Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Missing Maxine

I have to add my voice to the chorus mourning the loss of Maxine Clarke, who was not only a great reader and a great blogger (as Petrona) but also a great reader of blogs. It has been her voice more than any other who has tied together the crime fiction bloging community, and she is irreplaceable.

International crime, corruption, fraud

The Eyes of Lira Kazan is a new thriller from France, written by a journalist (Judith Perrignon) and a prosecutor (Eva Joly) and translated by Margaret Crosland and Elfreda Powell (published by Bitter Lemon). As you might expect, there's plenty of realistic detail in this story of corruption and murder across international borders, in the age of our current financial crisis. But the story is also compelling and well-written, in a straightforward, ensemble style reminiscent of some of Dominique Manotti's novels (the documentary and ensemble ones more than the series based on a Inspector Daquin). In my opinion, that's a high standard.

The story brings together several threads, from a Nigerian fraud investigator forced to flee the country to a Russian Journalist (the title character), to a court clerk in Nice, a russian oligarch, and a banker-fisherman from the Faroe islands. The oligarch figures mostly in the background, as a ruthless gangster who needs a lot of money laundered, and he thought he had found the perfect laundry in the banking system of the tiny Scandinavian outpost in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But the Faroes bank is caught up in the same house of cards that brought down the banks of Iceland, and suddenly the whole system of illegal currency is threatened with collapse, and with violent retribution. The banker's wife drowns in Nice, dressed in an evening gown, and the clerk and his judge follow the trail of murder and money in dangerous directions.

Lira is at the center of the story: It's her journalistic pursuit of the oligarch that draws the others in (the Russian mobster is implicated not only in the Faroes bank but also in Nigerian fraud and corruption and government machinations in France). Lira travels to London to meet the Nigerian emigre but is attacked on the street, and her injury draws the characters and the story together.

The three crusaders from Russia, Nigeria, and France are threatened not only by the mobster but also by at least 2 governments, and can trust no one. They go on the run and rely ultimately upon the weapons of the 21st century to find at least some measure of justice (in [Spoiler Alert] what seems to me to be a bit of revenge fantasy that leaps just a bit beyond the novels dominant realism and pessimism--not a flaw in the story so much as a bit of skeptical hope built into its conclusion).

This is a slow-paced story that doesn't rely on dramatic representation of violence for its effect (most of the violence is "offstage" or understated). It's the threat felt not only personally but also politically and culturally by these characters that tightens the story and involves the reader. The "good guys" aren't flawless heroes, they're full characters with plenty of flaws, who in many ways draw themselves into the danger that threatens them. If you need a thriller with lots of blood and violence, this is perhaps not the book for you. But if you are looking for something more rooted in the realism of our international milieu, more coomplex and less obvious--I'd recommend The Eyes of Lira Kazan, and I hope Joly and Perrignon keep writing books like this.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Border Noir

Journalist Sebastian Rotella has published a first novel that is a convincing, well-written, and evocative portrait of the border regions of San Diego/Tijuana and the Triple Border in South America (where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet).

It's an ensemble story, without a single lead character (though it begins and ends with Valentine Pescatore, a young U.S. border patrol agent). Besides Pescatore, there's a Mexican human rights activist turned cop (leader of an elite anti-corruption squad), the Mexican woman who took his place when he quit the human rights agency, an American woman who's an agent for the border patrol's inspector general (a "rat squad" sort of thing), and numerous policemen and narco-criminals.

The plot takes sudden twists and turns--when it seems like the story is going in a conventional cops-and-drug-lords or border-agents-and-illegal-immigrants direction, it will suddenly veer into the corruption story or an undercover cop story or a story of betrayal (of several sorts). Rotella keeps all of the above convincing, through his skill in writing as well as his refusal of a coherent single plotline. All the characters, even minor ones (even ones who speak hardly at all) are vivid, and there is considerable skepticism about characters who would be the good guys in a more conventional novel, as well as sympathy (of a sort, at least) with the gangster crews. There are also various references to adventure novels of the past (in particular The Three Musketeers).

The various U.S., Mexican, and tri-border settings are also convincing and complex, as well as the varied and powerful threats that the characters live under in each of those settings. One of the more startling settings is a Mexican prison that is surreal, but clearly based in reality.

I received this book as a review copy (thanks, Mulholland Books), with a different cover (there are a couple of different covers out there, shifts in the marketing campaign I guess. The cover of the copy I have is a bit more subtle than the one above (just the border fence and an over-flying helicopter), and the one above is a bit less busy than another one that's out there, which has the same image but white stripes across the cover (kind of busy, if you ask me).

I actually put off reading this book for a while after I received it, thinking it was just a border-thriller (and too American, perhaps, for a blog that is supposed to be international). But it's not a conventional border story, and there's plenty of international perspective.