Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Arms Maker of Berlin, by Dan Fesperman

The latest post-cold-war thriller from Dan Fesperman portrays, as one of the characters says, characters who are "Modern Germany made flesh, in all its macabre and tragic grandeur." He does manage to suggest some of that burden of history in The Arms Maker of Berlin, but without portraying the city in as concrete a way as I would have liked (Berlin is a fascinating place to visit, whether in person or on the page). There's a lot of motion in Fesperman's book (characters moving back and forth across the Atlantic, up and down the east coast of the U.S., and across Europe, not to mention across time, in numerous flashbacks to WWII), and a lot is revealed to the reader before the investigator at the center of the book, historian Nat Turnbull, figures it out. There are moments of suspense, lots of Nazis and former Nazis now embedded in Germany after the fall of the Wall, and some interesting material about the White Rose resistance movement in Hitler's Germany.

But is it just me: are the Nazis a tired motif by now? Hitler and his minions have certainly been rich territory for fiction (almost too easy as a source for tension and threat). Nazis figure in the book I'm reading next, too, Bateman's Mystery Man--but I suspect Bateman will be using them in a not entirely straightforward fashion. Fesperman's Nazi hunter/historian is propelled by the arrest of his former mentor into a rat's nest of police, FBI, and spies and ultimately into the intimate past lives of that mentor and a crowd of Germans and Swiss whom he encountered in wartime Bern. The flashbacks deal with a German mini-Krupp industrialist who manufactured war materiel for the Nazis and for all comers after the war (along with coffee makers): his youth and bad choices during the height of the war are the engine that drives the plot and the historian's search. The reasons given as to why anyone would care anymore about the industrialist's past are plausible but not really developed (why flesh out the Iranians, the Pakistanis, and the nuclear weapons parts when there are Nazis to be pursued, right?). The novel was pretty good, in spite of my frustrations with it--I was propelled along to the finish. And it makes me want to go back to Fesperman's Sarajevo detective (in Lies in the Dark and Small Boat of Great Sorrows) as well his excursions into other parts of the world in a couple of more recent novels--to see whether my jaded attitude toward WWII plots is getting in the way of an appreciation for this obviously gifted and well-informed novelist.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spinetingler Awards Short List

I was surprised and pleased to learn that I've made the Shortlist for the Second Annual Spinetingler Awards in the Reviewer category (click here to see all the categories and nominations). I'm honored to be nominated, and in the company of such a distinguished group of reviewers, too (Ali Karim, Larry Gandle, Lesa Holstine, Karen Chisholm, and myself)! If you'd like to vote in any or all categories, click here, and there are links to all the nominated stories as well. And many thanks to everyone at Spinetingler magazine (in its new home at bookspotcentral.com)!

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator (and a murder)

Amara Lakhous's novel, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio is a portrait of a group of immigrants and Italians in a piazza in Rome, but in a series of eleven brief monologues, Lakhous accomplishes much more. The monologues are all concerned with the disappearance of Amadeo, a translator suspected of the crime by the police, and the monologues are each accompanied by an existential "wail" by Amadeo himself. In structure, Clash of Civilizations resembles Andrea Maria Schenkel's The Murder Farm (reviewed here last year): the monologues have the character of testimony, about the murder of a bully called The Gladiator in the titular elevator (which is also the source of disputes among the various residents of the house, arguments that will be very familiar to anyone who has lived in a co-op style apartment building). But their testimony also has a gossipy character that reveals a lot about the speaker as well as the community as a whole: and each speaker is characterized effecively through a few characteristics given in his/her own testimony as well as through the eyes of the other characters. And Amadeo's wails reveal not only his own character and his relationsn with the rest of the community but also the basic themes of the book: immigration, memory, language, and a person's sense of place or home. The real mystery of the book is not who the murderer is (though the solving of that mystery is withheld until the final testimony, that of a police inspector): the real resolution is the gradual discovery of who Amadeo is, and the discovery of his own tragedy. Curiously, both the Clash of Civilizations and another (very succesful) book published by Europa Editions (Elegance of the Hedgehog) end with a similar incident that arrives out of the blue but nevertheless provides a resolution. It's impossible to describe that incident (or to say much about Amadeo's identity) without giving away too much, though. What I can say is that Lakhous's book is a brief, quiet, often funny, and ultimately poetic commentary on our globalized world, brought into focus through his concentration on the interaction of a small group in a very particular place.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Gothic paranoid techno-warning serial killer novel

Charles Maclean achieves a composite of several modes of crime fiction in Home Before Dark: Gothic (complete with Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca), a serial killer, a cautionary tale about Internet relationships, a paranoid double cross (is the good guy really the killer), and so on. The first third of the novel includes very effective portraits of Florence and Venice with a murder plot aboard the Orient Express (no less), as well as murders of three young women. The middle third is about the rich, English father of the first murdered girl seeking to find the murderer by any means necessary, while also conducting an on-line affair with a young woman in New York. And the last third is a spiralling chase sequence with the killer chasing a sort-of private detective, the father, and his on-line amour. All of the above is skilfully done, though for me it all goes on a bit too long. But there's one creepy aspect to the whole story that suggests Maclean has larger concerns: the reader is put in the position of voyeur in an elaborate Second-Life website constructed by the killer, and at a certain point it's difficult to avoid the feeling of also being a voyeur in the killings of the young women (and the threats to another one)--implicating us, the audience, in the Gothic-Postmodern-sociopath/serial killer narrative as active participants--which of course, we are.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Forgotten neo-noir film: Delusion

Seventeen or 18 years ago, I saw a neo-noir movie set in the American desert, about a computer executive who embezzled from his company, drove to Nevada, and picked up a couple stranded along the highway because their car spun out and flipped over. A couple of years later, I remembered that scrap of plot, but had forgotten everything else about the movie, the name, the actors, the director, everything. And since then, I've been intermittently trying to remember or find the movie again. I finally recovered the name, Delusion, by looking at lists of neo-noir movies, arranged by year, and following up on the names that seemed likely. Now that I've found it (and obtained a VHS, which I watched last night) I'm not sure it was worth all that trouble (though on Amazon it gets an average of 5 stars from the small number of reviews)-- sill, it's a pretty good movie. Directed by Belgian-born writer, director, and producer Carl Colpaert, Delusion was originally set for release as Mirage, in 1990, but another B-movie came out just ahead of them with that name. So the film company regrouped and re-released it as Delusion (a false start that may have contributed to the lack of success and subsequent obscurity of the film. Jim Metzler, who was also in another good neo-noir (One False Move) just a year or so later) is George, who has embezzled about a quarter million dollars (it sounded like a bigger amount in 1990) from his failing computer company and is trying to get to Reno to start up a new company. Kyle Secor (of Homicide: A Life on the Streets) and Jennifer Rubin (of many a later B-movie) are the hitchhikers that George shouldn't have picked up (Chevy and Patti). George soon discovers that not only can he not get rid of them, they're on their way to meet Larry, a gangster (Jerry Orbach, of Law & Order) who's exiled to an old trailer parked next to an isolated desert lake. What ensues is a series of confrontations between Chevy, who turns out to be a hit man for the Las Vegas mob, and George, whose money is hidden in the spare-tire compartment of his Volvo (which Chevy and Patti have stolen)--and Patti turns out to have her own agenda. There are a couple of twists and turns, as well as shots that are taken straight from old Westerns and Antonioni's Zabriskie Point (both films were partly shot in Death Valley), leading to an ambiguous old-West ending that is partially resolved in a little surprise buried in the credits. Alas, it's not too likely that anyone will have much of a chance to see the movie, since it's only available in VHS, and not exactly easy to find. But it's an early example of neo noir with a reach that just exceeds its grasp, in terms of its art-film aspirations and its filmmaking style. I can recommend it, though, for an evening's quirky entertainment, if it's available for a reasonable price--it deserves a better fate than its current obscurity (and a better fate, perhaps, than its characters experience in the end).

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Redeemer, by Jo Nesbø

The Redeemer is Jo Nesbø's best novel so far. It has less of the grand, historical plotline than The Redbreast, and the three-novel Tom Waaler plot ended with a previous novel (ostensibly), but The Redeemer has an elegant structure, considerable humor, and a zig-zagging story that continually loops back on itself. Plus it has the usual virtues of a Nesbø novel: engaging characters, interesting insights on Norwegian and European culture, and a tightening suspense that is released only at the end (after several false "endings" along the way). In this book, a number of plotlines intersect, with a phrase or even an object dropped at the end of a section only to be picked up (with comic and ironic effect) in the opening sentence of the next section (occurring miles away and in a different context. Not just a literary game, these transitions are simply one element of the lively and involving story. There's a Croatian hit man going to Oslo for one last job, a gaaggle of Salvation Army officers and soldiers in Norway involved in some very human interpersonal relations, a wealthy family struggling to maintain its fortune, and detective (and central character) is losing his boss, his only protector in a police hierarchy that is hostile to Hole's independent ways. The new boss is a military man returning to the police with all the subtlety and empathy one might expect from a special forces type (but he turns out to be a complex character rather than a cardboard one). There are dire consequences for some of Hole's team, and the hitman takes a difficult and circuitous route toward the fufillment of his mission. And in fact, the Waaler plot (those who've been reading the Nesbø as they have come out in English will know what I'm talking about) does in fact return in a surprise ending that has (one can see in retrospect) been prepared for symbolically all along. Nesbø is one of only a few crime writers who can manage the complex structure, the large cast of characters, and the wide ranging storylines in novels as bulky as The Redeemer, while also keeping the reader moving rapidly along from one cliff hanger to another. Because of the complexity and the references to earlier stories, it's probably best not to start reading Nesbø with this one, but if it's the only one you can get hold of, go ahead--and hold on to your hat, it's a wild and often funny (as well as satisfying) ride.

Friday, March 13, 2009

South African thriller: Margie Orford's Like Clockwork

Margie Orford's new (in the U.K. and U.S.) Like Clockwork was actually originally published in S.A. in '06. Orford has wrapped a serial killer novel in a book about violence against women in a broader sense, and the two levels of the novel get a bit confused. The central character, Dr. Clare Hart, is similarly pulled in two directions: she's both a profiler with ties (both personal and professional) to the police and a journalist investigating the exploitation of women for profit for a documentary film. There are a lot of instances in the book of human trafficking and sexual slavery, domestic violence, and gang violence directed against women (in initiation rituals for just one example), many of them aimed at exactly the same young women being targeted by the serial killer. The expected tension of a serial killer story is therefore dissipated a bit among all the other violence and misery, until the last few chapters, when the serial killer plot and the attention of Dr. Hart both come sharply into focus. Orford's novel is a good portrait of the racial and cultural stew of Cape Town, and she gives a good sense of the city and surroundings, from middle class to working class to slums, from Table Mountain to Robben Island. And she also gives a good sense of the violence against women both in this particular culture and in human society at large. The story is no more "overdetermined" than another Cape Town thriller reviewed here a few weeks ago (Roger Smith's Mixed Blood), and both effectively use the gang violence plaguing the city. Smith plunges his characters into the maelstrom while Orford keeps her central characters at arm's length from the violence (though Hart's sister is a recluse and gang victim), logical outcomes of their approaches (Smith's is not a series book and Orford's has all the signs of being the beginning of a series). Along with the better known Deon Meyer (and I suspect other writers that I haven't discovered yet), Smith and Orford bring the violent, beautiful, and vibrant city of Cape Town to life on the page--each giving emphasis to different aspects of life there. I'm looking forward to more from all of them, and hoping for advice from anyone who knows other high-quality crime writers from S.A.--The excellent blog Crime Beat South Africa is one resource; are there others? And does anyone have recommendations about which S.A. writer I should try to get hold of next?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Back to the Coast, by Saskia Noort

Saskia Noort's first novel (her second to be translated into English from the original Dutch), Back to the Coast, is a paranoid thriller that eases the reader down from the scattered normal life of singer (for a rock/soul cover band) and single mother Maria into the maelstrom of psychotic violence. The book has some of the pacing of Hitchcock's or Chabrol's psychological thrillers, but resolutely from the point of view of the female narrator, Maria herself. Maria has just had an abortion, unable to cope with two children and a depressed boyfriend she's just kicked out of her house, and she starts getting nasty threats referring to the abortion and her lifestyle. The police can't or won't do anything, and when the threats accelerate she flees from her home, going with her children to stay with her semi-estranged sister, who lives in their parents' former boarding house on the shore, a house Maria remembers with no fondness as the site of her mother's insanity and her father's indifference. But the terror follows her there, and Maria begins to suspect her brother-in-law, who has walked out on Maria's sister, has been stalking and threatening her. Though the reader may suspect what's actually going on long before Maria does, Noort effectively tightens the straitjacket of her narrative in the second half of the book, after carefully portraying Maria's life and character in the first half. Noort's second book, The Dinner Club, is an original suburban thriller, but Back to the Coast uses family life in a more sinister way, as an effective metaphor for ties that bind in unhealthy ways. The conclusion is a bit abrupt, and the final intervention comes from an unexpected direction, but Back to the Coast is a compelling narrative of both real and paranoid threats and of the bonds and the damages created by families.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The first Adamsberg book, now available in English

We finally have the first of Fred Vargas's Inspector Adamsberg novels in English (as The Chalk Circle Man), after 13 years and 4 other translations (plus one from her other series). There is perhaps less problem with the publication out of order than there has been with some other authors (I'm thinking of Jo Nesbø for one), since each of the Adamsberg books uses Vargas's odd assortment of characters and effects, without too much crime plot running from one book to another. What we do get, finally, is a glimpse of Adamsberg's early days with his team of detectives, showing with his first big case how he both brings them around and frustrates them with his intuitive style. We also get a fuller perspective on the love of his life, Camille, though she is onstage for a very brief moment (as is typical of the series)--and their relationship is one of the distinctive features of this series. The events in The Chalk Circle Man evolve from an encounter between a female scientist and a blind man in a bar, and from Adamsberg's interest in (and fears about) a series of blue chalk circles that are appearing, with a cryptic text, around single mundane objects on sidewalks and streets in several of Paris's arrondisements. The plot is as quirky as we now expect from Vargas (and it's difficult to imagine the impact the book might have had on its original readers since we do know now what to expect from Vargas), and there is poetry and history as usual, but there is not an overarching historical or mythical or stylistic "maguffin" as in some others of the books (the plague, a detective who speaks in classic Alexandrine verse, werewolves). Instead, we get a full picture of Adamsberg himself, a portrait of the logical Danglard coming to terms with Adamsberg and his methods, and we get a couple of sudden twists in the investigation, one perhaps predictable and the other genuinely out of left field (the latter regarding motive, and though well prepared for when you think back through the book, is a quick shift, a flick of the book's serpentine tail.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou

Alain Mabanckou's African Psycho (translated by Christine Schwartz Hartley) is disturbing, dark, and funny. The author is French-Congolese, and his work has been highly praised in France and Francophone Africa for this and other works. African Psycho has been compared to Nabokov, Dostoievsky, and Camus (not so much to Brett Easton Ellis, in spite of the title) but it owes as much to Amos Tutuola's great Palm Wine Drinkard, especially in the very funny hyphenated place names (the neighborhood in which the story takes place is called He-Who-Drinks-Water-Is-An-Idiot, because of the residents' drinking habits) and the folk-tale-meets-serial-killer-novel quality of the book. The narrative is a monologue by a young man named Greg (or Grégoire) who idolizes his country's only serial killer, Angoualima. The first sections of the book take Greg through his orphaned childhood and his growing fascination with the serial killer; from there, we see Greg's first attempts at violence (an attack on a real estate agent and a young woman--both brutal but neither achieving his murderous intent) and his plan for the murder of a woman named Germaine, as announced in the first words of the novel. Greg begins to have dialogues with the deceased Angoualima at his grave: conversations in which the dead killer is part psychotherapist and part self-absorbed psychopath. If it all sounds hallucinatory, it is, and Greg's imagination is brutal and ugly. But Greg is also the Woody Allen of serial killers, and the combination of all these elements is fascinating and funny, while also being ironic and obsessive, frightening and mesmerizing. The narrator refers disparagingly to crime fiction that begins with a corpse and ends with a solution, and though most of what he says can be taken as irony, in this statement he accurately assesses his own story as different from crime fiction. Mabanckou is writing about horrors of the human soul and contemporary global culture in the language of crime fiction (because that's the most effective vehicle for taking about those horrors) and in the mode of comedy (because that's the only mode that can deal with these horrors without despair).

Monday, March 02, 2009

A Country House excursion

Though a country house cozy is not my usual reading material, I found myself reading a copy of Louise Penny's new novel (The Murder Stone in the U.K., A Rule Against Murder in the U.S.) over last weekend. For almost 100 pages, the squabbles of a family attempting a weekend reunion are all that interrupt an anniversary trip to a remote Quebec manor house/inn by Inspector Gamache and his wife. After the inevitable death (with a novel murder weapon), the investigation by Gamache and his team from the homicide division of the Montreal Sureté competes for attention with the family squabbles. The solution to the crime is as novel as the choice of weapon, and the somewhat drawn-out ending manages to reestablish order and family and the calm of the lakeside inn. I'm caricaturing the story: Penny is actually very skillful in making the characters (and their disturbed family) interesting, and there's quite a bit of humor (including a running gag about a child named Bean whose sex has never been disclosed by the mother to anyone in or out of her family). When the investigation kicks in, there's a passage about Gamache (about whom I've seen the claim that he's a unique creation, with some justification) that I think is interesting, particularly in contrast to another book I've just added to my tbr pile: Fred Vargas's Chalk Circle Man.

Penny characterizes one of the murder squad members as a "hound" and another as a "hunter," and then goes on to say: "And Gamache? He knew he was neither the hound nor the hunter. Armand Gamache was the explorer. He went ahead of all the rest, into territory unknown and uncharted. He was drawn to the edge of things. To the places old mariners knew, and warned, 'Beyond here be monsters.'" That's sort of true about Gamache, but how much more true is it of Vargas's Inspector Adamsberg? In fact, Vargas's novels have something in common with the cozy form: each book, whether urban or rural, carefully delineates a small community, bound by family, clan, or proximity, and draws out a strange story through her odd investigative team, chiefly the indeed very odd Adamsberg, who frequently runs right off the edge of the cliff into the realm of monsters. What keeps Vargas's books from really being cozies is the distance from "normal" life that she's willing to travel, and though she allows order to be reestablished at the end, it's a tentative order, shaken by the threats that Adamsberg has uncovered and beaten back. Some of the more outré aspects of Vargas's stories (werewolves, the plague, etc.) end up having rational explanations--but always with the supernatural and strange elements remaining just off-stage, ready to reenter, even after being unmasked. Penny's book is a pleasant read, skillfully managed and fun, in many ways a modernization of the traditional mystery, within the strict limits she has set out (murders in or around a tiny town in Quebec, a seasonal theme for the four books so far in the series). Vargas creates strict limits for each story only to turn them inside out, in scholarly as well as supernatural ways, and readers who are willing to follow her will be treated to startling rather than reassuring tales. That, I guess, is why I'm more interested in Vargas: I've always looked for something startling or arresting in the fiction I read, whatever the genre. The Murder Stone is characterized on the cover as "An Inspector Gamache Crime Novel": a few years ago, that would surely have been "An Inspector Gamache Mystery" and not to insist on sub-genres too heavily, I think the word "mystery" would still be more accurate advertising: Gamache and the cozy/country end of mystery fiction are less about the crime, really, than about a solution, a resolution, a resettling of the scene into its calm normal state. I enjoyed my excursion into Penny's rural Quebec mystery, but I'm really looking forward to Vargas's twisted crime in what I understand is actually the very first Adamsberg novel, only now available in English.