Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Håkan Nesser, Hour of the Wolf

Hour of the Wolf, one of Håkan Nesser's Chief Inspector Van Veeteren series, isn't new (the English
translation appeared three years ago) but is only reaching Kindle format in the upcoming months (which is the impetus for my current review). the Van Veeteren books are set in a fictional "Maardam," something like Ed McBain's fictional Isola. Maardam is an amalgam of northern European countries, with place and family names that suggest Holland, Germany, Belgium, and Denmark (oddly, nothing sounds very Swedish except for some cultural references--perhaps in the author's original Swedish text, Swedish names wouldn't have sounded "alien" enough to create the sense of a new place/no place. Another distinctive feature of the series is that the central character, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, retires to help run an antiquarian bookstore, early in the series.

Hour of the Wolf is a first-class police procedural, with the team of detectives taking center stage, and Van Veeteren thrust into the investigation because his son is one of the first victims of a crime spree that begins with a hit-and-run accident. Van Veeteren's grief is a central motif of the book (though the cop and his son had long been estranged, something established at the beginning of the series); but the retired chief inspector also exhibits his intuitive method, as he shadows the police investigation and provides key insights.

The story alternates among the detectives, the retired chief inspector, and the killer, a skilfully handled kaleidoscope that ceases in the final chapters as the police are left with several difficult matters to sort out, leading to a strangely metafictional section in which the current chief inspector (rather than the retired one) travels to New York (which is of course the model for McBain's Isola) from the fictional Maardam. The effect is strange, but well handled--as is the final resolution, going beyond the mere identification of the killer.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Spies and revenge from Charles McCarry

Charles McCarry, The Mulberry Bush

Mysterious Press
Charles McCarry’s well regarded spy fiction is noted for the clarity and assurance with which he depicts not only the spy trade but also the them-or-us oppositions of historical and cold-war espionage (not for him the gray areas of LeCarre’s maze of spies and counter-spies). But his new stand-alone The Mulberry Bush (not a part of the multi-generational saga of must of his spy fiction) starts in full post-Cold-War mode, with the unnamed narrator and central character cultivating a spy in Argentina who is providing useless information about long-retired revolutionaries. But almost immediately the story shifts into another mode, one that has less in common with the range of current spy fiction and more in common with one of the classics of American intelligence, Roger Hall’s World War II era memoir You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger. McCarry has drawn a portrait of the training of intelligence agents that I recognize from my own very brief and totally undistinguished experience in counterintelligence: not since You’re Stepping on My Cloak and Dagger has anyone so deftly portrahed the blend of the ridiculous, the momentous, and the self-obsessed that characterize the training and conduct of spycraft.

Hall’s 1957 memoir covers the final years of the World War II era OSS. The book, out of print for a number of years but brought back into the light of day a few years ago by the Naval Institute Press, has been widely read among CIA employees and was (when I was there) the most-circulated book in the library of the Army intelligence school. McCarry’s book shares with Hall’s a smart-ass narrative voice that is frequently comic but self-centered to an extent that the reader is wise not to take anything he says totally at face value. The narrators also share an ostentatious false modesty about their athletic abilities as well as a less than total dedication to the intelligence agency for which each works. Hall is simply not a professional spy. He ended up in the OSS for the same reason I ended up in Army Intelligence: it was a less unattractive option than alternatives like infantry. McCarry's unnamed narrator, though, has a more serious motive for becoming a spy. He wants to destroy the (also unnamed) agency that humiliated and expelled his father, who discredited himself as a spy by indulging in pranks that are very like the ones that Roger Hall gleefully remembers from his own career.

After his recruitment and training, the narrator spends five years in the field, as a special operations agent (that is to say, he's arranging assasinations rather than cultivating spies), but when it becomes obvious that his cover has been compromised he returns to Washington. Once there, he has little to do, beyond studying Russian (with an eye toward future assignments) and look for his estranged father. After a single encounter, before his father's death, he begins to plot a revenge on the unnamed institution that had betrayed him, in particular the Agency’s Headquarters staff. He finds the ammunition for his revenge plot in the very attractive Argentinian spy that we met in the opening pages, Luz Aguilar, who he thinks will lead him to the radical associates of her “disappeared” parents who may still be in contact with Russian intelligence agencies that, in the days of the Soviet Union, were the major support of left-wing movements throughout Latin America.

Having accomplished his goal of insinuating himself first with the Argentine left and thene with the Russians, the narrator shuttles back and forth among clandestine meetings in the major cities of Europe and South America, including Buenos Aires, Helsinki, Berlin, Bogotá, and Bucharest, but the city hs evokes most concretely is Washington DC (one of his clandestine meetings occurs outside a café I can see from my office window). This is not the Washington of high politics, but of the mundane life that can be so easily exploited as cover for the movements and actions of spies of all stripes.

If the story of The Mulberry Bush sounds complicated, it is. The narrator needs the assistance of Luz (who burns with her own heat of revenge), his handlers at the Agency (Tom Terhune and Amzi Strange, old hands implicated in his father’s failure), Luz's foster father Diego, a Russian spy named Boris (among other agents on all sides of the post-Cold-War map), and others. All in aid of a complex effort to discredit the Agency by means of the false defection of Boris (who may already in fact be an American “asset”). The book's plot is circular, rather than linear (as the title’s reference to a child’s song/game suggests: both the spy trade and the narrator’s revenge plot are enlessly circling games with no end point. Second, there's no such thing as a mulberry "bush," the mulberry is a tree; nothing here is what it claims to be. The narrator continues chasing the ghosts of his own father’s life in a tightening spiral that leads to a violent ending, echoing the fate of Luz’s parents and offering a final glimpse of what the narrator calls a “worldwide fellowship” of trators lying behind everything that has happened. All of the complexities leading up to this ending are deftly kept under control by the narrator’s clever and personable voice (not unlike Roger Hall’s), as if he were sitting next to you relating over dinner his jaundiced but entertaining vision of the world we live in and the intelligence agencies that use their intricate tradecraft to exploit our hopes and fears.

Monday, October 05, 2015

A new French crime novel (sort of)

Under the Channel, by Gilles Pétel, joins a number of recently translated French crime novels with a decidedly quirky tone and structure, by writers such as Jean-Patrick Manchette and Pascal Garnier. But Pétel's story is a police procedural that has little interest in the police or procedure. Under the Channel starts with a murder and moves quickly to a police investigation, but it's really about something else.

Lieutenant Roland Desfeuilleres is the officer in charge, after the bungled discovery of a body on the Channel-Tunnel train from London to Paris. The reader has witnessed the victim's progress through his last day in London and the first part of his train journey in the first chapter. An English couple upon discovering the corpse in a first-class seat sets off a comedy of errors among train staff and police at the Paris station, a situation that Roland must confront along with the disastrous dissolution of his marriage. Seemingly to escape Paris and his wife, he travels to London to pick up the murder investigation there. But once in London, his attention to the murder is less than intense.

Instead, he hovers around the sites and people related to the dead man's daily life, from gay bars to his real estate office (and an attractive female coworker there) to the abandoned apartment (a very attractive one, near the Pimlico office of the deceased). His police contact in London is at Interpol (which seems kind of strange--wouldn't he "liaise" with Scotland Yard instead?), but is not very helpful. What follows is an existential journey for Roland, with the solution to the crime provided eventually as a final quirk of the odd story, rather than a resolution.

Roland's last days in Paris with his wife are quite funny, in a painful way, but his stay in London is more sober (not counting the numerous pints he drinks in the same pub frequented by the victim), following a transformation of the cop's identity that is interesting if (to me) not quite plausible. Pétel, though, isn't after plausibility: this is a philosophical tale, and an amusing one, rather than a straightforward detective story. The author has four previous untranslated novels: I'd be curious about the quality (and the genre) of those books.