Friday, May 24, 2013

Philosophical noir from Japan: Fuminori Nakamura's Evil and the Mask

ull disclosure (or perhaps bragging): SoHo Press used a blurb taken from my review of Fuminori Nakamura's previous book (The Thief) on the flyleaf of the new book (Evil and the Mask). Evil and the Mask is, like The Thief, a philsophical crime novel of the sort that both Japanese and French writers do so well. Evil and the Mask begins with an 11-year old boy being told on his birthday by his elderly and wealthy father than he is to be trained as a "cancer," aimed toward destroying those around him and society at large, and that on a subsequent birthday the father will show him hell.

That beginning sets up an expectation somewhere between Mishima and Bataille, but the story follows a somewhat different path, jumping back and forth bttween the child's progress and his adult reincarnation, after surgery to change his appearance; and the story is more like Kobo Abe than Mishima, in the end. That is to say, not as perverse as the latter but as strangely straightforward as the former.

The child, Fumihiro Kuki, is provided with a companion: an adopted girl named Kaori. It becomes obvious that the hell that Fumihiro has been promised will be suffered by Kaori, and Fumihiro has fallen in love with her. Their relationship is at first childlike, and then sexual, and Fumihiro decides to take whatever action is necessary to prevent her from being harmed. His father has already begun to call Kaori to his room, for purposes that are at first unclear, when Fumihiro begins to put his plan into practice.

Subsequent chapters alternate between the boy and the man, and the latter has become estranged from Kaori for unstate reasons while continuing to be fascinated by her. He hires a private detective to find out what her life is like now. As the "contemporary" phase of the story progresses, it involves a cult and an anarchistic gang bent on terrorizing and destroying society, as well as other survivors from the Kuki clan. One of the key elements in the story is the practice of the Kuki patriarchs to sire a son late in life with the purpose of making him a cancer, a theme that repeatedly returns.

The story is very dark, including murder and despair as well as the cancer theme, but Fumihiro's voice (he's the first-person narrator) is simple and direct, without histrionics. The darkness of the story does not follow predictable paths, and the twists and turns lead to a sort of redemption, of a sort that Samuel Beckett might recognize. And for all the philosophy and the perversity of the story, the novel engages the reader without prurience; it's Fumihiro's near-normality as a narrator and actor, and the contrast with the horrors referred to rather than directly portrayed, that keeps the story interesting and lively.

This is certainly not a conventional crime story. It's lurid qualities are subdued (in contrast to, for example the blatantly lurid--comically so at times--of Marek Krajewski's Eberhard Mock stories), and the police detective who becomes interested in Fumihiro in his new identity plays a part in the story that only hints at a conventional crime novel. If you read The Thief, Evil and the Mask will not be a total surprise, since the two protagonists share a path from unconventional childhood through subversive adulthool--though this book is both longer and broader in them and aims than the earlier book. Evil and the Mask is certainly accessible without having first read The Thief, though perhaps a shorter book might offer a reader a useful introduction to the dark but thoughtful world of Fuminori Nakamura.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Whispering Death, by Garry Disher

I'm just catching up with the newest Hal Challis/Ellen Destry book by Australia's Garry Disher (when his next, a Wyatt book, is just about to come out). Whispering Death could be the best yet among Disher's books, from whatever series. Though Destry is mostly absent (on a course prior to setting up a sex crines unit in the Peninsula of the series' setting), Pam Murphy, the younger detective and the other female in the squad, steps up to a prominent role. In fact, Pam is more involved than Challis in the investigation of a rape and abduction (and subsequent related crimes), while Challis worries about a series of bank robberies and his own problems with a failing classic car (a Triumph) and the classic airplane he's lost interest in, now that he has finished restoring it.

But the book actually starts out with a fascinating new character, unrelated to the crime that the squad is investigating. A young woman who goes by many names is a skillful, careful, and sympathetic burglar who is casing out houses to rob, but keeping her professional life away from her current residence and her safe-deposit box, which are both in Challis's back  yard.

One of the marks of an assured and skillful crime novelist is the ability to keep the plot moving in unexpected directions, and Disher achieves that throughout Whispering Death. I can't really talk much more about the story without giving away the plot, though plot is only one of the pleasures of the book and the series. Challis and Murphy are delightfully ordinary people, with personal lives full of ordinary problems. The narration and dialogue are so natural that a reader would be sucked in even if the plot wasn't moving so quickly and unexpectedly forward. And after a couple of sudden twists at the end, mgiht we expect some sort of sequel? Let's hope...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Screwball Noir: Rob Kitchin's Stiffed

Rob Kitchin's new novel, Stiffed, is (to borrow Paul Cain's phrase) a fast one (and a funny one). It's a farce with guns and bodies instead of sex. Tadhg Maguire, born in Ireland but raised in a fictional New England town of modest size, wakes up one morning, hungover, to discover that instead of his girlfriend of less than a year, there is a hairy corpse in bed with him. In fact, the hairy corpse of the local crime boss's henchman. Instead of calling the cops, after being beaned by his wife, once she appears on the scene, he seeks the help of his friends in getting rid of his problem corpse.

From the point, the story descends into a spiralling assortment of problems for Tadgh and his friends, a motley group of outsiders who had been their own little clique in school. Each of the friends contributes his or her own vulnerabilities and strengths to the story, along with an assorment of cops and gangsters and perhaps the most dangerous of all, Tadhg's girlfriend.

In addition to the wild fights (with and without guns), hot pursuits (with and without cars), and other fast and funny occurences, there are some running jokes, not least of which is Tadhg's name, which no one can pronounce, giving rise to an assortment of tortured versions of the very Irish Irish surname. The American setting, which Kitchin mostly gets right, is another source of comedy (there are just a few un-American terms, like "press-up" instead of "push-up," most of which can be understood as Tadhg's lingluistic links to his homeland). Baseball-obsessed small-town America, complete with its own small-time mafia (in conflict with gangsters coming in from outside) is evoked with barbed accuracy.

The plot revolves around stolen money, and Kitchin draws out the essential storyline through all the twists and turns and even past the ending (stopping a book before all the threads are quite pulled loose is something he has done effectively before). I mentioned Paul Cain above, but the noir author that Stiffed resembles most is probably Donald Westlake, in some of his various incarnations: Westlake set a high standard for this sort of dark comedy, and Kitchin proves a worthy successor, in an even more tightly wound and rapid farce than those of the his predecessor.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Summertime Death, Mons Kallentoft

Summertime Death is the second in Mons Kallentoft's tetralogy featuring Malin Fors, a detective in the small Swedish city of Linköping. The setting of the first book, Midwinter Sacrifice, was ice cold, and this one is steamy and hot, but the books share a lot in terms of style. Both are interspersed with monologues by the murdered victims, a device that I find irritating and in this case also unnecessary. The dead people don't really advance the plot. Another stylistic quirk is the use of sentence fragments, something that I also find irritating if not done well, but Kallentoft mostly uses the fragmentary style in a positive way, to move the story rapidly along. Not to say that the story actually moves rapidly: the detectives in this case spend a lot of time spinning their wheels.

But the most striking aspects of the book for me have to do with the attitudes and imaginations of the detectives. They seem fixated on immigrants and they leap to conclusions about the rape of one of the early victims that seem unmerited, almost refusing to acknowledge the character of rape and rapists. (Spoiler alert, I'm going tomention some essential clues in the following sentence or two.) The presence of paint (rather than semen) in the violated victim's body suggests immediately that a dildo has been used (not, as one might think, that any number of objects might have been used--a breadth of weapons would be borne out by both news accounts and numerous crime novels). And their assumption about the use of a dildo leads them to suspect lesbians and men whose sexual organs are missing. Again, their imaginations (and in this case that of the author in particular) seem divergent from the realities of the crime.

The focus on immigrants and homosexual women is bad enough, but the police turn a blind eye to the violent abuse by one of their own toward some of the suspects (particularly ones without the means to report the crimes against them). We needn't insist on so-called political correctness in our crime fiction, but the blithe acceptance of the abuse and prejudice on the part of the detectives is more akin to Mike Hammer novels than the usual Scandinavian fare.

The plot is pretty standard serial killer stuff: a young woman who is still alive and ultimately two who have been killed exhibit wounds linking them together clearly. We only meet the killer toward the end, but the killer's motivation is hinted at earlier. Malin's dogged pursuit of the truth leads the killer to target her own daughter, another over-used device, in my humble opinion.

As is sometimes the case with books that I find unsatisfying (and longer than they need to be), I found myself reading more and more quickly, seeking the positive aspects of the story (particularly the characters, who are mostly well-drawn and except for their prejudices and their blindness to prejudice and abuse among their colleagues, mostly sympathetic, and the small-town Swedish setting, which is well drawn and evocative). Other readers may find the interesting parts of the book to outweigh the annoying parts (or might even not be annoyed in the way that I was), but the best I can do is report my own reaction. I'm certainly open to alternative opinions--but one thing that can say with more objectivity is that Kallentoft does not approach the scope and style of the other very long Swedish novel that I read recently, Leif G.W. Persson's Linda, as in The Linda Murder, which also includes a lot of obnoxious attitudes and actions on the part of the police, but in a way that sets them into a context that is both satirical and socially aware.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Leif G.W. Persson's Bäckström novel, Linda: As in the Linda Murder

Swedish crime novelist Leif G.W. Persson has written an etensive series of police procedurals united not by a single main character but by a revolving set of characters and a series of interrelated plots (to judge by the 3 novels so far translated into English and the two films available in the U.S..--Bo Widerberg's 1984 The Man from Mallorca, available on VHS with subtitles and En Pilgrims Död, a Swedish 4-part TV series that may or may not be available for download along with downloadable subtitles).

The most recently translated novel, Linda, As in the Linda Murder, focuses on an obnozious and frequently funny minor character in some of the other works, Evert Bäckström, a short, fat, lazy, self-centered detective who has been chosen (from all of Persson's many characters) as the model for a U.S. TV series which will star Rainn Wilson of The Office. Bäckström's malign and feckless character has produced disasters and has been present (if not actually bringing about) successes in Persson's fictional world.

Linda operates on two levels: the first is the investigation of the murder of a young woman (Linda, obviously) in Växjö, in southern Swedien. Bäckström is assigned to lead a team of investigators, mainly because everyone else is out of town (it's early July) for vacation. Bäckström's main concerns are with his wallet, his stomach, and the availability of alcohol, and insofar as it doesn't interfere with those things, also the case. As the investigation stumbles forward (entirely due to the efforts of the other detectives on the team) there is a lot of repetition, some of it comic, some of it necessitated by the spiralling forward of the slow-moving process of the police team and frequent false leads. But the repetition didn't become tedious, for me: partly because of the train-wreck comedy surrounding Bäckström and partly because of the metodical quality of the investigation and the writing. Some of the repetititon also is related to the personalities of the other detectives, particularly the one who ultimately pulls on the right threads to unravel the case (I won't tell you who that is, part of the pleasure in reading the book is seeing who is headed toward the truth, and some of the twistiness of the end is in how the conclusion is reached).

And just past halfway through (spoiler alert) there is a shift that integrates some additional characters from other novels (in fact also illuminating the plots that will follow Linda in this series), and the second level that I mentioned above begins to develop. One of Bäckström's spectacular failings is his attitude toward women, sometimes kept to himself and sometimes revealed openly. If you find his attitude more annoying than comic, trust me--you should stick with the book. Increasingly through the last third of the novel and with considerable impact at the very end, the author brings the story and Bäckström's sexism (and not only his sexism) into stark focus.

As in the classic procedural, the solving of the case proceeds by police (rather than mystery novel) standards. The reader is rarely privy to knowledge not available to the detectives.

Since this novel is not in a direct line with the first two Persson novels to be released in English, there's no need to read the other books first. On the other hand, if you have read one or both of the others, you will perhaps enjoy Linda more than a novice Persson fan, as characters from the other stories appear like old friends to add their own particular quality and history to the tale. All of the Persson novels so far translated are very long (Linda is 488 pages), but the style is clean and easy to read; all of them proceed indirectly, rather than in a straight line--the pleasure is not just in the solution to a mystery but the clarification of what is actually going on (a process that is somewhat simplified in the films). But I've found all of them rewarding, and having read them makes the very good films more enjoyable as well. Persson, by the way, is something of a media personality in Sweden, more for his actual role in the criminal justice system (as a consultant and profiler, I think), and there are several parodies of his talk-show TV appearances that can be seen on YouTube (but only in Swedish, as far as I can tell).