Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Jo Nesbo, The Redbreast (a new Scandinavian noir crime novel)

Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast has been translated out of sequence in this compelling Norwegian crime series--last year's Devil's Star is actually a later episode than The Redbreast. Reading this one is a bit of an odd experience, since the reader will already know things that the characters will not discover for a long time (and these are long complex novels at over 500 pages each). But each novel is independent, and has its own character. The Redbreast actually shares a number of things with Henning Mankell's early Wallander novel, The White Lioness. Both feature morose leading men who are cops (though there is more humor in Nesbo's book); both have a South African connection and both involve racism, assassination, and weapons that are the tools of professional assasins. Both also deal with international intrigue, conspiracies, and evil people--all of which are more normally the territory of thrillers rather than noir fiction or police procedurals. In both cases, it is the close attention of the author to the melancholy detective that saves the books from becoming simply throwaway thriller knockoffs. And Nesbo's character, Harry Hole, is more noir, perhaps, than Mankell's Wallander. Hole is an alcoholic, lonely man (like Wallander) but Hole falls further into the pit on a regular basis--without ever becoming the cliche "lonely, drunk detective." He continues to engage our attention even when he's wallowing in self-pity, because he's a fully realized character rather than a cardboard one (not that Wallander is cardboard, just that he doesn't fall so low, and for that reason sometimes his self-pity can be a bit irritating). And the global conspiracy plot that underlies The White Lioness and most other Wallander novels is not a prominent element of The Redbreast, in spite of its neo-Nazi, evil bureaucrat, and corrupt police elements. It remains local, of the streets, rather than global in its essence, and therefore more noir (I'm overusing that word but haven't come up with a good substitute: pulp? hard-boiled?). The story goes back to the Norwegian soldiers who enlisted in the SS and fought with the Nazis on the Western front (as well as the "latter-day saints" among those who played both sides or no sides until it was clear the Nazis would lose). Norway's wartime leader, Quisling, bas become the very name of treachery, so it's very interesting to get an inside look into the gray areas of the Nazi period there. And it's not only fanaticism but also love that drives both the murderous plot and the sympathetic surface tension of the novel. I won't go into any more detail, since the twists and turns of the story in this long complex novel are a big part of the pleasure of diving into it. Give Nesbo the time and attention that his work deserves, and you'll be richly rewarded.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

volume 2 of Marseilles trilogy

Chourmo, by Jean-Claude Izzo, is the sequel to Total Chaos (also published as One Helluva Mess), and extends Izzo's paen to Marseilles into new territory. This time, former cop Fabio Montale only has memories of his two pals, the gangsters who were the subject of the first volume. His beautiful cousin (one of the infatuations of his youth) shows up and wants him to find her missing son, who has gone to ground in the Arab quarter of Marseilles. In his efforts to find the boy, Fabio discovers a second murder and the two plots intertwine right up to the conclusion. But the chief charm of this series is the loving evocation of Marseilles in all its aspects, gangsters, terrorists, and all. It's best to start this series at the beginning, but the charms and thrills of Chourmo are open to any reader, whether they know Total Chaos or not. We should all thank the Eurocrime publishing series for bringing this (and several other valuable European crime novels and series) to English readers, especially in these attractively printed and bound volumes. The titles of Izzo's novels, by the way, are from Marseillais slang--I won't give them away, though--it's best to discover for yourself how the originate and how they relate to these stories, these characters, and this city.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Yet another Bruen

Ok, I'm addicted. I keep saying that I'm not reading any more of Ken Bruen's books, but I just finished Calibre, the latest in the Brant series about the Ed McBain-obsessed cop in Southeast London, as well as his cohorts. This series has none of the sentimentalism of Bruen's other series set in Galway. But Calibre has the same roughness and the same references to other noir authors (and the same misspellings of writers' names, as if the books are written and edited so fast that fact-checking is simply not looked after). Calibre is certainly a quick read, carelessly but effectively plotted--things don't happen according to any cliches of the genre, and plot lines are not always followed up (also a characteristic of Elmore Leonard's books, and one of the reasons that his stories are so realistic). In spite of Brant's dedication to the 87th precinct novels, it's really more Leonard and Jim Thompson (the favorite author of the primary villain and alternative point of view in Calibre) that are the models for Bruen. Unlike Bruen's other series, the Brant books also feature several other cops (the only factor that mirrors Ed McBain's series), with new ones added from time to time. The black policewoman, Falls, has had a hard time but seems to be rising up from her low point in the previous novel. Tensions between Falls and other cops are unpredictable and often comic, and Brant's pugnacious character is also often funny--making this note only a more life-like but also more fun than others of Bruen's books. It sounds like I'm giving the author grudging respect, but as sketchy and incomplete as the Brant books are, the are true to noir, fun to read, and each different from the other. The Jim Thompson obsessed villain here is an accountant who kills people who are impolite, and the distinctiveness of his social role and his personality are compounded by the quirky resolution (or non-resolution) of his story. So this one is recommended, even if I can't recommend Bruen's Irish novels.

Monday, September 11, 2006

first of a few more scandinavians

A few more titles in the area of Scandinavian noir are about to be available in English. The first is Voices by Arnaldur Indridason (soon to come are new books by Liza Marklund and Jo Nesbo--the new Marklund sounds as if it may not be a great one, but the Nesbo is one I'm looking forward to, it's a "prequel" to the book already released in English by him--actually an earlier book released out of order). Voices is better than Indridason's 2nd book, Silence of the Grave, and almost as good as his first, released in English under 2 titles, Jar City and Tainted Blood (the book is identical, just 2 different titles). Not to say that all of them are not very good, because they are--just that the first one has stayed with me, and I admire that one particularly. Voices concerns the murder of a doorman/handyman at a hotel in Reykjavik, murdered in his basement room while dressed in a Santa Claus suit with his pants down around his ankles and a condom on his penis. And who says the Scandinavian crime novels are humorless. Actually, there's quite a bit of humor in Scandinavian noir, but like the dead Santa, it's very dry, almost earnest even it its comedy. The dead man turns out to have been a child star, and the cast of characters includes his surviving estranged family, a nasty bunch of hotel employees, the usual crowd of homicide detectives familiar from the first 2 novels, plus a female crime tech who is a possible love interest for Erlandur (Indridason's chief detective) and a couple of prostitutes. A bigger cast than Silence of the Grave, but like that novel occurrences in the distant past hang heavily over the living and the recently dead. The past and the current murder share time with Erlandur's ongoing struggle to find a relationship with his formerly estranged daughter and with the other detectives' attempt to find time for Christmas preparations that their families depend on them for. What I like about Indridason's novels is what I look for in noir--the ordinariness of life, the frequent banality of motives for murder, and the struggle of the characters to find an emotional refuge in the hostile contemporary environment (plus a view of Iceland you won't find in the guidebooks). Voices provides all of the above, and quirky humor--what more could a noir reader ask for?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

a really bad book

OK, on the way to the train station, desperate for something to read on the journey from Washington to New York and back the same day, I picked up what looked like a pretty good French thriller. The book is Empire of the Wolves, by Jean-Christophe Grange. It's been made into a movie in France, so how bad could it be, right? Actually it can be (and is) very very bad. The author is lazy (and can't blame it on the translator). Long passages of the story are told as if in a scenario, rather than dramatized as in a story. There are fuzzy leaps in the story and much melodrama. Plus some unbelievable plot points that are essential to the ultimately pointless tale that the author wants to pass off as a novel. I had hoped for something at least sort of noir (the French invented the word, after all, and have been producing both the film and fiction versions of noir in abundance). But this thing is laughabloe