Thursday, December 31, 2009

Black Tide by Peter Temple, from Australia

Black Tide is Peter Temple’s second Jack Irish novel (there are four in the series, not all available presently in the U.S.), published originally about 5 years ago. The novels about Australian attorney Irish are complex, in this case mixing plotlines (all from Irish’s first-person point of view) concerning his negotiations between two gangsters, his participation in a horse-racing scheme with several shady friends, his investigation into the disappearance of the son of a friend of his father, the waning and end of his relationship with a TV announcer-girlfriend, and his avocation as an apprentice carpenter. Unlike some crime novels with complex plots, these stories do not all coverge—instead of clever plotting, Temple’s use of complexity gives instead the “reality effect,” a sense of life’s (and real people’s) diverse experiences—along with a great deal of oblique and slangy dialogue (some of which is very local). The reader flows along with Irish until one of the plots comes to the front, as the “thriller” promised by the novel’s publicity. Irish is no superhero, he’s a lawyer with a marginal legal practice and a lot of shady friends, but in this book he falls into a plot that could have come from a more conventional thriller, featuring international arms trade, money laundering across international borders, ruthless agents, and corrupted government officials. But Temple’s reality effect keeps the story grounded. In the Irish novels, Temple doesn’t take up the big social issues that he addresses in his excellent The Broken Shore, but Black Tide is not in any way a lesser novel—its focus is simply more closely on characters who are unfailingly real and interesting. It may take a reader (at least a non-Australian) a while to get into the book because of the intricate speech patterns in the dialogue, but once the ear is attuned, the story flows forward in ways that are involving and increasingly rapid. There is no easy or clichéd plotting but there is enough action on all fronts to justify the “thriller” category. The two images are the U.S. and the U.K. covers of the most recent paperback editions.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Wallander film and the power couple of Swedish crime

First, the gossip: I discovered yesterday that Stefan Lindman, a character introduced in Henning Mankell's Return of the Dancing Master who then reappears, having moved to Ystad, in the novel Before the Frost and in the Swedish TV series based on ideas (rather than books) by Mankell, is played with a certain smoldering intensity in the TV series by Ola Rapace (in the center of the movie poster reproduced here)--who happens to be the husband of Noomi Rapace (a publicity photo of this power couple of Swedish crime appears below). Ola Rapace's birth name was Pär Ola Norell, and I'm curious whether the non-Swedish-sounding name "Rapace" was a choice that both of them made when they were married, or if it's simply a name one or both of them was "assigned" by a publicist--anyone know? On to the movie: Wallander: Blodsband (inexplicably called The Black King in the English title) ran on the MhZ network last weekend. It's one of the better in the Wallander TV series starring Krister Henriksson as detective Kurt Wallander and the late Johanna Sällström as Linda, his daughter. We see the murder of a woman on a boat, then follow an investigation that leads to a communal farm and to an old flame of Linda's. A further death suggests a serial murder is in progress and also suggests a link to an escaped criminal and an armored-car robbery. Kurt is more stable (lonely but not angst-ridden) in his personal life and more strict in his conduct of the investigation, but Linda shows some of her past difficulties with depression as well as some lapses in professional conduct. The plot is conventional enough, but the series characters continue to be interesting (we learn a bit more about Nyberg, the "CSI" of the team) as well as the commune's inhabitants, and the scenery here is of the bleak-Swedish-winter variety (not a tourist postcard).

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Athens noir and Greek politics

Petros Markaris's newly translated Che Committed Suicide covers some of the same territory as recent Irish crime fiction: what happens to revolutionaries when the revolution is over (whether they won or lost). Markaris's likable Inspector Haritas was shot at the end of the previous novel, and is on sick leave for most of this one (and he and his wife are getting on one another's nerves). The very public suicide of a former activist (and former prisoner in the Greek Junta's military prisons) on TV gets Haritas's interest, but the police aren't paying any attention until after two immigrant laborers are murdered and a second suicide of a former comrade in arms, also public. Ten days after the first suicide, a biography of the dead revolutionary appears--and a week after the second, another biography appears, from a different publisher but the same author. Are more suicides on the way? Haritos's replacement as head of homicide believes the claim of responsibility by a right wing, anti-immigration group, but Haritos can't see how the group would have forced the two public figures to kill themselves in such a public way. Most of the book, all told from the Inspector's point of view, shows him going back and forth among family members and business associates of the two suicides, while also talking the case over with his daughter and her fiance and an informant in the press and a former communist. He also drives his ancient Fiat around Athens a great deal, and there's a lot of detail about his routes--not the scenic Athens by any means (the city sounds hot, dirty, treeless, and crowded)--rather like George Pelecanos's tours of Washington DC's underside. It's a long book and it develops slowly, but the characters hold a reader's interest, and the plot is very unusual (how, indeed, is someone induced to commit suicide publicly?). The denoument is believable, sad, and political--if you've never seen the movie Z, see it now for its own merits and for the background it provides to Markaris's tale of ideals, ideals lost and betrayed, lingering faults in a society that has healed only on its surface after a turbulent repressive past, and families at their best and worst. Somewhere along the way, Arcadia Books' EuroCrime series changed the cover from the graphic that appears above to a night shot of the Acropolis with a noir street scene below it. I think the graphic is a better representation of the novel, but the contrast of the night streets and the bright Acropolis is also effective (reproduced at the top of the review, though it may be a bit hard to see in this small version). What do you think? Which would tempt you into picking up this very interesting book?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Varg Veum at the movies: Buried Dogs

The lastest Varg Veum film to run on U.S. tv (on the unconventional MhZ Network) made me curious about the novel from which it was taken, since the credits at the beginning state that it is "adapted freely" from the original by Gunnar Staalesen. None of the Veum movies shown so far corresponds with any of the books translated from Norwegian into English, though, so I will be left wondering about the relationships between the books and the films. Buried Dogs (I'm not sure what the title refers to) deals with Norwegian politics, and it seems to be the same nasty mess as politics elsewhere. A candidate for the head of a right-wing party comes to Veum saying that someone is threatening her and that the police won't do anything. Veum, seemingly because of the anti-immigrant stance of her party, refuses the case. But when there is a botched assassination attempt on her rival for head of the party (his wife is shot by mistake), Veum gets interested and works with her to unravel the original threat and the possible new threat. Her party is meanwhile playing hardball, trying to squeeze her out by manipulating sympathy for the candidate whose wife is in a coma after the shooting. The final resolution is more of a twist and counter-twist than is usual for the Veum stories (I think my wife figured it out, from the hints left hanging at the end--I'll supply her theory for anyone who wants to hear it), and there's a bit more back and forth between Veum and the police (sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile). A viewer has to pay a bit more attention to this one, as most of the plot is carried forward in the lengthy conversations among characters, somewhat difficult to follow in the subtitles unless one is paying close attention. Buried Dogs would perhaps be better seen in a movie theater, with fewer distractions and bigger subtitles, than on the TV in the living room--but beggars can't be choosers, and the broadcast of this series is a welcome opportunity for fans of international crime fiction and film. P.S.--the actor playing Varg, Trond Espen Seim, is scruffier even than in the earlier films, his hair limp, badly cut, long, and dirty. His scruffiness doesn't really fit my image of Veum from the books, though otherwise he is excellent in the role (tough but sympathetic). Does anyone else have an image of Veum different from what you can see in the film poster above?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

philosophical noir by Aifric Campbell

Irish-born Aifric Campbell based her novel The Semantics of Murder on the life and death of Berkeley logician-philosopher Richard Montague (re-named Robert Hamilton), seen through the lens of his younger brother Jay, a psychoanalist who has relocated his practice from California to England. The name that kept occurring to me while reading The Semantics of Murder, though, was Nabokov: the novel shares with that Russian-American writer (who after all also wrote several books that could be called crime novels) a distrust of psychoanalysis but substitutes a fascination with semantics for Nabokov's fascinations with chess and butterflies (the latter are mentioned in a way that suggests that Campbell is acknowledging her relation to Nabokov). The story has the strict structure of a one-act play, with frequent and lengthy asides: Jay is expecting a visit from Dana Flynn, a writer who is working on a new biography of Robert, and structurally the novel's present tense progresses through the various meetings over 2 days between Jay and Dana, but the possibility of a biography of his brother raises numerous opportunities for Jay to remember his past, reminiscenses told in the 3rd person in a complex, allusive language that reveals the truths of Jay's life only gradually, in layers. The reader moves from a disinterested acquaintance with the psychoanalyst toward a certain respect for him and into increasing levels of distaste, as the story moves from family history to murder to hatred and despair. The "mystery" of the murder is increasingly easy to guess, but the point is not the mystery but the significance of the event for Jay and everyone in his personal and professional life. Another element that is introduced well into the novel also relates to Nabokov and to the metafictional preoccupations of much of 20th century literary fiction: Jay is also a respected author, writing under a pseudonym that conceals the fact that he has been stealing his patient's lives for his fiction. the biggest surprise of the novel derives from that literary career (and I'll get to that in a minute, after a spoiler warning). The central irony of the novel is that Jay's life turns on a psychoanalytic truism regarding a mother's love and the consequences of the absence of love. The threads of the present, the past, psychoanalysis, science, linguistics, crime and criminals in California, and literature twine around the reader, trapping him or her in fascination that begins in a "cool," literary mode, moves through a "hot" crime fiction mode, and ends in a philosophical dream-state, before shifting once more in the Appendix, which reproduces Jay's final manuscript as a writer (and here's the spoiler alert). That appendix shifts everything that has gone before into a comic perspective, because we've been led to believe that Jay is a brilliant writer, even as we've watched his career as a brilliant psychoanalyst melt away: the climax of the novel as a whole comes with Dana's discovery of this manuscript on Jay's desk, revealing a coincidence, prediction, or even criminal conspiracy on Jay's part regarding a disturbed patient. But the manuscript, when we get to see it in the appendix, is terrible: it's badly written, poorly constructed, and without literary, psychoanalytic, or crime-fiction interest. So Jay and the narrator have misled us about one of the central aspects of his life, after all the other aspects have already been undermined in the novel itself as Jay's life is gradually opened up for inspection. The final manuscript is a slap in the reader's face, a shock. One of the most Nabokovian passages of the novel, in which Jay belittles Dana as a writer because she isn't "bewitched by language," isn't "enthralled by linguistic propagation," leading us to assume that Jay does fulfill those requirements as a writer: then when he exhibits no skill with language, not even much interest in language, in the appendix, the contrast between Robert and Jay, between two intellects, shifts into another mode entirely, that between a genius and a fool (and it's the fool's eyes that we have been looking through). It's a neat trick, and adds a final layer to a complex but accessible novel that combines the thriller and philosophy (another neat trick). The Semantics of Murder was slow reaching the U.S., but we can hope that her new book, The Loss Adjuster, which promises to be equally interesting, arrives here sooner.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

The Ghosts of Belfast is a profoundly sad, though sometimes also funny, novel by Stuart Neville, concerned with the past and future of Northern Ireland. The "ghosts" are mostly in Gerry Fegan's head, his "followers": the specters of the 12 people he killed in his role as an IRA hit man during the troubles. The ghosts silently point out to Fegan the people who ordered him to kill them, demanding retribution (silently, except for one word spoken by one of them--more on that in a minute). What might seem like a ghost story at first, and like a revenge story as Fegan starts to obey the followers (to make them leave him alone), becomes something else as Neville skilfully moves his story forward to deal with political reality (and cynicism) in the new Northern Ireland: the new economic possibilities, the lingering violence and sectarian hatred, the transformation of the war's foot soldiers into thieves and thugs, and the personal burdens of the war's survivors. In addition to Fegan, the characters include terrorists and politicians, a Scottish soldier who's been undercover too long, and a woman and her daughter who are caught between Fagen and his targets. Plus the ghosts, of course; we get used to them as manifestations of Fagen's psyche (though they have more personality than that characterization might suggest) but Neville catches us off guard toward the end, when Fagen's plan upsets the balance of the peace, and the wrath of the living puts the killer, his followers, and everyone he has touched into a violent cauldron and a hope for redemption (always without resort to cliche or sentimentalism or melodrama. The Ghosts of Belfast updates two of the most intense novels of the Troubles, Children of the North and The Psalm Killer as well as one of the best Irish stories of the occult, Yeats's play The Words Upon the Windowpane (which has a twist at the end that has a distant relation to Neville's ghost story). The Ghosts of Belfast is not an easy read; it's intense and rewarding, one of the best books of a very good crop of recent Irish crime fiction.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Winterland, by Alan Glynn

Winterland is a very good crime novel (a very good novel, come to that). It starts with a glimpse into the future of a character named Gina, who is caught up in something violent and beyond her control. The story then proceeds to a murder in a pub and to Gina's brother (don't get too attached to him, though he's a sympathetic character). Gina, who works for a failing software company in the midst of the economic downturn in formerly prosperous Ireland, is plunged into a violent subculture in Dublin and simultaneously into events that will shake up the government: if that sort of plot sounds familiar, Winterland in fact stands Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy on its head: Gina is no super-hacker, she's an ordinary grown woman driven by anger and grief to acts she would not have thought herself capable of, and into threatening situations she could not have imagined. Other threads of the plot include the machinations surrounding the construction (and leasing) of a huge new development in the Dublin docklands area that is moving forward in spite of the downturn (and in the face of certain other difficulties); the surviving son of a family that suffered a violent car crash 25 years earlier; and assorted businessmen, police, and others at the fringes of those stories. It's a big, complex book handled by Glynn with grace and with considerable tension and forward motion (warning: this book is a compulsive reading experience once the story gets cranked up--you may want to set aside some time because you won't want to put it down, particularly at some key points starting from about halfway through). Threads of the novel lead to several endings, with a few hanging on beyond the end of the physical book. The considerable violence is handled skillfully and believably, with all characters on the spectrum from innocent to guilty portrayed with nuance and sympathy. Even the most evil character is saved from caricature by Glynn's sympathetic portrait and by the complex nature of the secrets finally revealed about him and about what's been going on. I'm moving on to another new and highly recommended Irish novel (Northern Irish, really), The Ghosts of Belfast (know in the U.K. as The Twelve), but it will have some difficulty outperforming Winterland.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Old/New Commissario Brunetti

I've been reading Donna Leon's A Sea of Troubles, which was published in 2001 in England but has not, as far as I can tell, been available in the U.S. until a new Penguin edition appeared this year. But while reading, I kept thinking I'd read it before, or perhaps heard it as an audiobook. Then I realized that I had had the peculiar experience of seeing it, in an episode of the German TV series, Commissario Brunetti, with the title Das Gesetz der Lagune (meaning something like The Law of the Lagoon) that had been broadcast in the U.S. a few years ago by MhZ Networks. I found the episode on YouTube and watched it again, though without subtitles this time (and I don't speak German). It's a peculiar experience watching a story written in English and set in Italy now presented in German, with only the occasional Italian word interrupting the flow of German coming from the mouths of Brunetti, Signorina Elettra, Vianello, Patta, Brunetti's family, and the fisherman on Pellestrina in Venice's lagoon. Leon's novel includes an uncharacteristic aspect of the thriller, with the police, a villain, Elettra, and her boyfriend all battling a sudden storm in small boats in the lagoon, plus the sudden murder of one of Brunetti's men and an act of violence on Brunetti's part (plus for once some partial justice for the crimes committed). In the film, I suppose the filmmakers were unable to conjure up a sudden storm and so the drama is a bit more conventional--the thrust of a knife, a gunshot... But still set on Pellestrina and a nearby ruin of a fort. In both film and book, Elettra is more of a focus than usual, and Patta a bit less, but the frustrations of investigation are typical of Leon's novels, in this case primarily caused by the refusal of anyone in the fishing village to say anything to the police. Some of the characters in the novel are combined in the film, resulting in the witless Alvise going undercover as a waiter rather than the more resourceful Pucetti (though in both cases the ruse is fruitless). Leon's novel is a vivid portrait of Venice, Pellestrina, and the lagoon and the narrative shifts suddenly into overdrive in the storm--but as usual the plot is secondary to character and to the frustrations of Italian law and society. The film is quite effective in portraying Venice, with the resources of the moving image, and does a pretty good job with the characters--the actors mostly look enough like my mental image of them that there's no cognitive dissonance, once you accept or get used to or forget the language dissonance, for an English speaker or anyone who has been in Venice and heard the Italian or Veneziano spoken there. I'm pasting in a couple of images from the series, of Brunetti withh Vianello and Elettra and one of the Brunetti family (whose patio has been moved from the Polo area to the Grand Canal, apparently). If anyone has any reaction to their appearance, in relation to the mental image of the characters imprinted on the mind by Leon's prose, leave a comment so we can share.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

New Brazilian Noir

We have a good opportunity in the next few months to compare two very different crime novels coming out of Brazil: Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd (translated by Benjamin Moser and published by Henry Holt), published recently, and Leighton Gage’s Dying Gasp (written in English and published in late 09 or early 10 by SoHo Crime). Though there are a number of similarities, the books could hardly be more different. Both Garcia-Roza’s Chief Espinosa (chief of a precinct in Rio near the city’s famous beaches) and Gage’s Chief Inspector Mario Silva (of the Federal Police and based in Brasilia) work with a small number of trusted detectives within the context of a corrupt police force aned a violent society. In each series, a considerable amount of the narrative is focused in the chief inspector, though in this case we get a bit more of Espinoa (whose childhood is related to the case at hand in Alone in the Crowd) and by contrast a bit less of Silva (who seems almost peripheral to the story in Dying Gasp). Gage’s novel takes on political and social issues and Garcia-Roza’s is occupied with psychological and philosophical matters. Gage has given us a thriller dealing with human trafficking, child prostitution, and snuff films, as well as the near-total corruption of the local police in an Amazonian town: all big subjects portrayed in very violent, even lurid tones (though the act of violence toward which the whole story has been leading is offstage, as if to spare the reader this final obscenity). Both novels feature a central conflict that relates to homosexuality among women, as a personal issue in Alone in the Crowd and as a topic of shame and discrimination in Dying Gasp. Even the detectives’ personal lives provide a vivid contrast: Espinosa confronts a situation that threatens his easy weekend relationship with long-standing lover Irene; the tragedy of Silva’s family (several of whom have been murdered and his wife left an alcoholic wreck) a constant background for the violence of the society and the current story. Garcia-Roza offers a portrait of personal crimes (rather like those of Manuel Vazquez Montalban, whose late work is cited in Alone in the Crowd) flowing from the personality and life-history of a character from Espinosa’s past. Dying Gasp moves quickly toward the resolution not only of the prositution-and-snuff plot but also a loose thread from the first Silva novel. Alone in the Crowd moves slowly, as the suspect ruminates on his love of walking in the middle of the city’s crowds and the detective puzzles over the crime, the suspect, and forgotten incidents of childhood. Garcia-Roza is working at a slight, philosophical distance from the violent streets and favela-slums that are Gage’s main target. Gage’s epigraph, from Job, explains the books title, but his postscript is more helpful, giving statistics backing up his portrait of child prostitution and offering a claim of reality to counter the commonly held opinion that snuff films are an urban legend; his aim here and elsewhere in the Silva series is to give us some sense of the overwhelming problems of contemporary Brazil—an aim in which he succeeds admirably. Garcia-Roza’s epigraphs are from Poe and German philosopher-critic (and Holocaust victim) Walter Benjamin, regarding the essence of crime and the crime novel, indication of his intellectual aims, very sympathetically and successfully realized here and in the series as a whole. The epigraph from Benjamin is particularly interesting for both novels: “The original social content of the crime novel is every individual’s loss of bearings amid the big-city crowd.” Garcia-Roza explores that alienation through the lens of his characters, while Gage gives us a vivid image of the violent, ultimate cases of loss in the cities and towns of a culture divided against itself in rich and poor, civil and criminal, principled and ruthless, and altogether unreconcilable populations (perhaps an image of post-apocalyptic anarchy already existing in the favelas, jungles, and brothels of Brazil). Espinosa (whose name derives from that of a classic philosopher) has the privilege of pursuing small-scale, personal crimes and meditating on their meaning, with the favelas held at some distance, only briefly mentioned; Silva deals with big issues and large-scale crimes that give little hope or time for considerations of human nature other than in terms of its violent extremes. We are certainly privileged to have in English these very different angles on a Brazilian “social content of the crime novel” (as well as the very different crime fiction of Patricia Melo), and perhaps we need both in order to have some chance of understanding that culture, in its realities, potentials, and dangers.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Cape Greed, by Sam Cole

Cape Greed, published pseudonymously by South African collaborators Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens, is a hard-boiled detective novel in the tradition of Deon Meyer's early Cape Town novels, translated from the Afrikaans as Dead Before Dying and Dead Before Daybreak, before Meyer moved on to writing thrillers and into modern mythmaking. The detectives of Cape Greed are Mullet, nicknamed after his retro haircut, and Vincent, both ex-cops and neither a terribly appealing character at first. Vincent is closer to Deon Meyer's cops and ex-cops: he's a drunk who's mourning for the death of his wife in a traffic accident that may have been a murder. Mullet, who left the police for less dramatic reasons, has an ex-junkie, one-legged girlfriend, Rae-Anne, who wants to move in with him--but Mullet is a commitment-phobe. Mullet talked Vincent into joining him in a private detective agency that is muddling along with divorce work until each is hired by one of two women for cases that seem separate but are joined in the murky world of abalone smugglers and Chinese triads. One of the women wants Mullet to follow her husband and the other wants Vincent to stake out an abalone farm along the Cape's west coast, but we also follow the exploits of Tommy, the abalone poacher who may have killed Vincent's wife in revenge for Vincent putting him in jail years before. (Abalone is in short supply but in big demand among Chinese men, for the same reason as Rhino horn and with similar ecologically disastrous results.) If it all sounds complicated, it's actually a tightly woven narrative whose several strands that are intertwined with the diverse racial and political strands of contemporary Cape Town and move forward quickly and inexorably toward confrontations that manage to avoid the usual cliches. The reader ends up sympathizing with the two sad-sack detectives, and I hope Nicol and Hichens keep up the collaboration: Sam Cole is a writer worth following, even if he's a fiction himself.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Poisonville, by Massimo Carlotto and Marco Videtta

Massimo Carolotto is a leading Italian crime writer, known in the English speaking world for crime novels and semi-fictional narratives about his own experience as a fugitive from the Italian justice system. Marco Videtta is a well-known Italian screenwriter. They've collaborated on a novel, Nordest, translated by Anthony Shugaar as Poisonville, that is as much a bleak satire as a crime novel. The Italian title refers to the industrialized Northeast region of Italy, controlled for many years by a few families not of the Mafia sort (thought there is cerainly that presence in the Northeast as well), but of the wealthy and aristocratic sort, who control all aspects of life including the justice system (according to this novel at least). The story is told partly in the first-person by Francesco, whose fiancee, Giovanna, is murdered at the beginning, and partly by a third-person narrator who gives us the points of view of a motley group of other characters, including aristocrats, middle-class young people, and thugs. There is a bit of authorial sleight of hand at the beginning, obscuring the identity of the murderer, though readers will probably figure out by the middle of the book who the real murderer is (long before Francesco or the one policeman who is interested in the truth). According to Francesco himself, "Giovanna's murder had become the setting for a story abounding in savory plot twists, turns, and surprises," describing the media response to the event but also aptly describing the novel itself. Along the way, the leading families are implicated in an earlier murder and fraud aimed toward controlling a landowner's assets, the illegal dumping of toxic waste from factories (the literal source of the English title), and the rotten core of the region's social structure--the targets of the satirical pens of the authors. Bleakly funny, the tone is noir or satirical more than conventional crime novel, and it's difficult to care much about what happens to any of the characters, including Francesco. But it's a fascinating portrait of contemporary Italy, and further evidence of the multifaceted skills of Carlotto, whose solo works are quite different, and of the skill of his collaborator.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Consorts of Death: latest Varg Veum in English by Gunnar Staalesen

The fourth Varg Veum novel by Norway's Gunnar Staalesen, The Consorts of Death, was recently released in English translation by Don Bartlett (published in the Euro Crime series by Arcadia Books in the U.K.). The novel has a complex time-line, beginning in the present day (it was originally published in Norway in 2006), skipping back to the 1970s as Varg, then in his child-welfare career post, encounters a neglected boy that everyone calls Johnny Boy; then we move forward to the 1980s as Johnny Boy, now a teenager, is suspected of murdering his foster parents and asks to speak to Varg (by now a private detective) in the middle of what seems to be a hostage crisis; then we move back to the present when Johnny Boy, a bitter man just out of prison, has Varg on his hit list. Along the way, we also get a glimpse of a murder case from the mid-19th century that has resonances with the 20th and 21st century events. The whole pattern investigates the difficulties that some kids have with the child welfare system (and with their original parents), as well as Varg's attempts to (not very succesfully) help Johnny Boy. Most of the action is away from Varg's usual territory in Bergen: the pages set in the 80s are mostly in the hill and lake district outside Bergen, and the present-day passages are more in Oslo than Bergen. There are some eloquent passages when Varg meditates on his and the system's failures, and the story is mostly carried forward in Varg's personable first-person voice. Staalesen shows great skill in keeping a very complex story coherent: characters and events weave in and out, with personal and metaphorical connections among them all along the way. There are some surpises at the end, as well, when Varg finally discovers what's been going on in the several murders and in Johnny Boy's life. Staalesen's novels take on social issues, but there are many passages in this book that are right out of classic noir (though Varg isn't the usual noir hero, he has too much hope for his clients' fates). There's a lot more Varg Veum in Norwegian, and I for one hope for translators and publishers to fill in the gaps in what has been translated. In the meantime, we have the Varg Veum TV series from Norway (and there's an episode waiting for me that I'll be reporting on soon).

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Donna Leon, About Face

I thought I was catching up with Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti series but while reading her 2009 About Face I discovered that there's an even newer 2009 title, A Sea of Troubles. But that gives me another Brunetti to look forward to. About Face ranks with the best of the series: it's a tragedy, as so many of them are, but in this case there is a very particular echo with the classical world that Brunetti often retreats to in the books he likes to read. As usual, his complicated relationship with Paola, his wife, and her aristocratic family is central to the story, which seems to be moving in several directions (concerning the ongoing Italian garbage crisis, investments in China, a mysterious friend of Paola's mother, conflicts with the Carabinieri over jurisdiction in a couple of murder cases, and intrigues within the Questura (the police station) in the San Lorenzo neighborhood of Venice where Brunetti works: Leon's plotting is sophisticated enough, though, that though she brings the threads into proximity she resists the impulse to tie everything up in a neat bow. The tragedy is not only the murder plot, with its classical echo, but also the entire social, legal, and political situation of Venice and Italy.
Though frequently funny, Leon's novels are always melancholy, a most suitable mood for a story so embedded in the fading glory of the serene city--and as usual Brunetti is an excellent tour guide for we the readers as he makes his way through the unique setting (evoked in quite different ways by the three covers I've pasted into this post, from the American, Australian, and English editions). Leon's novels are perhaps not to everyone's taste, in the melancholy tone and plotting, but she is a unique voice in the crime-fiction world and perhaps no crime writer is as well suited to portray her chosen city.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Niels Arden Oplev's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Danish film director Niels Arden Oplev was in my neighborhood on Saturday to show his film of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor in the original Swedish), at the American Film Institute (which is about 4 blocks from my house). Several things to remark about the film: First, from Oplev's comments, he says that he was determined to use only Swedish actors, for verisimilitude, a wise difference from the normal Euro-TV practice of placing German or French or Italian actors in key roles (to buy off international collaborators among the producers, I presume). Oplev was actually very funny in his comments, with the starting point that he at first refused the project without having read the book, dismissing it as a thriller, only to accept later after the producers contacted him again and he remarked to his neighbor that he'd been offered the project--the neighbor immediately went in her house and brought him the book to read, which he took as an omen. One point to make about the film is that there has been some criticism of the choice of Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth Salander--unfounded criticism based perhaps on the "glamor" shot of her (pasted into this post), which makes her look older and not as small and boyish as Larsson's Lisbeth: in the film itself, she fulfills the requirements not only in physical appearance but in the manner with which she conducts herself in her embodiment of the character. She's very good, playing her as withdrawn, angry, and cautious in her relations with people--though not as an Asperger's victim (or any other kind of victim). The rest of the cast is also good, Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist is very natural in the role. Two of the actors are a bit distracting for anyone who has seen the Beck Swedish TV series: Peter Haber, who plays Beck as a normal guy in the series, is here quite spooky and complex; and Ingvar Hirdwall, who is, I believe, Beck's weird and comic neighbor in the series, is here quite natural and normal. The plot of the story is handled very well by Oplev, reducing some of the long passages of research in the book to short collages to get the story down from about 600 pages to 2.5 hours, but there are a couple of plot points that are changed--one in particular (that I won't go into to prevent plot spoilers) seems to leave a big hole regarding the relationship between 2 central characters, something that will have to be explained or justified in the next film which turns in considerable part on the missing detail. But altogether a very satisfying film version of a book that must have presented the director and his writers with a lot of problems in the translation from text to film: highly recommended to the fans of the book as well as anyone who hasn't read the book.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Slovakian Police Procedural (or thriller), vol. 2

The pure detective story or police procedural has an odd structure: the central character is essentially peripheral to the story. He/she is an observer and investigator, but the prime mover of the story and the prime event (the murder and murderer, or for that matter the murderee) are elsewhere. From the beginning of the genre, though, the detective or cop has gotten involved, frequently getting beaten up or threatened, sometimes taking his/her own violent action, and very often the detective's personal life is an element of the narrative. But when the detective's personal life becomes a major center of the story, the novel veers into the realm of the thriller, wherein the main or series character is central, rather than peripheral. Michael Genelin's Dark Dreams, the 2nd in his Commander Jana Matinova series about a Bratislava cop, is for that reason more of a thriller than a detective story, as was the first book in the series--that's not a criticism, it's simply a characterization, a signpost to readers to let them know what sort of book (and series) this is. That said, Dark Dreams has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, there are a lot of substantial women characters beyond Jana herself, on all sides of the various conspiracies and crimes that make up the story. Genelin also offers an atmospheric and detailed portrait of a struggling democracy in today's Eastern Europe. The plot is unconventional: it has a realism that refuses to bow to the conventions of the crime novel, in that there are a lot of characters (and a lot of villains), moving in a lot of directions, across a considerable geography (from Nepal to Vienna), with substantial political/social insights, and the story moves unpredictably without following all the threads to any expected conclusion (though readers will have figured out some things long before the cops do). The result is absorbing and always interesting, without quite reaching a conclusive, cathartic climax (though many of the threads of the conspiracies are indeed resolved). Certainly interesting enough that I'll be watching for the next installment in the series.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Shamini Flint: Inspector Singh Investigates: A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul

The 2nd Inspector Singh novel to be published by Piatkus Press (and the third overall) is more confident and accomplished than the earlier stories. Singh is a more rounded character (he was pretty one-dimensional in the first of the novels, which is apparently to be reissued in the "Inspector Singh Investigates" series as The Singapore School of Villainy, though its original title was Partners in Crime). The plot of the Bali novel is layered: one crime conceals another, which we ultimately find conceals another still. After the Bali bombing (the real one that we all know about), Singh is sent to Bali to give assistance (along with a number of Australian police, who have a more obvious reason to be there). When a piece of a corpse's head is discovered among the dead with a bullet hole in it, Singh (with no expertise in terrorism) is asked to investigate the solo murder buried beneath the mass murder. With the assistance of an Australian cop that is similarly not involved in the main investigation of the bombing, Singh maneuvers among a group of emigre Anglos and a small Indonesian Muslim group, whose stories Flint tells as an omniscient narrator, as well as showing them through Singh's eyes. The novel is quite involving, especially for the first half. As the mystery becomes more clear, there is a bit less momentum for a while, but at the end the novel shifts into thriller-gear and moves along quite quickly. Some of the characters, cops, emigres, and terrorists, seem curiously naive, and there remain some elements of the romance novel, as in the earlier books in the series, but overall "A Bali Conspiracy" is effective in dealing with a terror incident at arms length, through the structure of a detective novel, and the rising quality of the series raises expectations for later books, perhaps returning to Singapore and perhaps continuing the crime tour of Southeast Asia.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Bronze Varg Veum

An old friend of mine just let me know that there is a statue of Varg Veum, the main character in Gunnar Staalesen's novels and the films made from them, leaning against the wall in the hallway of the building where his office is located in the books. Here's an image, courtesy of Petunia's blog (click here, it's in Norwegian). I have to say the statue doesn't resemble my mind's-eye-view of the detective from the books nor Trond Espen Seim, who plays him in the films. But how many of the detectives from the current Scandinavian crime wave (or any other part of the crime fiction world) are immortalized in metal?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Varg Veum: Fallen Angels

A new Varg Veum film, Falne Engler/Fallen Angels, from the crime fiction series by Gunnar Staalesen, ran last week on MhZ Networks in the U.S., in wide screen (so perhaps this one ran first as a theatrical release before its life on TV). The movie starts out not with Veum but with a police investigation by Inspector Hamre, the detective that is Veum's friend/adversary, after a young woman is discovered hanged in her parents home, an apparent suicide. Veum is first seen re-entering the country through a Norwegian airport (after an investigation took him to Poland), having his belongings inspected by customs: including a pair of pulp-noir novels by Mickey Spillane and the now-almost-forgotten Brett Halliday (pen name of Davis Dresser). Veum is hired by an old friend, now a Norwegian rock star, to find out if his wife is cheating on him. After other murders by hanging, the police treat the original suicide as a murder, and Veum becomes involved professionally and emotionally. The plot is complicated, with a final twist that reveals the murderer but also changes the complexion of the whole story quite effectively. There's a bit of the Antonioni film Blowup in the plot and the style, as Varg inspects his surveillance photos from his infidelity case and revisits a crime scene, a villa on a fjord. Norway and Bergen are a bit more appealing here than in some of the other Varg Veum films, and the plot quite effective (children, as usual, play more of a role than in some crime stories, though not in the way a Veum fan might expect). My copy of the newly translated Staalesen novel, The Henchmen of Death, has been delayed (some reviews have already appeared on-line, making me jealous and anxious to receive my copy)--it will be the first Veum novel that I've read since the films started to appear, and it will be interesting to see how the films color my reading of this character, whose three previously translated outings I read some time ago.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A question about Jan Kjaerstad

There was a review by By Tom Shone in yesterday's New York Times of Jan Kjaerstad’s novel The Discoverer. The review makes the novel, and the whole "Jonas Wergeland" trilogy by the Norwegian author, sound awful, though the review is actually quite funny in a snarky way (the reviewer takes a shot at Salman Rushdie, suggesting he's allergic to postmodernist shenanigans). For instance, Shone claims that Kjaerstad intends to do for Norway what Joyce did for Ireland, but instead achieves "more like 1,500 pages of air guitar in a neo-Nietzschean vein." The Kjaerstad books aren't exactly crime fiction, according to what I've heard, but have a crime plot at their center. I hadn't gotten them because the blurbs made the books sound a bit ponderous--but the review makes them sound beyond ponderous into the realm of pomposity, regarding the self-importance of the main character and his “magic penis." Check out the review here please, and let us know what you think--those of you who have in fact read (or tried to read) Kjaerstad in translation or in the original Norwegian, as well as what you think of snarky (if funny) reviews.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Tattoo, by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

Serpent's Tail recently published a new translation (by Nick Caistor) of Tattoo, the second Pepe Carvalho story by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán (originally published in 1976, never before translated as far as I can tell, and the first in the series, Yo maté a Kennedy [I killed Kennedy] has never been translated). Carvalho is fully formed in Tattoo, and some of the background of all the novels is more fully shown here (a fuller description of Barcelona's Rambla and some other neighborhoods and of Pepe's habit of burning books, as well as a more developed sense of his girlfriend Charo's character and her life as a prostitute). His background in the CIA is relevant in Tattoo when he travels to Amsterdam and encounters cops that he knew in his former life (though as usual the Barcelona police are mostly off-stage, referred to but not present in the story). There is one name that I had always wondered about in the other books, Bromide, the shoe-shine man and informant who is obsessed with bromides being put in the drinking water to make the populace impotent: is his name meant to be pronounced Bro-mee-day as it would be in Spanish? A question rendered moot in Caistor's version, which gives his name as Bromuro, so I guess Bromide was an Anglicization of his nickname. Pepe is hired by the owner of a hair salon to identify a corpse recently discovered in the sea, with his face eaten away and a distinctive tattoo, "born to raise hell in hell." The dead man inspires a reference to song about a women seeking her missing tattooed sailor, a refrain that echoes throughout the novel, causing Pepe to assume that there is a lovelorn woman behind the man's death. Ultimately, Pepe becomes interested as much in why he has been hired than in the identification of the body (which he accomplishes easily enough in following the trail to Amsterdam and Rotterdam, though he's beaten up and thrown in a canal in the process). The eventual resolution of his search into that problem is a twist that shocks Pepe (who of course seeks solace in food, one of the chief themes of the series). It has never been that necessary to read the Carvalho novels in order, but now that this early book is available, it would be interesting to start at (nearly) the beginning and follow the detective's career as it developed up to the last translated novel, The Man of My Life, an elegaic farewell by Vázquez Montalbán to Barcelona and his character. Some changes occur to the characters along the way (the death of Bromuro/Bromide for one, as well as the appearance, post-Tattoo, of Biscuter, the detective's assistant and cook) but Carvalho is fully developed already in Tattoo: a philosophical, former Marxist, former CIA, always gourmet, and politically incorrect lens on Spain, Barcelona, and modern life. Some of his actions are deplorable, particularly in his treatment of women (both physical and emotional assaults), which would moderate a bit as he aged (Pepe is in his late 30s in Tattoo). Following that development would be one of the interesting aspects of starting the series over. Now we can only hope that Serpent's Tail (or someone) will bring us the the rest of the untranslated volumes (eight have been translated out of 24, though one is a cookbook), including the first and the last, Milenio Carvalho (Carvalho Millennium), which is a two-volume philosophical journey around the world with Carvalho and Biscuter.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Beck: the TV series

I recently watched a couple of episodes from the first season of the Beck Swedish TV series, based on some of the characters from the Sjöwall/Wahlöö books but not on the books themselves, from 1997. The two I saw are Spår i Mörker (called Night Vision in the subtitles, but the original Swedish is more like Traces in the Dark) and Money Man (the title is in English in the original). They have simplified Martin Beck's character (as played by Peter Haber he's still dedicated to his job to the point of workaholism, but he's somewhat less moody and he isn't making ship models) and his family (his ex-wife is nowhere to be seen and early on in the series Beck's son is killed off). What remains is the stock situation of the Scandinavian detective, loner cop with angry daughter (as seen most famously in Henning Mankell's Wallander but also in Arnaldur Idri∂ason's Erlendur, with echoes in some others, such as Van Veeteren's incarcerated son in Håkan Nesser's books). As with Wallander's Linda, Beck's Inger is getting less angry and settling down, and is sometimes targeted by the criminals her father is pursuing. The films are more routine TV-cop-show than the '93 Swedish series based on six of the original Martin Beck novels (with Gösta Eckman marvelously inhabiting the lead role), and the only other characters that carry over are Inger and the well dressed but politically incorrect Gunvald Larsson (now played with flair by Mikael Persbrandt, who's also interesting in the 2007 Swedish film Gangster). The new Beck frequently uses typical TV plots, as in Money Man's pursuit of a career criminal with links to Beck's own early career, but occasionally, as in Night Vision, the writing veers toward the Sjöwall/Wahlöö style of plotting, a crime that the police brass and the press have blow into a huge conspiracy but Beck's team discover criminals motivated instead by family disaster and social ills (and, in Night Vision, also by Dungeons and Dragons type video games--one of the players being a young woman who might have been a model for Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth, there are a number of parallels). Some of the new crop of Scandinavian TV cop shows, such as Varg Veum (more on a new episode of that shortly) are more up to the standard of the '93 Martin Beck, though the '97 Beck (and its later seasons) compare pretty well with the Wallander series produced in Sweden from ideas by Mankell rather than the books, and the parallels (cop and daughter) are interesting but played differently (Linda being a cop and the settings, Stockholm and Ystad, considerably differ in atmosphere). And the Peter Haber Beck series retains some of the quirky humor of the original novels, through Gunvald's quirks and in some of the peripheral characters such as his neighbor and his usual waiter, both of whom are altogether peculiar. Plus Beck gets a cop girlfriend, further distancing him from the moodiness of the early novels, moving toward the happier Martin Beck of the late novels.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

around the world in crime fiction internet radio show

Courtesy of crime author Leighton Gage, here's info about an upcoming Internet Radio show he's hosting, Around the World in Crime Fiction: This Saturday, October 24th, at 12:30 PM Eastern U.S. time, Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Stan Trollip (half of the writing duo of Michael Stanley), Cara Black and Stuart Neville will be joining Gage to talk about mysteries set outside the United States. Listeners can call in with questions. Just go to and type "Leighton Gage" into the site's search function. And, if listeners sign up (it doesn't cost anything) the site will automatically convert the air time into their own time zones, wherever they might be. (Yes, Europe, Asia and Australia too.)

Friday, October 16, 2009

The end of the Millennium (trilogy that is), by Stieg Larsson

Echoing some other reviewers who have recently posted about The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, I'll reiterate that it is a most peculiar book. It's also very difficult to say anything at all about it without giving something away, so Beware of Spoilers! in this or any other review you might read. I'll try not to give too much away though. In my earlier post I remarked on the huge amount of detail and asked if the book might have benefited from editing; having finished the book now, I must say that editing would have been difficult and possibly beside the point--the book is almost entirely made up of detail and repetition, and Larsson's remarkable feat is to keep pulling the reader along amid that sea of minutia, while not very much is actually happening. In fact (first spoiler alert) the book is well over halfway along and Lisbeth Salander, the "Girl" of the title and the main attraction in the novel, is still in bed, locked into her hospital room after the incidents of the previous book, The Girl Who Played with Fire (I'm giving the English titles, which bear no relation to the original Swedish titles). When Salander finally moves into the action mode reminiscent of her activities in the first two novels of the trilogy, the novel is almost over (and the plot has actually wound up already), and she actually (partially--and here's another spoiler alert) pulls her punches in a manner characteristic of the peculiarly ethical Swedish brand of crime fiction. Speaking of the plot itself, Larsson enthralls the reader with a spy/thriller plot that turns on not nuclear war or encroaching foreign powers but instead an internal constitutional crisis provoked by rampant counterintelligence insularity and the strive toward self-preservation in the bureaucracy of secrecy. Quite unusual in concept, as well as in resolution: the agency is (spoiler alert) already well on its way to defeat before the climax, which is resolved mostly through the revelation of the legal strategy set up by the team of lawyers, journalists, etc., in defense of Salander (who is on trial for assault among other things). All of which is a unique approach for a thriller. Larsson is perhaps a one-off: in spite of his obvious debt to Swedish crime fiction from Astrid Lindgren to Sjöwall/Wahlöö, Jan Guillou, and beyond, staked out a territory that is unlikely to be inhabited by anyone else. As his journalist-hero-alter ego Mikael Blomkvist says, it's all about violence against women, not spies and intrigue. Larsson is doing advocacy journalism by other means and extending his always explicit, never simply implied message of justice and ethics (private and public) beyond his magazine's reach into the much larger (and now world-wide) audience for fiction. I'd still argue that the 10-volume Sjöwall/Wahlöö opus remains the pinnacle of Swedish crime, but Larsson puts his very individual stamp on the genre and also brings the form into the 21st century's criminal, information, and political environment. I almost started this post by saying that there's really not much to say about Larsson's epic (plenty of words, lucidly translated by "Reg Keeland", in the novel itself) but I find myself nevertheless making a fairly long post about Hornets' Nest...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Quarter of the way through The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest announces to the reader through references to Jan Guillou, popular Swedish author of spy novels, few of which have been translated into English, that the genre that will be dominant in this third volume of Stieg Larsson's trilogy is the spy novel (as the detective/mystery was for the first volume and the thriller/revenge tale for the second). Life has intervened to slow down my reading schedule, so I'm only just over a quarter of the way through Millennium III, but I have a couple of observations and questions (an surely a book this long can support more than one blog post). Many writers will compose a lot of detail about the background of their characters and their plots as part of planning a book or as a first draft. Many of those writers delete the extensive background information in the final draft, allowing inference in the finished text to fill in the picture. Stieg Larsson didn't do that, possibly because of his untimely death, and the books are chock full of that kind of background info--to the extent that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest seems to actually get going on page 160 (out of 600, and possibly accounting for the overall length to some extent). Another reviewer said that Larsson fills in so much background because he's writing more as a journalist than a novelist, and on the other hand, a lot of bestsellers (including those of mediocre or worse quality, as opposed to the Millennium trilogy, which has at least some merit as a story, according to most reviewers including myself) also fill in a lot of background, giving more information than most crime novels of the first rank in terms of being well-written. Is there something about the oversupply of information that helps make a bestseller? Is anyone else bothered by the extensive detail of the first 160 pages of TGWKTHN? Do those fortunate enough to have already finished the book have any opinion as to the lost opportunity to perhaps improve the book (and its prequels) by some careful but extensive editing? Or is part of the appeal of this particular story its effort to fill in all the details about what's going on, what has gone in the past, etc., regarding so many of its characters? For me, what saves the book from the dismal quality of so many bestsellers (such as one currently at the top of the lists) is that Larsson does actually have something to say about the real world (which goes back to his backround as a journalist as well as to the Swedish tradition of crime fiction).

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Åke Edwardson, Death Angels (Erik Winter's debut)

Death Angels is the translation of the first of Åke Edwardson's Erik Winter novels, only now arriving in English (rather like the late appearances, recently, of the first of Fred Vargas's Adamsberg or the first of Håkan Nesser's Van Veeteren, and in this first outing Winter has something in common with both). The style of the writing (and/or the translation by Ken Schubert) is a bit difficult, alternately elliptical and explicit information, rather like Winter's own complaint (regarding the police reports he's been reading) of "William Faulkner one minute, Mickey Spillane the next." Edwardson spends a lot of time establishing the social context of the crime and the police (in both Sweden and England, and that tendency plus the somewhat difficult style result in an oddly static story for the first two-thirds of the book (but then, Edwardson writes pure police procedurals, which tend to have long unproductive segments in their investigations). Winter is here a loner, not yet the married man of the later books, but already a dandy and a somewhat pretentious jazz fancier, to the point of not recognizing a reference to The Clash by the English Inspector Macdonald, with whom Winter is cooperating in his investigation of a series of murders in London and Göteborg that suggest the making of snuff films. Snuff films were a few years ago (perhaps about the time this novel was originally published, under a Swedish title that actually translates as Dance with an Angel) quite the cliche of crime fiction (most particularly crime movies) but are less so now--perhaps in recognition of a general feeling that snuff films are an urban myth. One of Winter's detectives gets over his head in an investigation of strip clubs another (and continuing) staple of crime fiction (and movies). Once the momentum crests and the reader thinks everything's figured out, there are a still a couple of surprises in store. Though it seems to take a while getting started, Death Angels is a good foundation for a series that has since then gotten better and better.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Hypothermia, by Arnaldur Indri∂ason

The sixth of Arnaldur Indri∂ason's Reykjavik murder mysteries to be translated from the Icelandic (this time by Victoria Cribb) is Hypothermia, a title that resonates in at least three different threads of its story. It is quite different from the others, focusing almost entirely on Erlendur, the detective and central character of all the novels, with very brief appearances by the other detectives, who are much more evident in the other books. Another difference is that, although a corpse appears at the very beginning, there is no certainty as to whether a crime has been committed (rather than a suicide) until the very end. There is no official investigation into the death of María, but Erlendur cannot let go of the case, and doggedly interviews her husband and friends, grasping at tentative threads concerning her life and her obsession with the afterlife. He is also visited by the parent of a long-missing young man and as a consequence Erlendur unofficially begins investigating several very old unsolved missing persons cases, bringing to the fore his own troubled past. He finally shares with his estranged daughter (and with us) details of the disappearance of his brother in a snowstorm (when they were very young), a tale that has haunted the whole series. And his daughter lures him into a meeting with his bitter ex-wife, in the process revealing the problem at the heart of Erlendur's marriage and divorce. As a whole, Hypothermia is a fascinating close examination of the confluence of rational versus spiritual outlooks on life, as well as the conundrums of friendship, love, marriage, and fate. The slow development of the story, plus the almost total lack of events or plot, is no detriment to the power of the book: rather, it is a consequence of the very close focus that Indri∂ason takes on Erlendur, the dead woman, and two other missing persons. Indri∂ason is at times an intensely visual storyteller, evoking the Icelandic urban and natural settings with great vividness. At other times, the story moves forward in reluctant or willing conversations between Erlendur (who has no right to conduct interrogations in this case) and the many people surrounding these non-cases, and at times in interior monologues of a particularly "arms-length" sort as Erlendur reveals a little (and slowly) of his own straitened life (both internal and social). All along, there is the overarching metaphor of hypotermia, whose relevance is immediately apparent in some cases and only made clear at the end in others, while also being a more indirect reference to the coolness of Erlendur's sometimes (though recently less so) solitary life. One virtue of the book, as a book, is that it is very difficult to imagine a film drawn from this story: there is almost no exterior action, only ruminative monologues and dialogues with portraits of the settings in which they occur. The power of the book is in the language, which is deceptively simple, rather than action. There has been considerable discussion in the blogosphere about the line between genre and literary fiction: Hypothermia is a very good book no matter which direction you approach it from (and it requires no previous acquaintance with Indri∂ason's work to appreciate it). This is the auspicious beginning to a few weeks venture into Scandinavian crime, which will include newly translated novels by Stieg Larsson (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest), Åke Edwardson (Death Angels, actually the first of the Erik Winter novels, only now available in English), and Gunnar Staalesen, plus a few upcoming posts on Scandinavian crime TV series.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Inspector Singh Investigates, by Shamini Flint

It's billed as the first of an "Inspector Singh Investigates" series, but A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder is actually the second in the series, following Partners in Crime, reviewed here last year (from a different publisher). The new publisher(Piatkus), has announced what is apparently Partners in Crime under a different title (The Singapore School of Villainy), and apparently intends to emphasize the series detective by using "Inspector Singh Investigates" as part of the title of every book (making for a somewhat cumbersome title). While Partners in Crime had a slightly naive quality (especially in its lead character, a young female lawyer in Singapore, and it will be interesting to see if Flint takes the opportunity to revise the text under the new title), its Malaysian sequel is a much more assured outing for Inspector Singh, the Sikh detective who played a relatively minor part in the first book. The story moves forward in short chapters that are often linked by a theme or even just a word as the narrative shifts between the Inspector, who has been sent to Malaysia to uphold the interests of Chelsea Liew (a Singapore citizen married to a Malaysian man) who has been jailed for murdering her husband); Singh's Malaysian police counterparts; the accused wife; one of her children; and several other characters. It is to Flint's credit that the story remains coherent through all the shifts in point of view. There are a number of shifts in the plot as well, as first one and then another character comes under scrutiny as the possible murderer, and though some readers may guess before the end who the actual murderer is, a surprise ending is prepared for with some skill. The portrait of Malaysia is rather critical, as measured against the detective's (and the author's, as she is a Malaysian-born Singaporean) Singapore frame of reference, though there is also some critique of the police-state aspects of the island city-state's character. The story reveals that the author has not completely worked out her craft, since it doesn't move forward like the well-oiled machine of some more experienced crime writers, and Singh, though he does a good deal of investigating, doesn't have much to do with the resolution of the crime plot. In fact, his role in the ending hearkens back a bit to the more sentimental aspects of Partners in Crime. Still, Singh is a likeable and well drawn character, a less driven and more comic Sikh detective than was offered by Vikram Chandra in the much longer and more complex Sacred Games. And Flint's portrait of Malaysia is fascinating--particularly in a plot twist that reveals the country's theocratic underpinnings and catches Ms. Liew in a legal cul-de-sac with consequences that will be horrifying to those of us outside that religious and cultural orbit. All in all, a satisfying read, and a promising addition to the ongoing series (I already have the next volume, A Bali Conspiracy Most Foul, the recently published story that evidently portrays the infamous Bali bombing incident or a fictionlized verion thereof.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

From Argentina: Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Piñeiro

Claujdia Piñeiro's Thursday Night Widows (from Bitter Lemon Press, translated by Miranda France) portrays a gated community outside Buenos Aires that is a kind of Potemkin village, except that here it's not the buildings that are false façades but the people. The surface of the novel is the surface of the characters' lives, and what lies behind (Argentinian politics, the collapse of the economy, the prejudice of Euro-Argentinians against indigenous people and the lower classes, the lies and disturbances within the families, and domestic violence of the physical and emotional variety) is mostly implied between the lines rather than directly portrayed. The novel is told in chapters from a number of characters points of view (the wives whose husbands play cards on Thursday nights, hence the title, but also the maids, husbands, a few of the children), creating a kaleidoscopic portrait of a middle class haven and hell. The novel begins with fear and death in 2001, just after 9/11, and then backtracks through several families' arrival in Cascade Heights, a "Desperate Housewives" neighborhood determined to isolate itself from society's threats. Despite the violence of the beginning, and the threat that a number of characters feel from one of the husbands (El Tano Scaglia), this is not a conventional crime novel, and not a thriller (the story is episodic rather than concentrated on a single thriller plotline). It's satire, but not cold or bloodless: the characters are too vivid and their misery (and the misery they inflict on others) too real. Piñeiro is performing an autopsy on a group that attempts to isolate itself from any threat or responsibility from or toward the rest of the culture and society, creating a vivid portrait of the gated community and the wider social fabric. The "daily," ordinary quality of the narrative and the pretentious middle-class characters didn't grab me at first, but Piñeiro soon pulled me in through the satirical approach to the characters (as well as a few more sympathetic characters, particularly two of the children), through the hints of what is going on behind the façades, and through startling vignettes like a series of "altars" created in one of the homes by one of the wives after she abandons the gated lifestyle for something more honest, primitive, and more openly vindictive. The ending leaves a resolution hanging in the balance as the one woman who addresses the reader in her own voice drives away from the community with her family on a mission that might destroy at least some of the artificiality and dissimulation that has gone on inside the gates.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Varg Veum (Norway) and Epitafios 2 (Argentina)

The third of the Varg Veum films, from the novels by Gunnar Staalesen, ran this week on the MhZ Networks in the U.S. This is the best of the ones shown so far: Veum is hired to locate a stolen car and in the process he steps into the middle of a messy divorce and ultimately stumbles into a race-track robbery and into the path of a murderer. His antagonistic/amicable relationship with Inspector Hamre is further developed, along with his friendly/professional relationship with Anna, the lawyer from the first of the films, and Veum also becomes involved with a woman who is entwined in all of the plotlines of this film. The story is less sensational than the previous film (which dealt with incest, gangsters, etc.) and the production gives a good sense of the territory within the city of Bergen that is Veum's usual stomping ground: the housing estate/apartment buildings, chop shop/auto repair shops, police station, and child welfare department. There's more humor, too, not just in Veum's relations with the police but also in subtle moments: at one point Veum brushes his hair aside to make sure the woman he's interested in will see the bruise on his forehead, the badge of his "hero" status. It's a telling moment that gives a sense of the subtlety of the series and the complexity of the character (both in the books and in Veum's realization by actor Trond Espen Seim--and the rest of the cast is excellent as well, effective and understated). My only complaints are that MhZ is only showing the series at a pace of about one episode a month, and they're so prudish or cautious that they're blurring the screen not only for nudity but for people in their underwear (very distracting, more so than letting the marginal amount of brief near-nudity remain). The plot of the new Epitafios series on HBO is more sensational (the series relies on serial killers and grisly murders) but not as lurid as the first Epitafios. Renzo and Marina, detectives in the federal police in Buenos Aires, are back, along with Renzo's father (who has a girlfriend, much to Renzo's dismay) and Marina's circle of russian-roulette players. The killer, whom we see from the beginning, is more complex and interesting than the evil genius of the first series, and we see more of the city as the detectives pass through, as well as in periodic aerial shots. I've only seen 2 episodes so far (out of 13) but so far it's very impressive.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Sandra Ruttan, Lullaby for the Nameless

Sandra Ruttan's "Nolan, Hart, and Tain" series has been unusual in several respects, including the balance among the three central characters, RCMP detective-constables assigned to Canada's Southwestern corner. But another important aspect of the series has been the substantial, unexplained backstory of the first case that the three worked on together, a case that has cast a shadow over them from the first novel, What Burns Within, uniting and dividing them at the same time. Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund used a similarly vital backstory in her first novel, The Bomber, and solved the problem of its importance to her character by "re-starting" her series, with a second novel, Studio Sex (aka Studio 69), that started the series over again with the original events that happened to her at a younger age. Ruttan hasn't done that: Her second novel, The Frailty of Flesh, continued to refer to the events prior to What Burns Within as a vital element of the relationship of the three characters, and the unexplained tension among the three has been an important and interesting aspect of the series. With the third volume, Lullaby for the Nameless, Ruttan uses multiple time-lines to carry the story of Nolan, Hart, and Tain forward while also going back to the "myth of origin," the case that first brought them together, as well as the cases they've been on since then. Two corpses are found, one in an urban dumpster and one in the woods (stumbled upon during a manhunt). Hart and Tain (Ruttan's female and First Nations' characters), are called to the body in the dumpster, and Nolan, who has been on temporary assignments since the previous novel, is involved in the rural manhunt and is assigned the case of that body. The three characters orbit around the cases and one another, Nolan in isolation from the other two until the very end, while the cases intertwine and lead back to their original case. The original case is revealed in fits and starts, as Hart is a new detective assigned to an investigation already underway and is inserted between the feuding Tain and Nolan, cut out of the real investigation by both of them. All three are at odds, and the spiky quality of their later relationship as friends and colleagues is prefigured in the conflict of the flashbacks. This is a police procedural of the first order, but with the story told through the characters and their conflictual histories more than through the serial murders and their echo in the current case. We do get glimpses of the murderers and their victims, almost as if caught momentarily in the headlights of a passing car, but for the most part Ruttan pulls off the difficult task of giving the story from the point of view of three people who are each withholding information from the others, and from the reader. Not only is there a jigsaw puzzle of information resulting from the investigation itself, there is a fractured perspective of the overlapping points of view, and what each reveals to and conceals from the reader. A good deal of the considerable pleasure of the novel is in its gradual focusing of the points of view into a single story (though not everything is resolved, leaving some elements of the case and of the cops' relationships unclear, perhaps to be taken up in the next installment). There has been a danger in Ruttan's reticence to reveal the full horror of the backstory, that when it was revealed it would not seem as important or dramatic to the reader as it has been portrayed as being for the three main characters--but when the strands finally come together, there is ample evidence of events, mistakes, and unnecessary deaths that have haunted Nolan, Tain, and Hart, as well as a final horror that even they had not anticipated, one that caps the serial killer plot and frames Lullaby for the Nameless effectively as its own coherent story. There's a good deal of reference to the first two novels in the series, not incomprehensible to a reader coming to Ruttan's work with this third novel, but I'd recommend starting at the beginning--both to understand these references and to get the full impact of the third novel's resolution of the ongoing, hitherto unresolved story. And the strength of the series, its unconventional triple narrative and the three distinct and fully realized characters who support it, is best appreciated in the full sweep of the series so far. On its own, though, Lullaby for the Nameless is a vivid, noir portrait of the hard-scrabble small towns, ethnic tensions, dark urban corners, and deep forest environments of contemporary Canada, through the eyes of three fascinating, troubled investigators.

Monday, September 14, 2009

La Piovra 5

the MhZ Network in the U.S. has just started airing the 5th series of La Piovra (The Octopus), the legendary Mafia series, which evidently had so much impact when first aired in Italy that it had an effect on the prosecution of the Mafia. MhZ actually first aired series 8 and 9 of La Piovra, which were "prequels" to the series as a whole, showing the youth of the series' primary villain, Tano Cariddi, and a post-WWII shift in the Mafia's Sicilian tactics. Series 8 and 9 were operatic and seductive: in spite of a melodramatic plot, the story and cinematography were compelling (and the villain of those two series was played to evil perfection by Luca Zingaretti, better known for a much more sympathetic role as Salvo Montalbano in the TV series made from Andrea Camilleri's novels). When the public TV station began airing the original series, 1-4, we were treated to the best known of the series' heroes, Corrado Cattani, played by Michele Placido with an intensity that today seems quite melodramatic but surely was more effective in the era of its original broadcast. Nevertheless, we were relieved last spring when, at the end of La Piovra season 4, Corrado was definitively killed off (overkill even, one might say, so dramatic was his death). With season 5 we enter a new era, featuring Corrado's last collaborator and lover, Judge Silvia Conti, played by Patricia Millardet, and a new undercover cop, Davide Licata, played in a less cool, rougher style than Placido's Corrado by Vittorio Mezzogiorno. But the heart of the series (since season 3) has been Tano, played with brilliant reticence by Remo Girone. The technical aspects of season 5 are also more compatible with current TV technology, so the image is clearer and brighter. The plot has moved on to a new Mafia hierarchy, with the defection of one don at the end of season 4 and the arrest of several more at the beginning of season 5, and with new corporate "fellow travellers" as well as some carried over from season 4. All in all, an auspicious beginning to the 5-episode, 500 minute series and for the rest of the 10-series saga. MhZ has provided a genuine public service for U.S. viewers, having brought not only La Piovra but also the amazing Finnish series Raid, the current Varg Veum series from Norway, the current Wallander series from Sweden as well as the Wallanders made in Sweden from the original Wallander books, the comprehensive Maigret series from France (starring Bruno Cremer, who is a Swiss villain in La Piovra), both the Martin Beck series from Sweden (from the Sjöwall/Wahlöö novels and from the extension of the characters into new stories), one of the Tatort series from Germany (the one set in Cologne), a couple of series from Australia (Murder Call and Water Rats), Omicidi from Italy, and probably some others that I've forgotten to mention. Too bad their signal has been hard to get, though the situation is now improving with satellite, cable systems, and (it seems) some future Web presence.

Dan Fesperman, The Amateur Spy

The Amateur Spy, by Dan Fesperman, is partly a spy story of the Eric Ambler sort (an amateur gets caught up in an espionage plot), and partly a profile of a terrorist incident (from the point of view of the unlikely terrorist). From the beginning, the narrative is engaging and the characters vivid. The settings (Greek island, Jordanian/Palestinian refugee camp, residential and commercial Washington DC) are convincingly realized. Jordan gets an especially lively portrait, and the scenes in Washington DC ring much truer than in many DC-based thrillers (and much, much truer than the treatment DC usually gets in the movies). The story rocks along from a violent beginning, as Freeman Lockhart, recently retired from a U.N. aid career, is pulled from his bed in his new home in Greece and coerced into spying on his former colleague, a Palestinian who is now fundraising for a hospital in a refugee camp in Jordan. At first, the blackmail that the spies, assumed to be CIA, hang over Freeman's head seems plausible (protecting both he and his wife from the fallout of a disastrous aid mission in Africa), but as the book goes along both the blackmail and the spy plot lose some of their "oomph," possibly because this portion of the narrative, in Freeman's first-person voice, begins to seem a bit too naive, sort of like the Joseph Cotton character in The Third Man--but Freeman isn't the author of Westerns, he's a seasoned veteran of aid missions that have put him in difficult positions before. Freeman seems almost casual in spying on his friend, but never actually reports to his "handlers." When he finally finds out who his handlers are, the news is not terribly startling, but that element of the plot just withers away without any resolution. As the novel moves forward, the parallel plot from the (third person) point of view of Aliyah Rahim, a Palestinian refugee who has lived in the U.S. for most of her life, begins to be more credible and more important than Freeman's story. Aliyah's daughter died because of post-9/11 discrimination against Arabs in an incident that implicates the foreign service's attitudes and incompetence. Aliyah's husband, depressed since the girl's death, has become involved in something that is making Aliyah increasingly uncomfortable, and she ultimately agrees to travel to Jordan in the service of the husband's plot, while secretly attempting to sabotage the plot. Freeman and Aliyah cross paths briefly but only come together at the end. I can't help thinking that bringing them together sooner might have been more interesting, and the ending, in the style of a thriller, doesn't really satisfy in terms of the Freeman plot--and leaves Aliyah hanging, her story unfinished. A tighter spy story, in closer conjunction to the terrorist story, would seem to be to have been an improvement--but The Amateur Spy is nonetheless the most interesting of the 3 Fesperman novels I've read, because of the realism of the characters and the suggestion of stories more interesting than the ones actually delivered. For instance, the temptation to terrorism here is both believable and beyond the cliches frequently offered in thrillers, plus the motivations of the various Palestinian characters (merely sketched in the novel) offer an interesting inside perspective on the shades of Palestinian opinion and action in the region--tantalizing but just out of the reach of the novel itself. The violence often implied in the blackmail plot and in the moody setting never really materializes (maybe a good thing?), remaining mostly off-camera, except for a bit of mob violence. Fesperman gives the physical and political settings as lively a realization as does Matt Beynon Rees in his Palestine novels, but Rees manages to give a much fuller sense of the interior lives of his Arabic characters, perhaps by his tendency to minimize his American and British characters (and leave the Israelis offstage for the most part). Fesperman's story emphasizes the Americans (and the Palestinian-Americans) and we get only filtered glimpses of the Arabic population. I've pasted in 3 covers for the book--an interesting variety of graphic representations of "spy thriller" and the Jordanian/Arbic setting--I actually read the Hodder paperback, which gives a nice view of the amazing city of Petra, but with a "torn" edge that suggests fire or age or soemthing I don't quite get.