Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arnaldur Indriðason, Strange Shores

In what seems to be the last of his Erlendur series, Arnaldur Indriðason's Strange Shores takes what was already a melancholy character a step further. Erlendur has been for the last few books absent from Reykjavik, visiting the remote location where he grew up and where his brother had been lost in a snowstorm, an event that has colored his character (and the whole series). Erlendur became interested, because of this family history, in the more general topic of people lost and never seen again, and he begins (without any official police backing) to investigate the case of a young woman who disappeared in a mountain pass, at the same time and in the same area as a group of British soldiers stationed in Iceland had gotten lost in sudden storm. The British were all found, alive or dead, but the Icelandic woman was never seen again, alive or dead.

Indriðason's writing is very straightforward, but his stories can be a bit elliptical, with the same people and incidents being revisited again and again. We visit with Erlendur, one after the other and then around again, everyone still alive with any relation to the missing woman, as well as the descendants of others. Very gradually, a picture of what happened emerges, with a couple of surprises at the end. 

Interspersed with this investigation is a series of inner monologues of a man (not always named, but plainly the detective himself) struggling to stay awake while he is himself trapped in a snowy wilderness. These passages make clear what the ending of the book (and the series) will be, but the advance warning does nothing to lessen the impact of of the novel's conclusion. The two threads (his investigation and his own end) are not intertwined in any obvious way, as neither is the story of his long-lost brother--though all aspects of the tale are related in a more subtle and metaphoric way.

This is a very Icelandic story, it seems to me, a tale of the far north to be sure. And it is a rural story, with little to do with the distant city (though modern times are encroaching even here, another melancholy aspect of the tale). The rural (and cold) setting is vividly (and freezingly) evoked. All the elements of a police procedural are here, but not in the usual way, and all the elements of this series are also present, though the other detectives are only mentioned in passing (each of the major characters in the series was featured in the previous two books). This is perhaps not the book to begin reading Indriðason, though nothing in the story requires knowledge of something that has gone before (Erlendur reflects back upon things that have happened in his career, but in a self-explanatory way). But as the capstone of the series or as a novel in itself, the story is powerful, involving, and compulsively readable, in the manner of, but more so, all that we have so far seen of the author's work in translation, but in a tighter, more intensely focused, manner.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hotel Brasil, by Frei Betto

Hotel Brasil, subtitled "The mystery of the severed heads," is less a crime novel or even a mystery than a social satire that stakes out a slice of life in Rio de Janeiro and explores it thoroughly and enjoyably. But if you're expecting a mile-a-minute thriller, a police procedural, or a noir crime novel, the book will defeat your expectations (though maybe that's a good thing, in the era of  foruula fiction?).

Betto, who according to publisher Bitter Lemon Press is a priest and social activist, begins and ends the book with grisly murders with beheaded victims, and there are others along the way. But there are frequent digressions into each of the "closed room" sort of mystery that the initial murder sets up (each of the denizens of the low-class hotel of the title, in the Lapa section of Rio). As each is interviewed by the police detective, his or her life story is explored by the narrator in quick, interesting sketches that frequently demonstrate the theological and political interests of the author.

But one of the major subjects of the satire is publishing in Brazil, as in Patricia Melo's In Praise of Lies, reviewed here a couple of years ago, which shows a crime writer turning to self help writing in order to make it big. Betto's central character, Cândido (surely named after Voltaire's satirical hero) is a ghost writer and former seminarian who is talked into a career in popular writing by his publisher, with comic results that give the character opportunities to demonstrate his sympathy for the spiritual, the underprivileged, and various philosophical topics. Cândido also keeps up a running dialogue with an "inner self," whose name is Odidnac.

There is also a touching romance, an adventure concerning a lost girl living on the streets, and some black magic, plus the individual portraits of the hotel's tenants are lively and interesting. There's also a wider portrait of the political and social realities of today's post-junta Brazil, and one that doesn't pander to foreigners' conceptions of fun loving, carnival-seeking, beach-hanging, or favela-dwelling Brazilians. For Brazilian-native mystery or police precedural, go to Garcia-Roza; for an insider/outsider's unflinching vision of the country's problems, to to the late Leighton Gage. But for a serio-comic but also bloody, romantic, and touching tour of Rio, Hotel Brasil is entertaining and enlightening (and continue's the amazing world tour of crime fiction being offered by Bitter Lemon).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Jake Needham's The King of Macau

Jake Needham's character Jack Shepherd is a lawyer and fixer whose specialty is money: not so much making it for himself as tracing it for his clients. His exploits have taken the reader from Thailand to Hong Kong and Washington DC and now to the tiny strange district of Macau.

The Shepherd stories are mostly told in his voice, and he's an interesting guy to listen to--entertaining in the story and the way the story is told. In The King of Macau, there are also a few chapters from the point of view of another mysterious character who is pleading for Jack to help him achieve asylum in the U.S. (and it would be a spoiler to let you know who he is, even what his nationality is).

Simultaneously with Jack's growing sense of responsibility for this mystery man, he's also pursuing the investigation that brought him from his (now) home base in Hong Kong to the neighboriing international zone of Macau, like Hong Kong a former European colony (of Portugal) subsumed under Chinese rule, but unlike Hong Kong Macau is all about gambling. The so-called "king of macau" formerly controlled the whole gambling enterprise in the city, but has now been at least partially pushed aside by the larger gambling interests invited by the new Chinese rulers.

And the King's daughter, not trying to inherit her father's empire but simply to run her own casino, wants Jack to find out who is bringing large amounts of cash into the casino, and why. Jack assumes that it's the Triads, still powerful in the new China and its territories, and if that' s the case he wants nothing to do with the investigation. Among those persuading him to take the case is an American FBI agent (maybe, anyway), and among those Jack enlists to help is another face we've seen before in this series, a shady Australian who may once have been a spy and may still be (for someone).

All of the intrigue revolves around the circulation of money: Needham's stories (particularly in this case) prove that it doesn't have to be the body count that propels a crime novel. Money in large amounts has its own aura of power, threat, and fascination, and its movement through casinos, banks, gangs, and private hands is Jack's expertise and the motor of the series based on him. Like a brand new banknote, the stories are crisp and colorful engines. And, as in the other Shepherd books, the locations (here Hong Kong as well as Macau) are an essential part of the story. The history and current state of Macau is a little known (to we in the West anyway) tale but one with overtones of crime, greed, and compulsion that we recognize from all crime stories--but with the added interest of the new audience for the gambling floors of Macau: the citizens of the new China's new capitalism (or at least the newly released hounds of the nation's drive for wealth and cash).

Thursday, February 06, 2014

John McFetridge

Reviewers have frequently referred to Elmore Leonard and George Pelecanos when talking about the Toronto series by John McFetridge, but as I read the 4th in the series, Tumblin Dice, it occurred to me that the series deals with a transitional period in organized crime, in the same way that the first three seasons of The Wire did. As Stringer Bell struggled to bring the drug business in Baltimore into a sustainable business model, so do the gangsters and bikers in McFetridge's books, which, rather than having a single main character are focused on a rotating and evolving group of cops, gangsters, and more or less innocent bystanders.

The cover copy for Tumblin Dice highlights one of the book's plotlines, concerning members of a Canadian rock band called The High on a revival tour (mostly playing at casinos across North America) who decide they could make more money by robbing the loan sharks hanging out in the casino parking lots. But the story is much broader than that, with threads concerning the bikers (who are now more like the mafia than the hell's angels), various Toronto cops (along with a few Mounties and U.S. police), a casino manager with gangster ambitions, and, in particular, the guitarist for The High (not one of the ones robbing moneylenders) who is struggling to grow up after all these years and the former flame who's now an assistant to the casino manager/would-be gangster (who also happens to have been the not-so-honest manager for the band, back in the day).

All of these folks spiral around one another, most of them only aware of what's going on under their own noses, and the reader slowly pieces together the whole picture, as it unfolds in a natural (never contrived) way. The characters' speech is natural (one of the comparisons to Leonard and Pelecanos) and the plotting takes sudden turns away from the predictable into the chaotic progress of real life. One of the late plotlines that seems to be a complete distraction from the action ultimately ties together some of the other plots in a twisty way, while some of the plotlines that seem destined to produce big things end rather suddenly (but always in ways that push forward other aspects of the story).

There's a lot of rock 'n roll throughout the story, but it's a shame, in a way, that the book's blurb leans so heavily on that aspect of the plot. The rock band blows into the vipers' nest of gangs, hangers-on, and police with interesting results, but it's not a book about a has-been band on a revival tour, not primarily anyway. It's a book about organized crime in various aspects, as well as how the crime organizations pull others in and the fascinations that the criminals have for cops and civilians (in different ways). I'm anxious to see McFetridge's new series, shifting to Montreal and to a more straightforward (apparently) police procedural format will develop, beginning with Black Rock, coming out this spring.

ECW Press, McFetridge's publisher, makes an interesting offer at the back of the book. If you buy the actual book, they'll send you a digital copy. I wouldn't have thought, even a few months ago, that that sort of flexibility in formats would be of any use to me, but actually it was good to be able to go back and forth from tablet to paper, back and forth, as my ageing eyes, the convenience of tablet, the appeal of paper, and the available light dictated.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Donna Leon, By Its Cover

Donna Leon's latest Guido Brunetti story, By Its Cover, is due out in a couple of months (I read it as a NetGalley digital preview). Regular readers of this series know these characters so well that Leon would only need to sketch them in, but she doesn't do that: she draws out their extended portraits anew without being redundant. As for the plot, we know what the story arc is likely to be (Leon is pretty pessimistic about the Italian justice system) but she continues to surprise (and even, in the seeming effortlessness of the writing, to surprise herself).

By Its Cover begins not with a corpse but with stolen and vandalized books, in a rare book library that has been looted like too many other sites of Italian cultural heritage. The case seems clear, but hopeless in terms of gaining restitution of the books and book pages or punishment for the evildoer. Rare books and illustrative pages from them are often stolen on order by thieves acting as the agents for hidden collectors.

In addition to the usual cast of characters in Brunetti's professional and private life, there are staff members at the library, a shadowy ex-priest who has been using the library as a refuge and reading room, and other temporary and permanent denizens of Venice. When a corpse is discovered (as it must inevitably be in a crime novel, after all) the story veers in a tangential direction that will ultimately lead to at least one of the books perpetrators: and the very quick resolution at the end of the novel seems both unexpected and inevitable, casting light not only on the facts of the case but on Brunetti's own complex morals and motivations. A female detective who is relatively new to the series but gaining in importance forces him to act in a way that simultaneously confirms and casts doubt upon what we know about Brunetti and what we think of him.

One of the virtues of these books is that their length is very appropriate, unlike some crime series that either start at encyclopedic length or veer in that direction as the series itself lengthens. the Brunetti books are hefty enough to carry story, characterizations, deeply felt settings, and confirmations about all of the above for regular readers, but short enough to satisfy without taxing our strength, endurance, and ageing eyes. Regarding the 2 covers reproduced here, the U.S. and U.K ones, both take the same idea regarding the setting and subject matter, but one of them, I think, puts the material more in proper focus (or framing).