Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ice Moon, by Jan Costin Wagner (Finnish/German)

I set aside Jan Costin Wagner's Ice Moon for a while, not too tempted by the descriptions I'd read (concerning alternating chapters from the cop's and the killer's point of view) or the fact that it's about Finland but written by a German. But Ice Moon is in fact worth the wait: it's an excellent crime novel in a style that is a bit like Henning Mankell, in the simple, almost flat, prose and the introspection of the troubled and lonely detective. But Wagner's prose is ultimately more poetic than Mankell's without sacrificing simplicity or directness. The detective is Kimmo Joentaa, whom we meet at the moment his wife is dying of cancer. His grief and gradual reconciliation with life is an arc of the novel that criss-crosses with two characters whose lives are deteriorating rapidly, the killer and the chief of detectives, Joentaa's boss. We do see through the killer's eyes, as well as several victims and other characters, but without the lurid voyeurism that we have seen in some serial killer books. And the points of view do not alternate: When more is happening in Joentaa's life and in the investigation, we get sequential chapters from the detective's point of view, with attention returning to the killer when more is happening there. The balance is much more effective than a simple alternation. Because we know what the killer is doing, we recognize the clues that the police are overlooking, and part of the book's tension is the anticipation of Joentaa's realization of what he is hearing and looking at: this isn't a mystery, it's part police procedural and part character study, with the murders and the resolution both growing organically from what we know about Joentaa, the killer, and other characters, and with visual and spoken/thought metaphors reinforcing the story and the lives of the people we meet. Ice Moon is compelling and complex, drawing the reader into worlds that are not alien but recognizable (perhaps seeming more normal because of the simple prose style), and all the more effective for the ordinariness of Joentaa's grief, his boss's erratic behavior, and the killer's descent into his private vortex. Compliments are due the translator, John Brownjohn, for a lucid and evocative translation from the German--I'd be interested to know, from German speakers who've read the original, whether the directness and flatness of the prose are an effective transformation of the style of the original German.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Crime, ghosts, spirits, politics: Olivier Pauvert & Colin Cotterill

Crime fiction sometimes has metaphysical or supernatural overtones, as in Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead, reviewed here recently. But I’m usually not much of a fan of outright supernatural occurrences in what is otherwise noir writing. There are two distinct types of supernaturalism in noir (at least), a post-apocalyptic sci-fi sort of thing and intrusion of the supernatural into ordinary life—the first exemplified by Olivier Pauvert’s Noir (from France) and the other by the Laotian series by Colin Cotterill. Pauvert’s Noir is a dystopia, but not in the rational, straightforward style of 1984 or Brave New World. Pauvert’s beautifully written novel evokes instead the “end of the world” or after-death narratives of Flann O’Brien (The Third Policeman), Mervyn Peake (the third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy) and some of the writers invoked by the publisher’s blurbs (J.G. Ballard, Michel Houellebecq, and Kathy Acker). The narrator is somehow involved in the gruesome death of a young woman, and after being arrested is in a police van that crashes, killing all aboard. The rest of the book is a phantasmagorical vision of a France after the election of a radical right-wing government, wherein Spirits of the dead who are somehow still linked to the world mingle with police patrols and outcast Black revolutionaries (the literal source of the novel’s title) in revolt against the government that has banned them from daylight. The book is episodic, as the narrator moves from place to place attempting to find out how he is implicated in the girl’s murder, and how he has moved 12 years into the future (a device that seems to rub the narrator’s nose in the fact that he had voted for the government that has now become a racist dictatorship. The story is part thriller, and part political allegory, and the conclusion fails t resolve the real-world situation, veering instead into an almost Greek notion of entering the afterlife reminiscent also of Wyndham Lewis’s Childermass. The book, in the end, is interesting as a piece of writing and as a cautionary political tale, but it lacks the focus, structure, and forward motion of a crime novel (whether a “contemporary” or a “sci-fi” version of the crime novel). Colin Cotteril new “Dr. Siri Investigation” (as the cover announces) is Curse of the Pogo Stick, and it, too is part thriller and part political allegory, but also part Carlos-Castañeda-like tour of the spirit world. The Siri series always balances a rational outer world and a world of spirits, both in the story and in the personality of the only coroner in Communist 1970s Laos. Pogo Stick has very little plot (the two strands of the story concern a) a villainess from a previous novel who is out to get Siri and his associates and b) a Hmong village where a kidnapped Siri is pulled into becoming a shaman in the person of the spirit who has persistently haunted him throughout the series. The “villainess” plot is sketchy and the “shaman” plot isn’t really concerned with crime (it’s about persecuted Hmong villagers, their animistic culture, and Siri’s struggle with (literally) his inner demons. If you’ve read and liked the previous Cotterill books, you’ll probably like this one—the “otherworld” is more prominent here, and Siri’s relationship with his new bride and his assistants in the morgue are developed bit further. But it’s not the place to start with the series: the earlier books are more concerned with crime and with the larger problems of Laos in the ‘70s, and the emphasis on spirits here could be off-putting if you’re not already accustomed to the dual worlds of Dr. Siri.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arlene Hunt: Black Sheep

Black Sheep is Arlene Hunt's third crime novel and her second in a series featuring Dublin private investigators Sarah Kenny and John Quigley. I'm just discovering Hunt's fiction, so I can't yet say anything about the series as a whole, or about her first, stand-alone, novel (False Intentions), but Black Sheep is an interesting amalgam of crime fiction styles: part George Pelecanos, part Sophie Hannah, part Vincent Banville (whose crime novels feature the purest hard-boiled detective in Irish fiction so far), and even part Maeve Binchey (a comparison inevitably suggested by the portrait of Kenny's middle-class Dublin family problems). Though the novel starts off a bit slowly, the various strands of the plot each developing more or less independently, the story builds to a very fast and violent final 100 pages on par with some of the best noir fiction being produced today and reminiscent of some of the best noir film. The last 30 pages are so are a bit of an anticlimax, and there's an epilogue that's really only there as a hook to lure the reader on to Hunt's next novel, but overall Black Sheep is effective and fun. The story concerns a young girl's body discovered in the forest, a middle-aged man drowned under a bridge, and the people who get sucked into the maelstrom around those two events, including the detectives, a gangsta-wannabe and his twin brother (the wannabe is the source of my comparison to Pelecanos), a genuine Dublin gangster, a fence and his father, and the friends of the drowned man. There are some coincidences linking various strands of the plot, and there's really not much mystery about what happened--the interest in the novel is in following the impact of bad decisions leading to more bad decisions leading to awful consequences. The conclusion offers little solace to anyone (other than some characters in a comic subplot), and the portrait of human character, contemporary Ireland, and the larger culture are pretty bleak; but the concentration on ordinary individuals caught in the misery and on their frequently inappropriate actions is moving and cogent: genuinely noir and a different style but a valuable addition to the stream of high quality crime fiction coming out of Ireland today.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Best Crime Fiction Reads of 2008 (Kerrie's Challenge)

Kerrie of Mysteries in Paradise ( has proposed that her readers submit a best reads of 2008 list (crime fiction we've read in 2008, regardless of publication date) and I'm cross-posting my list here as well as in a comment on her blog. But here, I'm including comments on a few items on the list (and here as in the cross-post I can't resist listing some films & TV shows as well):

* Peter Temple, Bad Debts (I'd have listed The Broken Shore but I read it at the end of 2007--Bad Debts was the first I got my hands on from his other series, also excellent)
* Giancarlo De Cataldo, Crimini (best anthology of the year)
* Jo Nesbø, The Devil’s Star (I re-read this one after the immediately previous novels in this series were published in English--and The Devil's Star, excellent though it was on first reading, is even better on second reading, with the background of the story finally filled in by the publication of the earlier books)
* Dominique Manotti, Lorraine Connection (not a police procedural, but as excellent in its own way as her police procedural series)
* John McFetridge, Dirty Sweet (the first of this Canadian writer's books will stand in for both novels released so far, each equally excellent)
* Håkan Nesser, Mind’s Eye (the first of the Inspector Van Veeteren novels but only released in the U.S. after two others)
* Jakob Arjouni, Kismet (German crime of a pure noir sort)
* Magdalen Nabb, Vita Nuova (regrettably the last of the Marshall Guarnaccia novels, and perhaps the best of them)
* Carlo Lucarelli, Via Delle Oche (the end of the De Luca trilogy)
* Arnaldur Indridason, Arctic Chill (this is the title from this excellent Icelandic series released here this year--any of the series would be among the best books of whatever year it was released)
* Allan Guthrie, Savage Night (comic, violent, rapid)
* Adrian Hyland, Diamond Dove (fully realized social context, characters, story, as with the other Australian novel on my list, but in a different vein)

* Proof (the Irish TV series
* The Wire (the HBO series, and maybe the best police procedural ever on TV)
* The Brush Off, director Sam Neill (from Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan novel, and a better film than the first of the Whelan movies adapted for TV by Neill, The Brush Off)
* Jar City (Myrin), director Baltasar Kormákur (from Arnaldur Indridason's Erlendur novel, and a wonderful bleak adaptation of the original
Noise, director Matthew Saville (not an adaptation, but an offbeat, off-center movie about a cop's personal and professional difficulties)
* Pars Vite et Reviens Tard, director Regis Wargnier (from Fred Vargas's Adamsberg novel, maybe not a great movie but a good adaptation of a series that is difficult to encapsulate in a film)
* In Bruges, director Martin McDonagh (black humor of the first rank)
The Lookout, director Scott Frank (pure old-fashioned noir that turns a character who would have been a minor figure in an old-fashioned noir story into the central figure, as he grasps for the limits of a life and a world narrowed by tragedy)
* And an old movie I saw again this year that has to be the all-time worst adaptation from a great crime novel, The Laughing Policeman, 1974, director Stuart Rosenberg, a travesty of the wonderful Sjöwall-Wahlöö book, and one of the worst cop movies ever.

Both lists are restricted by the time-limit: There should be more from Ireland and Sweden that show up here, but I actually read more of the excellent books from those two countries before this year. You may notice that there are 2 books and 2 films from Australia on the list: only a hint of the excellent crime fiction coming out of that country.
Comments? Agree or disagree?
And Happy New Year!

A Not So Perfect Crime, by Teresa Solana

Do most readers look at reviews or blurbs or the descriptive copy on the back of a paperback (or the inside of the dustcover of a hardback) before starting to read a book? I try not to, because I like to be surprised, and I like to discover the characters in the midst of their own world rather than in the "outside world" of a reviewer's (or a book promoter's) notion of who they are. I didn't read much about Teresa Solana's newly translated (from the Catalan, by Peter Bush) before I read the novel, but I found myself looking at reviews after I finished reading it (something I usually don't do until I've given some thought to what I might say about the book in a review myself): A Not So Perfect Crime does not fit neatly into any category of crime fiction, and the particular pleasures of reading the book are not easy to describe or to pin down. At one level, the book is a lot of fun, with some very telling Hitchcock references, for example, and in numerous passages, Solana gives a very palpable sense of walking through Barcelona and walking into various kinds of uniquely Barcelona rooms and buildings. Solana's book is on the one hand a straightforward detective story, of the inexperienced-detective-in-over-his-head type. Eduard and his fraternal twin brother Pep (who adopted a new identity under the name Borja) have struggled into middle age, each in a different way, Eduard (the narrator) leading a conventional office-worker's life with wife and family and not quite getting to the end of the month on their paychecks; Borja arriving in the novel's present and back in Barcelona after a more bohemian life traveling around Europe and the world. Borja has convinced Eduard to both keep concealed the fact that they're brothers and join with him in an unincorporated, unlicensed business specializing in discreet investigations. What follows is an intriguing satire of Barcelona society and politics, as well as a serio-comic crime story leading from a politician suspicious of his wife to murder and an unlikely and unconventional success in solving the puzzle of the crime. But what pulls the reader forward isn't the puzzle: Eduard and Borja (plus Eduard's wife Montse, Borja's romantic attachments, and various characters from Catalan high and low society) are great company, and the writing is lucid and impeccable--and Eduard's voice as narrator is that of an ordinary guy who's gotten himself into a situation he can't control. There is a farce lurking in the plot but Solana doesn't foreground it in the way that Ottavio Cappellani does in his Sicilian Tragedee; Solana's switched paintings, blackmailed politicians, and hidden identities remain tantalizingly under control, subservient to an almost matter-of-fact, naturalistic style. The central characters are in some senses right out of the hard-boiled detective playbook, but they turn out to be fascinatingly normal, three dimensional rather than clichéd. And the jealousies, strategies, and crimes are the stuff of daily life and conflicting social class rather than the overheated stuff of serial killers or international conspiracies: Solana's writing is cool and straightforward and her plotting and characters are right off the ordinary streets, schools, political offices, and new-age clinics of a contemporary city (albeit a unique and fascinating one). Some of the elements of farce do resolve themselves in subtle comedy, and others remain cloaked in secrecy: did Borja change his name only to masquerade as aristocracy (there seems to be more to it than that); why does Borja refuse to let Eduard tell even his wife that they're related? Such basic conundrums suggest the beginning of a series (which I'd wholeheartedly welcome), in which the mysteries would play a part (or find a solution), but they also give the novel as it stands a depth beyond its glimmering surface. A Sicilan Tragedee is a laugh-out-loud comedy of modern but murderous manners; A Not So Perfect Crime is a wry, subtle comedy of satire and character, that also manages to be a noir crime novel that comments on the mores and morals of 21st century Spain. Solana's book is a great complement to the other outstanding Barcelona crime novels that have been translated, from Manuel Vázquez Montalbán and Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett (who both write in Spanish) to Maria Antonia Oliver (who like Solana writes in Catalan, but whose only Barcelona mystery to be translated is Study in Lilac). More of Vázquez Montalbán has just come out in English from Serpent's Tail, and Europa Editions has been steadily adding to the Gimenez-Bartlett novels available in English, and now Bitter Lemon has given us Teresa Solana's first book. Can we hope for more from Barcelona, from these and other writers?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Crime, comedy, satire, and Happy Holidays

I'm having an Irish Christmas, in terms of reading material. I just finished Garbhan Downey's Running Mates and I'm starting Arlene Hunt's Black Sheep. But first, in honor of all the dark Scandinavian crime fiction we've all been reading this year (and the Wallander films in Swedish and in English that some of us have seen recently), I just rediscovered a film from 30 or 40 years ago that has a certain reckless charm. It's De Düve, the famous parody of Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal (you can see it on-line at various places, including Though Bergman did a genuine Christmas movie (Fanny and Alexander) and at least one horror film (Hour of the Wolf) along with lots of stories of crimes of various sorts, he was a noir-filmmaker only in the broader sense of "noir": but for a Scandinavian crime parody, De Düve will have to do for now (though as far as I can tell, there are only 2 genuine Swedish words in either the soundtrack or the subtitles). There's a very young Madeleine Kahn in it briefly. If anyone knows of Scandinavian crime comedies or parodies, please let us know!
Downey's Running Mates is satire, rather than parody, but very funny. It's technically a crime novel, I guess, since there is copious murder, but it's at least as much a story of star-crossed lovers (middle-aged ones). There are lots of references in it that non-Irish readers will find puzzling, particularly the calculations of political hacks regarding the Irish proportional voting system. There are also a number of characters who have shifted careers from terrorism to straightforward gangsterism, but all of them are so much fun to be with that we wish them no harm (and in fact most of the unpleasant characters fall foul of a certain murderer's attention). Satire isn't always funny, and good satire is a difficult trick--Downey manages both, and with enough plot to keep the whole thing moving forward through a series of conversations among various groupings of the politicians, gangsters, journalists, bartenders, etc.--at first it's a little hard to tell who's who or which ones are the important ones, but it all becomes gradually clear. Highly recommended. Happy Holidays to everyone out there in crime-blog-land!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Acqua Alta and Donna Leon

After being in Venice for Acqua Alta last week, I read Donna Leon's early Guido Brunetti novel, Acqua Alta, which is a bit more operatic than most of her stories--appropriately, since opera is one of the big topics of the novel. Leon describes very well the annoyance and the strangeness of flooding in Venice--Brunetti goes into a bar where the staff goes on about its business despite several inches of water inside the bar, much less the even higher water outside. I'm pasting in several photos here of water in a shopping street and inside our hotel, plus the metal or wooden platforms that are placed strategically to make it easier for people to get through flooded lobbies or campos or piazzas. There is certainly no place like Venice--and no place where the natives so easily take flooding in their stride. The Brunetti Acqua Alta book is about that resilience in the face of extreme difficulty, but also about ethics, in the realm of art and art theft as well as the Italian non-compliance with the law as in Leon's other novels. What's different here is a mafia-related kidnapping and rescue attempt with overtones of a more conventional beautiful-woman-threatened plot (but Leon's plots are in the end never conventional). I've heard that there are tour operators who now plan trips to Venice explicitly designed to give tourists an Acqua Alta experience--not necessarily something that I would set out to do, but certainly a unique trip. And a very wet Venice is still Venice, after all. There are more of my "holiday pics" at, if you're interested.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Echoes from the Dead, by Johan Theorin

There's been a lot of positive press about Swedish author Johan Theorin's debut novel, Echoes from the Dead, so I don't need to provide a lot more of the same--suffice it to say that it's a very good book, and quite different from most of the rest of the Swedish crime wave. It's set on Öland, off the coast of northern Småland, a mostly rural area. There are elements of the amateur detective story and the cozy (a grandfather living in an assisted living facility is investigating the disappearance and probable murder, 20 years earlier, of his grandson. But there are also elements of the psychological crime novel (the missing boy's mother is the initial focus of the novel, in her self-destructive obsession with her son) and of the serial killer or pedophile story. But what's distinctive is that Theorin is looking for an equivalent for the folk tale or ghost story within the framework of a realistic crime novel. The "troll" of the book is Nils Kant, a murderer who disappeared decades earlier but remains in the community's memory as part ghost, part "boogey man," and possible child murderer, with rumors that he is not actually buried in his coffin in the graveyard. Ghosts seem to occupy his deceased mother's abandoned, decrepit house. The "alvar," te grassy plain of the island, becomes a haunting character itself. The chapters of the book loosely alternate among the perspectives of the mother, the grandfather, and the troll. There are a number of references to second sight and other paranormal perceptions, but more as metaphor than as plot points. The reader's perception of all three of the main characters shifts as we know more about them: the mother becomes less obsessed, the grandfather less senile, the troll more human. Gradually, as if in a focusing lens, contemporary reality takes the place of the ghosts, trolls, and animism that are close to the surface at the beginning and become metaphorical tropes by the end. In a sense, Echoes from the Dead is about storytelling, and more than once, the grandfather draws out the narrative of his investigation as he talks to his daughter, and delays also the reader's knowledge of his suspicions regarding past events. The final step out of fairy tale menace into ordinary human motives may be a bit startling, and a reader's satisfaction with the conclusion may depend on his or her expectations along that myth-mystery scale. But Theorin's tale is a complex intertwining of a straightforward story of loss, a rational investigation of the past, and a passage through the nightmare world of the old stories--it's fascinating to watch the story twist and turn through all of its facets. Theorin is another in a seemingly bottomless pool of sophisticated and effective Scandinavian crime writers.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

The Vampire of Ropraz, by Jacques Chessex

Based on a true story, The Vampire of Ropraz (published in English by Bitter Lemon Press with translation by W. Donald Wilson) is a hybrid of folk tale, allegory, literary Surrealism, and crime story. Jacques Chessex’s book shares some ground with Nosferatu (the first vampire movie), The Return of Martin Guerre, the Wild Child of Aveyron, Kosinksi’s The Painted Bird, the dark strain of French literature (the grotesqueries of Georges Batailles and Blaise Cenrars, who is not only cited in the book but becomes a character) and the crime novels of Fred Vargas (though her Medieval and foltale plots usually veer toward realist solutions before the end), and Friedrich Glauser (in the dark and atavistic countryside of several of his books, especially The Spoke). All of that in a mere 106 pages of large type, plus there’s a very large twist at the end. The story is fairly straightforward: In fairly quick succession, three women’s bodies are exumed in the night from their fresh graves and the bodies are mutilated and sexually violated. Casting around for suspects, the authorities seize upon a young man discovered in an act of bestiality with farm animals, and the young man becomes the center of public outcry (“Kill the Vampire”), legal proceedings, sexual fascination, and psychological study. He is ultimately sentenced to life in prison, incarcerated instead in an asylum, escapes, and dies in World War I as a soldier of the French Foreign Legion. The style alternates between documentary, poetry, and fictional narrative in reconstruction of, alternately, rough outlines of the story and intimate imaginings of fiction and dialogue. Altogether, the novel is a fast and intense experience, and no one should let the literary precedents and overtones put them off: Chessex never loses sight of the true story at the center of his narrative, and the spooky quality of the novel resonates with the core of human nature rather than with supernatural speculations. The final ironic twist, whether speculation or invention on the author’s part, carries the story out into everyday political and social experience. Several of Chessex’s other novels have been available in English for some time, but none had appealed to me—they appeared to be oppressive in theme and style. I’ll have to check them out now, but I have a suspicion that the germ of reality in The Vampire of Ropraz both anchors it in naturalism and intensifies the strange fascination of the story. If anyone can link this book to Chessex’s others, I’d love to hear.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A Sicilian crime farce

I expect there are not many readers who have wondered what a crime novel by Ronald Firbank might have been like. Much less a Mafia vendetta à la Firbank. But in Ottavio Cappelani's newly translated (by Frederika Randall) Sicilian Tragedee, that's pretty much what you get. The new novel is more coherent than Ottaviani's previous, funny, violent Who Is Lou Sciortino, but with the same large and diverse cast of characters drawn from 21st century Catania, a not-quite-post-Mafia realm full of not only Mafiosi but also lots of gay men, jealous wives, marriageable daughters, and scheming bureaucrats. If you aren't familiar with Firbank, he's definitely an acquired taste: brittle, fey comedy full of absurdity and esoteric wit, from the 1920s, with sparklingly silly dialogue and plots that are at once extremely simple and almost opaque. What Ottaviani's prose shares with Firbanks is the funny, theatrical dialogue interspersed with oblique narrative and description. What Ottaviani adds to Firbank is one of the funniest murders in recorded (literary) history, plus a lampoon of Romeo & Juliet that circles around (and around and around) a codpiece joke, a lot of Mafia scheming, a lot of which is actually good old-fashioned matchmaking between rival families (Romeo being in this case one mafioso and Juliet the daughter of another). The book takes a while to get going, partly because of the oblique quality of the writing (cinematic in some ways, one reviewer likened the text to a screenplay). But about halfway through, once your ear is attuned and things start to get rolling, the weird and violent comedy becomes compelling in its own odd way. This book may not be for every reader of crime fiction (and it's definitely not noir), but it's definitely something different. Following Ottaviani's characters (gay and straight, mobsters and schemers) down their strange (but also very familiar) paths and you'll get is a very funny, crude, sophisticated, Firbankian ride.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

La Serenissima in noir film and fiction

I've been reading Donna Leon lately, preparing for a quick trip to Venice in a couple of weeks (I'm speaking at a conference there on December 12th), and tonight I also watched the quintessential movie of wintry Venice, Don't Look Now, directed by Nicholas Roeg and starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie (from the mid-1970s). First, the movie: I don't know of another film that is told almost entirely with visual elements. The dialogue is often quiet and always oblique, sometimes in Italian with no subtitles. The original short story by Daphne DuMaurier provides only a suggestion of a story, and Roeg fills it out with visual metaphor, such as the frame I'm pasting in here, showing a blotch on a photo of the inside of a church--a blotch that is extremely important visually in the film but impossible to explain in any rational, linear narrative.

Venice is a central character, with its narrow, dead-end alleys, winding canals, and propensity for getting you lost. Don't Look Now is a horror story, a detective thriller, and a story of love and loss, but all of the above are told obliquely, almost off-stage, building slowly to a violent conclusion that is related to what's gone on earlier mostly in overlapping images. I can explain further, but too much explanation ruins the fragile structure (and pleasure) of the movie. I have a personal connection to the film, as well: When my wife and I were as young (and skinny) as Sutherland and Christie in the film, we were standing at the Accademia stop on the vaporetto (water bus) line in Venice and saw two magnificent funeral boats (all shiny black, with gold trim) pulling up to the dock, where a film crew was waiting for them. A year or so later, when we went to see Don't Look Now, we saw the scene again, in the movie--this was what we saw being filmed, without knowing. My connection to Donna Leon is more off and on. I was a big fan when she was first published in the U.S., and desperate to get her newer books in the period when she had a dispute with her American publisher and was unavailable here. When the books started becoming available again, I lost interest a bit, somehow finding the typical pattern of the novels (ineviably ending with cynicism about the possibiltiy of justice rather than any more typical "satisfying" conclusion to her the story. But I've started reading her again, rereading the early novels and catching up with the newer ones, and I have to say that she is both unique among crime writers and head and shoulders above most. No one has evoked the physical and social reality of Venice as well as Leon, and her plots are as devious and twisting as the streets and canals of the city. her cynicism (or that of her detective, Guido Brunetti, are the logical outcome of not only Venice and Italy but also a world that was rapidly globalizing as she has been writing. The comedy of the novels also seems to me now to be a more essential element, not only the dark comedy of the bleak conclusions but the brighter comic touches in Brunetti's interaction with his grasping, incompetent boss and his own lively (and more sympathetic) cohorts Sergeant (and then Commissario) Vianello and Signorina Elettra (plus his vividly drawn family). I won't talk about any specific novels now, I'm interested at the moment in acknowledging her importance to the field of crime fiction and the unique pleasure of reading her stories. If anyone has any other suggestions as to the best (out of the many) crime novels and films set in Venice, please post them here--I'd love to find other examples, though I'm also happy to stand behind my opinion of the film and the author I'm proposing as two of the very best examples.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Grace Brophy, A Deadly Paradise

First, the second book in Grace Brophy's "Commissario Cenni" novels set in Umbria is better than the first one, The Last Enemy (which I reviewed here some time ago). A Deadly Paradise is set mostly in and around Perugia, with excursions to Venice and Rome, and the Italian setting is evoked effectively, without overdoing the local color. Cenni's bristly personality is also effective, and his interaction with other police is mostly with his assistant, Elena, and his boss (a typical grasping and ambitious Questore, or top cop, from so many police detective novels). But I had difficulty getting involved very much in the plot itself: the victim and her circle all are believable characters but unpleasant without quite rising to actual evil. Nazi counterfeit pound notes are dragged into it, along with Venetian aristocrats, the Red Brigades, several cats, nosy neighbors, a hermaphrodite, and a romance sub-plot regarding the Commissario's long-lost girlfriend (glimpsed, of course, from the deck of a passing vaporetto on the Grand Canal). It's actually not quite as overheated as my list suggests, and for long passages the story is entertaining and colorful; but as the main plot crept toward its conclusion, I find that I just didn't care who the murderer was, who got the dying aristocrat's money, or whether Cenni gets to pursue that elusive former lover or has to wait for the next novel in the series. What Brophy has in mind, I think, is a combination of Donna Leon's Brunetti series and Andrea Camilleri's Montalbano series, of Venice and Sicily respectively--but in both those cases the complex plots wind inexorably to a satisfying resolution (whether justice is served or not). Brophy's story doesn't have that quality of inevitability nor the dailiness of a procedural's investigation. Comparing this series to those of Leon and Camilleri may not quite be fair, and Brophy's Umbria is certainly coming alive in this book--but I didn't get that sense of regret and satisfaction that finishing a Commissario Montalbano can provide, nor the sense of almost gleeful pessimism about the elusiveness of justice that Leon often serves up in her conclusions. I'm interested to see where Brophy goes from here, though.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Sophie Hannah's forthcoming The Other Half Lives

All fiction is about creating worlds with words, but crime fiction is about competing realities and the conflicts and ironies (not to mention violence) created by them. Sophie Hannah's crime novels are about various voices, each creating a reality: one is always in the first person, the voice of a woman who struggles to reconcile her world with some kind of dissonance or create a strategic alternate reality. In the other half of the story, DS Charlie Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse struggle to bring the alternate realities of the first-person narrator and the crime into coherence with "official" reality, while also struggling to bring their own personal realities into some relation to each other. In her not-yet-published The Other Half Lives, even more than in her earlier novels, competing realities are conjured by talk, often in oblique conversations that reveal the distance between the various characters' points of view on what's real. Ruth and her boyfriend Aidan have concealed from each everything important about their lives. When he challenges her to reveal a secret (and not knowing that she has still concealed the most important fact about herself), he reciprocates by admitting that he once murdered a woman--but it's a woman that she happens to know is very much alive. We overhear their continuing lies to each other, to the police, and to everyone else they know. Even the action sequence in the violent conclusion moves forward mostly in alternating conversation and interior monologue. There are several suggestions through the novel of the analogies between fiction writing and the world-building that the characters are exercising in their talk and action, as well. The result is a sophisticated, spiraling narrative that investigates the motives (and the repercussions) of ordinary life, the extraordinary circumstances that interrupt our lives, and the language that we use to maintain reality and cope with exigencies. Along the way, Hannah also portrays a particular niche in the art world (some of her characters are artists, some are arts professionals or collectors)--in particular the hype that supports certain kinds of art and the consequences for an artist of turning his or her back on the overheated world of major collectors and art fairs. The artists are painters whose work is rather unfashionable, appreciated only by collectors and others who recognize their talent in forcefully depicting human narratives (suggesting the talent of the crime writer, in fact, in several ways). The one object that suggests the flashier part of the art market is in fact a vivid (but private) "installation work" that grows directly from the tortured mind of a central character in the drama (a complex "artwork" whose resonance might be envied by a lot of artists, in or out of the fashionable "scene"). Hannah keeps the story away from the celebrity-driven realm of art, mentioning the Saatchi Collection but not portraying it, for instance, so that her story doesn't get sidetracked into a potboiler thriller or a roman à clef sort of book--she wisely keeps her focus on the characters (both the ones specific to this story and the ones common to all her crime novels), whose voices are vivid and believable even when what they are saying is difficult for us (or the police) to believe. There are also some very funny sequences, as well as a character-based wit that has always been important in her fiction.

All in all, The Other Half Lives is a compelling novel that is sustained by clearly drawn characters and complex but controlled storytelling, rather than clichés of plot, genre, and action. Hannah never condescends to genre, though--all her novels are clearly crime fiction, though also very hard to categorize, having as they do elements of various forms within and beyond the genre, mixed together creatively. I don't have an image of the cover to post with this review--there's not one available yet. So here's a cover image of one of her poetry collections, which in fact has a very noir-sounding title. I'll add The Other Half Lives cover when the it shows up on-line and the book is closer to its release date.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Slovakian detective vs. criminal conspiracy: Siren of the Waters, Michael Genelin

From what little I knew in advance, I expected Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters, featuring Bratislava detective Jana Matinova, to be an East European police procedural--it's not that. Instead, it's a combination of that procedural with a Fantômas-like adventure, plus a post-Bond/post-Cold-War spy thriller (think of movies like The Transporter), and threaded among all of the above, a Milan Kundera-like story of Communist-era Czechoslovakia. No single thread dominates, with the result that the villainous conspiracy Jana gets involved in (concerning human trafficking) never quite comes into focus, but we hardly notice as the action shifts from Bratislava to Kiev to Strasbourg to Nice (at Carnival, no less), culminating in a costume ball (Carnival and the costume ball being part of what suggests the elegant crime novels of the early 20th century, including the Fantômas stories, as well as Bond). Just exactly why Jana gets pulled in all these directions is not all that clear, and there are lots of coincidences, but the whole thing is enough fun (among all the violence) to pull the reader along rapidly. Basically, Jana and her incompetent warrant officer, Seges, are called to an accident scene and find a number of female corpses plus one male corpse. The makeup of the group of victims suggests a pimp and prostitues, and following that lead brings Jana into a pan-European investigation of trafficking and into the view of at least two international gangs (as well as into the company of a detective in the Ukraine, a Russian cop, his sister, Jana's estranged daughter, and a bunch of people connected to the U.N.).
It takes a certain suspension of disbelief, and it's not a gritty urban noir (though it does have a dark sensibility), but having just read this first entry in a new series, I'm looking forward to next year's Dark Dreams, which promises to be just as wild a ride. There are some aspects, though, of the conclusion of Siren of the Waters that were not quite satisfactory to me, regarding both Jana's personal life and the final "reveal," though I can't really explain my reservations without giving away too much. If there's anyone reading this who has already read Siren of the Waters, I'd appreciate hearing from you what you thought of the book, and in particular of the ending--thanks in advance for your comments.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

A Grave in Gaza, Matt Beynon Rees

A schoolteacher in Bethlehem turns amateur detective, his daughter designs a website for his new trade, and family is the overriding value system--all that sounds like the foundation of a cozy mystery series. But Matt Beynon Rees's series featuring Omar Yussef Sirhan is set in Palestine, and there's enough intrigue, crime, gangsterism, infighting (not to mention the occupation) to fill dozens of noir crime novels. In the second book in the series, A Grave in Gaza, Omar Yussef enters Graham Greene territory (but bleaker): sent to the Gaza strip to inspect U.N. schools there, he becomes involved in a sequence of murder, torture, kidnapping, and misery that is not for the fainthearted reader. The plot is not tightly constructed, because there are too many villains and the corruption is too pervasive for a single, linear plot. There is instead a moving evocation, from a Palestinian teacher's point of view, of the grim realities in one of the most dangerous places on earth. There is, however, a neat twist at the end that not only draws together the various threads of the plot but also makes a human statement at odds with all the inhumane activity that has gone before.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Donna Leon, Suffer the Little Children

I'm lagging a little behind Donna Leon's publishing schedule. I read (or heard the audio version, actually) Through a Glass Darkly not too long ago, and just read (heard, again) Suffer the Little Children, published last year. I haven't quite caught up--The Girl of His Dreams came out a couple of months ago. Leon's novels of Venice, starring laconic Commissario Guido Brunetti, is unconventional in many ways, as evidenced by Suffer the Little Children. Though a reader knows that the two plots (concerning a pharmacist engaging in fraud and a baby-selling ring) will converge, they do so in unexpected ways. And as is usually the case in Leon's books, there's no gunplay, no dramatic arrest, and in this case not even a corpse. The opening is certainly dramatic, armed men breaking into an apartment and assaulting the inhabitants, but the conclusion is a dramatic twist of a sort that is vintage Leon--a twist that is a downbeat, tragic mistake (though involving justice of a sort, and her novels often end with no justice for the victims). Venality, righteousness, ideology, sympathy, and desperation are elements swirling around a sterile doctor desperate for a child, a self-righteous pharmacist who believes evil should be punished, a neo-fascist father-in-law, and the usual appearances of Brunetti's family and his associates (competent and incompetent) at the Questura. There is also Leon's usually comedy (often ironic), though Suffer the Little Children is more melancholy than funny--Through a Glass Darkly was the funniest of the series so far, at least of the ones I remember. I mentioned in my post about Through a Glass Darkly that I can't figure out why the reader, David Collacci in that book and Suffer the Little Children, renders all the dialogue in English with an Italian accent, which is both strange and a bit irritating. But the reading moves along briskly, and this and the previous novel proved good company on a road trip yesterday. I'll think I'll turn to printed rather than recorded books for my next Leon story, though.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Hurting Distance, by Sophie Hannah

Hurting Distance, Sophie Hannah's second novel featuring Detective Sergeant Charlotte "Charlie" Zailer and DC Simon Waterhouse, is in some ways a more conventional crime novel than the first and third entries in the series, but no less satisfying for that. Hurting Distance is just as complex as the other two, but the police have a bigger role (and Charlie has a much bigger role). Hannah alternates a first-person narrative from a victim or witness's point of view with a third-person narrative focusing on the detectives, and her first-person narrators are spectacularly unreliable (the unreliable narrator being a literary device more common in so-called "literary" fiction than in crime fiction, though there are numerous examples from Christies Roger Ackroyd forward). The whole structure of her first novel, Little Face, is built on the unreliable narrator, and the newest novel, The Point of Rescue, uses an unreliable diary narrative in a very clever way. The first-person narrative of Hurting Distance is certainly unreliable from the detective's point of view, she's lying constantly to them--but her narrative is addressed not to the reader or to the police but to her lover, who has disappeared. She tries to convince the Spilling CID to investigate, but her only evidence is that he's failed to show up for their regular Thursday tryst and when she went to his house, whatever she saw there gave her a panic attack. Faced with police who are barely going through the motions of an investigation, she comes up with another reason to look for him, based on an event buried in her past. In the process, she kicks off a series of events that leads into horror scenarios of dominance, rape, and multiple victims. Hannah is too good a writer, though, for these sensational and salacious elements of the story to descend into cliche. The humor (especially in the interaction among the detectives, several of whom are more fully characterized here than in the first novel) is more pronounced here than in Little Face, especially in the first half of the novel, and the sense of threat is also heightened. In fact, there's the genuine spark of a lively thriller in Hurting Distance, more so than in either of the other 2 Zailer/Waterhouse books so far. The more direct story line and livelier plot, though, don't take away from the high standard of writing that characterizes all of Hannah's work. The emotional complexity leads to twists in the story that resonate in power relationships that we will all recognize from our own lives, and though a reader may anticipate a few things before the police do, and there are interconnections among characters that tiptoe right up to the edge of credulity-straining coincedence, but there are still surprises in store right up to the end--and the realism of the characters encompasses and explains the coincidences. The emotional truths that Hannah leads her characters through also have devastating consequences for a number of characters, both recurring ones and those particular to this book. Taken together, all these factors create a propulsive forward motion and a memorable crime novel. Now I have to go back to The Point of Rescue and see how threads begun in Hurting Distance play out there, elements of the newer novel that I may not have "caught" because I didn't have access to the excellent second novel in the series before reading the also excellent but quite different third one (reviewed here some time ago).

Friday, October 31, 2008

Belated review of Little Face, by Sophie Hannah

I just got a copy of Sophie Hannah's second novel (the about-to-be-released-in-the-U.S. Hurting Distance) and realized that although I reviewed her third (The Point of Rescue, not yet released in U.S.) a while ago, I'd never reviewed her first (Little Face). Hannah uses a distinctive structure for her novels, alternating first-person narratives by someone involved in a crime (women, so far) with third-person narratives focusing on two detectives, Simon Waterhouse, and his sergeant, Charlotte "Charlie" Zailer in the English town of Spilling. It's OKfor a reader to start the series with later novels, but there's some backstory to Simon and Charlie's relationship that is more fully presented in the first book and retains importance in later books as part of their sometimes tense interactions. The first-person narrative, by Alice Fancourt in Little Face is as other reviewers have noted reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic feminist tale, The Yellow Wallpaper, in Hannah's use of the interior monologue of a woman in an oppressive household (in this case dominated by a mother in law) just after the delivery of her baby. But Hannah has given the story a twist appropriate for a paranoiac crime novel: Alice suddenly insists after returning from a short outing on her own that Florence, her baby, has been kidnapped and replaced with a look-alike. The police, though skeptical, become involved (and Simon becomes besotted with Alice), and the case of the perhaps-missing baby becomes intertwined with the earlier murder of the first wife of Alice's husband. Hannah keeps twisting the plot--nothing in this book is straightforward: once you've reached the conclusion, you'll be tempted to go back and reassess what you've just read (and if you do that, you will discover that Little Face is very carefully constructed, to support both the main character's paranoia and the final resolution). The setting and characters suggest that the book is a "cozy," but it's definitely not--Hannah's novel doesn't stay within any single genre (part thriller, part police procedural, part character study, even part comedy). It's impossible to say anything specific about the construction of the novel (or about the plot) without revealing too much and spoiling the book for a fresh reader. Suffice it to say that Hannah has established a pattern (and demonstrated her skill in exploiting it) that she is succesfully continuing in further novels (exploiting paranoia, as well as her structure and running characters, without repeating the plots or stories). We want to hear more about Simon and Charlie, and we also want to see what Hannah will come up with next--with the additional anticipation of finding another book by one of those writers who erase the boundaries between genres of crime fiction and call into question the ghettoization of crime writing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sandra Ruttan, the Frailty of Flesh

Imagine walking into a squadroom in an RCMP station in Greater Vancouver, and overhearing a couple of detectives discussing a case, not to explain it to you but to update one another on what's new without going over old ground. That's a bit like the dialogue in Sandra Ruttan's Nolan/Tain/Hart series, the second installment of which, The Frailty of Flesh, comes out this week. Ruttan doesn't spoon-feed the reader: what's happening in this complex plot is revealed slowly, not so much as the detectives reveal the truth in an objective way but as they update one another the details of the investigation. The result is a kaleidoscopic and at the same time realistic police procedural that gives a lot of space to the characters as they interact with each other, with the public, and with the victims and perpetrators of the crime. That structure is highly effective in involving readers in the story as they "overhear" the varied bits of the story but difficult to summarize in any coherent way without spoiling the experience for new readers. The Frailty of Flesh has a somewhat more straightforward plot than its predecessor (What Burns Within, which followed--at breakneck speed--arsons, child abductions, and rapes): here, the murder of a child reveals a family's deep dysfunction and the release of a murderer convicted of killing his girl friend raises questions of the motivation of the police, the emprisoned man, and the victim's family. Ashlyn Hart and Tain (whose use of a single name is explained in part in this book, along with a few other details about his closely guarded private life) are investigating the dead boy, whose sister has been implicated by the surviving brother. In this plot and in Nolan's investigation of the reopened murder case, there are a lot of suggestions (and outright depictions) of incompetence, coverups, and internal politics in the RCMP, some involving Nolan's father--and Nolan himself. The cases depicted in the earlier novel were not neatly resolved, leaving loose ends to be carried forward in this book--and this book also eschews a neat ending, either in the cases or the private lives of the main characters. Nolan and Hart are now involved personally, and a good deal of the interaction and the impact of the book is in the veering thoughts of those two as they anticipate and misunderstand each other. Tain's story is hinted at, perhaps to become the centerpiece of a future novel. Ruttan's splintered style and her three-pronged central cast create an unusually vivid crime story, with vividly rounded central characters who interact with a realism of partial truths, undisclosed agendas, poor communications, and emotional reticence: in other words, with behavior that we recognize from our own lives. What they discover about the crimes and criminals slowly emerges in patterns of abuse and distorted power relations within the family that are not grasped by those among the cops who are unwilling to struggle for understanding, leading to the tragic conclusions of the intersecting stories. Ruttan's complex web of dialogue and narrative leads us gradually deeper into the lives of those caught up in the crime, including the detectives, creating a distinctive and potent novel (and series). In the gap before the relase of further installments in the series it would be interesting to go back and reread the first two novels, to dig deeper into things only partly revealed about the three detectives and even about the cases already investigated. Ruttan's ability to pique the curiosity of the reader even about novels already read once (and even read recently) is a testament to the intricacy of her stories and the depth of her characters.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ken Bruen/Cross/Jack Taylor

As has been noted by a number of reviewers, Cross (like the five earlier novels in the Jack Taylor series) is not a traditional mystery or detective novel. The plots in this series seem to be an accumulation of misfortunes: if you think that what's happening now is the worst that can happen to Jack and his friends, you can depend on what's coming to be worse. The novels are short and told in short chapters (probably a mercy for the readers immersed in them, as much misery as they contain)--really more prose poetry than narrative. Bruen evokes an Ireland changing fast (and not for the better) and characters that are bypassed by the formerly (and now not so much) boom of the Celtic tiger. Bruen frequently mentions Charles Bukowski, who is really the guiding spirit of the series more than any of the crime writers that Bruen also often evokes--but since Taylor is now off the bottle, there's an inherent contradiction between the alcohol-soaked spirit of Bukowski and the sober but still down and out Taylor, a contradiction that Bruen exploits for the forward motion of his narrative (Taylor no longer lurching from one drunken encounter to another, but rather lurching from causing someone's death or misery to causing someone else's). And Taylor is truly a curse to himself and everyone around him. Most of the novel is in Taylor's voice, with a few chapters told from the point of view of a revenge-bound family on a collision course with Taylor. That revenge plot is only one of many threads (including stolen dogs, random strangers approaching Jack and then never seen again, the continuation of Jack's guilt over the death of his friends' child and his own protege, and so on). As with melancholy poetry, we don't look to a new Bruen novel for enjoyment but for a kind of catharsis or perhaps simply relief that we're not living his characters' lives, difficult as our own may be. Whether a particular reader appreciates what Bruen offers or not, we have to acknowledge that he's the reigning poet of noir.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

What Burns Within, by Sandra Ruttan

I've had Sandra Ruttan's first Nolan/Hart/Tain novel on my TBR pile for a while, and with the release of the second in the series this month, it's time for me to catch up. What Burns Within is a police procedural that takes very seriously the notion that a writer should "show" rather than "tell" a story: with a minimum of explanation and no introduction at all, Ruttan gives her story in dialogue among and interior monologues by each of the three main characters (detective constables in an RCMP station in greater Vancouver, each of whom has a different point of view and a different understanding of what's going on). The resulting story is revealed with clarity and rapid movement, rooted in the 87th precinct and Martin Beck's murder squad, but with a lot of Hill Street Blues, Third Watch, and The Wire mixed in, especially in terms of the pacing, which is very fast--I'm tempted to say cinematic, but that's not quite it. It's more like we the readers are running to catch up with investigators who are in a big hurry to reach their goals, with no time wasted on getting them from one place to another since each of them is working simultaneously. As we watch over their shoulders, the three cops become involved in three separate cases, serial arson, serial rape, and a series of missing and murdered children. One of the distinctive features of What Burns Within is that the reader is dropped in medias res: Nolan, Hart, and Tain, we learn gradually, had met in the course of an earlier disastrous investigation that left marks on all three, but we are not served up that case on a platter: we learn little bits and pieces as we listen to and learn about the characters--it's the characters that Ruttan cares about, not the back story, except as it has affected them and created a commonality among them. I won't summarize the plot any more than the little I have already suggested, because gradually working our own way into the story is one of the important parts of reading Ruttan's story: we see through the eyes of the three main characters as well as a few other cops, a few victims, and (very briefly) one of the people they're chasing. It's unusual, in my experience, for a writer to balance so many characters (and so many separate threads of investigation), as well as to focus on three characters without emphasizing any one of them: McBain shifted Carella to the narrative center, ultimately, Sjöwall and Wahlöö's characters are in orbit around Beck, and those TV series I mentioned hang their multiple casts on a few characters who are the moral and narrative center of the series. Craig Nolan, Ashlyn Hart, and Tain (nobody uses his other name) are equally important, and Ruttan keeps the intertwined cases going by giving each of the three their own process and focus. And just as you think that the plot is going toward a cliche, the story veers away into something completely different, revealing something new not only about the story but about the three cops and the other characters that you hadn't expected. The author's investigation of those characters and their struggles with the case and with each other (and with the chain of command, other cops, and recalcitrant citizens--guilty or not) is as much the real subject of What Burns Within as the investigation of the cluster of crimes. What Burns Within is a vividly told story with a propulsive forward motion and a very distinctive addition to the procedural wing of contemporary crime fiction. There turns out to be an advantage in my having been slow to get it to the top of my reading pile--now I don't have to wait impatiently for the publication date of The Frailty of Flesh, the second Hart/Nolan/Tain book (about which you'll soon be reading here).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Kate Atkinson, When Will There be Good News

Kate Atkinson's name was shorthand at the recent Bouchercon in Baltimore for a "mainstream" novelist who is doing crime fiction without bearing any of the burden of "genre fiction." Her third novel featuring former cop, former private detective Jackson Brodie, When Will There be Good News, isn't marketed as crime fiction by the publishers (see the covers of the U.S. and U.K. editions reproduced here). Neither cover says "a crime novel," "a mystery," or "a Jackson Brodie novel." And neither cover shows a crime situation. But all those things are publishers' choices: the novel itself seems unapologetic (and not condescending) in its use of crime tropes and crime novel conventions. For instance, almost anything I can say about the plot would be a spoiler. The novel contains a lot of mayhem (kidnapping, mobsters, drug dealers, a train wreck and a car crash, gruesome murders, violent self defense--and the story in fact begins with a mass murder that occurred in the "past" before shifting into the narrative present, rather in the fashion of a lot of crime fiction. Atkinson is more interested in the "surface" of her narrative than some crime writers (the pattern of language and metaphor) but there are certainly those who see themselves as crime writers who are equally concerned with style, texture, and metaphor (Sophie Hannah comes to mind--her first and third novels are fine examples of fiction, let alone crime fiction, and she was at Boucercon as a crime fiction author--her second novel has just been released in the U.S., out of order, and I've just acquired a copy so I'll be coming back to Hannah soon).

Atkinson uses perhaps more literary references than most crime writers, and I suspect that's one reason she's more often reviewed under a "mainstream" rubric: I have a theory that mainstream book reviewers are prone to giving positive reviews and "literary" designation to books that includeref erences that they will "get," references that the reviewers, at least, assume that "average readers" will need to have explained to them--giving the reviewers a chance to feel superior. However, Atkinson includes a lot of references of all kinds, to pop culture, to consumer goods (and in both those cases some of what she refers to is so U.K.-specific or even Scotland-specific that I have no idea what she's talking about), and the literary references are mostly not highbrow--in fact, the chief patterning device of the new novel is a series of nursery rhymes and traditional ballads and tales that are half-remembered by the characters (right up to the novel's concluding lines). With these motifs and the pop culture and literary references as well, a reader doesn't need to be too concerned about "getting" everything, they're just part of the richness of the book, no more or less than the devices and motifs in the best-written examples of crime fiction. Atkinson is funny in a very quiet (and occcasionally laugh-out-loud) way, in her various cultural references and most of all in the dialogue and the characters' interior monologues, and her underlying topic in the new novel (and the series as a whole) is the bad choices that people make in their relationships (another aspect she shares with crime and noir writing--what other segment of writing and publishing includes so many people making bad choices). The title, When Will There be Good News, is ironic, there not being much good news in the story, and her narrative progresses slowly through a series of encounters among the characters (told in alternating third-person interior monologues from the point of view of several characters), with occasional bursts of violent activity. But the humor, the richly drawn characters, and the mysterious quality of the spiralling coincidences in the plot, and the writer's habit of suddenly bringing in a fact or incident from the past that changes everything we think we know about the story (like a wife we didn't know existed, a previous connection among characters--things I can't be specific about without spoiling the experience of reading the book). Crime novel or not, When Will There be Good News is a very good novel, and rewards attention on many levels (it's possible to argue, for instance, that it's a comic, contemporary Gothic novel, with its many coincidences, impossible love, missed chances, and references to Wuthering Heights). And not least of its rewards are in its uses and subversions of the conventions and characters of the detective or police predural novel--Atkinson's book is up to the standard of the best of contemporary crime writing, so if some folks out there will read a Kate Atkinson novel but not pay attention to equally interesting books by Sophie Hannah, Gene Kerrigan, Arnaldur Indridason (refer to previous posts on this and other crime fiction blogs to keep this list of fine writers going for several pages at least) then its simply their loss (or our burden to spread the word about what a reader will miss by not paying attention to those fine crime fiction writers). The same applies, of course, to a reader who doesn't pick up Atkinson's Jackson Brodie books because they're packaged as "literary" rather than "crime" fiction.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Leighton Gage's 2nd, plus a bit on genre

One comment on the emphasis I seem to be putting on sub-genres like the thriller and the procedural, in the light of some discussion of genre and sub-genre at Bouchercon last weekend. I don’t expect writers to be “pure” in their use of the lines I’m drawing--to me, the genre and sub-genre distinctions are only shorthand descriptions I can offer when I’m recommending a book to another reader: if you have a particular taste for one kind of crime writing, you may not be a big fan of another kind (and the trash talk about cozies in Bouchercon is really only the trash that one segment of the readership is talking about another segment). A propos of that discussion and Bouchercon: One of the distinct threads running through “Charmed to Death” in Baltimore was “the Kate Atkinson phenomenon,” mentioned on several panels and in the hallways—shorthand for the use by so-called literary writers of crime-genre tropes and techniques, with a sense of condescension toward the genre by the mainstream press if not the writers themselves. My next “read” is K.A.’s new book, so I’ll be reporting on the Kate Atkinson phenomenon soon--and hoping for some comments and discussion.
Today’s book, though is Leighton Gage's new novel, due out in January. Gage’s major subject, in his series featuring Brazilian federal police chief inspector Mario Silva, is the income disparities and associated ills in Brazil (and in the third world). In this second novel, Buried Strangers, the depiction of this social and economic problem is more diverse, crossing back and forth between urban centers in São Paula and Brasilia, favelas, and small towns. The first half of the book is more police procedural, the reader following various detectives and seeing what's happening as if watching over their shoulders, and the last half is more thriller, with the reader privy to considerably more information than the cops--with some return to the procedural mode toward the end. The story is told in a complex manner, shifting from direct investigation of a group of bodies buried in a jungle-like park, to independent investigation by a local cop of Japanese descent, to Silva's investigation of the missing son of his housekeeper--each plot moving forward in parallel (with frequent digressions into the back stories of various characters), and each story contributing social information and emotional depth to the novel as a whole. Gage's writing, amid all the main and side roads of his story, is clear and straightforward, careful to explain some facts of the local culture but at the same time using local language in such a way that the meaning is clear without translation (adding local color to the narrative). Silva and his crew (his nephew Hector and their associates Arnaldo and Babyface) are also becoming more fully realized characters, and the minor characters (good guys, bad guys, and bystanders) are a diverse and interesting group (I found the cast of characters in the first Silva novel a bit "black and white," desperate peasants and their supporters them versus rapacious landlords and their minions)--though there are some very evil people in Buried Strangers, we approach them slowly, allowing them some humanity before discovering what they're up to, and there's more of a range of innocence and complicity in the larger pattern of laws, corruption, greed, and desperation portrayed). When the thriller plot takes over, even a reader not attracted to that format (such as myself) is swept along into some characters and events familiar from thrillers past (I won't name them because that could give away too much, since these aspects are revealed only slowly, as the story moves foward). By then, there's enough depth to the story, and enough sympathy for the characters, that even familiar themes are well integrated into a fresh and complex tapestry. Certain aspects of Gage’s fictional world resemble both the Brazilian environment of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa stories (rampant corruption among the police) and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti novels (rampant venality and incompetence among the higher ranks, with comic effect), but the particularly deep sense of amorality and ethical fog is particularly Gage’s own, and the comedy more of a running thread in the conversations among the characters, particularly the team of detectives. I have to say that I’m still more drawn to the procedural mode than the thriller mode of Gage’s writing (and in the field of crime writing as a whole), and I’m looking forward to the 4th Silva book, which Gage says (in an interview with Uriah Robinson on the Crime Scraps site) will be more of a “stone whodunit,” to quote Bunk Moreland of The Wire. But in the meantime, Buried Strangers is a vivid and entertaining thriller/procedural hybrid. I should mention that I recently gave a less-than-positive review to the first Silva novel, Blood of the Wicked--Buried Strangers may strike some readers, and Gage’s fans in particular, as very much like its predecessor in style and content, but the new novel seemed to me to be tighter, more focused on Silva’s crew, funnier (in the dark way appropriate to the horrors depicted), and more compelling--plus the awful crimes are off-screen, and perhaps more horrible for being left to the imagination, plus a bit less Silence of the Lambs than the torture scenes of the first novel.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Istanbul Noir

One of the latest in the Akashic Noir series, Istanbul Noir edited by Mustafa Ziyalan and Amy Spangler, more than holds up the quality standard of this excellent series. There are 16 stories, all original, all but 2 translated by the editors. Most of the stories in the international segment of the City Noir series have not been focused on police or detectives, and the Istanbul collection is entirely populated by marginalized people, criminals and others who have stepped outside social norms in various ways--the only cops are a retired torturer and a detective haunted by his family's Communist past (perhaps literally). The result is an underground portrait of the city and of Turkey, told in evocative, often poetic, and always compelling language. The two stories by non-Turks, Lydia Lunch and Jessica Lutz, and Amy Spangler,are equal to the rest but somewhat different: Lunch uses sentence fragments and breathless phrases strung together with commas to evoke a couple of horny tourists who encounter a deadly world traveller. Lutz enters the head of a radical Islamist who has justified to himself actions more associated with the Mafia than social or religious movements. Ismael Güzelsoy's "The Tongue of the Flames" is a surreal odyssey of double revenge, multiple murder, and madness. In Feryal Tilmaç's "Hitching in the Lodos," a laconic narrator describes the erotic encounter of a retired teacher and a young man, leaving one dead and one at the brink of an encounter with the justice system. "An Extra Body" by Baris Müstecaplioglu twists time and motivation in a tale of deception, error, and surprise (for the reader and the characters). "Black Palace" by Mustafa Ziyalan combines a serial killer and political revenge. In "The Bloody Horn," Inan Çetin tells a melancholy and moving tale combining revenge, guilt, and submission. The editors' introduction is particularly important in this collection, setting not only the historical but also the emotional context for the stories.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bouchercon post

A bit of praise for Bouchercon in Baltimore. I went today--my first time (if only for one day). A great opportunity to re-establish contact with some folks (incl. Peter Rozovsky & Lauren Henderson), meet a bunch of folks I only know from blog-conversations and e-mail (incl. Declan Burke, Sandra Ruttan, Janet Rudolph, Brian Lindenmuth, Ali Karim, and J. Kingston Pierce), and meet some writers I only knew from their work (incl. Sophie Hannah, Declan Hughes, John McFetridge, Arnaldur Indri∂ason, and Scott Phillips), and glimpsed some other writers (Val McDermid, Lawrence Block, Dorothy Cannell, etc.). I saw some great panels, missed some other ones, and generally found the event rewarding. Kudos to the Crimespree folks, all the volunteers and organizers, and the always interesting city of Baltimore (even though I didn't make it to Faidleys for their fabulous crabcakes.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The last (and first) of Wallander

After closing the books on his series of Swedish crime novels featuring Ystad detective Kurt Wallander, Henning Mankell published a collection of five stories under the title The Pyramid, filling in Wallander's career from his beginnings as a cop in Malmö until the beginning of his first "published case," Mankell's first book, The Faceless Killers. In fact, the last story in the collection, also titled "The Pyramid," ends with the phone call to Wallander that begins The Faceless Killers. It's interesting that the dedication of the collection is to Rolf Lassgård, the Swedish actor who starred in a series of TV movies based on Mankell's books. Lassgård's Wallander is amazing--as Mankell implies in his dedication, Lassgård brings not only an uncanny "impersonation" of the character to film, he also brings to the character nuances that amplify Wallander beyond his already substantial presence on the page. Wallander is not a master detective, he's a flawed three-dimensional character whose private life is hopeless (he's particularly unskilled in dealing with women in his personal life) and whose investigations frequently plod along with little progress until one fact comes to light that leads rapidly to a resolution of the case. The prose is very direct, almost flat: short simple sentences in which Mankell seems to be striving much more for clarity than style. In the story collection, Wallander learns his craft mainly by making mistakes, demonstrating to his mentors that he might succeed as a detective only by his curiosity and occasional insights. Mankell shows Wallander's marriage detiorating (though his wife, Mona, is hardly more of a fully realized character here than in the later books, when she's absent), and shows a mentor named Rydberg, often later referred to by Wallander as his model for detective work (but again, Rydberg is not fully present. Wallander is as always front and center, even though the narrative is in the third person--it's his ruminations (almost literally) that make up the body of the stories and the novels, mulling over the facts of the case (and his own unsettled private life) again and again. The first two stories fill in Wallander's early career and marriage, showing both his mistakes in his first case and his empathy with a young African immigrant with whom he is trapped in a robberty gone wrong. The last three stories are very much in the milieu and style of the novels, with most of the familiar Ystad detectives in place and in character and Wallander as already the chief of the group (with the unrespected police chief, Björk, as usual only interested in public appearances). The longest story in the collection deals with a mysterious plane crash and several murders, including a pair of old ladies and a drug dealer, that finally come together in a coherent but mundane plot (that's praise, by the way--I prefer Mankell's more mundane stories to his more global, "high stakes" plots). Of the other stories, The Death of the Photographer is a puzzle regarding the dead man's personality and a secret affair, and The Man on the Beach is a puzzling murder that demonstrates Wallander's intuition as well as his methodical routines. These are very high quality police procedural tales very much in the style of (and with the quality of) Mankell's Wallander books. As you may know, Wallander's daughter and another cop have appeared in later Mankell novels (and Wallander makes a "guest appearance" in the daughter's novel), not to mention several stand-alone novels--but the Wallander books are his best, and will be the stories he's remembered for. And The Pyramid is a fitting sequel or prequel, depending on whether you think of it as the first or last of the series.

Monday, October 06, 2008

New Swedish crime: Roslund-Hellström's The Vault

Anders Roslund is a well known journalist in Sweden and Börge Hellström is a former criminal and an activist in the rehabilitation of young offenders and drug addicts. They've co-written two interesting crime novels, The Beast and the just translated The Vault (which was originally advertised under the title Box 21, which might have been a bit more appropriate to the content of the novel--for reasons I can't go into without revealing too much). The novels are published in English with the author listed as Roslund-Hellström, and neither has received quite as much attention as others of the recent Scandinavian crime wave, perhaps because the stories of both novels are complex and the message of each is pointedly social (in that respect and others, these books resemble the famous Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels of the '70s). The Beast is ostensibly about pedophilia and child murder, and that's what the blurb leads the reader to believe. But a good portion of the novel is actually about the ills of prison life, and when the child abuse plot runs out (even when the revenge tale of one of the parents of the murdered children runs its course) the prison story remains and is the source of the twist at the novel's end. The cops, Ewert Grens and Sven Sundkvist, are not actually at the center of the story, though they're thoroughly characterized, particularly the angry Grens, who's always listening to outdated Swedish pop music by his favorite singer. The Beast is good, but The Vault is a leap forward: it's one of the most ambiguous (morally and thematically) of all recent crime novels. The topic this time is human trafficking and sexual abuse, though there's also a substantial story involving two of the criminals from The Beast, a professional enforcer and a junkie, whose paths cross on the outside with consequences that are at once tragic and just (in a left-handed way). The prostitution/trafficking plot is pretty lurid, and leads to a hostage situation involving guns and plastic explosives that would have been the climax of most thrillers or crime novels, but here only leads to the real resolution, involving corruption, cover-ups, loyalty, deception, and considerable obstruction of justice. The clearest moral position, involving the ability of the victimized Lithuanian prostitutes to have a voice (even to have the most minimal life of their own), is frustrated first by the traffickers and then by the complicated machinations of Grens and Sunkivist (for very different motives--and even those motives are undermined in a surprise ending that is more effective than the one in The Beast. That final twist is tellingly told in a flashback, adding a gloss to the whole story in retrospect). The Vault isn't a pleasant story: Grens is difficult to like, though colorful and even tragic (the enforcer had caused his girlfriend, also a cop, to be brain-damaged many years earlier) but his anger is not endearing, much less his moral failings. Grens and Sundkvist are not merely investigating the crime, they are in different ways implicated in it, and we become implicated along with them. Part of why The Vault works better than The Beast is an effect of the subjects: we can hold the topic of child abuse and murder at arms length--the perpetrator is indeed a monster we don't need to recognize in ourselves. Though human trafficking may have become something of a cliche in crime fiction these days, it's also a more pervasive crime, along with the prostitution that feeds on that traffic, along with the abuse of women vividly portrayed in the novel. It's harder for us (for male readers at least, and perhaps not just for men, as the book makes clear) to dissociate ourselves from the crime or from the illicit acts of the cops--their moral failings are too easy to see as possible in ourselves. Roslund-Hellström deserve to be considered at the first rank of the Swedish and Scandinavian crime novels being translated today (and that's actually saying a lot, given the quality of Nordic crime fiction these days). Though perhaps not as subtle as Arnaldur Indridason's work or as vividly realized as Jo Nesbø's, The Vault is nevertheless one of the most complex and most effective crime novels I've read, and the dilemmas faced by the characters are deeply felt by the reader and deeply etched by the authors.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage

When I don't like a book, I look for the reasons why. Blood of the Wicked, by Leighton Gage, came highly recommeded by several sites on the web, including International Thriller Writers (, as well written and effective. I suppose it's more thriller than noir, which could be part of the problem since I'm more interested in the latter. However, it's set in Brazil (increasing my interest) and not in Rio (the setting of the very excellent Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza novels, the newest of which is about to be published in English under the title Blackout), but in São Paulo state, mostly in a small town. But there's just too much going on in the book for any focus to emerge--too many priests, too many cops, too many landless peasants agitating against the evil landlords. Plus too much torture (the most graphic of which is directed toward women). The cover of the book calls it "A Chief Inspector Mario Silva Investigation," but although Gage spends considerable time supplying a back story for Silva, the Chief Inspector really has very little to do with the story or its resolution. We know all along who's perpetrating most of the violence, and so does Silva. The details resolved as the story comes to a close are lurid but not very enlightening concerning the novel's chief target, the disparity between rich and poor, landed and landless in Brazil. Perhaps I'm not being fair to Blood of the Wicked, it may be suffering by comparison to Arnaldur Indridason's Arctic Chill, which is still on my mind. Arctic Chill is focused, intense, and atmospheric. Blood of the Wicked is unfocused, diffuse, and full of local color about the setting without adding up (to me) to a vital portrait of the place. Blood of the Wicked is part of a growing subset of international mystery/thrillers, written by Americans who spend all or a good part of their time in a foreign country that is the setting of their books. One factor that differentiates some books in this sub-genre from "indigenous" crime novels (at least if you compare Blood of the Wicked to Arctic Chill) is that the former sometimes explain a lot that a "native" novelist doesn't have to. That's OK, even necessary for foreign readers maybe, but in a novel, it can distance the reader from the setting and the action (even from the characters). Arctic Chill thrusts readers into its atmosphere, and we have to navigate the place through the eyes of the participants, reading between the lines and piecing together a portrait of Iceland. Gage gives readers a lot of information but we don't have to do any "investigation" of our own to piece together the scene--so we're not implicated in it ourselves, we're watching it like a movie or a TV show. Does that make sense? I could compare Blood of the Wicked to Garcia-Roza's books in the same way--although that Brazilian author does give the reader lots of walks through the streets of Rio, lots of corrupt cops and bad guys, lots of social evil, we're thrust into the middle of it without detailed explanation and because of that we almost become part of it, part of the investigation (and Garcia-Roza's cop, Inspector Espinosa is always at the center of the investigation, not at the periphery as is Silva, and is much more of a living, breathing character in spite of no back story being given). Maybe I'm beating a dead horse--I didn't like Blood of the Wicked, but is; should it be enough to just say that and not try to analyze my reaction?