Monday, October 29, 2007

patience of the spider, andrea camilleri

Normally, when a crime novel or series is made into a film or TV series, the novel is far more rewarding, richer, and definitely a more immersive experience. Not always. In the case of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series, the Italian TV series based on it (in which Camilleri has retained a role), the filmed realization is so rich, the setting so convincing, and most of the actors so closely identified with the characters they portray that the films are at the very least an accurate representation (even an alternate realization of the characters and the stories) that seeing the films after reading the stories is fine, but reading the stories after seeing the films is like reading the same novel twice, or perhaps more accurately, reading the screenplay after seeing a movie.

Part of the reason for the unusual appeal of the films is that Camilleri's style as a writer is simple and direct, the characters drawn skilfully in a few strokes and the stories not unnecessarily complicated. The films are also understated, relying on the incredible Sicilian setting and mostly understated performances (with some exceptions--the desk sergeant in Montalbano's unit is the incomparable and almost incomprehensible Catarella, played by Angelo Russo in a performance that dances along the edge between impersonation and lampoon). Luca Zingaretti doesn't look like I imagined Montalbano, not even like Camilleri described him, but he so embodies the role that he's indistinguishable from the character, while he's acting the part (just as he's the embodiment of evil in the wonderful late "prequels" in the La Piovra mafia series from Italian TV). The Patience of the Spider is a typically indirect story, a crime that is not what it seems and a resolution that is not a genre cliche. The novel is, like all the Montalbanos, short, about the same length as those classic Maigret novels or the classic American noir fiction of the 40s and 50s--easily read in a couple of sittings. The great Leonardo Sciascia's Sicilian crime novels are also short, direct, and economical--maybe it's a Sicilian virtue, as well as a throwback to some of the classics of crime writing. Montalbano is, as usual, devious in his use of the media and sympathetic in his attitude toward citizens who may not be strictly remaining within the law (as with a rural woman who sells eggs as well as herself). Livia (his usually absent girlfriend) is present more than usual, to the dismay of Montalbano's housekeeper (one character missing from the TV series) and the occasional disruption of the detective's peace of mind. I won't reveal any more about the plot, and have probably said enough about the series to make it sound tempting--if you haven't seen the TV series, there's a peculiar public tv channel in the U.S. that runs them, and it may be available on your local cable or satellite service under the names MHZ Networks or MHZ World Vision (it's worth checking it out).

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Irish crime series

Both seasons of Proof, the Irish TV crime series, are about the interface between industry and politics in the new Ireland, the scene set by the economic miracle of the Celtic Tiger, integration into Europe, and new immigrant populations. The first series emphasized the political side of the equation, and the second series the commercial side (though the two series are equally cynical about the outcome of that particular marriage in the modern world). Both series are, incidentally, widely available as multi-zone DVD sets of 2 DVDs each. The second series has a stylistic tic that is both effective and irritating: a constant reference to the Dublin Spire, a new monument in the place of the infamous Nelson Column on O'Connell Street near the equally infamous central post office, a building at the heart of Ireland's Easter Uprising in 1916. The Spire is a peculiarly contemporary monument, in that it doesn't monumentalize anything in particular, and was designed not by an artist but by an architect. Proof returns to images of the Spire at all times of day, in all sorts of weather, in close and distant views, showcasing the abstracted geological motifs etched into it's bright metal surface as well as the impressive height of its needle rising high above today's Dublin. In the end, it is an impressive symbol of the sleek contemporary city that hides the ugly racism, corruption, and criminal indifference that are the subject of the series itself. More on the spire in a minute. The series: Two stories intertwine and ultimately come together. An African immigrant trying to operate a small shop in Dublin is harassed by anti-immigrant-skinhead-nationalists, resulting in the death of her child in an arson fire. And an out-of-work scientist who has set up a meeting with Terry Corcoran (played by Finbar Lynch) but is pushed into oncoming traffic in front of Terry's eyes. Meanwhile, Terry's ex-girlfriend Maureen Boland (Orla Brady) is investigating corruption in a drug company that's about to be taken over by an American conglomerate. Terry is a sort of Jack Parlabane relocated to Ireland (see Christopher Brookmyre, if you don't know Parlabane) and deprived of his near-superpowers and most of his sense of humor. He stirs up trouble, gets lectured by the police, and tries to save everyone that's under threat from the authorities, the skinheads, the Americans, the Irish hitman and his drug-company boss, etc. The show is a little formulaic, but better than most of what's on U.S. and U.K. TV, and it's great to get a tour of contemporary Dublin's seedier side. On the non-seedy front, back to the Spire--more than any other monuments I can think of, it resembles the Eiffel tower (both in its nonreferentiality and in the way it wears its technology on its sleeve) or the Washington Monument, here in DC. But the obelisk form of the Washington Monument has certain triumphal associations, and as you may or may not know, the Washington monument was originally designed as a temple surrounded by huge obelisks, but the plan ran out of money after only part of the first obelisk was completed. The stub of the monument stood on the Mall for many years, until a parks department employee unilaterally decided to finish that obelisk and let it go at that. The Spire is equally abstract, but with even less reference (it's not about O'Connell or the Easter Rebellion heroes, though located in the vicinity of those historical figures' memorialization along the same street). The tourist-eye view of the Spire as seen in Proof is probably the Spire at its best--if anyone reading this review lives in Dublin, and therefore lives with the Spire, let us know what you think of it.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Last of the Carvalho stories

Offside is not the last of the Pepe Carvalho novels by Manuel Vazquez Montalban, but it's the last one I've read (I read them all out of sequence, for no very good reason). Offside is typical of the series in some ways (Pepe's concern with food, the appearance of the regular characters as well as mention of some characters from previous novels, cynical and unresolved ending) but untypical in others (satire on professional football/soccer, death of a running character, more than usual concentration on the urban transformation of Barcelona, and lack of a corpse until two-thirds of the way through the book). The plot is in fact very unusual even for the crime fiction, speaking generally, much less for this unconventional crime writer: the story hinges on the appearance of a series of anonymous notes declaring that "the center forward will die at dusk", the Spanish title of the book. But who the target of the assassination is to be, and the identity of the writer of the notes is very unusual--the reader suspects long before the end that the center forward that Carvalho is hired to protect is not the one who will die, but the reason for the death threats is completely unexpected (was to me anyway). Everyone who has not read the novel should turn their heads away for a moment and plug up their ears: the notes were written by a character who wishes to make a poetic statement, not a criminal one. And another thread of the novel, concerning two junkies that all the other characters keep running into, seems to be related to the plot in one way, only to end up being related in another, as they fall into the midst of a plot to frame (rather than kill) that center forward. Although I don't understand football/soccer enough to appreciate the evident satire, even that part of the story (carried forward through conversations and lectures by the characters who are involved in the two clubs at the center of the book) is nonetheless funny. And Carvalho's frustration (nearly despair, really) at the end of the book is profoundly presented to the reader, as is frequently the case in Vazquez Montalban's works. I wouldn't say that Offside is the place to start with Carvalho (I think in fact that I should have read them in the order they were written, after all), but it's a living document of crime fiction, urban planning, post-industrial culture, the comic detective novel, the new Barcelona, and other things as well--wrapped up compactly in an entertaining novel.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Last entry in current Scandinavian crime wave

There are more Scandinavian crime novel's coming in the spring (and at least one non-Walander Mankell book that I haven't read) but for now, the recently translated Frozen Tracks by Åke Edwardson is the last in the string of Nordic noir novels that I've been posting about recently. I liked this one better than the two earlier ones by Edwardson that have been translated, because of the considerable tension built up in Frozen Tracks as the police doggedly pursue a couple of possibly related cases. Frozen Tracks illustrates a principle of the mystery or crime novel that I've mentioned before (the novel moves forward by delaying the resolution rather than marching toward it) but also a distinctive feature in the genre: there's no corpse until very late in the novel. That second, distinctive, feature helps Edwardson build tension through the first, universal, principle of delay: the children under threat in this story remain under threat, rather than showing up early on as candidates for autopsy. The daily lives of the cops (which I've mentioned several times as an element that I think many crime novels, including Edwardson's, concentrate on too much) are here used effectively as extensions of the primary plot (glosses, if you will, on the primary thread, which has to do with families and their ills). But the tension in the novel is very frustrating in its reliance on dramatic irony (the theatrical device in which the audience knows more about what's going on than the actors). Very early on, we see (through a policeman's eyes) a key clue to the resolution of the central investigation, but the police themselves do not return to that clue for a few hundred pages. Similarly, we see a good bit of the action from the point of view of one of the perpetrators, so that we know more about what's going on than the police. But there is an inexorability about the criminal's progress as well as that of the police that draws the reader on, almost breathlessly, to the rapid (almost abrupt) conclusion in the last chapter. The plot: two crimes; several young men walking alone are attacked with a blow to the head from behind--they neither see nor hear their attacker; and several children are briefly abducted and then returned to the vicinity of their daycare facilities. The police are clear about the significance of the attacks on the young men (though none of the blows are fatal), but the children are the only witnesses to the child abductions, and no one is sure that they are telling the truth rather than fabricating stories. Only as the abductor escalates his pattern do the detectives move into high gear. There is a bit more teamwork in Frozen Tracks than I remember in the earlier novels featuring Edwardson's Gothenburg detective, Erik Winter, and in that feature of this novel as well as the social conscience of the book, Frozen Tracks reminds me a bit more of the Sjöwall-Wahlöö novels of the '70s (that's a good thing, I would say, though the Scandinavian crime writers must find that comparison both inevitable and annoying). the tone is a bit different from the S-W books, which are in their own particular way very pessimistic and dark (they are among the most noir of police procedurals). Edwardson keeps more of a balance between the sunnier and more shadowy aspects of society and the family, possibly more suitable for today's reader but in a way less philosophical or less "deep" than their predecessor. But lacking any unlikely discovery of unpublished S-W books (or Maj Sjöwall's unlikely return to the roman policier), Edwardson will do very well as compensation.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Barcelona and Pepe Carvalho

I still have Offside to read, but have worked my way through all the rest of Manuel Vazquez Montalban's Carvalho books (such as have been translated in any case). The earliest (or earliest to be translated) is The Angst-Ridden Executive, the closest of the novels to the end of the Franco regime and the first glimpse of the pessimism or disillusionment with democracy in Barcelona that characterizes the series as a whole. Carvalho's previous life in the CIA is also explained here a bit more fully than in later novels. First one and then another executive of a multinational corporation are killed, and there are hints of both corporate corruption and political collusion (plus ça change, as the French say). If later novels (and in particular An Olympic Death) bemoan the redevelopment (or destruction) of the city for the Olympics, the earlier ones, in particular The Angst-Ridden Executive, provide plenty of evidence that the city needed some cleaning up. Executive includes a hint of the metafictional quality of the series: a film director interviewed by Carvalho (one of the angst-ridden and deceased executive's friends) describes a film he'd like to make--and the plot is that of a later book in the series, Southern Seas.

In that book, one of the more philosophical in the series, a rich developer dreams of escaping to the South Seas, but instead goes underground in a seedy housing development that he built himself. Themes of bourgeois guilt, Marxist sympathies, and the real interests and points of view of the working classes are portrayed with empathy and specificity as elsewhere in the series, but in Southern Seas with exceptional clarity and sadness. There's a bit of animal cruelty in this book that you can smell from a mile away, when the animal is first introduced--adding an element of sadness that Vazquez Montalban will return to again and again, even in references to this specific animal, in later books. Another example of returning characters and themes occurs in An Olympic Death (which does not in fact deal directly with the Olympics at all, but with the demolition and construction leading up to it--and that only tangentially). In that book, a beautiful woman asks Carvalho to find "the man of my life," which is the title of the last Carvalho novel--and the woman (as well as the young woman at the center of Southern Seas) returns both in the "present" of that novel as well as in excerpts from the earlier books.

For a notorious book-burner, Carvalho demonstrates great respect for his fictional milieu. Two more comments--one about milieu and, first, one about the book burning. It originally shocked me when Carvalho pulled a book off the shelf and began tearing it up for kindling. Now, a bit older myself, I understand the impulse on several levels. While constitutionally incapable of destroying a book myself, I feel the same weight of a library carried forward through the years, and some of the same weariness with the published philosophies and discussions that I once found essential. The other comment, about milieu: some of the real places that Carvalho visits no longer exist, and others have changed. Barcelona is still a beautiful city, though it has lost some of the character that Vazquez Montalban treasured and portrayed. It's quite interesting to read the novels during and after a visit to Barcelona, because a historical, even geological, layer of the city's life and history are revealed behind and beneath the tourist-crowded plazas and buildings that embody the city's charm. Vazquez Montalban provides not a tourist guide to Barcelona and Catalonia, but a portrait that is at once narrow and in great depth. I'm motivated to go back to the other Barcelona crime novels that I've reviewed here to see if any will capture a view of the city that measures up to Vazquez Montalban's, even in part.