Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The 5th (and last?) Commissario Trotti novel

The place of Timothy Williams in the crime fiction world was recently attested to by his inclusion in a lit of the top ten European crime writers in The Guardian (yet he's surely the least well known name in the list). I haven't yet read his series set in Guadaloupe (and so far published only in French, though there's a rumor of publication by Soho Crime), but his Commissario Trotti series is perhaps the best of the distinguished crop of non-Italian crime fiction writers whose work is set in Italy, a literary generation that includes Donna Leon, Magdalen Nabb, and Michael Dibdin.

All of these writers share a jaundiced yet appreciative view of Italy: dismayed by the politics and seduced by the culture. But Williams digs deeper into the real social and historical background, from the "years of lead" and the kidnapping of Moro through a series of scandals in government and church, as well as campaigns against corruption, leading to the "mani pulite" years of the '90s, which is the background of Big Italy, the fifth and last-published of the Trotti novels. In all cases, the big, historical events are filtered through the lens of small, local events and people, accenting the impact of social patterns on the daily life of individuals.

That all sounds dry and stuffy, and the novels are anything but. As with all the books, Big Italy progresses mostly through the often oblique dialogue of the Commissario and his associates and the suspects. The effect is frequently both frustrating and comic, as well as reinforcing the overall sense that what is really going on remains resolutely below the surface of events.

Trotti gets two requests from current and former associates, both of which he refuses. One is from a former colleague, now a private detective who watches too many TV detective shows, who asks for his help in solving a cold murder case, a doctor murdered as he walked from his house one morning. The other request is from his boss, the questore, and from a social worker that Trotti once recruited to assist in the investigation of child molestation; they want the Commissario to reconsider his retirement plans and to take charge of a new "special victims" unit for the protection of children.

Things get more complicated when the private detective is himself murdered and no one wants Trotti to investigate. Two former colleagues (much abused by Trotti when they were working with him) come to his assistance (and are not well rewarded for their cooperation), and local and national politics become implicated in the crimes and in the police as the story moves along (and the book's title, when explained, says a lot about Williams's targets in the series as a whole).

Big Italy has, like the other Trotti novels and most crime fiction set in Italy, a less-than-conclusive ending, without the absolute resolution of much mystery writing. But there's a note of hope in the ending: hope for the future of some of the individual characters and for the goals for which they had been striving, if not confidence in the future of the country as a whole. I hear that there's a sixth Trotti story as yet unpublished. I can wholeheartedly encourage readers who are interested in atypical, ambitious, and atmospheric crime writing to go out and find used copies of the five published Trotti novels, and then to pressure anyone they know in the publishing world to (first) bring them back into print and (second) give us all the chance to read the final episode in the series.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Killing Redux

I just noticed that there is a version of the excellent Danish series, The Killing (the original Danish title, Forbrydelsen, actually translates as "The Crime"), being produced for AMC-TV, the U.S. basic cable channel that brings us Breaking Bad and brought us the late lamented Rubicon. It's 13 episodes rather than 20, still one episode per day of the investigation of the death of a teenager. So far, the press is good--and since it starts on April 3, apparently, we'll soon find out if it measures up to the Danish original.

The American Killing is shot in Vancouver, BC, but set in Seattle. It's produced by Fox Television (which thankfully has little resemblance to that other branch of the company, Fox News). The actors who can be seen in the photo pasted in this blog post are Mireille Enos (as "Sarah Linden," the lead detective) and Joel Kinnaman (as "Stephen Holder," the new cop in the team). The pilot was directed by Patty Jenkins, who directed Monster (a good sign). Here's hoping it has even a glimmer of the quality of the original.

Now I've got to finish watching the original before the new version starts...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The newest Aimee Leduc

The first of Cara Black's "Aimée Leduc investigations," Murder in the Marais, was published in 1999 but set in 1993, in Paris of course. The 11th and newest in the series, Murder in Passy, has just been published but is set in 1997: Aimée is progressing more slowly into the future than her books are. The historical distance allows some temporal ironies regarding technologies that Aimée and her cohorts are exploiting in their infancy (GPS is one), and also allows (rather in the fashion of French crime writer Dominique Manotti) some historical events to anchor the stories (in the case of Murder in Passy, it's the Basque presence in Paris, including the region's militant factions.

I've recently mentioned, in a review of a quite different book, the difficulties of picking up a series in the middle. It's not really a problem with Black's books (pun not intended, if you remember the U.K. TV show of that name), except that some of the running characters surrounding Aimée come and go rather quickly in Murder in Passy, the reader's awareness of who they are depending on prior knowledge of her career. But it's the most prominent of the regulars, Morbier, her cop-godfather, and René, her vertically challenged partner in Leduc Investigations, who carry most of the weight anyway.

Aimée becomes involved in Morbier's love life, making an appearance in his place at his recent amour's daughter's wedding rehearsal party—where a murder occurs, implicating Morbier himself. And with Morbier's less than collegial relationship with his colleagues, they are only too happy to stop looking for the murderer once they haved evidence against Morbier.

As Aimée mobilizes in his defense, against his own wishes, she becomes involved in Basque separatism in various forms, as well as embedded in the history, architecture, life, and culture of the Passy neighorhood (one of the pleasures of the series is Black's detailed evocation of the neighborhood's of Paris, as well as the city as a whole.

Aimée stumbles around without much cooperation from anyone involved, including various branches of the police, until things become both clearer and more dangerous. There's a concluding thriller-sequence in an old underground reservoir that's right out of a French adventure-romance novel of previous centuries. And Aimée inches a bit further toward a personal relationship...

I haven't read all, or even quite half, of the Aimée Leduc stories, but the new one is certainly up to the standard of the ones that I have read. Aimée herself remains interesting and lively, without succumbing to clichés of the genre or of fashion (her wardrobe is an ongoing element, along with he pink scooter). Food, though certainly one aspect of the stories, is not as important as it is for, for example, the novels of Vázquez Montalbán or Camilleri, though wine is never far from anyone's mind. When I catch up with my tbr pile a bit, I should go back and fill in the gaps in my knowledge of Aimée's career...

Friday, March 18, 2011

Brooklyn Noir and my mistake

I don't usually review U.S.-based noir fiction here, but I received a copy of Reed Farrell Coleman's 2008 Empty Ever After (not from the publisher, but from the printer of a recent edition, as a printing sample offered to support a quote for a book project I was working on). I'd been curious about Coleman since I've heard a lot of praise for his work, especially from other writers.

This is the 5th of the 6 (so far) books in the Moe Prager series, featuring ex-cop (and by the 6th novel, ex-private detective) and wine merchant of that name, set in the '80s for the most part and in Brooklyn and Long Island. My mistake was in picking up the 5th novel in the series: as I've since read elsewhere, a lot of the impact of Empty Ever After relies on a reader's prior knowledge of these characters and their history. It's not that there is prior knowledge required (Coleman does a good job of filling in the blanks, in conversation and flashbacks). It's that by this installment of the series, who the suspects might be and what their history and emotional baggage is with Prager are well established for a regular reader and not so well established for a new reader.

In terms of the quality of the writing, the setting, the vivid characters, and the ethnic background, Coleman's Prager novel reminds me of Jerome Charyn’s Isaac Quartet, and excellent series that can also be hard to pick up in the middle. Where Coleman's Empty Ever After differs from most noir-detective writing is in the focus on Prager and his family There is not really a "case" here, only a threat to Prager's ex-wife and to the detective himself. That narrows the focus, especially in a first-person narrative. And the wider focus (on local politics and corruption, on the police, both corrupt and honest, and on the social sphere) is to some extent carried over from the previous novels rather than directly investigated here.

The story is very complicated, with frequent flashbacks and side stories, but basically concerns the disturbance of several graves, the ghostly reappearance of Moe's ex-wife's dead brother (around whom an earlier novel in the series focused), and a host of people who hate Moe for one reason or another. Although the ending is well prepared for, it seems abrupt to me, and a death that occurs in the ensuing violence seems almost offstage, though it happens in the reader's presence.

So other reviewers will have to offer a more complete picture of Coleman's Prager series and his other novels; I can offer only praise of the writing and a caution: don't pick up the series in the middle.

I found three coves for this book: the skyscraper one (on the edition I have) and two graveyard ones. The skyscraper one is not really appropriate, given the often rural and suburban settings; of the other 2, I think I prefer the one without color, giving a sense of the bleakness of the story Coleman tells as well as the theme of the living presence of the dead.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Translator on board

I've added a Google translator to the blog, having seen that it works pretty well on websites. Let me know what you think. And has anybody else tried a hosted translator on their crime fiction blog?

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Allan Guthrie, Hard Man (2006)

I'm just now getting around to reading Hard Man, a 5-year old book by Allan Guthrie, the master of the noir farce. And, just as in the French comedies, Hard Man is full of motion and action, but rather than being about sex, it's about violence. And there's plenty of it--but the effect is more of comedy than horror (in spite of an extended scene right out of the serial-killer-splatter-movie tradition.

Everyone in the book is damaged, before the story starts, each in his or her own way: damaged by prison, social structure, domestic violence, industrial accidents, or just plain thuggery. We're introduced the the Baxter family, fecklessly trying to get revenge on their sister (and daughter) May's husband Wallace, who kicked her out and threatened her when she announced she was pregnant, and that another man is the father. Pearce (known mostly by his last name) is minding his own business when the Baxters, well and truly thumped by Wallace, intrude and try to persuade him to help them protect May.

What follows is a combination of family solidarity, total idiocy, and the attachment of a solitary man and his dog (who only has three legs). Guthrie is expert at setting up expectations and shattering them, and also at building a narrative's drive and speed. Though you may find none of these characters appealing, and will most likely find what they are all doing reprehensible, once you get into the story, there's no stopping.

Regular readers of Guthrie's books will know what I'm talking about: this book is well up to his usual standards (I haven't read his newest book yet, Slammer, nor the one that came right after Hard Man, Kill Clock). He's the most unrelenting of the "tartan noir" writers, and the funniest, in his uniquely violent style. The writing is clear and crisp, each character with his own personality and style as the narrative moves among them. If you're up for the combination of pain, darkness, and comedy, Guthrie definitely delivers, better than anyone else I can think of.

And that nail on the cover of the U.S. edition offers a certain queasy promise that the text actually surpasses.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

South Pacific Noir: Graeme Kent's Devil-Devil

The detective in conflict with his boss is a common trope in crime fiction, but in his new Devil-Devil, Graeme Kent takes the theme further than anyone else I can think of. Sergeant Kella, of the Protectorate Police in pre-independence Solomon Islands, is by blood a native of Malaita, one of the larger islands, but he was educated in Western culture and is now caught between his native culture and the West, Western religion and traditional religion. When he is in the presence of his superior officers, all English, he is deferantial in a manner suited to his rank. When he's not in their presence, he ignores them almost completely.

Kella is not only a cop. He has taken on a traditional peacemaker role in his culture, through which is responsible for everyone on Malaita in a much more complete way than simply as a cop. As several people remark along the way, he will be a very important man in the islands once the English leave, and is already an important man within his culture.

His counterpart, Sister Conchita, is a young nun with a troublesome habit (no pun intended) of also ignoring her superiors, or at least of exceeding her role in the social and liturgical hierarchy. Although she does play a part in the working-out of the mystery (more about that in a minute) she's not an amateur detective, really. She's more of a Western foil (much more so than his police superiors) for Kella.

The novel, in terms of plot and atmosphere, has something in common with Charlotte Jay's marvelous Beat Not the Bones (set in nearby Papua New Guinea) and also with Leaphorn and Chee novels of Tony Hillerman (though Kella's cultural conflict is to some extent divided into two characters in Hillerman's stories of skinwalkers, ghosts, and ordinary murders). My wife was reminded of Colin Cotterill's historical/magic-realist/comic crime novels set in Laos. But Kella's adventure is more distinctive than the comparisons can suggest.

Devil-Devil is almost casual about some of the several murders in the story, and the moral tone of the book has more to do with cultural survival than the life or death of individuals. There's plenty of crime: not only murders but smuggling of various sorts, corruption, violence, etc. But the story is more political in a way, dealing not only with the cultural conflict but also with the waning colonialism of circa 1960.

An American anthropologist has disappeared into the mountains, a skeleton is unearthed by an earthquake, and omens foreshadow violent deaths that soon follow. Kella needs to find out what's going on, but he's not as concerned about English justice as with restoring order of a more fundamental sort. There are several sections that could have been from an adventure novel instead of a police procedural, as well as gritty scenes in rough and tumble towns. The story moves forward in loops and twirls rather than a straightforward investigation.

There are some aspects of the novel that didn't quite work, for me: some of the dialogue is a little stilted, and some of the characters are a bit one-dimensional. But in the context of a linguistic milieu that alternates between proper English and local pidgin, the dialogue could be appropriate, certainly much more so than any imported "noir-speak" drawn from urban crime fiction. And the characters reflect the larger frame that Kent is dealing with: the islanders notion of who the Europeans are is not particularly 3-dimensional (though Kella sees more shades of gray than others do), and Kella himself is not simply an individual: modest though he can be, and human in many ways, he's bigger than just a guy on the street (or in the jungle).

There's some humor in the book, mostly light-hearted, and a distinctively South-Seas kidnapping and imprisonment is one element of that. But even those elements are tinged with a darkness of both animism and human nature. This is an unusual crime novel, and it will be interesting to see how Kent develops the series. The U.S. and U.K. covers are more completely different than is usually the case--I think the prize goes to Soho Crime, for the U.S. version (the skulls, rather than the U.K. version's map), this time.