Sunday, February 28, 2010

Gunshot Road, by Adrian Hyland

Australian Adrian Hyland's two "Emily Tempest Investigation" novels differ from Peter Temple's novels of Australia in a number of ways: Tempest is a half-Aboriginal woman who frew up in the Outback, left to travel the world, and is now back and looking for a "Centre," as she calls the region, of her own. The narrative is straightforward, and entirely from Emily's point of view. Where Temple's narrative is splintered by abrupt and slangy dialogue, Hyland's is more linear, punctuated by terms from local languages and mythologies. The mythologies are particularly important: as in his first novel (Moonlight Downs or Diamond Dove, depending on the country) the dreamings, songs (meaning much more than music) and divinities of the native people are taken seriously as an integral part of the community and the landscape. In Gunshot Road, maps are a particular focus, and not only those graphed on paper, along with a legendary figure who apparently buried under a collapsed mountain years before. Emily is more on her own here, and less of an amateur detective. She has been hired as a kind of auxiliary police officer, in training in the town, and only occasionally in touch with the people of her village (where much of the crucial action took place in Moonlight Downs). She's adrift, and uncertain about which of the townspeople, miners, suspect, police, victims, and even a Chinese artist she can trust. The mystery isn't so much the point of the book as the texture of Emily's world, and it's a rich adventure even without the action that erupts (mostly right on top of her) occasionally. She's an appealing and (something to remark upon given the gender difference between author and character) believable character, and the series reveals a very different facet of the Australian experience from the others in the crop of the current, remarkable burst of creativity in Australian crime fiction (not only Temple but Garry Disher, Shane Maloney--whose most recent Murray Whelan book I've just managed to get hold of), and many others whose names you can browse here, at the Australian Crime Fiction Database.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Paragon of Virtue, by Christian von Ditfurth

A Paragon of Virtue, Christian von Ditfurth's 2002 novel set mostly in Hamburg (published in English by Toby Press in 2008) has all the elements of a cozy. It's set in academic circles (the main character, Josef Stachelman, is a historian). Stachelmann, who can't seem to finish his the research that will gain him tenure in the German academic system, becomes an amateur detective when his friend Ossi, a detective in Hamburg's homicide division, asks him for help in a strange case: a prominent real estate magnate is being attacked for reasons unknown--so far his wife and two of his three children have been murdered. The hapless academic, who's having trouble with a female student who is coming on to him (to get the grade she needs) as well as having constant worries about his lack of progress on his own book and recurring problems with rheumatoid arthritis, is recognizable as an almost stock character of the cozy (of the amateur detective variety). But Stachelmann's academic subject is the Holocaust, and he begins to suspect that the murders lead back to the German politics, bureaucracy, and police of the Nazi era. Ossi stops listening to him (after a colleague of his is run over, perhaps murdered, right in front of him) and Stachelmann goes off on his own (with the occasional help of an attractive female colleague). The conflict between the cozy/mystery format and the awful events of both past and present (and the greed and lies of the past and present) keeps the book interesting for readers disposed toward both lighter and darker realms of crime fiction. The narrative alternates among Stachelmann, Ossi, and a murderous old man, all in the third person but hewing closely to the point of view of those three. Stachelmann's portion of the narrative is lively and believable, revealing much about German academic life, Nazi and contemporary bureaucracy, the archives of a reunited Germany, and the horrors of the Holocaust, and the old man's narrative is chilling. The police narrative, carried forward mostly in dialogue among the detectives, lacks a convincing vernacular language, and the police go back and forth from the real estate magnate/victim and several of his associates without making much progress. But Ossi is likable, and both his murdered colleague and the female detective who replaces her are interesting characters with lively voices, not intimidated by the male-dominated climate of the police force. As you might guess, the story is more ruminative than action-oriented, though there are several short eplisodes of action and suspense, especially in the later part of the novel. There is, though, a pervading atmosphere of anguish and threat (not so much on the husband-father-victim's part but among all the other characters) and Stachelmann is forced to confront his own family's part in the horrors of his parents' generation. A Paragon of Virtue is evidently the first novel in a series based on Stachelmann's character, though none of the others has been (or is projected to be, at this point) translated. Less hard-boiled than the Kayankaya novels of Jakob Arjouni and more distanced from the war than Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir series, von Ditfurth has carved out a particular niche in German crime fiction (or crime fiction set in Germany), oscillating between the country's past and present. It would be interesting to know whether the later novels follow that pattern as well, and how well Stachelmann and Ossi hold up as running characters--if anyone is familiar with the later books, please let us know.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Peter Temple's Truth

The only Truth in Peter Temple's new novel of the Melbourne homicide squad is not what you might think (I won't spoil the revelation). The novel is a complex story with an ambivalent moral sense, told in terse coded dialogue among the police and an almost stream of consciousness narrative in the third person but from the point of view of the new head of homicide, Stephen Villani. Villani is landed with two murder scenes, one a young girl in a new high-rise development and the other a torture-murder in a drug gang's house. He's also dealing with the breakup of his marriage, the descent into drugs of his youngest daughter, the revival of an incident from earlier in his career that threatens to land him in jail, and his father's refusal to leave his fire-threatened farm. There's more, but that gives you an idea of the mixture of plotlines in the book. Truth brings together the social conscience of The Broken Shore with the quick, oblique language of the Jack Irish books (as well as the horseracing theme of those books). Three characters from the other books make an appearance: Jack Irish does a cameo and Joe Cashin and Detective Dove from The Broken Shore are secondary but important characters (Dove, recovered from the shooting in the earlier novel, more so than Cashin). Villani is facing a multiple fork in the road of his life and career, and it isn't clear until the very end which way he will go (a lot in fact is left unresolved at the end, more in his private than his professional life). And which way he goes is not altogether by choice: fate and the influence of various superiors have a big part in the decision. There's so much going on that the two murder cases sometimes recede a bit into the background--though always nagging at Villani's mind and conscience. So although there is a very large element of the police procedural, the progress in the cases is less central (and sometimes more confusing) than in a straight procedural. In fact, the novelist I was most often reminded of is Joseph Wambaugh: like Wambaugh, Temple derives most of the comic element in the story from the dry wit and interplay among the cops. And like Wambaugh, crimes or moral lapses among the police are a big part of the atmosphere (along with stories about things that have happened among the cops in the past). But although authenticity in the depiction of the police is achieved by both, Temple reaches beyond that toward the complexity of Villani's life as a whole (partly in the stream of consciousness narrative that I mentioned before, a narrative style not chosen by Wambaugh in any of his books that I've read), from childhood forward, and also provides a concrete sense of Melbourne and Australia quite different from Wambaugh's southern California. Having caught up with Temple's current writing, I'm driven to go back and find the 2 Irish novels that I haven't read, as well as a couple of stand-alone books that I've had a hard time finding (but are apparently available second hand here and there on the Web). I have a nagging sense that I haven't captured something important about Truth, so I may come back to it--it's a book that has a lot going on (and a lot to offer).

Friday, February 12, 2010

South African crime novel by French author Caryl Férey

Zulu, the first novel by French author of "polar," (as the French call crime fiction) Caryl Férey is about Cape Town, South Africa: truly an international crime novel. Zulu (published this spring in English by Europa Editions) begins as a police procedural, centered on the head of the homicide team of the Cape Town police, Ali Neuman, whose Zulu background will become relevant to the plot, though, as it shifts from mystery to pulp noir to thriller (almost to futuristic thriller in its vision of an extreme category of crime), in constantly shifting plot lines circling around the drugs and violence in the townships surrounding Cape Town and the murder of two white women. Férey has a tendency to explain South Africa to the reader, more so than the indigenous crime writers of the country (Deon Meyer for one) whose first audience has been South African readers who don't need the "back story" filled in. In that sense, perhaps, Zulu is a book that could introduce South Africa as a setting for crime fiction to those unfamiliar with the country's history. And Férey gives a very comprehensive "tour" of Cape Town and environs, from the beaches (some with penguins) to the townships to Table Mountain, to the Cape of Good Hope, and several surrounding towns. But a reader will need considerable tolerance for fictional violence as the novel shifts from "policier" to pulp to thriller, as the tone shifts from the struggle against ruthless gangs to drug-induced of almost ritual intensity to sociopathic mass murder and international corporate crime. The novel becomes almost apocalyptic as it leaves behind more and more corpses and any sense of hope for the country (much less for this story) becomes less and less viable. Roger Smith's recent novel of Cape Town gang violence is violent and nearly hopeless, but Férey's raises the violence to another level. And Férey's story shifts from driven by dialogue and action to historical information to the biographical background of his characters and to philosophical and politically impassioned narrative: in that way, it seems more in one of the traditions of French crime writing, a philosophical and tendentious approach--but Férey never forgets about his story and the reader will be pulled along through the various stages and into identification with those who are killed and those few (people and values) that survive. This impressive and distinctive novel is a different angle on the South African crime story, and a bleaker one than some of the viewpoints offered by others in that rapidly developing field. After reading Zulu, the reader, a little stunned by the experience, may be left hoping for the no less jaundiced but perhaps more hopeful (and occasionally myth-making) Cape Town crime stories offered by Deon Meyer, whose new novel is to be released in English very soon.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Snow Angels, by James Thompson

Snow Angels, by Kentucky-born but Finland-resident James Thompson, is billed as "An Inspector Vaara novel," implying that Kari Vaara, the leading character and the focus of almost all of the narrative, will be featured in a crime series. There are a number of interesting characters, a lot of interesting background for Vaara, and there's a lot of plot going on in this short novel--but almost all of it is resolved by the end of this volume. A comparison with Arnaldur Indridason is apt, because both his Erlendur and Thompson's Vaara lost a sibling and thereby incurred a lifetime of guilt and regret. But by page 264, Vaara seems to have worked through it (if that's not too much of a spoiler--at least I won't say how he accomplishes that, or who helps him). Erlendur's whole personality (and his pastime) revolve around his dead brother. Similarly, there's an ex-wife in both cases (with a lot of residual nasty feelings), but Thompson deals with Vaara's ex-wife in rather absolute terms here, while Erlendur has only reached a face-to-face confrontation (engineered by their children) by the 6th translated novel (the 8th overall, I think). And one of the most interesting characters in Snow Angels, someone whom we might expect to explore further, disappears in a plot twist that provides surprise but denies further development of the character. There are virtues in literary delay, in the withholding of information and even action, especially in an extended series. All of the above is merely an observation, not a criticism of Thompson's book--which evokes northern Finland (above the Arctic Circle) in a lively fashion (as lively as the dour Finns permit) and gives us not only Vaara but his American wife, his family, the denizens of both the town and the resort (of which his wife is manager), and a lot of insight into the Finnish character in general. The plot is very violent, in very graphic ways, and there are several despicable characters providing various theories of the crime that begins the novel (the sexual and racist murder of a Somali-born actress). There are, especially surrounding those unpleasant types, various side-plots and criminal acts to fill out the main narrative and to complicate Vaara's life. I enjoyed Snow Angels, and would probably read a sequel, but there isn't the pull of unresolved plot and character development that draws a reader from, to give a rather extreme instance, one to another of Jo Nesbø's novels.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Reading Finnish noir in an appropriate landscape

The photo of the day is the view out my front door, as we're socked in by 2-3 feet of snow (and it's still snowing). It happens that I'm reading James Thompson's Finnish police procedural, Snow Angels, after having read Stan Jones's bush-noir Alaskan novel Village of the Ghost Bears earlier in the week. Either I'm living in the perfect setting for reading these Arctic-Circle-winter-noir books, or I'm jinxing the weather here just outside Washington, D.C., don't know which...

Friday, February 05, 2010

Short post on Crime Always Pays by Declan Burke

Short review because I'm thumb typing on the same iPod touch on which I read Declan Burke's kindle-only novel, via new kindle for iPhone app. Crime Always Pays is part road movie and part farce, reminding me sometimes of Elmore Leonard, sometimes of Allan Guthrie (particularly Savage Night), sometimes of Donald Westlake (particularly the Dortmunder books), and sometimes of the Coen brothers (particularly Blood Simple)--sometimes all at once. There are a lot of characters, in three (maybe more) groups pursuing one another across Europe from Ireland to the Greek islands, and the novel is mostly conversation among them, in short overlapping chapters. It's a sequel to Burke's The Big O, and it starts immediately after the events of that book--a reader not familiar with the prequel may feel a bit lost at first, but never fear, the author recaps who's who and what's been going on often enough to let everyone keep pace. And a furious pace it is, continuing right on through the last word (and beyond). Highly recommended for the kindle-enabled, on one platform or another. A side note--I found the kindle-for-iphone app comfortable, and clear (with an adjustable font, bright screen, etc., on my ipod) but a little frustrating--no page numbers so it's difficult to tell where you are, and it's clumsy to flip back a few pages to refresh your memory in a complicated plot. But satisfactory, if not perfect--I'm holding out on buying an e-reader per se until the post-ipad shakeout occurs. Anybody else reading kindle on iphone, ipod?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Village of the Ghost Bears, by Stan Jones

The third novel in the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones, Frozen Sun, was almost urban, with its themes of prostitution, rape, and despair. The new, fourth, novel, Village of the Ghost Bears is back to the tundra and the town of Chukchi, the primary settings of the first two Active novels. Nathan, for those unfamiliar with the very interesting series, is an Inupiat Alaska State Trooper who was raised in Anchorage and is thus an outsider in his own culture (the series begins with his being assigned to the town of his birth, where his mother still lives). The new novel begins as Nathan and his new girlfriend (the emotionally damaged Grace Palmer of Frozen Sun) are dropped off beside a remote lake for some r&r, but instead discover a body in the water and then get a message about a deadly fire back in Chukchi. What follows is a complex investigation involving a lot of bush-airplane travel (some of the suspects and a lot of the leads are in areas so remote that they're inacessible except by air). One of the pleasures of this series, very evident here, is the language, enriched by terms from the Inupiaq language, by the very local sense of humor, and by the varieties of local dialects of English. The characters (suspects and bystanders) in this novel include a very convincing schizophrenic twin, a resourceful bush pilot and his irascible wife, an ambitious Inupiat policeman, and a large number of interesting characters who are dead from the beginning (in the fire), plus the damaged Grace and Nathan himself, who is uncertain about where he belongs culturally and personally. Nathan's desire to get out of Chukchi and back to Anchorage, a persistent theme of the series, reaches a climax in a decision that confronts him at the end of the book. I usually only review non-U.S. crime fiction, but Stan Jones's Alaska is so different from the normal U.S.-crime-novel setting that I can't resist including his books, and his more-remote-than-rural locale is a unique environment for his sometimes very dark stories. The blend of Inupiat, Korean, Hispanic, white, and black population of Village of the Ghost Bears is lively and full of conflict--more than enough reason to seek out the Nathan Active novels.