Monday, July 28, 2014

Karin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

To her credit, Karin Fossum doesn't adhere to a formula in her series featuring Inspector Sejer, the calm, relentless Norwegian detective. In the newly translated The Murder of Harriet Krohn, Sejer and his team are almost completely offstage: Sejer himself appears toward the end in the role of interrogator.

At the center of the novel, instead, is the murderer, Charlo Torp, a compulsive gambler who lost his marriage and his daughter due to that compulsion's effects on the family. Now, he has turned to theft, initially to get out of debt but finally as the basis for a redemptive gift to his daughter, but his target, the titular Harriet, doesn't cooperate.

Most of the novel occurs after the murder and in flashbacks, Charlo re-envisioning his life as a reformed addict. He's not a total sociopath, there are moments of guilt. But he is so focused on his goal (to reestablish contact with his daughter) and so self-centered that the guilt and even the fear of being caught are minor impediments to his plan.

Staying in Charlo's point of view is a risky narrative strategy: he is not a pleasant man, and his self-justifications are painful. What Fossum gains is a sense of doom related to the inevitability of classic tragedy: we know that this is not going to end well, and though we see the daughter only through Charlo's eyes, we feel as much compassion for her as for Harriet. Sejer becomes primarily the engine of the fate we know is coming.

Fossum's experiments with the genre are not always to my liking, and I still prefer her more directly police-procedural novels: but The Murder of Harriet Krohn is a remarkable descent into the mind of a troubled, twisted soul who is less a hardened criminal or a psychopath than simply one of us, twisted by ego and addiction into a disastrous parody of normality.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Italians: Camilleri, Lucarelli, De Cataldo

A few short fictions by some of Italy's leading crime writers are coming into English: Andrea Camilleri's Brewer or Preston and a collection of novellas called Judges, with short works by Camiller, Carlo Lucarelli, and Giancarlo De Cataldo.

The Judges collection includes Camilleri's Judge Surra, which deals with the appearance of a northern Italian judge in Montelusa and Vigata (the fictional Sicilian cities of his Montalbano series) just after the unification of Italy; Lucarelli's The Bambina, about a young female judge in Bologna during the years of violent political action that are called the anni di piombo, or years of lead; and De Cataldo's, The Triple Dream of the Prosecutor, which  concerns the lifelong conflict between two boys who grow up to be a crime boss and a prosecuting magistrate in a northern Italian town.

Each of the stories has an element of comedy as well as threat. In Judge Surra, the magistrate's utter innocence regarding the ways of Sicily leads him not to failure but to paradoxical success in his endeavors. The Bambina, whose title comes from a popular nickname for the young-looking woman magistrate, deals with an attempt on the judge's life in which the police force is implicated and, not able to trust anyone, she adopts a somewhat extra-legal strategy. De Cataldo's story deals with the extension of a schoolyard bully's domination of his classmates into a career of intimidation and untouchability, along with the judge's strategies to thwart his activities.

All the stories are short, but long enough to engage the reader effectively in the judges' (and Italy's) struggles. Camilleri exploits a similar strategy in The Brewer of Preston, a short novel that whose brief chaptes each take a different poiint of view and narrative strategy, almost as if the book were an anthology rather than a single novel (each chapter begins with a phrase drawn from a literary classic (there's a key at the end), and one of the books is Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and anthology-novel each of whose chapters parodies a literary style.

The Brewer, also set in Montelusa and Vigata just after Italy's unification,  is the funniest of Camilleri's novels to appear in English so far. It takes off from a real incident, in which a bureaucrat sent from the north attempts to put on an obscure opera to inaugurate a new opera house. The locals, however, regard the opera (as well as the bureaucrat) as a cultural intrusion being forced upon them. What ensues is an operatically tragic tale of arson, murder, the Mafia, misunderstandings, and the invention of a steam-powered fire engine. Along the way, the story frequently takes on something of the character of a sex farce, albeit a sometimes deadly one. This is the only one of Camilleri's novels (among those translated) to fracture both the narrative timeline and the style and tone of the narrative approach, to considerable comic effect.

While fans of the Montalbano series may be a bit puzzled at first, The Brewer definitely rewards the reader's persistence. The cultural contradictions of contemporary Sicily have their roots in the social discrepancies that Camilleri skewers in his historical novel.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New French noir: Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails

Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails, newly translated by Siân Reynolds for Maclehose Press, is a dark, strange book. At first, it seems like a cross between Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg series and the Department Q novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen, but the story keeps going in a downward spiral darker than either of those.

The setting is the Paris police's suicide squad, an assignment given to a detective that the powers-that-be want to get rid of, Guérin. The novel opens with his assistant, Lambert, showing a surveillance video of a man committing suicide by running naked along the peripheral highway outside the city--the group of cops gathered around the screen as if watching a porn video.

Guérin's downfall, as well as his strength, is that he sees connections everywhere, leading him to conspiracy theories that bring all the evidence together. As Guérin and Lambert investigate the naked runner and other cases, including a fakir, a performer who dies while suspending himself from hooks onstage in a seedy cabaret, another thread of the story proceeds to draw "the American," a hermit- or hippy-like character and an archer living in the woods in rural France, Nichols. (the quirkiness of the cast of characters should suggest why I thought of Fred Vargas when I started reading the story). The dead fakir turns out to be an old friend of Nichols, who is asked to come to Paris to identify the body.

From there, almost anything I could say about the plot would be a spoiler. There are intertwining conspiracy theories that tie Guérin into knots, sending him to the brink of insanity and also threatening to engulf Lambert and Nichols in the maestrom of what might be actual conspiracies. The denouement is a twisted parody of the Simenon or Christie pattern of bringing all the suspects together to extract a confession, but in this case the result is something much darker and more violent. The results derive directly from character traits that have been evident all along, on the part of Guérin as well as Lambert, and the conclusion is rather more bleak than neat.

There have been several newly translated French crime writers published recently, including classics like Jean-Patrick Manchette and newer writers like Pierre Lemaitre, revealing to American readers new aspects of French noir: Varenne's novel is among the best, but also among the strangest.