Monday, December 19, 2005

Scotttish noir, and noir in general

Scottish noir is a booming industry, and the output of the Scots raises some questions about noir in general. Alex Gray's Never Somewhere Else has all the elements of noir (dark urban setting, lurking danger, etc) but never really adds up as noir: that is to say, it remains a genre mystery whose formula is ultimately one of reconciling rather than unsettling the relation of reader/character/society. Gray's heroes, a paired Chief Inspector and Psychologist/Profiler (a cliched crime-fighting pair that is getting to be annoying in all its manifestations these days), diligently search for the possibly false serial killer (real killer, maybe not real serial killer) but there's never any sense of gloomy social deterioration or even social commentary. Denise Mina's novels are much more in the noir vein, though I find her writing to be a bit overdone and her character (in her Garnethill trilogy) a bit whiny in her repetitive obsessions. But her Garnethill is vastly more thoroughly drawn than the same setting in the plot of Alex Gray's novel. And there is a real sense of the human frailties at the root of urban rot in Mina's novels. That is the essence of noir, as opposed to mystery or crime fiction per se: a skeptical, even pessimistic, view of the milieu in which the crime takes place. The mystery novels of other Scottish crime writers remain in the non-skeptical, mystery-novel genre (though I do vastly prefer the procedurals of Peter Turnbull--a former social worker, if memory serves me right--rather than the hard-boiled Rebus novels of Ian Rankin, which seem to me too concerned with people in high places to really be noir). For noir dealing with high-rollers, the comic novels of Christopher Brookmyre, particularly the early ones, are much more effective than Rankin, and certainly much more fun, whether they're really noir or not. Brookmyre's Quite Ugly One Morning eventually falls apart somewhat, but the first half (at least) of the novel is very funny in a very dark and violent way.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Irish noir

Of the numerous detective, thriller, and noir series set in Ireland, only a few measure up as noir, in my opinion. Ken Bruen's Irish novels are very dark, indeed, but for me a bit too self-consciously literary, as if J.P. Donleavy turned his hand to the dark detective story (I'm led to that comparison by the short lines of verse-like prose that both authors use). Victor Banville's detective stories are very dark, as well, and more firmly in the genre--much better than the late Bartholomew Gill's McGarr series of police procedurals (but there are only a few of the Banville detective stories, and a couple of them are really intended as readers for teaching literacy skills). Of the rest, the best is John Brady's series featuring Matt Minogue, a Dublin policeman. Brady actually lives in Canada, though he was born in Ireland (in County Clare) and purportedly returns often, perhaps to research his series, which now numbers 8 novels (6 available in the U.S., the 2 most recent ones only available in Canada). One feature of the novels that leads one to believe that Brady keeps in touch with his native country is the quality of the description of Dublin and the countryside, which has been undergoing rapid change during the time period of the series. Another is the language. Brady's ear for spoken, Irish-inflected English is astonishing, even achieving distinct regional accents within his eccentric pacing, spelling, and diction. Though all the novels are very good in terms of the detective/noir atmosphere and plot, it is the language that distinguishes them as exceptional, along with the distinct characters who speak that language. The best of the first seven books of the series is the 7th, Wonderland, which has a truly noir plot: events on several tracks hurtle toward one another not in terms of a puzzle or mystery but a dark inevitability. The story hunges (as is usual in the series) on the current state of Ireland's troubled history. As to the 8th book in the series, I'll post an update on that one as soon as I've read it.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Kontroll and film noir

It seems as if the most genuine film noir these days is comedy, as with the current "Ice Harvest," or recent examples from Pulp Fiction to Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Playing noir straight verges into self-parody, because of the strictures of the genre, so going straight for the comedy instead is somehow more genuine in the present situation. A recent example of very noir, very dark comedy is Kontroll, directed by Nimrod Antal, a transplanted American who makes films in Hungary. Kontroll takes place entirely in the Budapest Metro, the city's subway system. The characters are mostly ticket inspectors (the subway runs on the honor system, like European trains and buses commonly do--no ticket gates, but don't get caught by an inspector without a ticket (the fines can be very large). In Antal's Budapest, however, the citizens give the ticket inspectors no respect at all (so much so that the actual Metro system's director has a cameo before the film's titles, explaining his logic in giving permission for the filming of this anti-establishment epic). The ragtag band of inspectors includes one picaresque hero, Bulcsu, on whom the movie hangs--he never leaves the subway (the movie's ending hinges on the possibility that he may now leave, in the company of the female romantic lead--who is at that point dressed as a fairy. This is as much a fairy tale as film noir, just as was Modern Romance, another comic-noir film of a few years ago). Kontroll includes a serial murderer who appears suspiciously like Bulcsu (and may simply be his "other," his dark self. Biographical details are vaguely outlined, leaving much mysteriousness about the characters as well as the story, but giving a sense of a dark event that propelled the hero from an above-ground world (a succesful career as, possibly, an architect) into the lower depths. There are several other threads to the narrative dealing with crimes from the petty to the violent as well as rivalries among the inspectors, and most of these plot elements leave marks on Bulcsu, who is a bloody mess by the film's end. His violently comic descent leads, though, to that fairy-tale ending at the first step of the escalator up (Modern Romance ended on the beach, against all logic). Perhaps we believe in neither an orderly universe that the noir hero can ultimately uphold nor a cynical, disorderly universe against which the hero can vainly struggle--our world is so ambiguous that it is neither the one nor the other, and noir comedy has absorbed the exhausted insight of Beckett's characters in its darkness as well as its comedy.

Monday, November 21, 2005

noir/not noir? plus John Williams and UK

I haven't posted in a while--I've been absorbed in John Williams's Cardiff trilogy (Five Pubs, Two Bars And a Nightclub; Cardiff Dead; and The Prince of Wales), which raises several questions for this blog. The first is that I have not yet dealt directly with contemporary noir in the U.K., since I've been concentrating on noir-in-translation from non-English-speaking countries. There is of course a wealth of crime writing in English (and numerous excellent publishing houses supporting that writing), and I intend to address that gap in my journal soon. Williams's books also raise the question of what kind of plot qualifies as noir. His trilogy deals with a criminal subculture in Wales (prostitution, gangland-style machinations, suspicious death, etc.), but there is no murder plot per se, and only a detective in a marginal way (Mazz, in Cardiff Dead, halfheartedly pursues a missing rock star on commission from a sort of gangster, but it's not essential to the main narrative). The atmosphere of the novels, though, is pure noir, and has a lot in common with the milieu of George Pelecanos's undoubtedly noir Washington novels. The Cardiff of Williams's books is in transition from a lower-class soup of races, underworld clubs and professions, and people living at the margins of society. What it's moving toward is the artificial "downtown" of so many U.S. cities--theme pubs, new developments, and the closing of institutions like the Custom House, a late-night bar favored by streetwalkers. The novels are actually about the city, and Williams employs a kaleidoscope of characters throughout the stories in the first volume and the 2 novel-sequels, each a particular angle on what's happening to the city in its transition. The result is a gritty realism that a focus on a single character could not provide, and Williams's writing is unfailingly interesting, lively, and engaging. So it's noir in a literary vein rather than a murder-genre vein, I guess. It would be interesting to have a discussion of the noir-or-not question with regard to Williams--perhaps there's a panel waiting to be convened on the topic?

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Massimo Carlotto

I've already mentioned Massimo Carlotto's first book to be translated into English, The Colombian Mule: now there's a second volume in the series, The Master of Knots. The title refers to the main plotline, having to do with the underground S & M scene in northern Italy. The unofficial detective agency, really a "gang," that is at the center of the series is made up of a bar owner and two of his friends (all 3 ex-cons, one of them a gangster and the other two "politicals"). The interplay among them (and a subplot concerning the protests surrounding a G8 conference in Genoa) are quite interesting, and the three shuttle back and forth across the northern half of Italy on their various detection errands. The main plot, however, is marred by several cliches (one that is getting to be quite annoying in the genre as a whole, the mythical "snuff film") and by a curiously offstage handling of the chief villain (the "master of knots," a bondage master who trained in Japan). The focus does remain with the detectives (chief among them the narrator, a bar owner identified as "Alligator" in the first novel, but mostly as a first-person voice in the second; in the first novel, the Colombian segment of the plot is narrated in the third person, shifting the focus away from the main characters, who are the most interesting aspect of the series. There is in both novels a considerable amount of discussion of prison (which annoys the gangster-detective, Beniamino Rossini, and threatens to annoy the reader as well), but the life-story of Carlotto (who like Alligator was imprisoned unjustly in a famous political case) informs the discussion and the overall plot as well: at least we know that he has first-hand knowledge of the milieu (of prison, the underworld, and the setting, which revolves around Padua). In case all of the above sounds like faint praise, I should make it clear that the novels are lively, not over-long, and that they include a great deal of interesting detail about Italy, Padua, and the fringes of the criminal underworld to keep them entertaining.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Carlo Lucarelli

The first of Carlo Lucarelli's noir thrillers to be translated into English was Almost Blue (not to be confused with the amazing Japanese "underground" novel Almost Transparent Blue, by Ryu Murakami). Almost Blue (available from City Lights Press, in their City Lights Noir series, in the U.S.) is entertaining but a bit sketchy. The story relies heavily on the surreal interior monologues of the killer, nicknamed the Iguana by the police, and a blind "witness" who is the only one who can recognize the killer, by his voice, since the Iguana changes his appearance at will. The surreal, even magic realist, quality of the narrative threatens to overwhelm the police procedural (featuring detective Grazia Negro and the team that her boss is putting together in Bologna), and the sketchiest part of the book is indeed the procedural/detective portion. But the evocation of the city of Bologna is wonderful, and some elements of the plot are fascinating. The denoument is a bit abrupt, though. The second in the series, Day After Day (recently translated and available in the U.K. from Harvill Press. Day After Day is more satisfying in several ways. Although the plot is almost a carbon copy of Almost Blue (substituting a cold contract killer for the impassioned serial killer of the earlier book), the narrative's poetic qualities (particularly in the narratives of this book's witness and killer) are less surreal, more pertinent to the other narrative, that of Ispettore Negro and the police. And the resolution, though firmly in the formula of the series, is more fully realized in the second book. The only drawback (and the only reason I would not recommend readers to simply begin with the second book and ignore the first) is that Bologna is a more fully realized site for the plot in Almost Blue. So I recommend the series, as a dark, poetic noir/policier in a very Italian mode--but don't stop with the first book, do go on to the second for a more complete version of the genre and of Lucarelli's formula.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tonino Benacquista's Someone Else

I've already mentioned the first book by Tonino Benacquista to be translated into English from the French original (Holy Smoke), and the second has recently become available (Someone Else), also from Bitter Lemon Press in the UK. Someone Else pursues two different lines of narrative that were characteristic of one of the masters (mistresses?) of noir, Patricia Highsmith: the casual encounter that precipitates events of great consequence to the parties involved (as in Strangers on a Train) and the amoral manipulations of Highsmith's Tom Ripley character. Plus there are other elements suggestive of those Highsmith novels: the use of a tennis match as a significant detail (one of the characters in Strangers on a Train was a tennis player) and a character who is a framer by trade (one of the characters that Ripley manipulates and then befriends is a framer, and owns a frame business, just as in Someone Else). What is missing from Benacquista's novel is the sense of menace that Highsmith injects into her novels, even when there hasn't been a murder yet. There is in fact never a murder (except by a character who "kills off" his former self), though there is toward the very end a shooting. And though a detective agency plays a large role, Someone Else doesn't really ever rely on the nature of detective work for any of its narrative drive. Someone Else is definitely in the noir tradition, not only in the references to Highsmith but also in Benacquista's use of despair as a driving impulse for the two main characters; but it is more in the tradition of the early noir than the contemporary, bloodier and more violent entries in the genre (remember the slowly developing plots of James M. Cain, for instance--modern noir is more in the vein of the notorious No Orchids for Miss Blandish, not by Cain but closer to that era than to our own--No Orchids stared with a violent bang and descends in violent stages to a grotesque and melodramatic conclusion, a plot closer to our own era than to Cain's). Someone Else concerns a bargain--more a bet really--between two strangers who meet in a tennis club in Paris. Over much vodka (a new experience for one of them, previously a teetotaler) a proposal is made that each of them should try to become the "someone else" that he has dreamed of becoming throughout his mundane life. Each succeeds, in very different ways, and each achieves a payoff of a sort. The narrative is engaging, though not comic in the way Holy Smoke was, but the narrative could have used some editing or perhaps some relief from the very gradual ascent (or descent) of the characters in their new lives--perhaps some more sudden, even violent, shifts to spark things up. But who am I to give the author advice. If Someone Else does not quite rise to Highsmith's heights (and doesn't seek the same humorous narrative rewards as the author's own Holy Smoke) it's still an entertaining and interesting return to the early traditions of noir.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

"Fred Vargas"

Fred Vargas is the psuedonym of a French scientist, a woman, who's been turning out interesting romans policier for several years. The novels, Have Mercy on Us all (published first in English, but actually the second novel of the series) and Seeking Whom He May Devour (the first novel in the series), both have titles in English that are considerably different than the French originals--the original titles would have taken some explanation in English, but I for one dislike the practice of changing the titles in translations. Vargas's work might be characterized as a "grand-guignol" noir. Her characters are depicted in terms of a bundle of characteristic traits and tics of speech that are repeated over and over. The effect is archaic, reminiscent of the novels and plays of earlier centuries. That effect is of a piece with her novelistic strategy as a whole--the first novel deals with lycanthropy and the rural French werewolf legends in particular; The second deals with the bubonic plague (and in particular the talismans used to ward off the disease) as well as the revival of the trade of the town crier. These themes are folded into a more-or-less conventional police procedural (less conventional in the werewolf novel than the plague novel), but even that is twisted into a pre-modern (or perhaps post-modern is the proper term) mode by the character of Commissaire Principal Adamsberg, her detective. Adamsberg is absent-minded, illogical, impulsive, and intuitive--constantly grasping mentally for an idea or a person that is just out of his conscious reach. The effect of the almost Dickensian characterizations, the folklore motifs, and the police drama is comic, but nonetheless dark and seductive, practically a modern Gothic version of noir. The combination of the Gothic and the comic is, of course, what led me to think of the series as grand guignol--and the novels follow that model in their aggression, pacing, and impact. A third English translation from the series is promised for January 06.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

French romans policiers, in English

One of the best police/noir novels in recent years is Rough Trade, by Dominique Manotti (Sombre Sentier in the original French). Manotti's novel subverts all the cliche's of the genre, from the personality of the central character, to his love-life, to police procedure, to the logic of the thriller. It's almost impossible to describe the plot without giving something away that's better discovered in the book, but it is possible to mention that Manotti uses history and politics to great effect as the background and atmosphere of the book. Setting the main narrative a decade and a half into the Parisian past, to coincide with an actual event (a strike among the illegal immigrants employed in sweat shops connected to the rag trade), Manotti is able to both evoke that event and that era and also to provide a coda that extends the narrative both literally and emotionally. Turkish immigrants, the Asian drug trade, prostitution, police coercion, homosexuality, labor relations, and much more historical and political material are at the heart of the book, but the plot is nonetheless brisk (almost breathless). Manotti gives us a most unusual and enjoyable experience. Chantal Pelletier's Goat Song follows a somewhat enervated detective Marice Laice (there's a joke about his name that is a bilingual French-English pun) through the club culture of Paris and the dark underbelly of real estate speculation and drugs. The book is quite entertaining, and in the end both melancholy and romntic, but not quite up to Manotti's standard, in terms of its impact and its realism or believability. Jean-Claude Izzo's One Helluva Mess (original French title: Total Kheops, a slang expression that the English title doesn't really capture) is a tour through the underworld of Marseille. Izzo starts off the book with an exiled gangster returning to Marseille with revenge on his mind, and then the book takes a radical turn, focusing instead on a police detective and former friend of the gangster. Izzo's novel is not a straight roman policier, but instead is a dark, almost romantic take on a changing Marseille: in particular it's Algerian subculture in conflict with its more established population of French men and women who were mostly themselves immigrants a generation or two earlier. Izzo's hero moves freely through the diverse communities, though at home in none of them, and his story is engaging. It's tempting to include the police novels of Yasmina Khadra here, since a post-colonial Algeria is the setting and the theme for them, but I'll restrict myself to a couple of comments: Khadra's two books translated into English so far are fast, somewhat fragmented, very sexist, violent portraits of a chaotic, millennial, even apocalyptic social situation in an Algiers that is perched on the edge between a corrupt regime and a ruthless fundamentalist revolt. They evoke a new Battle of Algiers that, in Khadra's portrait, is a ruthless war zone in both literal and moral terms. On a far lighter note, the first of Tonino Benacquista's novels to be published in English (there are 2 in English now, but I haven't read the 2nd one yet) is a comic take on the life and trials of a 2nd generation Italian immigrant family in Paris--and the connection of its scion, Benacquista's hero, to the land (literally) of his forefathers. Benacquista takes on the mafia, the church, and the structure of the noir/thriller genre here, with quite enjoyable results. In a later installment on France: Fred Vargas and others.

Friday, September 09, 2005

contemporary roman noir (translated from the French)

Coming soon: contemporary French noir (home of the term I'm using so much)--reviews of translations from Jean-Claude Izzo, Fred Vargas, Dominique Manotti, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Chantal Pelletier, Tonino Benacquista, and more...

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Some German noir

Hans Werner Kettenbach's Black Ice is very dark indeed, a tour through the mind of a not-too-bright German employee of a civil engineering firm who thinks his boss murdered the wife that he had married for her money (and control of the firm). Kettenbach's tale is claustrophobic, with a carefully controlled point of view--the combination of those elements gives the tale a Hitchkockian air--something akin to the novels of Patricia Highsmith (not the Ripley novels but her very claustrophobic novels like The Blunderer, which Black Ice resembles in some ways) or Ruth Rendell. Kettenbach's character Jupp takes a long while to figure out how his boss might have done it, and then another long while deciding what to do about it--and ultimately makes a couple of very disastrous decisions about the latter. Ingrid Noll's The Pharmacist is equally claustrophobic, and a bit more comic, but her tale of poison, jealousy, and betrayal is a bit inert for my taste. It may be telling that "The Pharmacist," available only in the UK as far as I know, is published there not by one of the great English publishers of Eurocrime and international noir (No Exit, Serpents Tail, etc) but by Harper & Collins--the more mainstream audience is perhaps what the publisher, and the writer, have in mind rather than the audience for noir. Noir in Germany is best known (outside Germany at least) in the form of Jakob Arjouni's detective novels, featuring a German-born Turkish detective who is a German citizen. These books (or the 3 that are available in English--Arjouni also has non-detective novels, including Magic Hoffman, which is available in English) are an effective blend of the detective stock-in-trade and the experience of being an outsider in Europe. Arjouni's tales do not always turn on the Turkish/German tension, though--he often deals with other social ills, and the novels are truly an alternative history of Germany just before reunification. A word of caution--two "titles" of Arjouni novels in English are apparently the same novel; the titles are One Death to Die--published by Fromm International--and One Man One Murder--not as commonly available, but it appears in book searches from time to time). Another detective of West Germany, police detective Karin Lietze, can be found in English in Pieke Biermann's Violetta, published some years ago by Serpents Tail, and published in its German original the year after the fall of the Wall. Biermann's detective is caught up in several murder investigations that involve racism, a serial killer, a band of vengeful feminists, and other denizens of an apolcalyptic, millennial Berlin. The novel is a satirical and kaleidoscopic view of Berlin street life just as the Soviet bloc was coming apart but before the fall of the Wall, is amusing and entertaining, and I wish more of her work were available in English. Violetta is a self-conscious "novel," in the sense that there is literary as well as social satire, and the point of view jumps all over the place, but the surface level of the narrative itself is always lively, frequently funny, and at the same time very dark. Biermann's novel is in a way a meta-noir, a commentary on the form, as well as having some nostalgic looks backward toward the Berlin of Christopher Isherwood's famous stories. There are a couple of very dark non-detective novels of post-unification Germany: Rain, by Karen Duve, is a gloomy, grotesque tale of a loser who agrees to ghost-write a gangster's memoir, and takes his beautiful wife to a cabin in the former East, where he can live cheaply while working on the book. Rain, damp, and ensuing slugs (lots and lots of them) and other horrors intervene in his plans, resulting in a grotesque allegory of postmodern life in general and German life in particular, post reunification. The tale is gross, comic, disgusting, and fascinating. A less compelling but more pleasant dark comedy can be found in Christoph Hein's Willenbrock, which deals with crime and ultimately murder, but in a flat, laconic style more geared toward a literary audience than a genre crowd. Willenbrock is a former Easterner making a go of it as a used car entrepreneur in the new Germany, but confronted by social ills and tensions that are both new and age-old among the Germans. Bitter Lemon Press, who publish Black Ice, has also recently published a couple of other apparently classic German noir novels, one of which I liked and the other not so much. The Snowman, by Jörg Fauser, is an on-the-lam-from-drug-dealers tale of a down-and-out German emigre who is eking out a living in Malta by selling old Danish porn magazines, but suddently finds himself in the possession of a large quantity of the best cocaine in the world. Fauser's novel is a road movie of violence and the underworld, very graphic, funny, and enjoyable. The Russian Passenger, by Gunter Ohnemus, is a Richard-Brautigan-influenced (yes, it's true, however incredible it may seem) novel of Russian mobsters and the German working-class. An ex-writer now cab-driver hooks up with the wife of a Russian mobster, who has escaped from him with a lot of money. The story starts out interesting but gradually subsides into the allegorical manner of Brautigan and winds up in San Francisco (of course) with an unsatisfying conclusion that violates the first-person narrative in a not-very-interesting way.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

emigre Anglos, Italian police, and class

Simenon's novels (not only the great Maigret novels but also his many other works) are not really about crime or mystery: they are really about family drama. And Magdalen Nabb's wonderful Marshall Guarnaccia novels set in Florence are acknowledged (even by Simenon himself) to be in the genre of the French master. Nabb's novels are as melancholy as Simenon's but more sympathetic, and she is a close observer of the changing scene in Florence, while Maigret's Paris is relatively static. But Nabb's books are definitely about family drama, for the most part, along with the drama of a changing city in which those family's are trying to maintain themselves and their workshops--for the people Guarnaccia deals with in his rounds through the streets of the disctrict around the Pitti Palace are often the artisans producing the leather, f urniture, and fashion for which Florence is famous. But Nabb's books may not really be germane to the topic of this blog, for a couple of reasons. As in Simenon, in spite of the often gloomy atmosphere, Nabb's novels are not really noir. Guarnaccia remains too hopeful, even in the face of a decline in the character of his city, as it descends into tourist kitsch. But the working class and lower middle class settings of most of the books do come closer to the concerns of noir than the books of another Anglo emigre living in Italy, Donna Leon (already mentioned earlier in this blog). Leon's novels most often deal with upper class and even ruling class strata--perhaps negatively, in terms of the regard with which Leon and her characters hold those upper classes, but the investigations she portrays are necessarily focused on those segments of society. Guarnaccia's investigations, on the other hand, dwell on the shopkeepers, on the street life, on the outcasts among society. Though moody, foggy Venice, even as portrayed by Leon, would seem to be a better site for noir than modern Florence, Nabb's books are more satisfying in their social history, reaching toward the alternative history that I've already mentioned as one of the touchstones of noir. And in The Innocent, the newest Guarnaccia book, Nabb is clearly reaching for something more literary than a detective novel. Her concerns are for the protagonists of that recurring family drama she usually gazes upon, but in the Innocent she looks in particular at the tensions, the entrapments, the disjunctions in the family. Stolid Guarnaccia remains on the edges of these dramas, just as he does as a Sicilian on the edges of Florentine social structure, and his perspective keeps the family drama from becoming melodramatic. This is pehaps Nabb's most completely satisfying book, noir or not.

Friday, August 26, 2005

scandinavians, noir, and police

The long winter nights in Scandinavia would seem tailor-made for noir plots, but some of the new Norwegian and Swedish crime novels don't really go in that direction. And most of them (the ones that have made it into English anyway) are about the police, rather than private detectives (the staple hero of traditional noir). The one-person detective agency is represented only by the Norwegian Gunnar Staalesen's Varg Veum (whose specialty is lost children, in novels translated as ) and Norway's Kjersti Scheen's (her novel Final Curtain has a setting on the fringes of the theatrical world). Staalesen's three novels translated so far (the only one currently in print is The Writing on the Wall, the others, published in Britain, are out of print and occasionally available through Internet booksellers) are bleak in outlook, anti-authoritarian, and frequently involved with the lower classes. All of that keeps them very much in the noir tradition. Scheen's novel is closer to the "amateur detective" tradition, since her heroine clearly doesn't know what she's doing and doesn't handle violent interactions at all well (kind of like the heroine of P.D. James's one (or is it two?) novel with a female, private detective, heroine). I wouldn't class Scheen as noir, exactly, because of the theatrical milieu and plucky heroine, but there is definitely a dark tone and a good deal of social criticism. Not exactly an amateur detective (since she's an investigative reporter), the heroine of Liza Marklund's Stockholm novels does fit into the plucky category, and the social criticism is more muted. Marklund's novels are more about the media, and the violent plots are about specific incidents more than social phenomenon (not very noir, I'd say). Karin Alvtegen's novels are not in a series--each takes a very noir, very "alternative social history" approach to outsiders, individuals at the fringes of the social milieu for one reason or another. And of Finnish noir, I'll have a separate post later on, having already mentioned it in an earlier post, only in passing.
But the majority of what's been translated from Scandinavia concerns the police. Police procedurals are not in themselves inherently noir. The 87th Precinct novels of Ed McBain can be very dark (and very entertaining) but are in a way a genre unto themselves. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö openly acknowledge their debt to the 87th precinct in their 10 novels featuring the the Stockholm murder squad, but while McBain's social criticism (and the darkness, perhaps) increase over the life of his series, the S/W books featuring the dour, melancholy Martin Beck are dark from the beginning, creating a bleak portrait of the welfare state of Sweden's mid- to late-20th century. I recently read this series straight through, as if it were a single novel, and it holds up very well, until the mess of the last book (The Terrorists), which was written during Wahlöö's final illness. The novels are each short (after the fashion of the earlier mystery, detective, and police novels--the genre has fattened since the '80s, even McBain's later novels were much longer than his earlier ones), and each is an easily consumed commodity, almost more like a chapter than a whole novel. And though the detectives don't change all that much through the series, their characters and personal situations develop over time. The excellent Swedish TV series made from the novels glosses over some of these changes, and the novels remain the definitive Martin Beck. I've already dealt with Karin Fossum's excellent Norwegian police procedural noir fiction in an earlier post.
The reason for this meditation is that I just finished Åke Edwardson's Sun and Shadow, translated from the middle of his series about Gothenburg chief inspector Erik Winter. There is some confusion in reading this novel, since there are evidently some elements from earlier novels that remain as fragmentary plot situations in this one, and Edwardon's style can be a bit oblique and choppy at times (even telegraphic, as in the resolution at the end of the book--very unsatisfying). Though Edwardson pointedly contrasts a not-that-idyllic Spanish coastal getaway (popular with Swedes) with the cold snowy winter of Gothenburg (the Swedish city's actual name is Göteborg), there is a bit of non-noir cliche in Edwardson's focus on the private life of the detective (and even more cliche, but oddly used, in the plot of the serial murder's turn toward threatening the detective's family). The novel is also a bit long. Helen Tursten's police procedural novel Detective Inspector Huss, also one of a series, but more self-explanatory, is a more satisfying book (also set in Göteborg). Though Tursten's text is more laconic than dramatic, and very much in the police-procedural tradition, the on-the-street focus of the plot and the difficulties of the female detective's life have a grittier, more realistic tone closer to Sjöwall/Wahlöö's books than Edwardson's book manages to be. While Edwardson's novel is a welcome addition to the growing list of available Swedish crime novels, Tursten's book is better.
But better still is the first Icelandic police/crime novel of Arnaldur Indridason (there's a diacritical mark in his name that I can't duplicate, but don't worry, Amazon etc. can't either, so the author's name is easy to search for). The novel is available under two different titles (I hate when they do that, I think there's a new book out and it turns out to be the same one): Jar City or Tainted Blood. Neither is a translation of the original Icelandic title. The book is very focused on the detective hero's methods and daily grind, and also tangentially on his alienated daughter's decline into the drug world (another cliche particularly of Scandinavian noir is the detective's daughter, present also in the Beck novels and Henning Mankell's Wallander novels--more on that in a minute). But in Jar City (or Tainted Blood) there is also a deeply noir metaphor, a "mire" or bog, almost with a quicksand overtone) that lies underneath the crime. The second novel in this series, translated as Silence of the Grave, is less satisfying in plot and metaphor than Jar City, but is still a good read, dealing with time, domestic violence, and (still) the descent of the detective's daughter into the drug world. There is another in this series promised for next year, and it's on my list, definitely.
And one last comment, on the most recent Wallander novel to be translated, Before the Frost, which features the detective's daughter again, but this time as police in her own right, a rookie cop assigned to her father's district in southern Sweden. Mankell's first police novel, Faceless Killers, was excellent, capturing police work, social problems, and a dark plot in a laconic style that almost seems stilted at first but gradually grows on the reader. But while that first novel dealt with a confined, even stifling, small town, noir milieu, subsequent Wallander novels tend to move toward global plots. There is a very good Swedish TV version of these novels (and in one case, While Lioness, the movie is not only available in U.S. and U.K. in a subtitled version, but is also much better than the book it's based on). There are a couple of exceptions, but Before the Frost is not one of the exceptions, and this tendency to Big Plots takes away from the novels as noir, to my eye. The surface action of the novels is dark, and the personalities of the characters darker still, but the globalized action breaks through the enclosed, claustrophobic milieu that is essential to the concentrated gloom of true noir. Linda Wallander, the new daughter-cop of Before the Frost, is interesting, though, and all the Wallander novels are worth reading, if in one central aspect deficient (from my own perspective, in my search for contemporary noir).
As a contrast to the above comments on Scandinavian police fiction, there is a very cinematic French novel by Dominique Manotti, called Rough Trade in the translation that is very focused on police work at the micro, street level, plus lots of "lower depths" milieu within Paris. This fascinating novel has a sequel in translation that's been due out from a U.K. publisher for some time, and is now promised for this fall.

Monday, August 22, 2005

The Scandinavians have been turning out prime examples of noir fiction since before the Maj Sjöwall/Per Wahlöö books created a sensation 30 years ago with their detective, Martin Beck, and his team (many of those novels have been made into movies and also a first-class Swedish TV series). Among the recent noir authors are Karin Alvtegen, Henning Mankell, Liza Marklund (though her novels are really mystery-thrillers, not noir), and Helene Tursten in Sweden, Arnoldur Indridason in Iceland, Matti Joensuu in Finland (not to mention the wildly entertaining Finnish-noir TV series and movie featuring the laconic hitman called Raid), and in Norway, Kjersti Scheen, Gunnar Staalesen, and Karin Fossum. I don't know of any Danish noir--perhaps somebody can fill me in. One of the most recent translations is Fossum's Calling Out For You, featuring Inspector Sejer, a detective in a small Norwegian city and the surrounding towns. Fossum has revived a genuine small-town noir, combining the police procedural and the dark small-town ambiance that recalls James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Of the four of Fossum's novels to be translated thus far the first, Don't Look Back, and this most recent one are the best, and also the ones that stay closest to a police-procedural format. The other two diverge from the format though remaining in the noir tradition (Sejer is there, just not central to what is happening)--closer perhaps to the English psychological-noir tradition. In Don't Look Back and Calling Out For You, though, she adheres to the police format only in order to turn its conventions upside down. The biggest reversals come at the beginning of the earlier novel and at the end of the latest one (not to tell you too much about the plots). These two novels are so well done that they leave a reader thirsting for more, a prime consideration in genre fiction but a real problem given the lethargic schedule of the publication of translations.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Italian noir (by non-Italians)

Donna Leon's novels (in this case A Noble Radiance) have plots that are as dark and cynical as anything being published today, dealing openly with the byzantine politics of Venice and Italy, as well as corruption and inadequacy in the police. But the surface narratives of the novels deal so much with family, aristocracy, and personal connections that the dark side of the novels is balanced by a "good" narrative that compensates for the often unjust endings of the novels. I do not think the balance is a good thing--to me it's sugar to make the darker elements more palatable, and the sweetness can make the central characters, particularly Commissario Guido Brunetti and his wife and loyal assistant, a bit cloying. And there is a "cute" aspect to some of the running "gags," like the computer expertise of the secretary sitting outside Brunetti's boss's office. Elettra, the secretary, has connections with someone at every conceivable database and information source, and seems to be the only person in the Venetian police who knows how to use a computer or a modem. Brunetti's reliance on her is a weak plot device, especially in a police procedural (which is essentially what this series is)--we don't really want cuteness drawing attention away from the muck (of bureaucracy, favoritism, and privilege), do we? Magdalen Nabb's Marshall Guarnaccia, in her series based in Florence, is equally involved with his family--but he doesn't rely on his wife for connections to various aristocratic families (a running theme in the Brunetti novels), and Guarnaccia is out in the street talking to people, not working his father-in-law's or his boss's secretary's connections, as with Brunetti. Nabb's shambling hero is an outsider, a Sicilian in Florence (which is typical of the police, or in this case the Carabinieri, in Italy--many southerners end up in northern posts). His outsider/insider role (since he's been in Florence, stationed at the Palazzo Pitti, for a long time) works well in Nabb's investigations of Florentine society--and the reader learns more about the real Florence, behind the facades and away from the tourist areas, than Leon's, in spite of the latter's themes of the loss of a once vibrant Venice's real life (submerged now under the near-total reliance of Venice on tourism).

Monday, August 15, 2005

Italian noir (by Italians and others)

Italian crime novels are, more than for most countries, divided into those written by Italians and the myriad of novels written by English, American, and other writers about Italy. Some of these non-Italian writers live in Italy (Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb) but a lot of others are little more than nostalgic tourists, writing about what they remember from their vacation. Among the Italian writers, there are a number available in English, including the novels of Andrea Camilleri (which have been made into a TV series by RAI, the Italian television network--these TV versions of the novel have been shown on American TV on a unique public TV station in the Washington DC area, the MhZ networks). There are also the noir novels of Carlo Lucarelli, which have a magic-realist element that I, for one, find a bit distracting (but they are very noir indeed).
The Italian books that I've been reading lately include a very noir series by Massimo Carlotto, set in Padua and Venice, and Gianrico Carofiglio (set in the city of Bari, in the Puglia region--the heel of the boot of Italy). Carofiglio's novel that is now available in English (Involuntary Witness) is really a courtroom drama more than a noir story, but it's entertaining nevertheless. Carlotto's books (The Colombian Mule, available in the U.S. and U.K., The Master of Knots, and The Goodbye Kiss--the latter two forthcoming in the U.S. and already available or available soon in the U.K.) are underworld novels. His characters are Alligator (you'll have to read the books to find out about his nickname) and his pals. The plot deals with human and drug trafficking, from Colombia to Italy, and the "heroes" are about as shady as the "villains." Alligator's crew, each with his specialty in dealing with the lowlifes outside this inner circle of friends, constantly dodges the forces of law and the threatening criminals with skill and humor--hey, it's a formula, but it's an entertaining formula, and set in a part of the world that's worth exploring (Padua is very different from Venice, though both cities are involved in the story). One thing that I found particularly interesting in the plot and especially in the resolution of the story and in a very telling Author's Note at the end is what turns out to be an overarching theme of the book: Italian politics, and in particular prison politics. There is a twist out of fiction and into reality delivered by the Author's Note, and also by the bio offered on the book's front flyleaf (Carlotto was a famous man in his younger years, convicted of a crime he didn't commit, on the run from the law, and then emprisoned for years before being spectacularly cleared of the crime).

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Definitions of noir

The PEN American Center held a panel on International Noir last April, with Jakob Arjouni, Natsuo Kirino, Luc Sante, Paco Ignacio Taibo, and Robert Polito. The panel description says:

"Most American readers are familiar with the notion of noir as “secret history.” From Dashiell Hammett through Chester Himes, Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, and on to James Ellroy and Walter Mosley, crime novels inscribed a black-mirror twentieth-century America far more dishonest and bloody than the country of official chronicles. But much as once all politics famously were local, from now on most crimes will be global."

The idea of a secret history is very appealing, especially in the globalized social environment. Crime novels tell an alternate history of today's world, while also opening up relations of power within society. Rigby Reardon of the OSU film program posts on the web a reaction to Jean-Luc Godard's classic film-noir, Alphaville (the film is much more than the film noir and science fiction thriller of its surface narrative, but that's another story). Reardon says, "Godard ends up creating a film noir where international audiences will all be equally lost along with the detective." In some ways that defines the best of international noir fiction--the detective is beset by uncertainties, and the reader as well is denied the reassurance of a crime solved, social balance reestablished, which is a staple of the mystery and crime genre, especially of the best-seller sort. More definitions later.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

More Latin American Noir

Rolo Diez's Tequila Blue is a deceptively simple, Mike Hammer-ish tale of a corrupt, hard-drinking, constantly womanizing, and sexist policman in Mexico. The novel is short, but the tale nevertheless begins to drag because of the first-person narrative by the annoying detective, Carlos Hernandez, laying out his daily round of bribe collecting, playing around on his wife, and drinking. The actual case that the book is purportedly about, the murder of a gringo in very suspicious circumstances (a blond transvestite was seen leaving the room in which he was killed) doesn't begin to take the foreground until halfway through the book. But as Hernandez begins to focus on the case, and to suffer the consequences, the novel grows in power, finally clarifying the short first chapter and the nature of the narrative all along. Tequila Blue is ultimately a deeply dystopian, comic and tragic portrait of a chaotic contemporary Mexico. Diez is an Argentine emigre living in Mexico, and this deeply pessimistic novel could perhaps only have been written with an outsider's eye on the social circumstances of his adopted home. A comparison to Paco Ignacio Taibo's detective novels is unavoidable: Taibo is an insider in Mexican literary circles, and his detective stories are closer to magic realism—though they are dark, they are not as tragically pessimistic as Diez's world ultimately is. And though both writers use comedy as a tool in their creation of the fictional world of their books, Taibo's comedy is more self-consciously literary and his characters remain just that: characters in a novel. Diez's comedy is broader, more tragic, and more involved in social than literary commentary.

publishers of international noir in English

There are several publishers who dedicate a lot of attention to international crime novels. In the U.K., Canongate, Serpent's Tail, Bitter Lemon, Arcadia (particularly their Eurocrime series), and Harvill (whose books are sometimes released in mass market paperbacks by Vintage) in particular have very strong lists (and Bitter Lemon has dedicated itself mostly to international Noir. In the U.S., beyond the local distribution of some of the above U.K. presses, Soho Press is particularly good, including novels from or about Italy, Australia, China, Korea, and elsewhere. The New Press has published the excellent Swedish series by Henning Mankell, featuring the detective Kurt Wallander and now his policewoman daughter Linda Wallander (these are published by Harvill in England). Over the years, Walker and Pantheon have published many international mysteries, though not so prominently recently. Perhaps readers can offer other publishers to check out?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Latin American Noir

I've just finished Leonardo Padura's Havana Red, published by Bitter Lemon Press (UK). Padura (also published in English under the name Leonardo Padura Fuentes) is a Cuban author whose aims are literary as well as detective-genre-oriented. Detective Lieutenant Mario Conde of the Cuban police struggles with his own identity as a person and a cop, through a case involving a murdered transvestite who was from a family of privilege under the Castro regime. Homosexuality and transvestism are explored extensively, to Conde's discomfort, as necessary to understand the case, and Conde is at the same time under threat from an internal, politically motivated investigation of his department. Havana Red, like the Brazilian police novels of Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza, is more concerned with milieu, character, and language than with plot or detection, so if you're looking for a thriller, this isn't it. But the plodding, systematic activity of a policeman (and one with a conscience) is ann ideal way to explore the Cuban culture. Havana Red is haunted by Cuban literature--explicitly in the many references to the gay playwright Virgilio Piñera, and in a more subtle way to the comic, nostalgic, and despairing voice of the great Cuban emigre novelist Guillermo Cabrera Infante. and like the police novels of Yasmina Khadra, there is an explicitly bleak portrait of a political situation. But the novel manages with all that literary and political weight to be an entertaining novel, and a quirky take on the noir tradition. Padura (or Padura Fuentes) has one other novel in English (Adios Hemingway) that deals with the Hemingway legacy (and with Mario Conde's exile from the police). Another much-praised novel of Cuba (José Latour's Outcast) deals with noir material, but I for one found Latour's narrator and main character to be too self-absorbed to be efffective as a noir "hero" or anti-hero, even though the events of the character's marginalization in Cuba and his flight to Miami (not to mention his search for revenge) are the stuff of noir. Padura's novels are a much better noir portrait of Havana than Latour's of either Havana or Miami (in my opinion).

What's Here

Being a prolific reader of international crime fiction (noir, detective, roman policier, whatever you'd like to call it) I've been frustrated by the lack of opportunity to talk about what I'm reading: hence this blog. I'll be discussing current and classic detective fiction, mostly from outside the U.S., in English translation, most of which is available either through U.S. sources (such as or international sources (such as, as well as through the used and antiquarian book networks (searchable by and others). If people want to know where I found a particular book, just let me know and I'll reveal my sources.

What I'll be talking about is books that rise above the formula, books that reveal something about their setting, books that (like the best crime fiction) reveal something about us and our times. Why international noir? Because one of the best ways to get a glimpse of another culture is through the lens of crime fiction, the literature of the streets and dark alleys and underclass. What will not be here? Thrillers about the assassination of heads of state, mysteries about the rich and famous. The most rewarding crime fiction is about us, about life in the streets—an exploration of what's happening in that encounter you glimpse while driving by, two guys with their hands braced against a car while one cop pats them down and another searches the car's trunk. In other words, the descendants of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Martin Beck novels (as one example of what I'm talking about) and not the latest crime-roman-á-clef about the President, or the capo-di-tutti-capi, or the head of a multinational corporation (though all of those folks may appear in the background or even the foreground of the novels discussed here). And, when possible, I'll also mention international noir films that you may (or may not) have the chance to see in the theaters, on TV, or on video.