Friday, July 27, 2018

Swedish noir: The Tunnel, by Carl-Johan Vallgren

Most of the Scandinavian crime wave is made up of thrillers and police procedurals, only occasionally reaching the bleak potrayal of life in the streets that is typical of noir. Carl-Johan Vallgren reaches for noir, basing his two (so far0 novels featuring ex-junkie Danny Katz in a difficult landscape of heroin, disfunctional famiies, life on the streets, sexual deviance, and exloitation. The Tunnel, the second in the series, also focuses (almost equally) on two former friends of Danny's, from his junkie days, Eva, now a prosecuting attorney, and Jorma, a career criminal.

The novel actually begins with a failed armored car heist, in which Jorma is involved. Jorma spends most o the rest of the book seeking who is responsble for the betrayal that led to the robbery's failure and the murder of a friend, also involved in the robbery. Danny, a computer expert and former intelligence office, is involved in both the investigation of his own Jewish background and in the murder of a friend (a drug dealer) and the disappearance of the dealer's girlfriend. Eva becomes involved when Danny asks her for information relating to the drug dealer.

But Eva has her own demons, including a failed marriage (and her failure to be an adequate parent), her addiction to casual sex, and a difficult (to say the least) relationship with her boss. As all the threads are slowly drawn together (int he first two-thirds of the book) the stage is set for a violent, sexually twisted (~a la 120 Days of Sodom), and breathless rush to a consculsion. Finally, at the end. Dany once again confronts his family history and Jewish roots, and the story (and perhaps the series) comes to an emotionally crashing conclusion.

This book is a difficult read, first because of the shifting perspectives, second because of the disgusting sexual violence lying behind muh of the plot. But for fans of Swedish crime fiction who have been craving something darker and tougher, this will be an essential novel.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Icelandic noir TV series

Iceland hardly seems like a breeding ground for noir fiction, since it’s a small country that the rest of the world knows mainly for its volcanic activity, hot springs, and cold climate. But the country has a famous serial killer, Axlar-Björn (though he was executed in 1596) and has in recent years experienced some of the conditions that foster noir: rapid change and increasing instability and inequality. In fact, Iceland was one of the poorest nations in E
urope until, during WWII (known afterwards to to Icelanders as the Blessed War), it was invaded and occupied by foreign powers (England and the U.S. At the end of the war, the occupiers left behind considerable infrastructure that began the modernization and enrichment of the country--leading up to the financial crash in 2008 and the slow rebuilding since then.

There has been a flowering of crime fiction from Iceland in recent years, beginning with Arnaldur In∂ridason’s dark police procedurals featuring Erlendur, of which Jar City (written in 2000) was the first translated into English (in 2005)  and made into an excellent film in 2006 by Iceland's most famous director, Baltasar Kormákur. A number of other writers, mostly natice Icelanders, have followed Arnaldur into globalcrime fiction circles.

a trend that has in more recent years resulted in a suddenly visible crime television boom, several series having become available on streaming services in the U.S.and beyond. One of them, Lava Field, even refers to that 16th-century serial killer. Lava Field deals with murder in a remote location, near a small town in which the lead detective has roots. There are a lot of interesting characters, not the least of whom is a woman who is a former athlete and new cop who becomes a key investigator in the case. There are also many views of the country's bizarre landscape. Lava Field was, at least until recently, available on Netflix

One of the factors in Lava Field that is typical of Icelandic nor TV is an emphasis on both the troubled personal lives of the main characters and the pursuit of the criminals. A series known both as Court and Case (the former in its first season, available on Walter Presents, the latter in its third season, which was available on Netflix and will perhaps show up again as a new season on WP), develops largely in the disastrous rise and decline of a lawyer, once unjustly jailed, then gradually undercutting his successes in the law with alcohol and bad personal and professional decisions. Both available seasons are excellent, but the version known as Case
on Netflix, is particularly compelling.

Baltasar Kormákur. is the force behind Trapped, a claustrophobic series based in a fishing town int eh far north of the country (the BBC ran the series, and it was, and may still be, available on Viceland in the U.S.). Trapped deals with a ferry that arrives in the northern town at the same time as a headless corpse, and the police sequestration of the ship in order to investigate the murder leads to multiple unfortunate consequences, for the police chief, the mayor, the boat captain, and many others. The series is beautifully made and features intense and impeccable acting.

Another Icelandic series, Cover Story,  (also known asThe Press) is available (2 seasons so far) on Walter Presents int he U.S. This one, despite the serius crimes and turbulent lives of the main characters, is not quite as heavy as the other three mentioned above. The scene is a newsroom, which provides some opportunity for comic moments largely (but not entirely) missing from the other series. In this one, the main character is a woman reporter trying to raise her two kids mostly alone, while becoming more deeply involved in murder, financial crimes, and anti-immigrant violence.

IN early 2017, the murder of 20-year-old Birna Brjánsdóttir as she walked through Reykjavik late at night after a night out, brought home to Icelanders that the blossoming of noir in their country is not an entirely fictional phenomenon--though it's still a safer country than its fictional output would suggest, the seeds of noir have taken root in real conditions and crimes.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

A brief word about Anita Nair's A Cut-Like Wound

Some time ago, I reviewed Anita Nair's second novel in the Inspector Gowda series, Chain of Custody, not having read the first in the series, the acclaimed A Cut-Like Wound. Chain of Custody seemed to include any explanaations necessary, so that it was OK to start with the 2nd book. Now, having read A Cut-Like Wound, I see that I was wrong. Most of the main characters, especially Urmila, who seems to be his mistress in the 2nd novel, but whose connection to Gowda is much deeper, a link only clear in the 1st novel.

A Cut-Like Wound deals with transvestism and transexuality, but Nair is careful to draw the character of the novel's violence from a person rather than a community. The violence of Chain of Custody is more pervasive, rooted in the trafficking of children, but in that novel the traffickers are personalized in the character of a conflicted young man who is one of the prominent voices of the novel.

Both are significant, involving, and convincing crime novels: but start with A Cut-Like Wound, please.

Beside the Syrian Sea, James Wolff

James Wolff's Beside the Syrian Sea is a peculiar spy novel/thriller focused on the effort of a runaway intelligence analyst who goes to the Middle East to try to rescuehis father, who has been kidnapped by Daesh/Isis in Syria. Jonas is both clever and desperate, but he has no field experience in the spy world. He mostly proceeds by lying to everybody and revealing only snippets of the difficult truth of his mission.

He's clearly out of his depth in the complexities of Beirut, and his own British government is trying to stop him from getting involved (after refusing to pay the ransom that Isis demands). He contacts an alcoholic priest (who is a bit of a character out of the novels of Graham Greene), luring him into collaborating on his task by lying and involving not just the priest but the one person in the world that the cleric cares about. Jonas also falls in with Hezbollah (in some of the darker passages of the first part of the novel).

It takes a while for Jonas's plan to become clear, and begin to actually develop, and then it moves quickly but not in a straight line The story is always compelling, but frequently claustrophobic in its focus on Jonass on less-than-clear mind. This is an unusual, and unusually well-written, spy novel, aimed squarely at the grim realities of our current world.