Monday, July 30, 2012

Tana French, Broken Harbor

Broken Harbor is the 4th of Tana French's "Dublin Murder Squad" novels, each of which takes a secondary character from the preceeding book as the central character in the new one. This one features Detective Michael "Scorcher" Kennedy, along with his trainee partner Richie Curran. Kennedy, not quite back on his feet from a previous investigation that turned into a disaster (see Faithful Place) is sent out to one of Ireland's "ghost estates" when the Spain family is found, three murdered and one almost dead.

All of French's novels have some common ground. They all feature adolescents in very important roles (current to the story and also in backstory). They are all psychological thrillers rather than mysteries, per se, or police procedurals (though police procedure plays a very important role in Broken Harbor). And in all of them, something in the central detective's past haunts him or her when the present investigation starts to deteriorate into disaster.

But what limits the impact of Broken Harbor, for me, can be seen in the book's contrast to the first and third of the series. In Faithful Place, the third, there's a lot of painful humor in the family relationship that haunts the main character (and the plot). The family is so true, and so truly horrible, that a reader's eyes are riveted to the story. In In the Woods, the first of the series, There is an abiding mystery in the detective's past that haunts the current investigation, and any solution seems tantalizingly out of reach.

Broken Harbor has psychological trauma in abundance, but none of it so sharply drawn or darkly comic as the situation in Faithful Place. And there's plenty of weirdness and mystery (unexplained holes in the wall, lurking animals, stalkers, and more), but the author doesn't really exploit them for the full effect that she achieved in her debut novel.

What pulls the story along briskly at first is a sense of a "real-time" investigation, as Kennedy and his colleagues move slowly, inch-by-inch through the preliminary investigation and the discovery of the strange details of the Spain's house and their assault. But after about a quarter of the book, the details of the story begin to be rehashed over and over by the detectives as they try to decipher what happened, and to me the dialogue gets a bit tiresome after a while. The pace and interest pick up again as Kennedy (the narrator) starts to point out to the reader the points at which the investigation starts to go wrong, and there are, indeed, some surprises along the way (in a particularly "Tana French" fashion, in a couple of cases, as people bring down disaster on themselves).

The ghost estate is used very effectively in a couple of ways (and much more directly than in the several other recent Irish crime novels that have used the unfinished (never-to-be-finished) housing estates that fell victim to the financial collapse in Ireland. The crumbling estate, isolated on the fringes of society, becomes a psychological symbol as well as a social emblem.

Broken Harbor is a good read, if a bit long, and the traumas of the crime victims and of Detective Kennedy himself are effectively drawn, But for me there's a bit of a spark missing, in comparison to what I still think is her best book, Faithful Place.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Adrian McKinty, Falling Glass

Adrian McKinty's newest thriller is (in part) the return of Michael Forsythe, the central character in the trilogy that made him famous. Only in part, though, since Forsythe is mostly off-stage. The central character here is a minor character from the trilogy, known mostly as Killian. What Falling Glass has in common with the trilogy is a relentless pace and overarching metaphorical resonance—but Falling Glass is a better book, the best of anything I've read by McKinty so far. The setting is mostly Northern Ireland, and mostly countryside rather than city, though at the beginning the story moves across a lot of global geography.

The situation is that Killian is hired by an Irish airline magnate (sort of Richard Branson on a smaller scale) whose ex-wife has disappeared with their two daughters. Killian is simply asked to find them. The situation gets a lot more complicated when the magnate finds out that something else is missing, and several other characters get dropped menacingly into the mix, including a Russian hitman, a ruthless fixer, and the ex-wife herself.

One of the main threads in the novel is the culture of the traveler community in Ireland and beyond, a culture little known beyond its closely guarded circle of families. The reader will learn a lot about the travelers (known by many other names, most of them derogatory epithets coined by the larger culture), their stories, their outsider (and sometimes criminal) life and languages, and the discrimination and violence to which they have been subject over many years. But discovering how this culture is embedded in the story is part of the pleasure, so I won't give away any more.

There's a very interesting coda at the end of the story that is told in straight, realistic style but nevertheless verges into the kind of metafiction that Salman Rushdie has exercised, among others. But at the same time, it has a logical (even when it moves in unexpected directions) forward progress that, to me, works better than the stories of the trilogy as a realistic crime novel. McKinty has given us a story that works as a straight thriller as well as a kind of romance, a primer on a little known culture, and a literary tour de force. And, to me, the literary aspect of this book works more integrally with the tale than did those aspects of the trilogy. As I said, it's McKinty's best book so far, which is saying something.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Austrian noir film

There have been three films made from the crime novels of Wolf Haas, featuring his sometime-detective, Brenner. All three star Josef Hader and were directed by Wolfgang Murnberger. The first, set in Vienna, whose title translates as Come Sweet Death, was funny, a bit disconncted, and looked like a low-budget indy film. Brenner is a detective who lost his job on the police force (by sleeping with his boss's wife) and is now working for an ambulance service. The second film, Silentium, is much more visual (with some striking effects and visual metaphors) and the plot is a bit more straightforward (and also funny). One extended scene, in which Brenner becomes one of the "players" in a foosball table, is hysterical.

The third film, from 2009, translates as The Bone Man, is one of the best crime films I've seen in a long time. It kept reminding me of Blood Simple and The Postman Always Rings Twice, both at the same time. But its humor and storytelling are uniquely those of Haas and Murnberger.

Brenner is now a repo man, sent out to a rural(though under a highway overpass) guesthouse to deliver a last notice to an artist whose Volkswagen beetle is past due for payments. Once there, Brenner is caught in a twisty story of fathers and sons, husbands and wives, sexual difficulties, blackmail, and meatgrinders. The owner of the guesthouse is a fascinating character, alternately friendly and hostile, who has gotten in over his head on several fronts.

The humor is understated and the visuals, though well done, aren't as much in the foreground as that foosball table in Silentium: the emphasis is on the characters and the story. One of the things I liked about The Bone Man, in contrast to most crime movies as well as the first two Brenner films, is that it's about ordinary people rather than VIPs. Even the East European gangsters are of the "mensch" variety, low-level operators rather than international criminals.

I found all three Brenner films on, which may not be the easiest source for a lot of people, though the price was low enough for the films to make the shipping charge acceptable—the DVDs, though, are Region 2, though, so in the U.S. you'll need a region-free player or computer. There are English subtitles, though, and since only one of the Brenner novels has been translated (see my recent review), the films are the best source of the Haas books for a non-German-speaker. I almost hesitate to advice starting the series at the beginning, since I would rate Come Sweet Death as "interesting," Silentium as "very good," and The Bone Man as "excellent." But there are running elements in the series that are best understood if a viewer does indeed start at the beginning. If you find the films less-than-thrilling at first, I'd say stick with them: they get better and better.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

From Sweden: Carin Gerhardsen, The Gingerbread House

One of the newest entries in the Scandinavian crime wave, Carin Gerhardsen's The Gingerbread House is a police procedural set in and around Stockholm. The central detective characters are Conny Sjöberg (whose family life with his wife and children form a large part of the story) and Petra Westman, whose own private life leads to a separate investigation. The main crime in the story is set up when a lonely man happens to see a man he recognizes on the street as the grown-up version of a pre-school bully who had so tormented him that it has affected his entire life. The bully turns up dead the next day.

From there, the police investigation alternates with the diary of the killer, which is increasingly graphic in its brutality, and the bullied man's memories of the childhood violence, which is also grimly brutal. Many, even most, of us have some experience of bullying, but Gerhardsen accentuates and highlights the social problem by linking it to lifelong trauma, even insanity. Late in the book, one of the cops comments that most people who are bullied grow up to be more or less normal people, but the rest of the book emphasizes people who don't.

Petra's separate investigation concerns a sexual assault that takes place in her off-duty life, and, to my mind, the author leaves the reader wanting to know more about this case. There is a bit of a twist at the end (as there also is in the main story), leaving an opening, perhaps, for a sequel that will give us more details about the resolution of this part of the story.

Speaking of the twist in the main story, it's one of those shifts that gets you looking back at the earlier sections of the book to see if you've been misled by the author. But The Gingerbread House is carefully constructed: the reader may be fooled but not cheated. What kept the book from being at the top rank of Swedish crime, for me, was an excess of digression (not only into the personal life of Sjöberg but also into, for example, the history of war in Lebanon. These sections bog down the story rather than creating tantalizing delay and anticipation.

The story overall resembles most, among Scandinavian crime fiction, the Erik Winter novels of Åke Edwardsson (set in Gothenberg): both series have leading men with more or less happy home lives (with normal bumps in the road) rather being tormented loners. Both series have important female characters who are competent detectives with their own complex personal lives. Edwardsson's recent novels are among the best written and constructed of all the newer Scandinavian crime novels; if this first of Gerhardsen's doesn't quite live up to that standard, perhaps the later entries in the series will. The Gingerbread House is published by Stockholm Text, a new and welcome enterprise bringing Swedish writers to English readers, and I obtained my copy as an e-book through NetGalley.

Friday, July 06, 2012

New Irish Noir: Michael Clifford's Ghost Town

The newest Irish entry in contemporary crime fiction works both as a story and as cultural history or criticism (Cliford is a political reporter of substantial reputation, and his style as a novelist has some of the no-nonsense quality of journalism). Joshua Molloy, nicknamed The Dancer for his football skills (a career aborted by his addictions as well as his associations with criminals) has just been released from an English jail and is back in Dublin. He's going to AA meetings and trying to stay straight while seeking to meet his son, born while he was incarcerated.

But Molloy's path is criscrossed with those of many others in an Ireland crippled by the housing and banking debacles of the economic crash. A former associate, a not-too-bright gangster on the make, lures Molloy into a scheme to murder a crime boss, and the story is off and running (as is Molloy). In addition to the thugs and bosses who are chasing him, his lawyer turns out to be the wife of a property developer on the run from his investors (some of whom are ready to use non-legal means to get their money back), the mother of his child is a junkie whose life is controlled by the very gangsters who are after Molloy himself, and there's a reporter trying to rehabilitate his career by getting a big story out of all that's going on.

Most of the novel is straightforwardly told, with vivid characterization and dialogue and a believably erratic plot. There's some comic relief in the magazine pieces written by the reporter (reproduced in the novel), which are wild tabloid versions of the truth, and in the reporter's own overblown sense of self-worth. The only caveat I have about the plot is that there is a point toward the end that has a twist that is a bit too neat, but upon reflection on the whole story is probably necessary to get to where the story needs to end.

As the estimable Declan Burke has pointed out (at Crime Always Pays), Clifford's book bears closest resemblance (among current Irish crime writers) to the work of Gene Kerrigan, and that's a very high standard that Ghost Town definitely lives up to. The story moves rapidly forward, keeping the lives of all the characters (particularly Molloy and his lawyer but also many minor characters) moving forward at every point, even when their stories overlap. I can highly recommend Ghost Town as a great read as well as a vivid portrait of the current Irish situation, in fictional form.