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.