Friday, October 26, 2012

A Murder in Tuscany, Christobel Kent

A Murder in Tuscany is the second of Christobel Kent's Florence mysteries featuring private detective (and former cop) Sandro Cellini (there's already a third one, but I haven't gotten to it yet). Most of the action in this book takes place in the Tuscan hills rather than in Florence itself.

Sandro is having trouble building a clientele for his business. He is at the beginning of the story simply tailing a teenage girl, whose father thinks she's getting in with the wrong crowd. He's also beginning to fear that his wife, recently recovered from breast cancer, is drifting away from him.

But Sandro gets a call from an artist's colony in the Maremma hills, whose director has been killed when her car slides off an icy road late at night. But her husband, a prominent attorney, doesn't believe the police's conclusion that her death is simply an accident

The book proceeds very slowly, partly through the eyes of a young woman employed at the artist's colony, and we see a lot of the artists and staff there without really getting to know any of them very well. Several theories of the crime slowly develop, by means of a narrative that frequently twists back on itself. Kent's writing is always clear, but in the back and forth of the characters' recent memories and present moment, it would be possible to get really confused if you put the book down for a while and then try to come back to it.

A Murder in Tuscany is a well written "country house" mystery, more or less in the English tradition, with a closed group of possible suspects and a narrow frame of reference (plus an annoying aristocrat and a "below stairs" contingent. But there's really not much plot. Toward the end the characters begin to move around a bit more, but there's only a brief moment of uncertainty or threat that Cellini and the young employee have to face. Cellini is likably uncertain about his life and his profession, and it will be interesting to hear further about him. But A Murder in Tuscany was a bit too slow for me, a bit of a sophomore slump after her first book, which was a bit livelier.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The last of Harry Hole?

I don't know whether Phantom is meant to be the last of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series, but (without giving away any of the plot) it certainly has a elegaic air. A number of incidents and people (living and dead) from previous novels (at least the ones that have been translated) are referred to in passing, and Harry seems to be toching a lot of bases, as if for the last time.

The plot is complicated, with lots of clues and red herrings concerning what's actually going on. And there are lots of cliffhangers along the way (in typical Nesbø fashion), some of which are resolved in ways that strain credulity. But Nesbø has always stretched reality when it suits him, perhaps to the breaking point in The Leopard in particular. here, the parts that are a bit difficult to swallow are just credible enough that you want to look them up somehow, to see if they might just be possible.

Harry returns from Hong Kong but not as a cop. He uses his police connections to help him prove someone's innocence (I won't say who, because some of the sort-of-surprises eve at the very beginning are part of the pleasure of the story). He meets old and new enemies, old and new friends, sometimes without clear lines as to which category in which the characters should ultimately be classified.

There are some passages of bravado writing, such as we've come to expect from the best of Nesbø's books (and I still think the trilogy of The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil's Star are the peak of the Harry Hole books--and please read them in the order they were written rather than the order they were translated). The Bat, the first of the Hole books, is now available in English, and we're apparently going to the the second before too long. After that, perhaps more Harry Hole (somehow) or perhaps more stand-alone books like Headhunters?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Arnaldur's new Iclandic noir

I had some doubts about Arnaldur Indridason's Black Skies when I ordered it, because it is centered on Sigurdur Óli, the least likable or interesting of the cops in the circle around Erlendur, his usual central character. Erlendur has left on a mysterious trip to the area in which he grew up (and where he lost his brother as a child), and the previous book in the series, Outrage (which focuses on Elinborg, the other running character) and Black Skies occur at the same time, with occasional overlaps as the two detectives consult with one another (and worry about Erlendur's extended absence.

I had (as it turned out, well placed) confidence in Arnaldur as a writer, though, and indeed Black Skies is very interesting. As the book explores Sigurdur Óli's life and character he first grows even less likable (without making the story less interesting). He can be a bit impulsive, and in his private life, self-destructive, traits that are given some context. He's also an unrepentant political conservative, going back to his school years (when he edited a conservative literary journal). He's also a bit of a fop, and his taste in clothes in addition to his character overlap just a bit with one of the great characters if Scandinavian crime fiction, Gunvald Larsson (of the Sjöwall/Wahlöö books). Sigurdur Óli is, though, less vocal and violent.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Black Skies is the use of overlapping plots. It's a common strategy to start off with a crime, then shift to another crime that eventually gives way to or becomes connected to that initial scene. Arnaldur plays with that theme here, setting up a gruesome scene that only very gradually comes into focus, while Sigurdur Óli concentrates on other things: primarily a mess he gets into when doing a favor for a friend. When he goes to a couple's apartment (after the friend begs him to scare them into giving up a blackmail attempt) he finds the woman in the couple almost dead, and runs into the assailant. To say more would be spoiling things. The blackmail plot, though, leads in very interesting directions before coming to a surprising conclusion.

One of the interesting directions is an investigation of the Icelandic banking practices that will (not long after the timeframe of the novel) lead to the crash of the country's economy (the book is set just before, but was written just after, the crisis). The ominous shadows of the crash loom over the book.

But the story is not an economic tract: it's aim is both broader, in terms of the society, and narrower, in terms of its vivid portrait of the detective and the numerous characters involved in the story's various threads. Though I'm particularly attracted to Erlendur throughout the series, and though the book focusing on Elinborg was very good, I think perhaps Black Skies is one of Arnaldur's best books (high praise indeed).

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Martin Limon, The Joy Brigade

The 9th of Martin Limon's novels set in and around a U.S. Army base in South Korea is quite different from the others, so firmly linked into the series. The 8th novel ended with a cliff-hanger that leads directly into The Joy Brigade, which itself ends with a scene that clearly leads to a sequel.

Army cop George Sueño is on his way to North Korea as the story opens, without his regular partner (who only appears late in the book). George is on a secret mission related to his discovery of possible tunnels under the DMZ and of the location of his former lover, now in the North. What follows is much more an adventure novel than a mystery or a police-procedural, and it's a good example of that style of story. There are some spots that strain credulity (but then that's a basic element of the adventure genre, right?).

George's plan for infiltrating the North falls apart right away, and he's constantly on the run, just ahead of one sort of threat or another, aided from time to time by more or less sympathetic citizens of the North. Limon gives a convincing portrait of the contrast between the grim lives of the ordinary citizens and the privileged situation of the party members and the army. The book's title refers to a brigade of women recruited into prostitution for those privileged classes, in a militarized fashion typical of everything else in the country.

There are a few spots where George's escape from danger seem pretty unlikely (I won't go into detail for fear of spoiling the fun), but the most unlikely part of the story to me is the relative ease with which a foreigner obviously of Western rather than Eastern ethnicity (even in disguise and with false documents) navigates the society in his mission and his escape. Limon has an explanation, which seems logical, if not quite convincing.

So I'd recommend The Joy Brigade to fans of the series, to fans of adventure novels, and to anyone interested in this fictional glimpse of life in the North (quite different from the other crime series set in North Korea, by a former Western intelligence officer who uses the pseudonym James Church).

Friday, October 12, 2012

Brian McGilloway, The Nameless Dead

The lead characters in crime fiction series tend to have certain fixed and dominant traits that are a shorthand and a constant, providing capsule descriptions of his/her character and continuity through the series. The character may be more complex than the shorthand description, as with Wallander, for example: yet Wallander remains the melancholy detective, useless in his relationships with women. In lesser series, the shorthand is pretty much the whole characterization of the "hero."

Brian McGilloway's series featuring Garda Inspector Ben Devlin, on the other hand, takes no shortcuts. Davlin is a fully realized person, in his professional and personal lives, and is no more summarizable than someone you might meet on the street. The "fullness" of the character is echoed in the "roundness" of all the secondary characters, as well as the distinctly local/regional quality of the voices of all the characters, and the natural quality of the plotting. The result is a novel fully satisfying as a crime novel, or simply as a novel.

In this, the fifth Devlin novel, a Commission is digging for the graves of the "disappeared," people who are almost certainly dead but whose bodies had been hidden during the Troubles, along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The Commission, part of a "truth and reconciliation" process, requires that no investigation or prosecution can be made on evidence uncovered in the dig, in order to encourage people to identify the sites where corpses might be found. The layers of Irish history are uncovered along with the layers of earth on a small island in a river between the Republic and the North, with Devlin present as an observer.

When the body of s deformed child is discovered, rather than that of the young man for whom the diggers are looking, several new layers are added to the story. The first is the burial of unbaptised babies, consigned to limbo by the Catholic Church and buried secretly in unconsecrated ground by the parents, in unofficial graveyards such as the one located on the island--but the baby's body is not found in that section of the island, and was buried more recently, as well as likely being murdered rather than being stillborn or dying of natural causes.

The story is complex, but McGilloway is skillful in keeping things moving and keeping things straight for the reader. There's the family of the man whose body is being sought, including the son born after the man's disappearance, bitter that his father will receive no justice even if he is found. There are the nearby ghost estates, condemned to remain mostly empty when developers abandoned them after the Celtic Tiger collapsed. There is the duality of the two mostly cooperating police forces, along with Jim Hendry, Devlin's colleague on the other force. There is Devlin's own family, undergoing both the normal strains of having two children at the cusp and the full flower of adolescence in the house, as well as more particular strains having to do with prior events and ongoing unfortunate (from Devlin's point of view) relationships, straining the Inspector's relationship with his children and also his wife (though the marriage is pretty solid by this time in the series).

So the complexity of the characters is mirrored by the complexity of the plot, but the story and the region's history are always at the forefront, never lost in the fog. I've enjoyed this series all along, but The Nameless Dead balances all the elements of the series and its setting particularly well: I think it's the best so far.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Polish noir: Zygmunt Miloszewski's second

A Grain of Truth, Zygmunt Miloszewski's second crime novel featuring Polish prosecutor Teodore Szacki (published by Bitter Lemon and translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), is, like the first book in the series (Entanglement) a satisfying combination of police procedural and mystery novel, with considerable humor and social commentary added in. Szacki has left Warsaw for the small city of Sandomierz, seduced by its beauty but now regretting his separation from Warsaw's urbane pleasures as well as his ex-wife and estranged daughter.

But he finally gets a good murder to sink his teeth into: a well-known woman, wife of a town councillor and herself a promoter of educational theater, is found with her throat slashed just outside a former synagogue (now a state archive). Near the body is found a kind of knife used by kosher butchers, raising the long and continuing history of Polish anti-semitism as well as the country's new liberalism (what if the murderer is in fact Jewish?).

The development of the story and the investigation of the crime develop slowly at first, ultimately shifting into underground tunnels, attack dogs, and multiple murders that veer toward the Gothic and the conspiratorial excesses of Dan Brown (who is mentioned) but ultimately Miloszewski succeeds in accessing the energies of those genres within a contemporary realism that is convincing and satisfying. Plus there's ultimately a twist that will satisfy the fans of the puzzle mystery.

There are profuse references to popular culture, mostly from outside Poland, though there are many references to a Polish TV mystery series filmed in Sandomierz, Father Mateusz, which seems to be a remake of the long-running Italian series, Don Matteo (complete with bicycle and gentle non-threatening plotting. Mateusz provides a contrast for the grittier reality of Szacki's life.

While Miloszewski explores anti-semitism and its history in depth, he leaves unexamined a flaw in his own character that keeps him human but also may irritate some readers. His language, especially in his interior monologues, can be unpleasantly sexist. But he genuinely regrets the actions on his part that destroyed his marriage, and his almost painfully comic blunders with his current love life provide evidence that the author is an intentional character flaw rather than unconscious prejudice (though the flaw may temper a reader's sympathy for Szacki's difficulties with the women in his life).

Both of Miloszewski's novels are complex, involving, and interesting, but A Grain of Truth is more satisfying as a crime story than Entanglement, and the use of history, conspiracy, and the extended range of crime fiction are livelier. Entanglement relies more on the locked-room mystery and the gathering of suspects together in a room, both being longstanding elements of the genre, but tending toward static rather than dynamic plotting. A Grain of Truth shifts toward the dynamic side of crime writing, though still with considerable care in development and careful attention to the voices of all the characters, including the difficult but engaging prosecutor himself.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Seven Days, Deon Meyer

While all of Deon Meyer's crime novels (mostly set in and around Cape Town, South Africa) are related in a daisy-chain fashion, Seven Days is a direct sequel to another recent Meyer book, Thirteen Hours. The cast of both is pretty much the same, detective Captain Benny Griessel of the elite "Hawks" squad and the professional and personal associations around him. In addition, the novels are linked by the time-frame of the titles and the time and setting of the second novel, which closely follows the first. For some reason the novel's title is 7 Days in the U.K. and Seven Days in the U.S., in the editions brought out by Hodder & Stoughton and Atlantic Monthly Press. In both cases, the translator is K.L. Seegers, who does an excellent job of making the language fluid and clear while at the same time giving a flavor of the local mix of dialects and cultures (there's a glossary at the back, but it's really not necessary once you get into the flow of the text).

This time Benny, a recovering alcoholic, and his colleagues are confronted with a two-track investigation. A sniper is shooting cops and says he will go on shooting one each day (at first only wounding them) until a recently closed cold case is re-opened and solved. So Benny is assigned the cold case, concerning the murder of a young female lawyer in her own house, and Mbali Kaleni, a "star" of Thirteen Hours, is assigned the sniper case. There are many other detectives and police officials involved, and Meyer does an excellent job of portraying each, including his flaws, and relating their characters to the story.

Meyer is here in his police-procedural (rather than thriller) mode, and it's a genre that he is comfortable with. It's not a puzzle, it's a process, and as the team follows leads (a lot of them false) from communists and the Russian mafia to policement and politicians, Griessel agonizes over the slow pace and his own (in his mind) incompetence. Meanwhile, his is struggling with his family and a new responsibility/relationship with another alcoholic, a singer first met in Thirteen Hours. Kaleni is dealing with demons of her own, not only her difficulty being accepted as a colleague by many of her fellow cops (because of her gender and figure) but also because of a rumor regarding a possible scandal that occurred while she was on a training detail in Amsterdam.

The murder case is vivid and the character and life of the victim is gradually revealed in complex detail, while the sniper case provides narrative drive and an occasional glimpse of what's happening from the sniper's point of view. This is an excellent ensemble story, though clearly focused on Griessel above all. I first discovered Meyer's books in a second-hand bookshop in Cape Town in 2001, and was first attracted to his work by a tourist's interest in the city. But I'm grateful for the author's rise to international prominence, because it has made it possible to keep reading his books for Meyer's high quality of writing and the compelling nature of his stories, as well as the continuing glimpses of the developing, complex portrait of life in today's South Africa