Tuesday, May 13, 2014

All the Things You Are: A departure for Declan Hughes

I must confess to being a bit befuddled by Declan Hughes's new book set in the university town of Madison Wisconsin. Not because of the change of setting from Hughes's earlier books, but because of the change of form. The previous novels form a private detective series self-consciously referring to Ross MacDonald (among others), and carrying that form successfully to contemporary Dublin (a setting meticulously realized).

All the Things You Are is instead a psychological thriller, with a very promising beginning. Claire, a middle-aged housewife who some years earlier left behind a not-so-promising career in the Chicago theater world to marry and raise a family in Madison with a college sweetheart, arrives back home from a midlife-crisis trip to Chicago to find her family missing, all the furniture (seemingly) in the house removed, and the family pet murdered. There is a hint of a private message (in the form of a statuette remaining on the mantle) that keeps Clair from simply declaring the husband a kidnapper.

But while the mystery remains, in various of its aspects, the energy quickly dissipated, for me. The reader discovers some of what's going on rather early on, in sections from points of view other than Claire's, and another mystery, from her husband's youth, begins to take over. By the time the police investigation kicks into high gear, on the one hand, and an Irish hitman, a refugee from the IRA, comes on the scene, Hughes had pretty much lost me. It's partly, I'm sure, that I'm more a fan of the Ross MacDonald influenced genre than the genre of, say, Sophie Hannah, whose work this book in some ways resembles. Hannah, though, seems to me to keep the tension of the central mystery torqued up for much longer.

My problem is also with the setting. I'm sure that (especially for an American) the U.S. college town is less evocative than Dublin, but the setting never really takes on a character of its own here--except as the setting for the family taproom, and even that rather important site is not really evoked in any detail. Others fonder of this sort of thriller will certainly find more to like than I'm suggesting in this review, but I'd be more interested in another Dublin detective story than another Madison thriller from Hughes.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

New series from John McFetridge

A lot of crime writers will do two or even more different series at the same time or in sequence (a trilogy followed by another trilogy, or whatever), but I have seldom read a second series that is so different from the first as is the case with John McFetridge's previous Toronto novels and his new series based in Montreal (Black Rock, from ECW publishers). To make a comparison (always dangerous) he has shifted from Elmore Leonard's territory to Joseph Wambaugh's. What the series do have in common is one factor that both those classic crime writers share: the ordinariness or "dailiness" of the stories.

McFetridge's Toronto novels (there are four, I think) are present-day, and the arc of the story tells the tale of Montreal biker gangs that have shifted to Toronto to take over organized crime there from (in part) the Italian mob from south of the border. The stories frequently shift focus among a number of characters and the plots take unexpected turns in the way that life does. There is a dark, wry comedy to the novels, in the twistiness of the plots, the concrete and thoroughly believable dialogue and "real life" of the characters, and the sympathy that the author derives from the reader for some pretty unlikeable people.

Black Rock (the title comes from a popular name for a monument to immigrants of a previous century) is set in 1970 in Montreal, a time of upheaval and unrest partly shared with the rest of Canada and with the U.S. and partly unique to the violent separatism in Québec at that time. There are so many bombings in the story (and in the memory of the characters) that the violence (or threat, since the bombers frequently warn the police) that they have become part of the daily routine.

The central character, who, unlike in the author's previous novels, is the sole pair of eyes through which we see the story, is a beat cop rather than a detective. He is also an Anglophone, though raised in a Francophone neighborhood, and he is as isolated on the police force as he was in that neighborhood. His name is Eddie Dougherty, and one running bit of comedy is the butchery that the French speakers do with that Irish last name. But the conflict and mistrust among the divided communities is a very serious aspect of the story, as in real life.

McFetridge's style is more straightforward in this series: though he sets out to tell the story of a cop's daily life in the way Wambaugh does, he avoids the intermittently hilarious style of some of the American writer's books. McFetridge seems to be involving the reader in Dougherty's life more directly, and perhaps for the long haul: the arc of this story is the young cop's journey from an outsider officer who goes where he's told to one whose determination and attention to detail will break cases. But McFetridge avoids a simplistic "rise to stardom" or Sherlockian insight and pat resolution of the story. Dougherty gets through to a truth, not the total solution to everything that's been going on.

Amid the search for increasingly dangerous bombers, sucking in more and more of the police force's resources, Dougherty happens to be the first on the scene at the discovery of a murdered girl, a French speaking girl from his neighborhood. Officially and unofficially, Dougherty begins to work with an alcoholic but proficient detective on the notion that her murder isn't a one-off: there are aspects that suggest the work of a serial killer known to the police as "Bill."

Along the way, Dougherty meets a graduate student researcher who's interested in the "Bill" case, but the young cop's involvement with her is as tentative and resistant to final resolution as aspects of the bomber and the murder investigations. The new and more serious and historical of McFetridge's series is ultimately as realistically unpredictable as his previous, more comic and current series: and as engaging as that earlier set of stories for the reader.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Two by Pascal Garnier

Gallic Books has lately been bringing out a series of novels by French noir writer Pascal Garnier, whose voice is very distinctive. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that two of them (The Panda Theory and How's the Pain, end and begin (respectively) with suicide of a sort, and that what follows or precedes the death is a frequently funny (in a deadpan manner) journey through the author's dark imagination but at the same time a closeup view of ordinary life.

How's the Pain is about a hitman at the end of his life, suffering through the mishaps of a final job. He sort of adopts a feckless small town young man as a driver, but other characters accumulate along the way until there is a sort of ad hoc family gathered around the professional killer (family as a need that can be met with the help of strangers is an aspect of both these books). There are a number of deaths. some of them quite dramatic (such as the one alluded to in the cover art) and some quite straightforward. The prose is very direct and the book is short, probably just as well since the story is a dark ride through the human miseries of daily life). Though there's plenty of darkness, there's also a glimmer of hope in the outcome.

The Panda Theory holds out perhaps a little less hope, or perhaps hope of a different kind. For most of the novel, we follow Gabriel in two time frames, flashbacks of the difficulties of his life  and a current narrative of his very ordinary daily experiences in a Breton village that he is visiting seemingly for no particular reason. Gabriel is very helpful to a number of residents of the town, without expecting much in return: often exhibiting a particular talent for cooking meals with minimal supplies or equipment.

But the final favors that Gabriel bestows veer into a philosophy of life that is very dark indeed, based on where happiness and rest are to be found or not found. The end is a bit of a twist but affirms or extends Gabriel's view of life in an unexpected way.

Garnier, who is no longer with us, writes in a manner that is particularly French: his countrymen have often used noir fiction and film in a philosophical and psychological manner more than the sociological style of noir in some other countries. But Garnier's narrator is always somewhat distanced from the story, supplying details but not offering commentary. The philosophy, the humor, and the impact of the stories is instead in the dailiness of his characters' migrations among life's meager pleasures and deep miseries--always in a compelling, even fascinating manner.

The covers and overall design of the series are as understated and effective as the novels they contain, with an elegance one can feel as well as see--reaffirming that there can be physical as well as mental pleasures in reading an actual book that are not possible with digital formats.

Friday, May 02, 2014

New installments of Swedish crime

Two of the most succesful purveyors of Swedish crime are Mari Jungstedt and Helene Tursten, both of whom have had TV series based on their books.  In the case of Jungstedt, the series is an odd German-Swedish amalgam (though many of the actors are Swedish, the soundtrack is in German, and the backstory and even the name of the lead character, Anders Knutas, has been Germanized, though the setting remains the island of Gotland, off the Swedish coast). Though the TV shows vary considerably from the novels in Tursten's case, the characters and the basic plots remain recognizably the territory of Detective Irene Huss's Göteborg/Gothenburg.

The latest novels to be translated from the original Swedish of the two authors continue in typical fashion, though neither seems to me to be the most succesful of either series. Jungstedt's Dark Angel is concerned with the death of a prominent party planner, who is in the process of leaving his wife for another woman whose identity has been shared with neither the reader nor the other characters in the book. There are other undisclosed identities, including that of a parallel, first person narrative, a sort of journal by a man who seems to be blaming all his problems on his mother. As I mentioned in my previous post about Henry Chang's Death Money, most noir goes back to unhappy families, but in this case I find the diarist very annoying, and his moaning is to me a distraction from the rest of the story regardless of the importance of his voice to the plot. And the plot moves ahead rather slowly in any case--by the final twist (made possible by some of the information withheld from the reader all along) I had grown a bit tired of the whole thing.

There is also, as with Mankell's Wallander stories and some other Scandinavian crime fiction, the emergence of a moral dilemma that other European and certainly American readers may find oddly moralistic or inflexible (dare I say Protestant?): in this case concerning the actions of Knutas's close associate Karin at the end of a previous novel, in which (spoiler alert!) she let a murder escape. Anders discovers that her recent behavior is the result of her suffering from pangs of conscience for this incident, of which he had been unaware, and considers ruining her career and his professional life by reporting her--not something a hard-boiled detective elsewhere would worry much about, in my opinion.

Tursten is less concerned with plot twists: her Irene Huss stories are straightforward police procedurals, for the most part, with liberal helpings of Irene's home life (which, despite normal family problems, is happy and ordinary, in contrast with the families involved in the crimes she deals with in her professional life). In The Fire Dance, there's a substantial flashback to Irene's early career (which is an interesting aspect of the book) when a young dancer disappears and she realizes she has talked to the girl's family before, on the occasion of a suspicious house fire. The unhappy families involved are complicated by divorces and a death in that earlier fire, and when the young dancer is found dead in another suspicious fire, there are lots of paths for the investigation to follow.

One of the threads that Irene follows involves martial arts: she herself is a jujitsu specialist, one of the common threads of the series, but the dancers (and ultimately one of her own daughters) become fascinated with a Brazilian fighting style, capoeira, which is being integrated into a dance performance important to the story (and the captivating Brazilian practitioners of the art are also an important part of the story).

But there are a few aspects of The Fire Dance that held the story back, for me. One is the dance performance itself, which seemed pretty dreadful to me as described in some detail--but then I'm not a dance aficianado. And the story winds through a lot of distractions as Irene's boss pushes her to help with other, unrelated cases as little progress is made on the main storyline which plods ahead without much progress until it winds up rather suddenly and (for me) with a bit if anticlimax. I like Tursten's series, and the procedural format that it follows, but (again, for me) this was not the strongest of the books. My memory of the TV show derived from this book is that it was a bit tighter and more dramatic, but considerably different from the book.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Death Money, Henry Chang

I like Henry Chang's series featuring NYPD Detective Jack Yu more and more as it goes along (Death Money is the fourth). I don't know if I'm just getting used to the Chinatown elements (including some supernatural aspects, in particular Jack's consultations with an elderly clairvoyant), but the milieu is more and more natural and believable, and Jack is certainly totally embedded in it.

I usually deal with non-U.S. noir fiction here, but Jack's Chinatown is pretty much not the U.S., in several ways. The customs and gangs of the district have more to do with towns from which the residents (or their forebears) came than with the other neighborhoods around Canal Street (or even the non-Chinese denizens of Chinatown proper). This is not the Chinese-America of the dragon parade or the fortune cookie.

In Death Money, Jack is called outside his district to investigate a floating corpse (because the body is Asian, and Jack is the department's go-to Chinese officer). As he digs into the immediate uptown neighborhood's Chinese restaurants and their Chinese gang connections, a picture emerges of the continuing realities of immigration from China and Jack's own particular Chinese-American life. When he delves into the ladder of power in the gangs, he reaches the sad heart of this and most noir fiction: unhappy families.

Chang's writing is clear and fluid, without padding or melodramatics, and though there are ongoing plot elements (including the sad state of Jack's love life) across the series, it's easy to pick up the story with any of the books if you can't start with the first one. Jack's saga is compelling and non-formulaic crime fiction, but also a glimpse into the closed world of an Asian diaspora.