Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Comic noir collaboration: Camilleri and Lucarelli

Acqua in Bocca is a short novel published in 2010 (by minimum fax, a publisher in Rome) in an almost epistolary style: an exchange between characters created by Andrea Camilleri and Carlo Lucarelli (Salvo Montalbano and Grazia Negro, respectively) in the process of an investigation of a murder in Bologna. The book actually resulted from a correspondence between the two authors, instigated by the publisher almost on a whim and then executed over time (the process is explained ina postscript). The book is unfortunately only available in Italian.

The story is fairly simple: a body is discovered on the floor of an apartment, a plastic bag over the victim's head and the corpses of a couple of "beta splendens" (Siamese Fighting Fish) nearby. Later, another fish is discovered in the corpse's windpipe, a contributing cause to the death. Ispettore Grazia Negro is assigned the case, but certain aspects of the case cause her to be circumspect with her superiors about what she is doing.

The witness who discovered the body then disappears, traced to a train station in Sicily, near Vigata, where Montalbano is the Commissario. Grazia, persistent in spite of being warned, contacts Salvo, asking him to be discreet. The exchange that follows is frequenty very funny, with Salvo taking different positions in his open and secret communications and messages passing back and forth concealed in cannoli (dispatched from Sicily) and tortellini (dispatched from Bologna).

Gradually, many of the characters in other books by the two authors appear in supporting roles (sometimes not directly "seen" but in the background of the story), including Mimi and Catarella from Sicily and Cogliandro from Bologna. Camilleri's contributions are frequently funny, particularly for anyone familiar with the Montalbano series, but Lucarelli's are also full of puns (including some characters' names), as well as other comic complications.

The book is short and (by the nature of the project) episodic, with documents and photographs interspersed in the text (Montalbano and Negro represented, obviously enough, from the TV series based on him and the movie based on her).

When the action shifts from Bologna to Milano Marittima, where Grazia has fled from those threatened by her investigation, the story takes a dark, but still comic, turn that it only partly explained by the final missive from Montalbano: we must choose to believe whether a violent act is intentional or coincidental.

Acqua in Bocca is light entertainment in a noir/comic mode. I read it a couple of times, as I've been studying Italian, with increasing comprehension--the language is fairly straightforward, if occasionally frustratingly idiomatic (Google Translate was sometimes more help than a dictionary). It was a lot of fun to practice Italian with, leading me onward to at least somewhat more literary texts (including several by Lucarelli and some I've just begun to tackle by Loriano Machiavelli (also quite comic in a particular way). My Italian teacher says she learned English by listening to pop music from England and America, because she was motivated to understand the lyrics, so I suppose my version of that is reading Italian noir, a rich vein of international crime fiction.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

2 questions and 2 books

If anyone's listening, I have a couple of questions for you. First, I've been learning Italian, and have gotten enough of the language to start reading noir (which the Italians call "gialli" or yellows) if the language the author is using isn't too difficult. So is anyone interested in reviews of books in Italian that are not available in English, and perhaps unlikely to be? I don't pretend to get every nuance of the stories, but armed with a dictionary (and sometimes Google Translate) I can at least follow the stories.

Second question, related to the books reviewed below, should bloggers review books that are disappointing, but not terrible? I don't want to warn readers off of books that I liked well enough to finish, but wasn't enthusiastic about (perhaps other readers might be more engaged by them)? Dead Man Upright, the fifth book in Derek Raymond's groundbreaking Factory series, but previously unpublished in the U.S, is in line with the others, in terms of style and pace until the last quarter o the book, when the unnamed Sergeant (the main character in the series) and a psychologist begin to interview the serial killer that they've been chasing. The conversations are interesting, and certainly relevant to any fictional (or real-world, for that matter) consideration of the phenomenon of the serial killer, but for me the pace and drive of the story are over.

Operation Napoleon, by Arnaldur Indridason, is a stand-alone thriller by the author of the excellent Icelandic series featuring Erlendur and the other detectives of his squad. Napoleon is, instead, about a plane that crashed in Iceland at the end of World War II, bearing some sort of secret, and the intrigue that occurs when the glacier that has been hiding the plane gives it back up to the light of day.

There's one interesting aspect of the book fro an American reader: the author evidently expects readers to accept that American military men and intelligence agents will be willing to do absolutely anything, no matter how heinous, in the pursuit of their ends. I don't necessarily disagree, but the degree of demonization is beyond that of, say, the Bourne sort of thing, and other U.S. thrillers with U.S. military and intelligence villains. But with that positive side of the story set aside, the book seemed to be repetitive and, except for the passages near the beginning when the story of a woman caught up in the drama begins to be established. The woman, Kristin, is a lawyer whose brother is unfortunate enough to witness the uncovering of the plane. He calls her just at the point when he's captured by the U.S. soldiers. What ensues, along with a threat from another angle, moves along at a good clip as a "chase" story for a while, but then gets bogged down in the details of the plane and its secret.

So conspiracy fans may get more out of the book than I did. Erlendur fans will probably sorely miss the gloomy detective and his team, as well as the procedural format of which Indridason is a master.

Is the above too negative, or am I revealing too much about the plot of the two books?