Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Finno-German noir: Jan Costin Wagner's Light in a Dark House

The fourth of Jan Costin Wagner's German-language, Finland-set crime novels featuring detective Kimmo Joentaa was published in Anthea Bell's English translation this year. Wagner is married to a Finnish woman and spends part of the year there, and his familiarity with the country is obvious in the novels. Like its predecessors, Light in a Dark House is meditative rather than propulsive in terms of its pacing. There is a good deal of repetition of the major themes (Joentaa's deceased wife Sanna, a major aspect of the series, but some new ones here as well), in a more poetic than strictly narrative style. For me, the moody pace works, but it could be frustrating for some readers.

The new novel picks up a thread from the previous book, Joentaa's relationship with a prostitute who showed up at his house, refused to give her real name (calling herself Larissa), and disappears periodically. At the beginning of this book, after Joentaa has been assigned the case of a comatose woman's murder in the hospital in Turku, Larissa seemingly goes away for good. Joentaa, however, sends her e-mails letting her know where he has left his house key (and her habit of turning off the house lights when she arrives is the source of the novel's title). At a party at the beginning of the current novel, Larissa seems to recognize Joentaa's boss, calling him "August," which is not his name. The implication is clear, and her disappearance is related to this event.

There are two parallel threads of the story, coexisting with Joentaa's oscillations between three women (the unidentified hospital patient who was murdered, his wife, and Larissa): one is a diary that itself oscillates between an earlier, childhood era (especially concerned with the writer's attraction for a young woman who is for one summer his piano teacher) and the present (in which the writer looks back, with sinister overtones, on the events of that summer and the circumstances of the teacher's disappearance); and a separate investigation in Helsinki, in which two detectives are looking for a killer who threw a businessman off a roof (setting off a series of bold, daylight killings).

The Helsinki detectives and Joentaa from the Turku police are simultaneously led to a small town that is the locus of all the story's threads, and from the point where they all come together, the investigations begin to take off and the novel takes on more of the form of a police procedural (as Joentaa's determination to identify the dead hospital patient takes front stage, ahead of Larissa and Sanna).

The varied settings, disjointed narrative, and moody style work together very well here--perhaps even better than in the earlier novels, especially once the investigations get moving. A film was made of the first Joentaa novel, though the setting was shifted to Germany so that the Finnish setting was lost--and the series is not really "cinematic" in any case. Wagner's series depends on the author's voice and on Joentaa's interior monologue for its distinctive character. But if any further films were made, especially of Light in a Dark House, one might hope for a restoration of the eloquent Finnish landscape.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Chilled to the Bone, by Quentin Bates

The first two of Quentin Bates's crime novels featuring detective Gunnhildur Gisladottir (Gunna) were perched on the edge of and at the beginning of the financial crash that Iceland endured in recent years. The third, Chilled to the Bone, is in the midst of the suffering caused by the collapse--but not everyone is suffering equally. Gunna, now running a major crimes squad in Reykjavik, is a likable and normal character, with her own private worries and dramas--but she's neither an action heroine nor a damaged noir detective. She comes across to the reader as a real person.

At the beginning of the new book, Gunna arrives at a hotel to find the body of a middle-aged gentleman, tied to the bed naked and dead. From there, the story progresses on parallel tracks following the investigation and the private and professional lives of two new characters, one a very interesting new character, Hekla, a thief of a very particular sort who is supporting her disabled husband and her children in the best way she can in the current climate. Hekla is also a believable character, but with a colorful metier. The other main character is Baddo, recently released from a prison the the Baltics and deported back to his home in Iceland. Through his eyes and his contacts, we see a more conventional crowd of hoodlums and crooks, though Baddo himself remains at the fringes of the city's underworld, violent though he is in his own right.

To me, this is the best Gunnhildur book so far, with lots of ethical and literary ambiguity, a plot that moves rapidly along, and a cast of interesting characters. The streets and in particularly the hotels of Reykjavik are vividly presented in the story, and though Bates is not a native Icelander his familiarity with the island country is evident throughout. His series is not as dark as that of the star of Icelandic Crime, Arnaldur Indri∂ason, but Gunna is an effective anchor for grim but credible and definitely entertaining crime fiction.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Crime series (Camilleri and Persson)

I'm reading a galley (which I bought rather than receiving it from the publisher, full disclosure) of Leif GW Persson's Free Falling, As if in a Dream, the third volume in Persson's series dealing with the murder of Olaf Palme (and also part of a longer-running series featuring a duo of Stockholm cops, Jarnebring and Johannson). There's a phenomenon we don't see much in the U.S. but is common in Europe of turning crime series into TV series, and some of the series are so good that there's a temptation to think there's no "need" to read the book after seeing the show that it was based on.

Free Falling and its two predecessors were made into an excellent 4-part series in Sweden, under the name En pilgrims död, or The Death of a Pilgrim, starring Ralf Lassgård as Johansson. I recently read a Kindle-only translation of Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano's First Case (a novella, really, that I think was published in the original Italian as part of a longer collection of Montalbano stories), from which derived another excellentn series, Il giovane Montalbano or The Young Montalbano. I almost didn't read Montalbano's First Case because the films were so good. But when I did read it, I was struck once again by the difference between reading a book and seeing its film version (though a TV series is sometimes more capable of bringing a book to the screen, through a series rather than a single 2-hour theatrical film).

What's lost in the Young Montalbano series isn't the story or the characters, it's Camillleri's voice. And the loss is subtle because Camilleri is not an intrusive narrator. He inhabits the characters but gives us most of the story in third-person narration rather than mostly in dialogue. In the TV series, we get the dialogue but not the narration, for which the excellent cast and filmmakers provide an equivalent in their acting skills. And particularly in the case of Camilleri, there is also a loss in the dialogue in the translated text (and a loss that is not felt int he filmed version): the Sicilian dialiect. The local language plays a big part in the stories, but it's impossible to render it in English (though Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa do a very good job in making a smooth translation).

The translation from text to film in Persson's case is somewhat different: his trilogy is massive, each volume long enough to support a separate series. To make the transition to the small screen, the filmmakers used the final book, Falling, as a framing device for the story as a whole. The story, which is very complicated, works very well on TV, having a dramatic drive that surpasses that of the books. However, what's lost is not so much Persson's voice (because he, too, is not an intrusive narrator) but the interior monologues of the characters, which are more revealing than their dialogue. Johannson, as the primary example, is egotistical and savagely critical of those around him (mostly in his mind rather than expressing these directly), to a very comic extent. The length of the series, in fact, is compensated for to a considerable extent by this comedy of dramatic irony: the reader has access to this aspect of the story, while the characters do not, for the most part. So in this case, for the plot, see the TV  series. The books tell the same story, but at great length. But for the flavor of the characters and the comedy of the whole miasma of relationships in the story, the books are indispensable.

What about other books-to-TV translations: do any of them supplant the books they're based on? Are there any in which each medium is so strongly presented that we absolutely have to both read the book and see the show?

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Dead Season, by Christobel Kent

The Dead Season is the third of Christobel Kent's four (so far) crime novels featuring private detective (and former cop) Sandro Cellini of Florence. The series has always been rather moody, with a sort of late-in-life melancholy about the main character, and the mood is used to good advantage in The Dead Season. Also much in evidence is the season: the heat of Florence in August has driven away all the residents who can afford to leave for the seaside or the mountains, and what's left is the tourists and people who can't leave (or haven't left yet).

This is a novel with multiple strands that develop slowly, and as the strands draw together, picks up speed considerably until a convergence that isn't quite what the reader has been expecting. Cellini's assistant, former junky Giulli, has brought in a client who probably can't pay: an 8-months pregnant immigrant, working as a maid in a down-at-heels hotel. Her fiancé and the father of her baby has disappeared. At the same time, a middle-aged, unmarried bank teller begins to worry about another immigrant who had been making weekly deposits at her small bank but hasn't showed up lately. The teller, Roxana Delfino, is also contending with her mother's seeming dementia and with her own lonely life as her mother's care-giver.

There are various links between these two strands, including the fact that the pregnant woman's fiancé has told her that he works in a bank and has given her a false name that corresponds to the real bank manager at Roxana's branch, a man who has left for the holiday. Other threads of the story are told from the point of view of Giuli, who is an investigator as much as s secretary by t his point in the series, and Sandro's wife Luisa, who is worried about Giuli (and also about the pregnant client, ultimately).

But the primary topic of the story (other than the summer heat) is real estate, an aggravated issue in a storied and expensive city like Florence. Everyone seems to have an issue with their dwelling or prospective dwelling, and everyone seems connected in some way with a particularly sleazy real estate agent. Kent is the successor to Magdalen Nabb in setting her stories among the real denizens of the city, across all classes and throughout the city's geography. And if the lives of these people (not least Cellini and those around him) can be a bit dour, the rising pace of The Dead Season (as in the first two novels in the series) keeps the tale lively.

There are several covers for this book, among the coutries of publication and the various hardcover, paperback, and digital incarnations. I've pasted in the two I like the best, though I think I prefer the "aerial" view of the street. The other, though suitable for the story, is a bit touristy...

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The last Mario Silva novel, by Leighton Gage

The crime fiction and crime blogging communities were dismayed recently to hear of the death of Leighton Gage, whose 7th novel featuring Chief Inspector Mario Silva of the Brazilian Federal Police, The Ways of Evil Men, is to be published by SoHo Press early in 2014. The final novel in the series is a fitting climax to Gage's late-blooming crime writing career, focusing onece again on a pernicious social evil (more than one, actually) as well as the lives of the policemen and civilians involved in a crime and its consequences.

The story begins with the almost complete annihilation of an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian jungle: only a hunter and h is son, away from the village at the time of the genocide, survive. Jade, a young woman who is the local agent of the agency tasked with the protection of the indigenous peoples (FUNAI) attempts to bring the murders to the attention of the police but no one in the remote town or its provincial city is interested in the deaths of "some Indians." Through a personal connection, she enlists the help of the Federal Police, and Silva and his crew travel, reluctantly at first, to the town closest to the site of the killings.

Gage brings attention to several issues in his story: the survival of the tribal peoples (some still not contacted by civilization), rampant racism, and ecological devastation at the hands of loggers, ranchers, and gold miners in the Amazonian jungle; not to mention one of the persistent themes of the series, the corruption among the law enforcement agencies that should be engaged with these issues as well as with ordinary crime.

The novel is populated with a rich assortment of characters from Silva's team as well as the town, including rapacious ranchers and their hangers-on (a whisky priest, the mayor, and others), and a rich vein of the story comes from the sexual and violent relations among those characters. This book is one of Gage's most vivid in its dialogue, setting, and characterization (though all of the above can be pretty unpleasant at times, particularly in a graphic explanation of death by hanging in all its forms). The story also loops back in a hopeful but not resolved manner to the back story emphasized in the first Silva novel, dealing with the grief of the Inspector and his wife over the death of their young son (especially important in the very different ways in which they deal with their grief). In the larger, social story and in the more personal aspects of the tale, there is a glimmer of a hope that Gage has not always offered in his grim portraits of contemporary Brazil. And as always, Silva draws together the several strands of his tale (the slaughter of the tribe, the murder of a local citizen and the lynching that follows, the brutality of one character toward his wife, a blooming love affair for one of the cops) with a moral rather than a legal rigor. Silva is the conscience of the series, and the imagined conscience of a troubled country.

The Ways of Evil Men is a final gift from Leighton to his readers (both the novels and his on-line writing) and to those of us privileged to have met him in person. His voice, his portrayal of vital fictional characters and stories, his outrage at injustices in Brazil and beyond, and his lively participation in the on-line crime fiction community will remain as his testament.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Straight to Kindle noir

Is a self-published digital book eligible for a review, particularly a negative review? Is it "piling on" to say negative things about straight-to-Kindle crime fiction? And when does a book pass from "promising" to "a few hours of my life I'm never going to get back."

Maybe it's not fair to start a review with questions like that, anyway. I picked up a free Kindle book called Extreme Malice, by R.E. Swirsky, which seemed to be a legal thriller or a "perfect crime" story (or possibly something else entirely) set around Calgary (a city I've visited and about which I've only found a couple of crime novels). It sat in my Kindle for a while and yesterday I finally got around to opening it.

It starts out slowly, but a lot of books do. More troubling, there is a lot of repetition in the language (spots where a pronoun would be fine, but a name or noun is used repetitively instead). But the plot was OK, as Jack leaves on a business trip only to be called by the police a few days later to be told that she has been murdered. Jack is of course a suspect, but damning evidence implicating a young man who lives next door comes to light and, though a detective is still suspoicious of Jack, the young man is prosecuted.

We learn a lot about Jack's ordeal, in police questioning and in the loss of his wife, and partway through the truth begins to be revealed. I won't spoil the plot, but the reader goes from being kept in the dark by the narrator (who is mostly limited to Jack's perspective) to being told what had previously been concealed by that same narrator. There is a sort of alternation from Scott Turow sort of thing to an almost Jim Thompson kind of thing, but mostly without the edgy quality of either of those writers.

So I have one final question: is it fair to review a book when you've ended up skipping long, repetitive sections of it? Not to mention the long expositions of funeral, trial, mourning relatives, etc. If anyone cares to comment, I'll either leave this post up or delete it, depending on how everyone thinks about all these questions...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Carrier, by Sophie Hannah

There are a number of reviews of Sophie Hannah's newest "Zailer and Waterhouse" book already, so I'm not going to summarize the plot. It's a puzzle, of sorts, with a husband having confessed to smothering his stroke-stricken wife but with no motive that he will admit to. The plot is less the point of the story, though, than the characters, who are one and all very odd.

What got me into the novel (as with all the books in the series) was the comic interior monologues of the various voices through which the story is told. DS Charlie Zailer is a quick-witted and sarcastic observer of everything going on and everyone involved, and her now-husband DI Simon Waterhouse is comic in a completely different way: laconic, brilliant, and emotionally damaged in a way that only becomes clear well into the series, Simon is a center of gravity around which everyone in the Spilling police station orbits.

And in The Carrier there's an additional, compelling voice, with whom the novel begins: Gaby Struthers, a brilliant inventor and businesswoman (according to her and her friends), though what we actually hear from her is her sarcastic wit and sharp tongue. She is ann alternate Charlie, and the novel is brighter for their being two of them. Gaby's target at first is a slow-witted and emotional young woman (whose role in the plot I won't reveal) and the interplay between these two forms a frame for the rest of the book.

So far so good, and those voices were enough to twine me into the story. But the rest of the characters are pretty tedious. The confessed murderer (or not-murderer, since Simon can't believe his professed lack of motivation) is as twisted and unavailable emotionally as Simon (though he isn't "on stage" very much, he's the alternate Simon in the same way Gaby is the alternate Charlie). And the friends in whose house the murder took place are characterized mainly by their prevarication and lack of cooperation with the police. Clearly there is some secret behind the whole twisted situation.

But some elements of the story that would seem to have interesting possibilities are simply passed over, such as the inventions that Gaby has made in the past and is currently working on. The covers of Hannah's books, as presented by Hodder, her publisher) have always been icons of understatement but even more effective for their subtlety. The Carrier's cover suggests, even, something related to Gaby's career, but the connection isn't followed up, and in fact this image has less to do with the story than has been the case with previous books. Another loose thread is the title, which has an ominous quality until the reader discovers its actual connection with the story.

I hear that Hannah has been tasked with continuing Agatha Christie's oeuvre, and what she does with that project will surely be interesting. A "Christie" would surely be more compact and more plot driven than the Zailer-Waterhouse books. But I hope that she does carry over the dry wit and pointed comedy of her own writing: I wouldn't recognize Hannah's voice otherwise, and her voice (or that of her striking central characters) is one of the liveliest in current crime fiction.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Noose, by Bill James

Bill James, author of the extensive series featuring detectives Harpur and Iles, is a master of misdirection, in both his language and his plotting. In Noose, a stand-alone novel or perhaps the start of another series, the misdirection starts with the title: though there is a hanging in the book, there are far more "nooses" that simply entrap the main character, Ian Charteris, in various personal, professional, and political commitments. The story takes place in 1950s London for the most part.

The misdirection continues with the opening pages, when Ian, a freelance journalist, is sent to cover the attempted suicide of a young actress who, as it turns out, may be his own half sister. But what seems to be the start of a newspaper-based crime story turns out to be something else, and in fact the book begins at the end of the story (or ends before it begins, perhaps). Most of the book is backstory, as we see Ian's difficult family life, dominated by an Iles-like egomaniac for a father and envlivened by two foundational episodes. The first is his father's primary claim to fame: when Ian is  young and his father is a deckhand on a river ferry, a young woman falls overboard and both Ian's father and the captain of another boat dive in to save her. The other incident is a wartime murder that occurs in an air-raid shelter; Ian is a witness and the conviction and execution of the admitted killer turns on his evidence.

We return to these episodes, and to the odd father, repeatedly as we also follow Ian's brief career in the air force, an attempt to recruit him into another, more secret, service, and his life as a journalist (as well as his family life once he's happily married--his wife is in fact an interesting character in her own right, one of several intriguing women in this book and in James's oeuvre as a whole). What seemed to be a crime story about a journalist becomes, along the way, a wry spy story (with frequent references to espionage novels not yet written at the time of the narrative). Wry is in fact an apt description of the whole book, especially the prose style (which you'll recognize if you've read any of the Harpur & Iles books). James (not his real name, I believe, and he writes under at least one other) is a kind of P.G Wodehouse of crime fiction (and he invokes that writer as well in these pages). The characters conceal more than they reveal in their conversations with one another--in fact their interactions might be more aptly described not as conversations but as dislocated speeches or salvoes launched past one another.

The text is frequently very funny, and the progression of the novel quite eccentric. What seems to be a slow-moving coming-of-age tale shifts into high gear along the way and as a reader nears the end it seems hardly credible that the story is going to be able to conclude in any coherent way in the pages remaining. James accomplishes a satisfying conclusion, though, in his own way and the book is ultimately satisfying. It's unlike any other spy novel, though perhaps closer to Mick Herron than John LeCarre.I received both this and the most recent Harpur & Iles book through NetGalley.com, and I confess I bogged down in the detective story, which seemed to repeat the tropes of the series in high gear, but Noose was a pleasant, satisfying, and surprising read.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Noir in Kuala Lumpur, vol. 1

Fixi Novo, a new crime imprint in Malaysia, sent me a review copy of the first of four planned collections of KL Noir (the first volume is subtitled Red, with White to be the next volume). Red, indeed: this is a fairly bloody collection, though some of the darkness comes not from incarnated souls but disembodied ones.

The introduction by editor Amir Muhammad is very helpful in positioning the stories both in a Malaysian and an international noir context (and also helpfully refers to the supernatural elements in the stories to follow). The collection itself is diverse and of high quality. Some of the stories are quite short, others almost of novella length, but in every case the tale and the setting are vividly evoked. Several deal directly with the Islamic culture of the country, while many are more influenced by a more animistic religious tradition. All of them are heavily influenced, too, by global pop culture: even when the setting is more tribal than urban, there is a confluence of Malaysian and non-Malaysian pop music, culture, movies, etc.--and especially the collective culture of noir fiction and the specific history of Malaysian pulp writing. There is also a good bit of Malay slang, but the meaning is always pretty clear and the language adds to the distinctiveness of the stories and the collection.

Many of the stories give primacy to female characters, too, and a substantial number of the writers are women. The first story, by Adib Zaini, in fact describes the arc from girlhood to criminal of a young woman (daughter of an imam) who takes a job in an internet cafe to supplement her allowance. She is a student and a runner, and her voice is clear and vivid, from her normal life to her downfall and flight.

Eeleen Lee's story brings together traditional oracular divination, modern technology, Chinese gangs, and contemporary shopping in a grim but still entertaining nightmare. Kris Williamson offers a Malaysian spin on serial killers, police corruption, and in particular Jim Thompson. Dhivani Sivagurunathan's The Dualist, one of several stories that focus sympathetically (in one way or another)with homosexual characters, deals with obsession that reaches an ultimate point.  Megat Ishak gives us a nightmare vision that is enough to terrify the story's gangsters.

Other stories deal with sea monsters, revenge tragedies, and everyday crimes, all from the distinct perspective of the denizens of KL's dark corners. I hope to have a chance to see the sequels to this collection since the first is a tantalizing glimpse of a world not easily accessible to outsiders.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Monster of Florence, by Magdalen Nabb

Magdalen Nabb published The Monster of Florence in 1996 in the U.K., the 10th of her 14 books featuring Marshall Guarnaccia of the Palazzo Pitti station of the Carabinieri. But for some reason I have never been able to understand, it has never been published in the U.S. until now, with the new edition from Soho Crime.

The Monster is quite different, in one striking way, from the other Guarnaccia novels. While all of them deal with large topics of human life through the watery lens of Guarnaccia's eyes (he's allergic to bright light), in terms of ordinary families and ordinary crimes, Monster is a documentary novel, with barely obscured material from the case files of the actual Monster of Florence case (also the subject of a Douglas Preston best selling true crime book and a Roberto Benigni movie). But overall, Guarnaccia remains as his usual melancholy and laconic self, anchoring the book in the canon of Nabb's celebrated crime fiction and in the recognizable reality of the citizens and the tourists of Florence.

The case involves, on the one hand, a group of Sardinians and rural Tuscans suspected of the brutal murders of a series of couples parked in dark lanes, seeking some privacy at a time when that commodity could be difficult for young Italians to find. The case spans a number of years from the '60s well into the '80s, and while it was the subject of much investigation and many theories, no one was definitively convicted (though a number of suspects were detained and even brought to trial). In Nabb's telling of the tale, Guarnaccia is roped into a new investigation, some years after the last murder, in which a prosecutor seeks to shift the case away from the Sardinians previously suspected onto a subliterate child abuser, perhaps an unattractive patsy sacrificed to the prosecutor's ambition. The Marshall as usual is very humble regarding his own abilities, a situation that is for a while seemingly reinforced by the others involved in the investigation. But Guarnaccia and a few others begin to pull on a thread that may at least suggest who the real killer was, and what his motive might have been.

Alongside the Monster case, the novel includes a subplot concerned with the possible forgery of a painting left to a young architect by a father who had abandoned him, and the relief from the sometimes confusing documentary evidence concerning the primary case is gratefully appreciated by the reader. In fact, when the conclusion (if it can be called that) arrives, it is clearer to Guarnaccia than the reader. Nabb requires the reader to do some work, rather than feeding a solution as if predigested. One has to read between the lines, even mull over (or look back over in the text) the facts of the case. The suspect (the one proposed by the prosecutor and the one proposed by the Marshall) remains unnamed; the one in the prosecutor's case is frustratingly present in the novel (an annoying subject of long interrogations) while the one proposed by Guarnaccia is frustratingly absent.

The fogginess of the "answer" is singularly appropriate to this actual case, but once in the mind it's very persuasive (and it's the same solution proposed by Douglas Preston, in a very different narrative). The reader has to follow Nabb and Guarnaccia and reach the goal on his/her own. The solution of the secondary case is equally ambiguous but more expllcitly portrayed, and more typical of the series.

The Monster is powerful in its indirection and its presentation in a fictional context of the facts of a real and celebrated case. While it may not be to everyone's taste, not even to every Nabb fan's taste, it's both a very effective crime novel and something more than a crime novel. We should be grateful to Soho Crime for making it more accessible to American readers.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Minnesota noir by Vidar Sundstøl

The Land of Dreams is a Norwegian novel by Vidar Sundstøl, dealing with a crime in Minnesota, on the shores of Lake Superior, the first of a "Minnesota Trilogy" by the author. This isn't the first time that a Scandinavian novelist has concentrated on America, emigration, and the U.S. Westward expansion: Vilhelm Moberg's Emigrant trilogy certainly deals with all of the above, from a Swedish perspective; and, to travel to even further shores, the Norwegian crime boom could be said to have kicked off with Jo Nesbø's first book, which puts his character Harry Hole in an Australian setting.

Sundstøl digs deeply into the culture of the area, juxtaposing Norwegian and Ojibway traditions in particular. There are considerable comic elements in his portrait of Norwegian-Americans, obsessed with their origins, embodied in the forest cop (who works for the U.S. Forest Service, mostly issuing tickets to non-Native-Americans trying to fish out of season), Lance Hansen. Lance's obsession with genealogy and local history irritates some of the locals (because he doesn't take their family stories at face value), and places him at the head of the author's near-parody of Minnesota Norwegians.

But Lance rises from comic to tragic figure when he faces a choice between family and duty, a track that begins with his discovery of two naked Norwegian travelers in the forest, both bloody, one dead and the other alive. For most of the novel, the surviving traveler is suspected of killing his friend (they're on a sort of bachelor's last chance canoeing trip before the deceased one was to have returned to Norway to be married). Lance isn't directly involved in the investigation, which is conducted by the FBI because the body was discovered on federal land, and we see the search for the killer mostly through the eyes of a Norwegian detective sent over to assist in the case (some of the puzzlement about Norwegian-Americans is also filtered through his point of view).

But in the process of mulling over the murder, Lance begins to investigate the hundred-year-old disappearance of a Native-American, a local legend that turns out to have some overlap with a legendary event in Lance's own family history. The confluence of the two stories will lead not only to the forest cop's ultimate dilemma, but also to a good deal of interesting discussion of Ojibway history and customs, and to some ghostly presences (if not outright ghosts) that appear from time to time.

The narrative is a bit repetitive, but not in an unreasonable way, since Lance is mulling over things as he twists his way into a knot. The reader is also pulled along by a sense that everything is going to come together in a difficult way for all concerned, as more is revealed about the Norwegians and their stay in the U.S. as well as the private revelations in Lance's own head. The small town setting is vividly evoked in all its positive as well as confining and comic aspects. This is not a sentimental portrait of Minnesota Americana, but neither is it a parody. And the dreams of the title are also a difficult milieu for all concerned (we are reminded that the Native American "dream catchers" so evident in tourist kitsch were actually intended to prevent nightmares from reaching the owner). I'm very interested to see how the rest of the trilogy will carry forward Lance's dilemma, and how Sundstøl will sustain the various juxtapositions and contraditions through two more novels.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Crocodile, by Maurizio de Giovanni

Two previous novels by Maurizio de Giovanni have been published in English translation, both in the Commissario Ricciardi series set in Naples before World War II and featuring some paranormal elements (and a third Ricciardi novel is set to be published in English in November). I'm not normally drawn to either historical crime novels or supernatural ones, so I hadn't picked up the Ricciardi books, but the publisher, Europa, kindly sent me a copy of De Giovanni's contemporary novel, The Crocodile (and having read that book, I expect to go back to have a look at the other series).

The Crocodile is about a serial killer, but not a psychopath of the sort we've come to know so well. This is a methodical killer (hence his nickname and the book's title) who plans carefully, lies in wait for his prey, and kills mercilessly but without a desire to inflict pain on the murdered victims. His motive lies elsewhere, as the police and a disgraced detective, Giuseppe Lojacono, will gradually discover.

Lojacono is the victim of a denunciation in his native Sicily and is sent away to Naples and told to do nothing there other than occupy space in the police station. Which is what he's doing when he is inadvertently involved in the first murder, when a young boy is killed by a single small caliber bullet. The police who take over the case are determined to follow Camorra leads and ignore anything that distracats from that line of inquiry, but Lojacono isn't convinced that organized crime had anything to do with this case. As pressure mounts with further murders, a young female prosecutor turns to the disgraced detective for help.

The Crocodile gives a vibrant picture of life in a difficult place, whose population tends to keep their eyes down to prevent any involvement in the mess that the Camorra has made of the place. But there's still life in the city, and the secondary characters, including the owner of a trattoria where Lojacono eats every evening, testify to that living entity. The families of the victims (from various social strata) are very much present, along with the victims, whose lives are glimpsed in the days and moments leading up to the crimes.

This is a vivid and involving story and a testament to the strength (and importance) of crime writing in Italy, which goes far beyond the justified popularity of Camilleri. I hope there will be more of Lojacono, and I will soon be visiting the very different world of de Giovanni's other novels.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Stav Sherez, A Dark Redemption

This second novel (and the first episode of a new series) is a "heart of darkness" story in both its present and its flashback sections. It begins like a serial-killer novel, but quickly turns into something else.

Beginning with a flashback, three young graduates decide to leave London for a holiday, and on a whim pick Uganda rather than India (where "everyone" is going). Once there, taking a wrong turn, they end up as captives of a militia. The narrative returns to this adventure/horror again at intervals. The "present" action concerns Jack Carrigan, one of the young men, now a Detective Inspector in London. He is in charge of the investigation of the brutal, sadistic murder of a young African student in her apartment. The police authorities, however, don't trust Carrigan and send a formerly disgraced Sergeant, Geneva Miller, to assist him and report on his conduct of the case.

African politics and violence are the main theme, even in the London narrative: in fact, the violence in London is more horrifying than the experience in Uganda (a least until a concusion that draws them together). The daily reality of a multi-cultural city is evoked particularly well.

The biggest strength of the novel is its anchor in the police procedural format. The story rocks rapidly along even through the frustrations of a lack of progress in the investigation. The characters (major and minor) are interesting and  believable. The scope of the author's ambitions never distract from the forward motion of the book: this is a solid crime novel with more heft and reach than the average. I'm particularly interested in see how Sherez will carry these characters forward in a sequel that doesn't rely on the "back story" of Carrigan so heavily. The characters have plenty of depth to explore, and a new story with different stakes promises interesting developments.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Ken Bruen's Purgatory

Why do I keep on reading Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels--there seems to be another one coming out before I can even finish the current one, and they have gotten progressively darker. They're also very loosely constructed, and the most recent one I've read, Purgatory, is very loose indeed. Bruen has mixed his usual characters (the ones that have survived), a serial killer plot that is almost beside the point, a new girlfriend and her boss (both Americans), and lots and lots of pop-culture references. And though there's a lot of misery in the whole Taylor series, this one is indeed a purgatory.

The quotes and other mentions of crime fiction have always been a part of the Taylor novels, but they reach a crescendo here (and Taylor, in his first-person narration--though not all of the book is in his voice, even begins to refer to past events in terms of Bruen's book titles, a metafictional gesture totally in keeping with Bruen's method).

What's compelling is Bruen's voice (and Taylor's, when he's onstage). Though I really prefer the Brant books, as crime novels, thte Taylor books are the pinnacle of Bruen's offhand but bleakly poetic style. As I've said before, he reminds me a bit of the Anglo-American writer J.P. Donleavy (mostly forgotten now, I guess) in terms of the language and the pervading melancholy. But Bruen (and Taylor) are very much of this moment, in terms of popular culture, crime fiction, Irish history, and global politics.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Claudia Piñeiro, A Crack in the Wall

Argentine novelist Claudia Piñeiro's new book (published by Bitter Lemon Press and translated by Miranda France) shares some common ground with her previously translated All Yours (a death that may be accidental, a feuding couple, their troubled daughter) but A Crack in the Wall is a fuller and more interesting book (the best of her three books translated so far, in my opinion).

Pablo Simó is an architect who repeatedly sketches his design for an original building but spends most of his time doing non-design work for an architectural firm that doesn't value him any more than he does himself. He's a worker-bee, without ambition (except for his sketches), the underground man (in a Dostoevskyian metaphor, he commutes via subway when there are more direct ways to get to work on the surface). H longs for Marta, his coworker in the firm, while settling into dull routines with his wife at home as much as his working life in the studio.

The novel opens with a disruption from the past: a few years earlier, a man had died on their worksite and he had helped his boss and Marta to (literally) cover up the matter. Now a young woman has appeared in the office asking about the dead man. Pablo has to deal with his memories of the past event (along with another hint of Dostoevsky, in the guilt and fear associated with the past event), his attraction to the young woman, and the stultifying realities of his daily life.

Pablo's career is perhaps more reflective of the realities of most architects' lives than the hyper-romantic Roark of Atlas Shrugged, but as in that ponderous novel, Piñeiro is using fiction in a philosophical way. But her philosophy is leavened by wit and by links to a French (rather than Russian, though I've referred to a Russian a couple of times) tradition of philosophical writing that is anchored in daily reality (I kept thinking of Camus as I was reading the book, but perhaps more pertinent would be the "hard" fiction of Simenon). In A Crack in the Wall, Piñeiro maintains the reader's interest at multiple levels: the story moves forward in its time-split way, the characters are fascinating, and the intellectual interest is maintained in an entertaining way.

And the conclusion is also satisfying on several levels. We do find out what has been going on (at the same time Pablo discovers the truth), and Pablo himself makes a very interesting career choice. He also resolves his family life, partly through a crisis between his daughter and her mother that forces a choice on him, as much as does his professional change of direction. While Thursday Night Widows was interesting, it moved forward slowly in fits and starts. All Yours is much faster and shorter, but is a bit light, in terms of its scope. Both those novels were satirical in their intent and development, but A Crack in the Wall takes the satire to a higher level, as well as tighening and focusing the crime-and-guilt elements of the story.

Thanks to Bitter Lemon for bringing us this book, which I've already passed along to two other readers (and I expect to keep recommending it).

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

I started a book this morning, but...

I started reading a book from my tbr pile that I've been looking forward to, based on readers' reviews and the publisher's blurb (and the book will remain nameless here). There was an interesting opening chapter set primarily in the past, an event that will color the rest of the book, and then an opening passage in the "present day," with the Detective Inspector arriving at a crime scene to find a naked, disembowelled woman tied to a bed.

At that point I found myself stopping, uncertain whether I want to go on with the book. Haven't we had enough crime scenes like that, and is it inevitable that if we continue reading this one we're going to be treated to lots more women tortured in extravagant and lurid manners? I've pretty much stopped reading serial killer books because I'm weary and nauseated by this sort of thing, but these scenes seem to be unavoidable even in the police procedural and noir segments of crime fiction.

Are there no other plots or crimes? Do these scenes reflect something about real crime today, about the society where such crimes happen--or more about a culture that's interested in portraying these scenes over and over. Sorry for the rant, and I'll probably end up reading the book anyway, to see if the writer is actually trying to do something more interesting. But still...

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Noir and avant-garde, 1964: Berg, by Ann Quin

Recently reprinted and hailed as a great work of the British avant-garde of the 1960s, Ann Quin's Berg begins with a premise right out of 1940s-'50s noir: "A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father..." What follows is a short, frequently funny dismembering of both noir fiction and the literary establishment of Quin's day (she swam out to sea and never came back in 1973), having only published 3 other short novels.

The seaside town of Berg is evidently Brighton, but Quin's evocation of the out-of-season resort is quite different (and much less lurid) than Grahame Green's version in his famous Brighton novel. Quin's style is partly stream-of-consciousness and partly close observation of streets and rooming houses, with large doses of crisp dialogue. Her allusive writing can seem a bit difficult at first, but once you get into the flow, the novel rocks quickly along its downward path.

Berg includes some casual but odd violence (a cat is killed with Berg almost unaware that he's done it, and a canary dies mysteriously). There's also a long and very funny sequence, spread over several chapters, in which Berg tries to dispose of a body--this sequence is the heart of the novel, and it's somewhere between darkest noir and wildest farce. There's also a strange sequence in which Berg tries to disguise himself as a woman and is nearly raped by the father he has come to kill.

There are obvious Oedipal elements (not only in Berg's intent to kill his father, but also his blooming relationship with the father's mistress, Judith, and references to Berg's mother, Edith (whose letters to her son are interspersed throughout). But the symbolism isn't heavy, it's simply part of the salacious, satirical, and compelling scenario: Berg holds a reader's attention (once it has him or her in its grasp) with the fascination of horror and humor combined.

The ending of the novel is unresolved, in a way, but at the same time perfectly clear (involving the identification of a corpse, but I won't spoil it by saying more). Where Berg, the father, Judith, and even Edith end up is captured in an odd loop of the sort that both the avant-garde and Rod Serling liked to indulge in--but, again, the loopiness and the occasional meta-fictional passage (Berg refers to the corpse he's trying to get rid of as having "never been a flesh and  blood character really," a line that resonates in several comic dimensions) add to the fun rather than seeming pretentious. Of all the avant-garde attempts at noir, in fact (such as Faulkner's Sanctuary), Berg is perhaps the most entertaining. Though the novel is more frequently compared to Alain Robbe-Grillet than Faulkner, Quin's writing is less difficult and more evocative of a real setting and a concrete story than either of those writers, more like David Goodis or perhaps Patricia Highsmith. As all those comparison's suggest, Berg combines in a unique way the virtues of both the literary and the crime-fiction worlds, as perhaps no one up to Kate Atkinson (in quite a different way) has done.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Death of a Nightingale and Strange Bird

Sometimes when I'm reading two books at the same time, or close together, one of them suffers from
the inevitable comparison. I had been anticipating the third Danish crime novel by Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis, and just about the same time an advance of that book arrived (courtesy of SoHo Crime) a copy of the new translation of the second Anna Jansson novel featuring Maria Wern, Strange Bird, arrived in the mail, courtesy of Stockholm Text (an interesting new project that has published a number of Swedish crime novels in translation).

The two books share some things in common. The Danish duo usually focuses on crime that comes into Denmark from elsewhere, or at least has its origins in a globalized Europe. In the new book, the source is the Ukraine, an open field for criminals after the fall of the Soviet Union (according to these authors, at least). Natasha has fled her native country for asylum in Copenhagen, only to be arrested for assaulting her Danish boyfriend, leaving her daughter alone in the refugee camp. In Jansson's novel, the source of the crime is Belarus, and without giving away too much of the plot I can only say that the East European country is the source of a bird flu epidemic that strikes the Swedish island of Gotland (in a plot that actually overlaps more with Kaaberbøl and Friis's earlier book, Invisible Murder).
In both books, the unsettled family life of the central character, the Swedish cop Maria Wern and the Danish nurse Nina Borg, plays a key role. But whereas everything in Kaaberbøl and Friis's book tightens the plot more and more all the way through (though I did find myself wondering a bit about some of the Ukranian flashbacks, until their purpose became clear) a lot of the family life (as well as subplots of various sorts, each related to the plot eventually) distract from the story, so that the novel proceeds in a leisurely rather than a tense fashion. Even the element of the bird flu plague and its effect on Wern as well as everyone else, begins to seem more like a distraction than a central thread, as characters begin to gather around a murdered nurse (another link between the Swedish and Danish books is the importance of nurses).

Maybe it's just my preference for darker, more noir-oriented stories rather than looser, traditional or cozy plots, but while I was compelled to race through Death of a Nighingale I found my attention wandering throughout Strange Bird. Another possible factor in my reaction to the Swedish book is that there is a TV series based on the Maria Wern character, and the stories as filmed are quite a bit tighter, in terms of the storytelling, than the two books by Jansson that I've read (though Wern's family life also plays a big part in the TV series, it seems less distracting). 

Or maybe the problem is simply that Kaaberbøl and Friis are among the very best writers in the current crop of Scandinavian crime writers, whereas Jansson falls into the middle of the pack. I find myself passing along the Danish duos novels to anyone who will listen to me praising them. The dedicated, even obsessive (and her obsessions are much in evidence in the new book) Nina Borg is neither a superhero nor  a paragon of motherhood, but she's a compelling and believable character in a series of well-told tales. While in the case of  Death of a Nightingale I was not totally convinced of the motive that final emerges from the resolution of the story, the story itself held my attention completely,

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Daily Double: Pelecanos and Veloce

Not really daily, since I don't post quite that often, but a mismatched double post for today. The first is
George Pelacanos's forthcoming The Double, which has something in common with Massimo Carlotto's At theh End of a Dull Day, which I reviewed recently (at least more in common with that book than the second one reviewed here today). The second for today is a straight-to-Kindle book in Italian, Viola Veloce's Omicidi in Pausa Pranzo (Murders in the Lunch Break), which is a combination crime novel, workplace satire, and Bridget Jones sort of story (more later).

What Pelecanos shares with Carlotto is a noir tradition as well as a reliance on revenge or vendetta as a plot structure. But while Carlotto's characters fully, even joyfully, inhabit the revenge plot and the accompanying violence, Pelecanos's main character here (whom we've seen before, Spero Lucas) is conflicted and trouble (though hardly less violent). Lucas is a private detective whose specialty is finding things. He works with a lawyer, doing research for defendants, but on his own he's a finder, in this case beginning with a stolen painting. But the painting was stolen by a con man whose specialty is attaching himself (physically and sexually) to needy women and then fleecing them on his way out.

The con man is currently working with a pair of accomplices, one of them particularly ruthless (the other mostly aimless). When Spero finds their hideout, by tracing the course of the painting's appraisal (the appraiser having given the villain its owner's name and location), he uses several of his own cohorts (mostly ex-military, like himself) to locate and harass them. That sort of collaboration is typical of Pelecanos's heroes, who, though very capable in violent situations, are not superheroes. In the final confrontations in The Double, though, Spero must operate alone.

Spero's military background is important: it figures into his capabilities as well as his own demons, especially in his relationships with other veterans. He has a code of conduct cobbled together from social norms and military experience, something that Carlotto's character totally lacks. The difference is reflected in the style of the books: While Pelecanos's story is mostly sober and straightforward, Carlotto's is ironic and comic (in a grim way). Pelecanos is the uncontested noir poet of Washington DC (where I live and work), and as usual, the city is an important character in the book: not the Washington of politicians but of the streets, where we lesser mortals scramble to survive.

Omicidi in Pausa Pranzo surprised me by being quite well written and entertaining (plus the Italian is straightforward and fairly easy to read for a beginning student of the language, like me). The first person narrator, Francesca Zanardelli, is an office worker in Milan, recently abandoned by her fiance on the eve of the wedding, who happens upon the corpse of a coworker in the ladies' bathroom at lunch one day. The murdered coworker shared office space with Francesca, and the incident sets off a complicated story of serial murder linked intimately with office politics and Francesca's personal life. She openly invokes Bridget Jones's Diary as a model, and her private life is a comic series of events inlcuding speed dating, parental relationships, and life on her own. The office politics are particularly Italian, especially in a key fact, that it's not easy to fire office staff for something as simple as incompetence. The relations with her coworkers and the union are frequently quite funny, as is the language she and her cohorts use to describe their bosses and each other.

The first-person narrator mostly works very well, since Francesca is good company, if occasionally a bit whiny (a la Bridget), but at the cost of draining most of the potential suspense out of the final confrontation with the murderer (since Francesca can't know a lot of what's going on beyond her immediate viewpoint). But ultimately, the satire is more important than the unveiling of the perpetrator. The story is a bit lighter than my usual fare, but quite enjoyable, certainly up to the quality of a lot of books published in the traditional way. Highly recommended for anyone learning Italian, it's fun as well as good practice.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Leighton Gage, In Memoriam

I like many others today am mourning the loss of Leighton Gage, whose death is announced here: http://networkedblogs.com/Nz0Gd.
I was an avid follower of his Mario Silva series and had the good fortune to meet him when he was passing through the Washington DC area. He will be missed by his readers and also by all of us who have benefited from his participation in the crime fiction blogging community.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Two-fer Friday: from France

I've just finished two crime novels from France, courtesy of NetGalley: The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, the most recent Adamsberg novel from Fred Vargas (translated by Sian Reynolds) and The 7th Woman, the first (and first translated) crime novel by Frédérique Molay (translated by Anne Trager). The two books are at opposite ends of the spectrum of "romans policiers," though  both deal with serial killers (and the authors share a first name, since Vargas's real name is Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau).

The quirkiness of Vargas's writing is well known: of her 13 novels, 8 have been translated into English and have won a number of awards. In each case, her novels begin with a seemingly preposterous event drawn from history or fairy tales or myth (such as a revival of the plague, attacks by werewolves, or, in this case, the appearance of a ghostly army that "seizes" evil-doers and thereby predicts their violent deaths). And the plots wander indirectly toward a conclusion that is more or less drawn from everyday life, commonly having to do with unhappy families and disputes among members of small neighborhoods or towns.

Ordebec (the book is called The Furious Army in French, another of the terms by which the ghostly horde is known) includes several plots, ranging from attacks on a pigeon, on a housewife, on an industrialist, and on a disgraceful man in the small Normandy town of Ordebec (this last one being predicted by a young woman's vision of the horde). All the events begin at more or less the same time, and Adamsberg investigates them all, with the help this time of his recently discovered son (see the previous book) and a young firebug suspected of the murder of the industrialist. The text is lively, despite a good deal of repetition) but not in the ordinary vein of crime fiction. Vargas's readers enjoy the company of the motley crew of eccentrics that make up Adamsberg's circle and the circle around the crimes. Vargas's knowledge of archaeology and history makes the mythic aspects of the stories also very real and entertaining (she's an archaeologist among other things).

The 7th Woman is a more straightforward police procedural, and we learn a lot more about how the French police work in actuality here than in any of Vargas's books. But straightforward is mostly
what the book is, in spite of the lurid aspects of the serial killer being chased. Molay, like Vargas, has real-life experience pertinent to her tale (in politics) and the administrative aspects of the book are believable and vivid. But she has a tendency to "tell and not show," and for me none of the characters really had a spark that made them come to life. Crime fiction characters (and plots, for that matter) certainly don't need the more extravagant aspects of Vargas's style to come to life for a reader (this reader, anyway), but when I think of specifically French examples of the genre (by Dominique Manotti or Jean-Patrick Manchette, to cite just 2 examples) there is a liveliness in characterization, writing, and scene setting that I miss in Molay's writing. Molay has certainly amassed a lot of positive blurbs (and evidently sales), but I couldn't really engage with her writing. My loss, probably.

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is published by Penguin, and The 7th Woman by Le French Book, which seems to be a digital only publishing house, something like Stockholm Text in its first incarnation. I'll definitely be keeping an eye on Le French for future publications, but will have to be convinced taht another book by Molay should join my TBR pile.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Fruttero & Lucentini: Il Palio delle contrade morte

This post continues my occasional series of reviews of Italian crime fiction not translated into English (as my Italian progresses to the point that I can read some of them). Carlo Fruttero and Franco Lucentini are best know in the English-speaking world for two, books, The Sunday Woman (an excellent police procedural and social satire set in Torino) and The D. Case (which concerns a meta-fictional investigation and completion of Charles Dickens's unfinished detective story, The Mystery of Edwin Drood). One other book has been translated, as Enigma by the Sea, a sort of locked-room mystery that is also very good--though there are hints that a translation was at one time available for another book, Lovers of No Fixed Abode (a combination mystery novel, romance, and evocation of Venice). Il Palio delle Contrade Morte, though, is something different.

The book begins with a married couple from Milan, Enzo and Valeria, watching the famous Palio events in the center of Siena, but from separate balcomies and in the company of apparently intimate but recent acquaintances. One track of the novel follows their observations of the events leading up to the race and ultimately the race itself. The other track is a series of flashbacks explaining how the couple came to be here, and came to be on separate balconies.

Attempting to reach an agri-tourism farm owned by friends, the couple is diverted by a halestorm and their own nervousness and lack of definite directions into an aristocratic villa, whose denizens invite them to wait out the storm. They ultimately stay for three eventful days, in the company of seven Siennese: the elegant Guidobaldo (with whom Valeria is immediately impressed), the young and beautiful Ginevra (at first inattentive and then very attentive to Enzo), an older couple (or maybe not a couple), a jockey famous for his participation in the Palio, and two visitors from Rome (as well as an Asian couple and a couple of other servants and their families). The interactions among all these people are very entertaining, told in beautiful, breezy prose.

But there is a strange twist out of normality that begins with a shadowy creature biting Valeria on her rear in a perverse sexual assault, and it gradually becomes obvious that Enzo and Valeria have stumbled into a labyrinth of conspiracy, family rivalries, and the history of the Palio (including the Contrade--rival neighborhood guilds that participate in the race), and in particular, the six contrade banned since 1729 from participating in the race. The banishment of these groups is explained as being the result of either corruption among them or the political maneuvering of the rival groups.

The mysterious goings-on reach a height in a murder and an investigation that seems to lead nowhere. But the conclusion of the novel reveals less about who committed the murder than what the motives for the attack had been--motives that shift the novel out of the realm of either noir or romance and into a sort of ghost story.

The book might not satisfy the taste of a crime fiction purist, though it has all the elements, plus a bit of horror story and historical conspiracy (not quite Dan Brown, but veering a bit in that direction). But Il Palio... has several things going for it. Though it may not be Fruttero and Lucentini's best book, it still has their vibrant style and wit. For a non-native speaker of Italian, it is also mercifully short. And it reveals a lot of detail about Palio, without ever being didactic or attempting to be a tour guide. Instead, the authors use the hermetic environment of Siena and its famous race to explore the experience of an average couple, having some trouble in their marriage but nothing drastic (as there is nothing drastic in their lives, in fact) who are thrust into a realm of mystery, murder, romance, and even the gothic.

I won't give a spoiler here, but if anyone is interested, I can post a very short "spoiler post" with a sentence or two about how the novel (and the race) does (and doesn't, since there is not a neat tying-up-of-loose-pends) conclude.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Eva's Eye (Inspector Sejer #1), Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum's series featuring Inspector Sejer (in a small city in Norway) has been one of the most consistently outstanding of the Scandinavian Crime Wave. We finally have the first book in the series, translated from Norwegian by James Anderson, and in this case reading the story out of order is no burden. We get a little more of Sejer's backstory, but as is often the case with this series, we spend more time with the people involved (in one way or another) with the crime than with the detective. We also see a wider assortment of police on Sejer's team, which has been reduced in later books mostly to his assistant, Detective Skarre (who appears here in a minor role).

The tale begins with the discovery of a body, when an artist named Eva Magnus is out walking along the river with her daughter. Oddly, Eva pretends (to her daughter) to be calling the police while actually doing nothing to report the discovery.

As Sejer works to find the identity of the dead man in the river, he comes across another case with certain overlapping elements, concerning the death of a woman named Maja. So we have two deaths and a single mother and artist who is acting guilty--most of the novel is occupied in bringing to light the connections among these elements, first by following Sejer's investigation, alternating with Eva's daily life as a painter and divorced mother who is suddenly and inexplicably able to pay her past-due bills.

Sejer pays several visits to Eva, resulting ultimately in a long flashback to a time when the two murder victims were still alive and Eva was struggling to get by. The flashback is told in a third-person narrative, but it is set into the novel as her story, as told to Sejer. Fairly early in that narrative, the picture begins to come into focus for the reader, but Fossum is very good at keeping us engaged, as things become clear--and also very good at upsetting our assumptions after we once again join Sejer in the "present" of the novel.

Eva's Eye must have been a very auspicious beginning for the series, for those able to see it when it came out. There are some details of daily life that date the story, but Fossum's concern is with the characters, whose lives and options are fully contemporary. She is particularly apt in her portrayal of Eva, both as a mother and an artist who is convinced (against all evidence) that she is a great artist (a hubris that seems to be required for anyone to continue in that calling). Black Seconds remains my favorite of the Sejer novels so far, but I would currently rank Eva's Eye a close second.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

My Venice, by Donna Leon

Despite its title, Donna Leon's My Venice and Other Essays doesn't consist of one essay titled "My Venice" along with essays on other topics: it is instead a collection of occasional articles for various publications, some of which deal directly with Venice while others deal with Leon's family, her house outside Venice, her love of opera, etc. One topic it deals with only indirectly is the writing of crime novels, though there is an essay on teaching writing.

But the book is rich in something that illuminates Leon's novels: her indignations at incivilities, hunters, and other topics and her experiences with the difficulties, pleasures, and annoyances of living in Venice. What her detective deals with in her books, she addresses more directly here, though seldom illuminating any specific incidents in the books. She is often very funny, not least when she is venting her anger or bafflement over topics like the tendency in the field of classical music to emphasize the sexuality rather than the talent of some performers.

For a glimpse into the thoughts and life of Commissario Brunetti's author, or into the experiences and opinions that lie behind the detective's stories, My Venice is quite interesting. But more important is that Leon is interesting and entertaining to spend some time with, and her voice here is open, illuminating, and engaging.

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Two-fer Friday: Anne Holt and Massimo Carlotto

It's hardly possible to imagine two crime novels as far apart (yet still in the genre) as Anne Holt's  Death of the Demon and Massimo Carlotto's At the End of a Dull Day. Everyone in Holt's book reaches out for the reader's sympathy; everyone in Carlotto's is deeply flawed and basically (to anthropomorphize) could not care less what the reader thinks of them. Both deal with delicate subjects (homosexuality, the child welfare system, and damaged children as well as murder in Holt's book; sex slavery, corruption, murder and domestic violence in Carlotto's). But Holt deals with the delicate subjects delicately, and Carlotto throws them naked in our faces. The trouble is, as despicable as we may find all the characters and the deeds contained in it, Carlotto's is a better book (though perhaps only for those with a devotion to noir).

Death of the Demon, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Bruce and published in the U.S. by Scribner, is in Holt's Hanne Wilhelmsen series (I believe it's the third or perhaps fourth to be translated from this series). Hanne has recently been promoted to a leadership position and is finding it difficult to step back from actual police work (learning that lesson is a big part of the book). The book begins with a long section about the arrival of a "new boy" in a group home run by the Salvation Army for children of troubled homes. The new boy, Olav, is very large and perhaps brain damaged at (or before) birth. He has problems controlling behavior and emotions, and we see a good deal of the book through his eyes. As he adjusts to his new life (or doesn't adjust) an event throws everything into chaos: the director of the center is murdered. Olav disappears (and is on the run for much of the book, though no one thinks he's the murder--since he's 12).

Hanne and her team spend most of the novel going back and forth among the staff and various other involved parties, making little progress until the end (which, by the way, I didn't find very convincing). The book is a traditional mystery, oriented toward the accumulation of evidence and the unveiling of the perpetrator. One of the distinguishing features of the series is Hanne's difficulty in acknowledging her ongoing homosexual relationship with her life-partner (not a cop), something that doesn't quite cohere with our idea of the liberalism of Norway,

At the End of a Dull Day (translated by Antony Shugaar and published by Europa Editions in their new World Noir series) is about Giorgio, who is a monster. He's a reformed terrorist and gangster, if by reformed you mean a restaurateur who also runs a prostitution ring involved in sex slavery as well as catering to corrupt politicians and abusing his wife (he's a control freak). We have met him before, in The Goodbye Kiss. He is double-crossed by his bookkeeper and most of the book is about him getting deeper into trouble and finally working out his revenge. He is casually violent, and dominates not only the other characters but (in an extreme way) his wife and mistress. And we see the whole book through his eyes.

But he gains some sympathy by not being in the Mafia (in any of its guises) or actually being a corrupt official, the two poles of the novel. The book is in many ways a dark commentary on Italy today. It also looks back to the roots of noir in books like Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, and Giorgio mentions that his favorite TV series is Justified. Carlotto totally inhabits Giorgio and his world. The book is written in the swift, no-nonsense style of first-person noir and is a considerable achievement in that genre. But not for everyone, obviously.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Wyatt sequel, by Garry Disher

A couple of years ago, after a long-ish hiatus, Garry Disher published a new novel about his character Wyatt, under the title "Wyatt." The novel contained several homages to an obvious model for Disher's series, the Parker novels by "Richard Stark," alias Donald Westlake.
Wyatt was published in the U.S. by Soho Crime,  which subsequently released two older Wyatt novels, Port Vila Blues and the new Fallout, which is a sequel to Port Vila Blues.

Though Wyatt is a newer book, it is in many ways a throwback to the earlier books, with Wyatt as a cool and solid character, almost a sociopath in his distance from normal social interaction. Port Vila Blues and Fallout seem to be from later in the thief's career: he is looking for a last score, and feeling both his age and his isolation.

Port Vila Blues introduced a female character (not that unusual in the Wyatt books) but in this case she reappears in the sequel, which is unusual. Liz Redding is a cop running after both Wyatt and a crooked cop, and (spoiler alert for those who haven't read the earlier book) she ends up allied with Wyatt, personally and professionally. Fallout begins as Wyatt abandons her on the yacht, on which they sailed away from Port Vila.

Actually that's not quite true: the novel opens with another thief, called the bush bandit by the press, who is robbing small banks across the countryside. His name is Wyatt, too: he's the older Wyatt's nephew Raymond. The family link provides us with more information about Wyatt's past than we have hitherto seen, both before and after uncle and nephew are reunited (in crime, of course). The appearance of his nephew, a felt connection with Liz, Wyatt's failure to achieve any permanent financial security despite a more or less succesful life of crime, and the pressure of a lifetime on the run are all weighing on him

But Fallout maintains two of the most distinctive features of the series: the dark dedication to noir and the naturalistic plotting. The plans of all the characters develop in a way that suggests a straightforward, linear story, but the plans are repeatedly undermined in ways that twist the plot away from what the reader expects and also away from any neatness. The Wyatt novels are messy, like life, and Disher's distinctive style stays away from any sort of artificial plot devices.

Which is not to say there's no structure. Especially in Fallout and Wyatt, the overarching structure is a parrallelism between Wyatt and another violent man, someone engaged in the same line of work as Wyatt but in subtle and not-so-subtle ways less sympathetic to the reader (although Wyatt doesn't himself try all that hard to be sympathetic). In Fallout, it's a prison escapee who has early history with Wyatt and becomes involved with him again (in ways I won't telegraph). These conflicts are resolved not in any super-hero sort of way, but through different styles of thinking and planning.

Fallout involves the jewel robbery of Port Vila Blues as well as the jailbreak, an art theft, a complex confidence game, and related violence and mayhem. But as usual, it's a short book, and a fast one. Disher's other series, about detectives in the Peninsula region of Australia, is perhaps a deeper and more complex set of stories, but the Wyatt books (and Fallout in particular) are extremely well done, and a wonderful homage not only to Westlake but also to the roots of noir fiction.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New Gothic noir from Prague: Milos Urban's Seven Churches

I picked up a copy of Milos Urban's Seven Churches before traveling to Prague, since a crime novel is often a good guide to the streets of a strange city. Urban's book pays off in spades in that regard, though it isn't exactly a crime novel. The cover claims that the author is the Czech Republic's answer to Umberto Eco, which isn't an exact comparison: but Urban's novel is a philosophical potboiler, somewhat in the fashion of Eco's novels.

The lead character and narrator of Seven Churches is (or was) a policeman, but a failed one. When the novel begins, he has been disgraced, but happens upon a grisly crime: a man has been hung in a bell tower by his heel, swinging back and forth with the motion of the bell. The hanged man survives, and through the investigation of that crime, the narrator's career is somewhat redeemed, as the case becomes linked to the death of a woman he was supposed to be protecting, before being kicked out of the force. Other gruesome deaths follow, in an extravagant, neo-Gothic fashion, but the bulk of the novel isn't about the police case.

There is an early digression into the narrator's youth (I'm not giving his name because the name itself is a comic and dramatic point in the plot), and at critical points, the narrator falls into a trance and has visions of the city of Prague in Medieval times. The book, in fact, is more than anything else about the layers of architecture and history in the city, as waves of styles (Renaissance, Baroque, modern) literally overlay the Gothic origins of the city and its churches, as well as Gothic revivals that attempt to restore the original while in fact simply adding another layer. These styles are, of course, intimately intertwined with the religious and political as well as architectural history of Prague.

So the book is indeed a very stylized tour guide to the city, especially the "new town," where a good deal of the action takes place (not so much the famous Wenceslas, or Vaclav, Square as other squares and churches of Novy Mesto (and the book points out that, unusually for a major square in a European city, there are no churches on Wenceslas Square).

Added to the Gothic architecture and the narrator's Gothic deliriums are several phantasmagoric episodes and an overarching conspiracy: altogether a Gothic atmosphere in both the architectural and the fictional senses.The narrator is as much involved with a mysterious pair of men, one large and aristocratic, the other gnome-like, who are investigating the city for their own ends. The detective story serves mainly to anchor the plot in a rationality that is at odds with the narrative's strangeness. The arc of the story is increasingly tied up in conspiracy, rather than the police investigation, as the narrator drops in and out of the investigation and in and out of contact with the conspiracy. And at the end, the story veers off into something else entirely, a kind of Gothic enclave within the modern city.

Prague is a fascinating, beautiful, and mysterious city, and Seven Churches evokes all those aspects, though the book can be a bit frustrating in its repetitions, digressions, and extneded discussions of history and architecture. I recommend it for anyone interested in Prague or in neo-Gothic storytelling; For anyone whose interest is in traditional detective stories, the book will be very frustrating, but if you persist, there are considerable (if sometimes odd) rewards.