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.