes a different turn (which I won't reveal) and heads into more realistic (though not cheerful) direction.

That less-than-cheerful ending, though, doesn't alter one of the chief charms of the series: though the stories are told in the third person, most of the action is told in dialogue or from Jack's point of view. Both the narrator and Jack himself are charming company, as well as moving the story forward briskly. There's a lot of back and forth from country to country (along with interesting glimpses of exotic locations) and a lot of financial and political dealings, but the story never bogs down or drags.

So I highly recommend A World of Trouble to readers of international crime: the series is quite different from other Bangkok-related crime series. The physical books are apparently only available in certain Asian countries, but fortunately there are digital editions available to us in the rest of the world. In fact, I read the book via a Kindle version that the author sent me for review, but rather than reading it on a Kindle, I read it via an iPod Touch. You might that the screen is too small to read a whole book, but I'm getting quite used to it after reading about a half-dozen books that way. It requires turning the page quite a lot, but anyone who has ever gotten fascinated by very small book formats will be quite comfortable with the Touch screen (and for readers of i-books in formats other than Kindle, there's now an app that makes Adobe Digital Editions readable on the non-flash Touch device.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Åke Edwardsson, Sail of Stone

Åke Edwardsson's "Chief Inspector Erik Winter" series just keeps getting better. Edwardsson's sureness or confidence as a writer shows in a big way in his newly translated (by Rachel Willson-Broyles, in the Simon & Schuster paperback) Sail of Stone, which is a very unusual crime novel. For most of the novel, neither the detectives nor the reader know whether a crime has even been committed. When we do find out, it's not necessarily the crime or crimes that we expect.

This book gives another detective on Winter's team nearly as much time as the boss: Aneta Djanali, who has appeared in previous books: a Swedish woman of African origins, now not fully at home in Stockholm or in her parents' country. There are two cases in the story, neither one really an official case. Aneta is following up on a report of domestic abuse, but cannot make adequate contact with the victim, coincedentally named Anette. Erik is approached by a former flame, the daughter of a family of fishermen, whose father has possibly disappeared while on a trip to Scotland, where he is attempting to trace his own father, reportedly killed during World War II when his ship sank. Now a cryptic letter has arrived from Scotland implying that all is not as it seems.

Aneta is unable to just drop the case of Anette, bouncing back and forth between the battered wife's parents, husband, and his sister without ever being able to contact Anette herself. Aneta feels threatened without the threat being specific or concrete. Erik really doesn't have a case but sends out inquiries to Interpol and his friends in the U.K. seeking information about the missing father, while also talking to the family and other fishermen.

The two stories hardly seem weighty enough for a crime novel, despite the considerable parallels between them, but in Edwardsson's hands there is considerable tension and forward motion, as well as a pair of unconventional climaxes. A good deal of the novel is carried forward in oblique dialogue that's frequently comic in its indirectness. Along the way there's considerable discussion of music (Erik is a jazz fanatic who doesn't care about any other music, while the other detectives have their own soundtracks) and vivid evocations of Göteborg/Gothenburg in Sweden and Scotland from Aberdeen to Inverness. We also get lively glimpses of Erik's and Aneta's private lives, without descending into soap opera.

Edwardsson is one of the best writers in the Swedish crime wave. There's a Swedish TV series based on the Erik Winter books, but so far I haven't been able to find the series on DVDs with subtitles (and my Swedish is not up to the task, unfortunately).