Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Kate Atkinson, Started Early, Took My Dog

I'm not sure if it has already run in the U.K., but the TV series based on Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie novels is about to be shown on public television in the U.S. And I also don't know if there are plans to film Atkinson's latest (and so I've heard, last, for a while at least) Brodie novel, Started Early, Took My Dog. It's hard for me to imagine a film or TV show based on the book, but then it's hard for me to imagine any film adequately dealing with Atkinson's fictional universe.

Started Early, Took My Dog is full of parellelisms and coincidences, in a story based in Yorkshire and mostly in Leeds. There are parallels everywhere, within the "present-day" plot and between that and the flashback plot (set in the mid-'70s, with many references to the Yorkshire ripper, whose spree was just starting. But this is no thriller, and no Red Riding either, to cite that other Yorkshire crime novel/series that is bound to come up in any discussion of Started Early, Took My Dog. Atkinson's novel is instead a book of dazzling surfaces and profound depths, which constantly (through those parallels and the brilliant writing, calling attention to its fictional nature.

There are several kidnappings, beginning with a retired policewoman abruptly deciding to "buy" a child from a prostitute/junkie who is abusing the kid. Jackson, for his part, takes a small dog away from a man who is abusing it, establishing comic (and not so comic) parallels from the beginning. There's also kidnapping the the '70s plot, in an incident that provide much of the plot and links most of the characters. A third main character is an aging actress, succumbing to dementia, whose links to the kidnappings are tenuous until the very end.

Atkinson has a talent for combining lively writing with careful characterizations. A reader not only knows these characters very well, but ultimately cares about them. And Atkinson doesn't abuse the reader's concern (I won't explain for fear of revealing too much plot). The various characters and the intertwining plots (through the two eras of the story) hold the reader's interest all along, and in the last half of the book the pace picks up with new twists on various kinds of chases, retiring gangsters, police corruption, speeding trains (a parallel to an earlier Brodie book), TV cop shows, and damsels in distress. She also provides a child character who is affecting without being cloying, true but also comic: both a literary device necessary for the story and a lively element of the story (though she doesn't say much). Child characters are difficult (not to mention that dogs are a crime fiction cliche), but Atkinson pulls off these elements of the story as effectively as the "bigger" aspects of the novel.

One element tying the whole Brodie series together is Jackson's monologues with Julia, a character in the series from the beginning, who now serves as a kind of chorus as well as an idiosyncratic character in her own right. Atkinson wisely anchors Brodie's melancholy with Julia's flightiness: we need them both, even when Julia isn't really part of the story. Started Early, Took My Dog isn't perhaps for every crime reader, but it does reinforce a reader's convicion that genre isn't everything. Atkinson gives us the elements of the crime genre, sometimes turned inside out, but without ever condescending to the genre itself. It's a structure, much like all those parallels, that enables a good story and in this case a very good book.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stefan Tegenfalk, Anger Mode

Stefan Tegenfalk's Anger Mode (recently published under the new Nordic Noir imprint in translation by David Evans) is sort of like a combination of Jussi Adler-Olsen's Danish crime novel The Keeper of Lost Causes (aka Mercy) and the novels of Swedish crime/thriller writer Leif GW Persson. Like The Keeper of Lost Causes, Anger Mode starts with a horrific car crash and proceeds according to the revenge motive of a survivor. Like Persson's novels, Anger Mode shifts from one set of characters to another and plays off the regular police against Sápo, the security police (and as in Persson's work and for that matter Stieg Larsson's, Sápo is both stupid--or at least so narrowly focused that they can't see the truth--and ruthless).

Anger Mode also has, like Adler-Olsson's novel, a detective who relies on unorthodox methods and a character from Syria whose name is a running joke (the Danish novel features a mysterious police contractor named Hafez el-Assad and the Swedish one has a criminal informant named Omar Khayyam). But like the most recently translated of Persson's novels, the detective has a young female partner who both struggles against and disproves the sexism of the police force.

The strength of Anger Mode is the plotting, which is devious and avoids the obvious (right to the end, which points to a pair of sequels). The writing (or the translation, and perhaps some Swedish speakers can help us here) is sometimes a bit wooden, especially in the dialogue (sometimes stiff and over-explaining rather than natural). The diverse characters have a bit more life and considerably more backstory than Adler-Olsson's, their individuality indicated by the narrator's comments but only revealed fully more slowly, by their actions. There's one character, a villain, whose total package of personality traits seems a bit strained to me: one moment he's an ideologue, the next a scheming embodiment of greed: it's not impossible that those elements could be combined in one character, but the shift from one to the other is a bit abrupt (and perhaps the two strains will join together later in the trilogy).

Anger Mode is long-ish (about 470 pages) but reads quickly (except for some of those turgid dialogue passages, and skimming over those speeds things up, after all). It's a worthwhile addition to the translations of the Nordic crime wave, though not among my top-ranked novels (and perhaps those who rejected my previous negative comments about Adler-Olsson will find even more to like in Tegenfalk's writing than I did). I'm simultaneously reading (or rather listinening to) Kate Atkinson's Started Early, Took My Dog, which is very well written and contains totally natural, believable dialogue--but in which things happen glacially rather than rapidly. I don't fault either Tegenfalk or Atkinson for their different aims and approaches, but perhaps there are some writers out there who combine their virtues?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Alan Glynn, Bloodland

The sequel (sort of) to Alan Glynn's Winterland is set for release by Picador in the U.S. in January (I think it's already out in the U.K.). It's more of a thriller than a straight crime novel, but the thriller aspect is quite different from the usual novel of that genre. There's a lot of tension and plenty of threat, but most of the story takes place in the ordinary streets, apartments, hotels, and boardrooms of today's society.

The link to Winterland is Larry Bolger, now the former prime minister (Taoiseach) of Ireland, and not comfortable being out of the loop of power brokers who had put him into power in the first place. There also some shadowy American plutocrats that played a role in the previous novel and loom even larger here.

The young, unemployed journalist who is the closest thing to a central character in Bloodland summarizes the story at various points as being about a helicopter crash, a UN inspector (dead), an actress (dead), a village massacre, and a presidential candidate. There's also scandal, despair, PTSD, burnout, debts incurred and called in, and several unhappy families. Other than the journalist, Jimmy Gilroy, and Larry Bolger, we get the story from the point of view of a couple of those American plutocrats (one of them the brother of that presidential candidate), some of Bolger's former associates, an Irish developer ruined by the collapse of the Celtic tiger.

Jimmy, who has managed to get an assignment to write the actress's biography, is steered away from the project and toward a bio of Bolger, but in the process he snags onto a thread that links the massacre, the crash, the plutocrats (American and Irish), and some very ruthless people who work for a private security company. Jimmy is a likable innocent caught up in forces way beyond his control, and ends up in New York with everyone on his tail. It takes a while to sort out the cast of characters, but Glynn gradually gives each of them a full portrait through their inner and outer dialogues.

The tone is fast and lively, but not frenetic. It's quite enjoyable to see the plotlines converge, and the characters are fully alive (even the ones moving swiftly toward their deaths). The major difference between Winterland and Bloodland is that, beyond the developers, politicians, power brokers, and moneymen that the two stories share, Winterland also involved gangsters and a woman determined to find the truth about her murdered brother. Jimmy doesn't quite have the personal motivation that she did, at least not until his own life is at stake, and the gangsters anchored Winterland in a gritty urban milieu, in contrast to the boardrooms. Bloodland is anchored instead in a fast-sinking middle class watching jobs and investments and businesses disappear before their eyes (again in contrast to the denizens of the boardrooms).

It's interesting to see Glynn make such a substantial shift between two novels that are in other ways closely related. He's showing the common ground between crime fiction and thrillers, and twisting both genres into his own particular style. The cover of the U.S. edition makes it look like this is a New York story, and it partly is. But at its heart is an Irish story, but anchored in new global economic, political, and social realities. Among the very talented crop of Irish crime writers on the scene today, Glynn has the most global outlook. He's also the author of a semi-scifi thriller made recently into the movie Limitless, but if you're not into quasi-Blade Runner/Phillip K. Dick tales, don't let that association put you off Winterland and Bloodland. They're very vivid stories of today's low and high crimes, and very much tied to a base in contemporary Ireland (while also believably portraying American, Italian, and African milieux).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Jussi Adler-Olsen's Danish crime fiction

An Engish translation of Jussi Adler-Olsen's Danish crime novel arrived in the U.K. last spring under the title Mercy and is about to arrive in the U.S. with the title The Keeper of Lost Causes. The U.K. title (and cover) suggest a major plot line concerning the kidnapping and imprisonment of a woman who is a politician and the caretaker of a disabled brother. The U.S cover mimics the U.S. covers of the Tattoo trilogy, and otherwise suggests the plot obliquely. Neither, however, does much to suggest the major characteristics of this book and the series which it inaugurates, which deal with a "cold case" squad in Copenhagen called Department Q.

Department Q is started partly as a means of getting a troublesome detective, Carl Mørck, out of the way, and partly to leech some extra cash out of the government (a substantial part of which will not actually to to Department Q, an ongoing element of the story). Mørck has been wounded in an assault that killed another detective and crippled a third, and Mørck might be expected to have some "PTSD" and guilt feelings: but except for a brief moment in an encounter with a therapist (whom the detective visits mostly because she's attractive), Mørck is mostly a straightforward egotist, loudmouth, obnoxious, and effective policeman.

That "straightforward" in the previous sentence indicates a certain lack of enthusiasm on my part. Neither Mørck nor his erstwhile assistant (whose very name, Haffez el-Assad, is a running joke) are really fleshed out. Merete, the kidnapped woman, is a little more substantial, but her story is mostly given in the extreme situation of her imprisonment, so that what we see of her is mostly alternating determination and despair. Her determination, in particular, is very interesting (given the usual use of the kidnapped woman in crime fiction), and we have her life story in some detail, but for me she remained, like the detective, a character more on paper than in the flesh.

The story is moved forward mostly in narration (partly from inside Mørck's head) rather than dialogue. And up to the end, it's mostly Merete's misery and Carl's gradual progress in the investigation (aided very substantially by his mysterious assistant), as well as in his occasional work on the homicide squad's other cases (and the other cops are mostly foils for Mørck (he's the only one who seems capable of actually detecting anything). And the villains, as they are gradually revealed in the second half of the book, seem inadequately motivated, veering from mad science to petty vindictiveness without revealing much else.

I don't mean to say that this is a bad book. It's just not as three-dimensional as another recent Danish crime novel, The Boy in the Suitcase, or as the best of the Scandinavian crime wave (Theorin, as just one example). I don't know what Mørck's name means in Danish, but the "murk" of the English homonym suggests something of the character: he seems to be mostly lazy, though more capable than his colleagues; even his relationship to his estranged wife seems perfunctory, as if he can't be bothered to be much more than mildly annoyed with her. And Assad, as he's mostly called, is almost cartoon-like, revealing hidden talents at every turn but always falling back into a jokey "immigrant" style of speech and character.

The Keeper of Lost Causes reminded me a bit of another book (which I haven't reviewed yet) that disappointed me, the much shorter Fatale, by Jean-Patrick Manchette. All of Manchette's translated novels are a bit flat in tone, taking a philosophical, noir approach rather than a fleshy, full-bodied approach to crime fiction. But I liked Three to Kill and Prone Gunman, whereas I found Fatale a bit tedious, the characters flat and not rounded. It's a "thesis" book rather than a full story, to me. I have been listening to an audio book of Ian Rankin's The Complaints while reading Fatale on paper and The Keeper of Lost Causes as a pdf (from Netgalley), and though the Complaints may not be Rankin's best book, the characters are certainly fully fleshed out, and the story natural and not forced. Perhaps the other two novels suffered from comparison to the vivid quality of Rankin's prose.

I'm happy to be contradicted, if others got more from the book: Adler-Olsen is well respected in Denmark and has been well reviewed around the world. Perhaps the Department Q series will grow on me. In the meantime, I've started Alan Glynn's Bloodland, which is certainly lively and engaging so far.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Leif GW Persson and Swedish noir '78–'84

Bo Widerberg's 1984 film The Man from Mallorca is taken from Leif GW Persson's 1978 novel Grisfesten (Pig Party or Pig Roast), which seems to be the first appearance of the central characters from several later novels, Detectives Jarnebring and Johansson (who were at that point in their careers working in Vice). Several other characters who are at least referred to in later books also put in an appearance (and you may recognize Sven Wollter as Jarnebring in the photo pasted in here, from more recent crime fiction TV series, if not Tomas von Brömssen as Johansson).

As a movie, The Man from Mallorca is very close in style to Widerberg's The Man on the Roof, taken from a Sjöwall/Wahlöö novel (The Abominable Man). The story is presented without commentary, in short scenes that are sometimes confusing until the story starts to come together about halfway through (and the style is in the end very effective).

The story concerns a post office robbery by a clever and capable thief: Jarnebring and Johansson ar ethe first on the scene and, having let the thief get away, they become involved in the investigation. The thief proves to be not only ruthless but well-connected. A persistent theme in Persson's later books is already in evidence: the conflicting interests of the police and the security police (whose methods and aims are a constant source of tension, criticism, and even comedy for Persson). The thief's costume is also quite funny (I'm not going to explain--not exactly a plot spoiler, but...), and the fact that the robbery takes place during a Lucia celebration gives a very Swedish slant to the scenes (not quite the Swedish Christmas of Bergman's Fanny & Alexander, but close).

Viewers may find the ending of the movie rather cynical, though it is absolutely consistent with Widerberg's style and Persson's story (don't know if the book's ending is the same, since it hasn't been translated—though if I could find a copy my Swedish is probably just about adequate to tell if the ending is substantially different--anyone who's read it is invited to step in with a comment).

It's interesting that a movie from an earlier Persson novel has been available with English subtitles for years, while Persson's writing is only now appearing in English--possibly Widerberg's post-Elvira Madigan international rep is the reason... In any case, it's quite a good movie, and an interesting insight into the characters' early careers (with interesting ironies for those who've read about their later careers).

P.S., did you recognize Sven Wollter from his recent TV-detective role?

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Leif GW Persson: Another Time, Another Life

Another Time, Another Life, by Leif GW Persson, is scheduled to be published in the U.S. in March, 2012 (by Pantheon, in translation by Paul Norlen). The novel is a sequel to last year’s Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, and both have the subtitle, “The Story of a Crime,” which inevitably suggests the great Martin Beck series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (especially in the Swedish context). But Persson is doing something different from S&W, at least in these first two volumes of what is said to be a trilogy: he is dissecting a particular crime with national and international consequences, brought into the perspective of the daily routines of the investigating police (who are portrayed warts and all). S&W were focused more closely on the lives of ordinary citizens stressed by the tensions of the welfare state of the 1970s in Sweden. But Persson's writing shifts back and forth between an almost documentary style and a fictional form, drawing the reader along seamlessly through story and history.

The earlier book led up to the assassination of Olaf Palme, and this newly translated one begins with the bombing of the German embassy in Stockholm in 1975 by factions of the German radical movement that’s generally lumped under the heading “Baader Meinhof Gang.” There are several jumps forward from the year of the bombing to the late ‘80s (and the fall of the Soviet bloc) to the late ‘90s, when a murder in the ‘80s comes into focus with the embassy bombing. Along the way, Persson depicts the security establishment of Sweden is less-than-flattering terms, while also repeating to the point of comedy the policemen’s assessment of one another as a “real policeman” and their work as “real police work.” The same pattern is to be found in the earlier book, as well.

One of the interesting things about reading these two books is the way they interlace the history of modern Sweden and the lives of the characters who appear in both.

But in the second book there is a new twist. Many readers have remarked on the sexism of Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, with some wondering whether Persson was portraying accurately the macho attitudes of the police of the time or was perhaps himself betraying his own attitudes. The new book doesn’t answer that latter question, but here he’s playing with the sexism/machoism in a blatant way. Jarnebring, the lead detective of the first sections of the book keeps referring to his new female partner but both he and the narrator refuse to give her a name. She turns out to hold her own, though, forcing them to recognize her as an individual. And soon after, a contrast is drawn with an old-line male pathologist and a new female one who is far more knowledgeable and professional than the male (though one running character in Persson’s books, Detective Bäckström, refuses her conclusions and goes to the old man for confirmation of his own prejudices about the victim.

Those prejudices (and Bäckström’s other sins) come back again in an amusing way in the last pages of the book, while the story has shifted to a squad made up of Jarnebring’s friend and now superior officer (Johannson) and three hyper-competent female detectives. But neither the narrator nor the police environment has suddenly become enlightened on the topic of gender: the police and others continue to utter disparaging remarks about women in particular and specific female characters as well. If the sexism hasn’t disappeared, it’s at least interesting (and often funny) when thrown into the stark contrast that Persson accomplishes in Another Time, Another Life.

And Another Time is indeed an accomplished work of crime fiction, holding my interest easily through it’s 400-plus pages and offering a subtle and complex payoff at the end. Persson is, we’re told, a leading expert on crime in Sweden and a criminal profiler much in demand. He has experience and authority in his portrait of the police (in a way that begs comparison with the past master of the police story in the U.S., fictional and documentary, Joseph Wambaugh--also known for the comic elements of his books). In addition to the trilogy, it looks like all of his books recycle the characters in the two translated books, leading me wish for more translations beyond those apparently planned at the moment (at least one film based on his books, The Man from Mallorca, had international distribution some years ago).

As a point of disclosure but also an explanation of the cover pasted into this review, I received an advance galley of Another Time, Another Life from Pantheon, its U.S. publisher: the galley was bound in a plain yellow wrapper, but inside was a possible cover that more or less matches the style of the U.S. cover of Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, but I haven’t been able to find an image of it anywhere--hence the Swedish one that shows up above--which I actually prefer to the U.S. covers anyway because it ties the story to the historical event (without being quite as explicit about the violence of the event as another cover published for the book in Sweden).