Monday, June 27, 2011

Trackers, by Deon Meyer

Deon Meyer has followed up his most straightforward book, the relentless Thirteen Hours, with his most complex, the forthcoming Trackers. As is usual with Meyer, characters recur from his other books, from the earliest to the most recent. Lemmer, the bodyguard, Mat Joubert, the cop (now former cop) and several of his colleagues, as well as several other minor characters, put in appearances.

There are several kinds of trackers in Trackers: animal trackers, spy trackers, private detectives, and more. In the first and third sections of the book, we follow a Presidential Intelligence Agency, whose head is trying to keep the agency independent in the face of a consolidation of the South African intelligence services, and recruits a team of stray white people (beached in one way or another by the rapidly changing society) as information analysts. One of them is a housewife who has abandoned her abusive husband and useless son to seek a life of her own (as a writer, she hopes). The agency is caught up in the pursuit of an Islamic terror cell that is planning a big event.

The second section follows Lemmer (telling his own story in the first person), living happily in the desert-like, remote Bo-Karoo area with the girlfriend he acquired in Blood Safari, the previous book featuring him as a main character. He is suddenly and inexplicably offered a job protecting a pair of black Rhinos that are being smuggled out of Zimbabwe (most often referred to as Zim by the novel's characters) for their own (and their species') protection. There are hidden agendas, though, that end with Lemmer in pursuit of a tracker who has disappeared with evidence implicating Lemmer in a murder.

The last section follows Joubert's first case as a private investigator, working for a large firm that seems more concerned with making money than solving cases. His case concerns a man who disappeared some time before, and his wife has raised the money for a private investigation since the police put no effort into finding him.

The three threads intersect in unexpected ways, leading to twisty and satisfying plot developments. There are elements of the Graham Greene or Eric Ambler school of writing in the spy sections, with the reader understanding more of what's happening than the spy catchers do, with considerable irony. There's also one plot development that the reader may think has been undercut by history--but be patient, what seems at first like an error becomes logical in the end.

There is much that Deon Meyer fans will recognize and appreciate in Trackers, as well as a lot of new and interesting developments. I've been a fan since Meyer's first two novels were translated into English from Afrikaans (one featuring Mat Joubert), and Trackers reinforces my appreciation for Meyer's work (he's certainly the "dean" of South African crime writing).

I've pasted in the U.S. (Rhino) and U.K. (road image) as well as the Afrikaans editions: of the three, I think I like the U.K. one best and the U.S. one least, though the rhino cover does have a certain appeal--both refer to the Lemmer plot more than the other threads (which indeed are harder to represent). Thoughts?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Henning Mankell, The Troubled Man

I'm tempted to say, "go read the review at
2011/05/review-troubled-man-by-henning-mankell.html, I agree with everything the blogger says." Then I could just point to the U.S. cover (which I don't like) and be done with it. But it's a peculiar book and I can't resist, in the end, saying a few things.

In the Wallander books, Mankell is pulled between his global concerns and the daily lives of people affected by ordinary crimes. Sometimes the balance is excellent (as in the references to xenophobia in Faceless Killers, a topic that, in seeking a vehicle to address it, was apparently the reason he created the Wallander character in the first place. In others, to me, the balance is tilted too much to the global conspiracy (The Man Who Smiled, for instance). And in the non-Wallander books, I frequently find the "daily" aspect shortchanged in favor of the global theme.

In The Troubled Man, the balance is achieved by an unusual emphasis on Wallander himself, and his aging in particular. There's a valedictory tone (noted by Maxine) in the memories and visitations from previous stories, and the detective's health is an ever-present concern, as well as the continuation of his argumentative relationship with his daughter Linda (now a mother). The global plot (which tried my patience a bit at times) is nevertheless well-realized in its own right, a twisty spy story of sorts. The father of Linda's baby introduces Wallander to his own father, a former naval officer who is obsessed with an incident from decades before in which Soviet submarines were detected in Swedish waters. We find out more than most of us will care to know about those submarine incidents, but rest assured that Mankell ultimately makes interested plot-content out of them, in a manner different from all the previous Wallanders. Wallander is pulled into a personal investigation (rather than an official one) when the former officer (Linda's father-in-law-to-be) disappears without a trace.

Much has been written about the gloomy tone of The Troubled Man, and with reason. But the emphasis on only that aspect of the novel shouldn't put off readers (as it initially put me off): Wallander is as he always is, and the investigation proceeds at the usual ruminative pace, leading to a final confrontation that is as active as in any of the stories. As the Shade Point blogger suggests, this is not the book to begin with, no one should start the series here. But anyone who has appreciated the series in its book form, in particular, will be rewarded in the same fashion with this final volume. And the conclusion, much referred to in reviews in negative language, is not what I expected from that advance press (I won't give it away, but it's more respectful to the character than I expected from the reviews).

So I've ended up saying more about The Troubled Man than I thought I might. Go read it, and let us know what you think (it offers more food for thought for both its story and its themes than most crime fiction).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Out of South Africa: Killer Country by Mike Nicol

I suspect it may not have been the best idea to read the middle novel of a trilogy-series, but Mike Nicol does pretty well in involving the reader so that one doesn't miss references to the characters' past exploits. Killer Country, the second of the three Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso novels, focuses more frequently on Bishop, whose family has been under threat before and is here again. Bishop and Buso are former freedom fighters (of two different races) who now run a security agency (mostly bodyguarding tourists uncertain of their safety in the wild-west milieu of Cape Town).

In Killer Country, they are seduced into a job that is outside their comfort zone, to do a security assessment of a judge's father's farm (there have been many farm killings in the country). They are also trying to nail down the last element of a land deal of their own, to develop a golf community, but a well connected and ruthless (also former freedom fighter) businessman currently in jail for fraud is also trying to tie up the same land. The "uber-nemisis" of the series is also lurking behind everything: a woman they interrogated with violent and crippling results in the camps of their freedom fighting days, who is now an influential lawyer. Also in the mix is a cold-blooded assassin and his not-so-controllable driver and minder, down from Johannesburg.

The two threads of the story inevitably become connected, with violent results. Bishop proves to be rather careless at times, not the super-competent bodyguard of some thriller series, and pays for his inattention several times over. Nicol writes very well, and he manages to evoke many aspects of the multi-cultural and troubled country while keeping the story colorful and fluid. I found, though, that I didn't much care for the not-so-heroic heroes and (perhaps part of the author's point) could see things from the nemisis lawyer's point of view.

While not as compulsively readable as, for instance, Deon Meyer's recent 13 Hours, Nicol is in the best tradition of current South African crime writing (and there's a very high standard of crime fiction coming out of the country right now). Nicol pays homage to George Pelecanos explicity, and like Pelecanos, he offers a playlist based on both Bishop and the assassin's taste in "killer country" music.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Two new Italian crime novels

Newly arrived in print in the U.K. are two new detective novels set in Italy, one written in English and the other translated from Italian. Tobias Jones's White Death is a sequel to his recent Salati Case, featuring Parma private detective Castagnetti (we discover his first name, which reflects the politics of the region, but he doesn't use it). White Death is concerned primarily with the politics of zoning and property development, with a particularly nasty Italian slant. Alessandro Perissinotto's Blood Sisters introduces Bergamo psychologist Anna Pavesi, who has become (against her will, almost) an unofficial detective, tracking down missing persons.

Castagnetti is called to a factory where the owner's car has been torched. In the process of seeking the arsonist (who had also been making threatening phone calls), the detective discovers an elaborate scheme to profit from advance knowledge of changes in the city plan, a plot involving a spectrum of the social structure of Parma, from high to low. Castagnetti becomes involved himself, even when his original commission is canceled, and manages to discover at least part of the truth, though only one of the more sympathetic characters suffers from being brought to justice.

Pavesi's story has an ingenious structure, alternating passages of the erstwhile detective digging up a corpse and of her telling herself the story of how she got to that point. A socialite comes to her asking for help in discovering the background of a half-sister who died in a hit-and-run accident and whose body is now missing. The socialite is mostly concerned that no scandal be attached to her name, but Pavesi becomes concerned with a much wider pattern of threat and violence. The dead woman turns out to have been involved with several citizens of a Milan suburban town, including a physician who treated her after her accident, and Pavesi has put herself into the crosshairs of all of them.

I found Jones's book to be very well written, with a lot of clever evocation of daily life in Parma, while Perissinotto's book is more of an internal monologue. The former book is more about politics and the social realm, while the latter is more about family, love, and loss. Jones's story is (not surprisingly) more an Anglo-American style crime novel, while Perissinotto's is more brooding and introspective, in the mode of several crime novels from Italy and Germany recently. Both are very good, though I found Blood Sisters starting to drag a bit in the last third, after a very fresh and entertaining beginning. So pick your poison, though you won't go very far wrong with either.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Phantoms of Breslau, by Marek Krajewski

Can anyone answer a question about Marek Krajewski's tremendously entertaining Breslau series: each novel is set further in the past than the previous novel in the series, and my question is, how far back has he gone in the Polish originals? With the arrival of Phantoms of Breslau in English we have arrived in 1919, with flashbacks to the World War, and Krajewski has illuminated some of the mysteries of his detective's life and career.

Eberhard Mock is a unique character in crime fiction, and his personal demons have been a major factor in the series. In Phantoms, they're the key to everything. The mutilated bodies of four sailors (more likely male prostitutes in sailor garb) open a case that pushes a haunted Mock to the brink of both love and death. His nightmares are making him attempt to stay constantly awake, and his father (with whom he is living) is haranguing him about his drinking (being drunk is the only respite from his sleeping horrors).

Even worse, everyone he interviews in connection with the four sailors seems to be next in line for the killers, leading the police chief to remove him from the case. Mock's guilt over the deaths lead him to take extravagant measures to protect everyone with whom he speaks. In two cases, those protected witnesses are young prostitutes (of the female variety) who have touched him, in different ways.

Another thread of the book consists of the increasingly insane musings of the murderer, who is involved in a spiritualist cult, the tenets of which are discussed in the killers rantings. The identity of the killer, however, is concealed until a very literally tortuous conclusion.

Krajewsk's novels are violent, but in a uniquely decadent and symbolic fashion. The works have a loopy structure that mirrors Mock's state of mind. The overall effect is compelling. I had almost finished Phantoms when I left for a 10-day vacation, and not wanting to haul around a book I'd finished from town to town in Italy, I left it until I returned home. I worried a bit that I'd have a hard time getting back into the story, but I needn't have: Krajewski's crime-fictional world is so vivid, and his reminders to the reader so carefully laid out, that I was instantly sucked back in.

You don't hear the word "louche" much any more, but the Mock series calls the term to mind (if I remember correctly what it means). These are stories of corruption, decadence, depravity, and cruelty. All of the above in an engaging and entertaining way, leaving the reader anxious for the next (and at the same time previous, given Krajewski's unique way of creating a series) book to arrive.

I'm pasting in two covers, apparently alternates rather than U.S. or U.K. versions. The more stylized one is the one actually published by McLehose in the U.K. and is by far the better one. The other, showing a fedora'd detective lurking in a cityscape, is wildly inappropriate to the era of the novel and the headgear of Mock.