Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Transaction, by Guglielmo D'Izzia

The Transaction is a novel set in the 1980s in Sicily, with murder and the mafia as important (though off-stage) elements of the story. But D'Izzia's novel is less Montalbano than Pirandello, not so much a crime novel as a literary and philosophical tale. The author is from Sicily, but emigrated to Canada and wrote The Transaction was written in English (with the creative license of a writer, à la Nabokov, whose native language is not English).

The story concerns a businessman from Milan, sent to a small town in Sicily to finalize a land deal that would allow his company to open a branch in the south. But the journey is plagued with difficulties from the beginning: his train breaks down and he is late arriving in the town, only to find that his contact there has been shot dead. From there, he wanders from one hostile encounter to another.

The narrative is in the first person, and there are hints that the narrator is creating some of the hostility himself, through his manner and attitude, And when the obstacles to his mission seem insurmountable, he remains in the town, courting hatred and danger, well beyond any reasonable time, despite insults and injuries.

The text is very detailed, evoking the claustrophobic Sicilian town vividly. The story is told clearly, though without a lot of forward motion, and I was pulled right along to the end. A major theme and characteristic element of the story (and this is hardly a spoiler) is that the "transaction" of the title never happens. The ending is, in fact, quite puzzling, leaving the reader to decide if the narrator is suicidal, infatuated, or perhaps insane.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

The Second Life of Inspector Canessa, by Roberto Perrone

Roberto Perrone's The Second Life of Inspector Canessa is the second book in a new series from Walter Presents, which is the BBC's excellent series of crime TV series from around the world, and Pushkin Press. Perrone's novel, originally published in Italian in 2017, deals with the aftermath of the "years of lead," the period of terrorism (from the left and the right) in the 1970s and 80s, viewed from the perspective of today. Canessa, a retired Carabiniere, is suddently called back from his calm new life as a restaurateur in a remote coastal village, when his estranged brother is killed alongside a famous terrorist recently released from prison.


Most of the book is set in the present, with frequent flashbacks to explain Cane Canessa's career fighting the terrorists. And most of the present-day is the ex-cop's private search for the reasons behind his brother's death. The investigation is an interesting tour through the Italian justice system, and the story has lots of intrigue and a good bit of shooting. Overall the book is a satisfying introduction to what has become a series featuring perrone, though I have a couple of reservations. The first thing is that young women seem always to be compellingly attracted sexually to the old men ocupying most of the key roles in the story. Some of the wome of the women clearly have financial motives, a few have professional motives, but especially in Canessa's case, young (much younger than him) women are throwing themselves at him in a way that stretches credibility and also reinforces what is altogether a limited sccope of action for the women in the book. Canessa also possesses superhuman powers, it seems, when people are trying to kill him (in a shower of fire from AK47s, for example), but that's just a quibble.

So I would recommend the book for a glimpse into a segment of Italian history, but I would hope for some more realistic and sympathetic female characters in the sequels.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Black and Gold: Two classic noir noves

These two noir classics are firmly placed in their time: Cornell Woolrich published The Bride Wore Black (under the pseudonym William Irish) in 1940 (it was made into a film in 1968 by Francois Truffaut). Dolores Hichens published Fool's Gold in 1958 (and it was filmed by Jean-Luc Godard in 1964 as Bande à part or Band of Outsiders). Both films significantly differ from the original novels, but that's another story.

Black is a classic revenge story, though we don't know the details of the original offense until the end. The bride systematically murders the men on her list, but the police cannot find the connection among them. Each murder occupies a chapter, with the leading lady taking various roles in each. Some of the means of execution seem a bit far-fetched (she doesn't plan them so. much as seize on the means at hand, and finding the creative means that she uses stretches the imagination of the reader a bit).  But Woorich is a master of the genre, and holds our attention nonetheless, and the final chapter includes several surprises, leading us through to the end. The setting varies from urban to rural to wilderness retreat, all vividly of the era of the '40s.

Fools' Gold evokes the California of the '50s, but not the glittery Hollywood California: the setting is hardscrabblek semi-urban, with a link to various criminal gangs of the area and as far afield as Las Vegas. But the focus is on a young man on the make, self confident and charismatic, who seduces an old friend and a young woman to help him steal a stash of money that the girl knows about (in the house of her guardian, an older woman).

In classic noir fashion, the caper starts almost immediately to slip out of control and then tip over into chaos. The story has an inevitability anchored in the personalities of the main characters and in the social milieu. One interesting aspect of the novel is that it has a long tail--once the caper has already played out, Hichens follows her characters as they disperse around California and each in his or her own way deal with the collapse of the scheme and of their future.

Godard made the story into a charming paen to youth, with a famous dance sequence in a bar and a furious race through the Louvre. French milieu matches the American original, in terms of class and misfortune, but Hichens original is darker, more true to noir and to the story itself.


Sunday, November 29, 2020

New Tana French, The Searcher

 My review of Tana French's new novel, The Searcher, is now live at the Los Angeles Review of Books:


Friday, September 18, 2020

Two revived Maigrets

I was lucky enough to get e-galleys for two forthcoming Penguin editions of classic Maigret novels in Penguin's project of publishing all of them. The two I read in the past couple of weeks are Maigret and the Killer and Maigret's Childhood Friend, two novels from the late '60s that have several interesting things in common. But before talking about links between the two, I have a few comments about reading Simenon after a long period of not reading him.

I had forgotten how visual Simenon's writing is. Both these novels, especially in the first half of the books, is full of visual details and vivid descriptions of the streets of Paris and the denizens thereof. As is common in the Maigret books, the latter half of the books is mostly interviews or interrogations, and Maigret's musings about the cases, in writing that is still vivid, but more verbal than visual.

Maigret has a peculiar relationship with a suspect in each of the two novels I read. In Killer, the detective establishes communication with the murderer and has evidence in hand that, if published in the newspapers, would most likely lead to his identification. But Maigret holds off, and ultimately even welcomes the killer into his own house. I'll leave it to you to discver why the policeman proceeds in this peculiar manner.

In Childhood Friend, the titular friend is a comic figure, and the whole novel has a comic, even farcical, quality. And the friend is the clear suspect in the murder of his lover (who has four other lovers, only one of whom knows about the others--one of the farcical qualities of the story). But Maigret is not defending his friend--he seems to have contempt for him, and he was not even really a friend, though he was a classmate in the rural town where they grew up. Again, you'll need to read the book to discover the detective's reason for holding off on the arrest of this non-friend, against all of the evidence.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Two newly translated Italian novels (not crime fiction)

Gianrico Carofiglio is, among other things, a crime fiction writer, but his newly translated novel, Three O'Clock in the Morning, only shows a momentary. crime. The pseudonymous Elena Ferrante does not write crime fiction, but there are several crimes lying behind the story of her new novel, The Lying Life of Adults. Both are extremely succesful writers in their native Italy and beyond.

Three O'Clock is adventure, in a sense: a teenage boy who has been suffering with epilepsy travels with his father to a famous clinic in Marseilles, for a final meeting with the doctor who will let him know about his future with the disease. The doctor persuades them to try what is essentially an experiment, a stress test: to stay in Marseilles two additional nights, without sleep and without medication.

Carofiglio follows their adventure as both an experience in itself and the process of a somewhat estranged father and son getting to know one another for the first time. The result is engaging and intriguing,  essentially a philosophical novel without any heavy baggage but with numerous excursions into significant thoughts and emotions.

Ferrante's novel revisits some of the themes of her famous Neapolitan Quartet, but

with several significant differences. The narrator is looking back at a significant block of her teenage years, from 12 to 16, and her foil in these years is not a genius friend (the "amica geniale of the series) but an aunt, her father's sister, who had previously been a kind of family ogre or boogyman, but a casual remark by her father thrusts the daughter and the aunt together and begins an involving and even riveting story.

This is also a philosophical novel in many ways, but as always with Ferrante, the language is simple and yet beautiful. She doesn't challenge the reader with deep thoughts, she leads us through the thoughts and emotions of her characters (mainly the narrator and her former self as a girl). This is a bit shorter than the individual novels of the series, but covers significant territory, and continues the brilliance of Ferrante's work.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures by Jennifer Hofmann

 Jennifer Hofmann's new book is in a way a spy novel, but more accurately a novel about a domestic spying agency: The Stasi of East Germany, just hefore the fall of the Wall. The main character, Bernd Zeiger, is the author of the agency's manual for the Standardization of Deoralization Procedures, made up of guidelines for both interrogation of prisoners and the subjugation of the population in general. He is more a bureaucrat than a spy or an evil genius, and now he's at the end of his career (and of his tether). A fellow officer asks him to find his missing son, and points out that despite the secret police's vast structure of surveillance, there is a small number of citizens (including the daughter) who have disappeared without a trace (not defected, drowned in the river, or shot trying to escape over the Wall). Zeiger discovers that a young woman he has been looking for (Lara, a waitress he befriended who has not shown up for work lately) is also on the list. Zeiger begins to search for Lara rather than the missing daughter, and along the way he searches his memory and we discover many strange things about Zeiger, Lara, and a mysterious scientist who (maybe) knows something about teleportation (knowledge that brings him to the unfortunate attention of the Stasi). Shifting among these characters and the deteriorating social situation of the end of state conrol in East Berlin, the reader is kept off balance through a series of stories and revelations and a final escape (of a sort) that gives the sometimes comic, sometimes grim story a quality of fable or allegory. Hofmann holds the reader's attention throughout, and the story, while not at all a conventional spy story or detective story, remains fascinating.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Two recommendations, from Scotland and Finland

A couple of well written, complex, and entertaining novels, one new and one from last year. Denise Mina's The Less Dead, from Mulholland Books (available this coming August in the U.S.) delves into Glasgow streets across two generations. Dr. Margo Dunlop's adoptive mother has just died, and she discovers a link to her birth mother. The novel actually begins with a fraught visit to the social service agency that is mediating between the birth mother's family and Dr. Dunlop, but shifts quickly into a dangerous journey into the underworld of pimps, prostitutes, dirty cops, and a (possible) serial killer. The book's title comes from a Scottish term equivalent to the famous "NHI" term used by the LAPD to indicate that no humans were involved in murders of prostitutes. Dr. Dunlop gets a very deep lesson in the lack of attention given to the murders of prostitutes in Glasgow. The material sounds very heavy, but Mina manages to make the text surprisingly funny at times, and at all times the story is tense and compelling.

Katja Ivar's Evil Things also deals with the death of a mother and the fate of an orphan, but in the far northern Lapland of Finland, in the early 1950s, close to a recently contested border with the Soviet Union. Hella Mauzer is the first woman to have achieved the status of detective in the Helsinki police but is now disgraced (because of an event that only becomes completely clear at the novel's end) and sent to the mostly rural far north. After the report of an elderly man even further north an closer to the Russian border, Hella becomes determined to investigate, despite her new boss's conviction that there's no case, the old man has just wandered into the forest and has probably encountered a bear. Hella's own story comes out in small bursts of her recollections, and the truth of the case comes out slowly at first, and then in rapidly increasing momentum. The story deals with murder, envy, bureaucratic refusal to consider the lives of people living in distant villages, and international conspiracy. There is also a striking echo of a current pharmacological and governmental scandal in the U.S. (watch for it, it will show up late in the book). There is, even in this tense and emotional book, some lightness and comedy, and a resolution that shifts the story from a dark pessimism into a cautious optimism about humanity and the future.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Four from around the world: Italy, S. Africa, France, India

A quick update on recently read crime novels of note, from French, South African, and Indian writers and a well-known American writer resident in Venice.

Donna Leon, famous outside Italy, refuses to allow her excellent series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti to be published in Italian translation. Her intended result is that to her Venetian neighbors, she's simply a fellow resident of this magnificent, troubled city, not a famous writer. Her newest book in the series, Trace Elements, was written before the pandemic, but centers on a death in hospice, a death to which the police are called because the dying woman has a confession of sorts. Her death inspires Brunetti and his fellow "poliziotti" to follow a slim thread regarding the death by accident (or perhaps suicide) of the dead woman's husband, whose job is the inspection of water quality in a privatized segment of the water supply system of Venice. The novel follows the usual process of the series, including the key involvement of the Questura's genius of information gathering (legal or illegally obtained), Signorina Elettra, as well as Brunetti's associates and his family. The sad story is nevertheless involving, right up to the typically complex resolution.

Another very successful series, by Deon Meyer, featuring Benny Griesel of the South African Police Service's major crimes division, the Hawks, in Cape Town, has a new and propulsively readable addition in The Last Hunt. One of  Meyer's specialties is action that pulls the reader along with rapidly developing events. In The Last Hunt, we get a couple of those, with intertwining plots that at all points reflect the current political and social problems of South Africa, in a plot with echoes of The Day of the Jackal. Along the way, Benny's relationship with a once-famous singer reaches a key hurdle that the detective is nervous about crossing (this relationship has been developing steadily across the past several books in the series). Meyer gives us a lot of insight about the daily struggles of the police in the troubled nation, as well as the larger milieu. Meyer has a lot of fans around the world, and deserves a look by any reader who is looking for an excellent police procedural combined with a thriller with a vital glimpse of the post-apartheid reality of South Africa.

Manu Joseph's Miss Laila, Armed and Dangerous seems at first to be a satire, and it ends up with a more sobering indictment of contemporary India. A building collapses, trapping a man who has knowledge of a developing terrorist attack, and the only person who can reach the area where he is trapped is a woman who is a journalist specializing in ambush interviews of well-known political figures. This is the India of Hindu nationalism, thoughh the leader of the movement is the fictional, rather than the actual, prime misister of India. The central figures of the terror side of the plot is the titular Laila, who makes the mistake of taking a ride with a friend, and as the plot progresses, with a sudden shift at the end, she becomes the focus of a terrible indictment of India today, framed as if in a comic novel. Miss Laila is a quick read, though the story is complex--and it gives a picture of India more stark and contemporary than many novels from the sub-continent that have appeared here in recent years.

Jean-Patrice Manchette reinvigorated French noir fiction in the 70s and 80s, and a string of his novels have been appearing in English over the past. decade or so. The most recent, No Room at the Morgue, is a recasting of classic private detective fiction. The plot is appropriately complicated (Manchette evidently had Dashiell Hammett in mind), and though there's a lot of blood spilled, the tone is light and quick. Manchette's detective, Eugene Tarpon, is a former cop who is about to abandon his brief, unsuccesful career when a young woman appears at his apartment appealing for help int he matter of the death of her roommate. Very soon,  Tarpon is drugged, beaten intimidated, and ensnared in network of shady filmmakers, gangsters, journalists, and corpses. Manchette's contributions to the French graphic novel, and the connection with that art form are obvious in this novel. As transated by Alyson Waters, the prose is quick, colloquial, and full of quicky dialogue. Manchette's novels typically have a social depth at the heart of the noir story, but his politics are well hidden behind the spectacular plot and the down-and-out stoicism of his hero. For fans of Manchette, No Room at the Morgue is a bit more like Fatale than his other books translataed so far. For fans of classic noir, the book will be a treat, even if they don't know the author's other books.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

The Fragility of Bodies by Sergio Olguin

The Fragility of Bodies is a crime novel from Argentina, and Sergio Olguin's story is a departure from the usual crime fare. Veronica Rosenthal is a magazine writer who decides to look into the suicide of a commuter-train operator in downtown Buenos Aires. What she. uncovers, over the 377 pages of this Bitter Lemon edition translated by Miranda France, is a bizarre betting game that preys on young would-be soccer players in the slums around the city, particularly those along the train lines. Veronica is a woman in control of her life, single and intending to keep that way, and in her professional life she is determined and implacable.

She finds a train operator who is willing to talk to her and embarks on a journey of personal and professional import. Olguin's text is lively, shifting among the various character and the sites in the city relevant to the tale, so we get a vivid story as well as a 3D view of Buenos Aires today. At some points in the story, I became as frustrated as Veronica with the lack of progress in her research, but stick around for the satisfying, if also quite dark in the way of most noir visions of conteporary life. Olguin's story is fascinating, and his novel is unlike anything else you will find in crime fiction.