Monday, May 02, 2016

Harri Nykänen's Behind God's Back

Harri Nykänen is one of the most prominent Finnish crime writers, with two series that have begun to be translated into English: one features Raid, a hit man (and the basis for a widely-shown TV series), and the other features Ariel Kafka, a Jewish cop in Helsinki, in a police force (and a city) with a small Jewish population. Both of the Kafka books published so far also feature elements of cultural and police interaction between Finland and Israel.

Kafka doesn't actively participate in the Jewish community, but is drawn back into it when a prominent Jewish businessman is assassinated in the doorway of his house, to which he has retreated in fear of some unknown party that has threatened him. The Jewish connection is not the only focus of the investigation (and not the only reason Kafka is assigned to the case), but ensuing discoveries and events continue to reveal connections to the community and to Israeli politics (as well as to Ariel's own brother, whose business is implicated in a shady load obtained by the dead businessman).

Nykänen's Kafka books lack some of the dry wit that characterizes his Raid books (which are in part a migration of tropes of Westerns to contemporary Finland), though some of it remains (in, for instance, one of Ariel's coworkers who is obsessed with Native American culture, a sort of crossover with the Raid series). But Ariel's narration is a lively rendition of the police procedural mode, and the occasional chase scenes (one involving a killer escaping via kayak), shooting incidents, angry witnesses, and violent encounters are all lively events taking the reader momentarily out of Ariel's monologues.

I'd like to see more of Ariel's work with broader themes in Finnish culture and crime, but perhaps Nykänen has something new for Ariel in the pipeline.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Gianrico Carofiglio, A Fine Line

The series of legal thrillers set in the Pugliese city of Bari, by Gianrico Carofiglio, depend more upon the voice of the central character, Guido Guerrieri, than on plot or mystery--fortunately Guido is fascinating. He's a lawyer who's not too certain about his profession but comfortable in his life, his city, and his relationships with co-workers, his ex-wife, and his evening companion, Mr. Punchbag (Guido is a former boxer who keeps his hand in both in the gym and with his in-home punching bag, with which he sometimes carries on one-sided conversations).

In the new novel, he begins by discussing with a police friend a recent scare caused by the false diagnosis of a fatal illness. But the shadow of that experience is quickly set aside when a judge who is a former law-school classmate approaches him about a suspicion that the judge is being investigated for corruption. Guido accepts the case, and a double plot ensues. While Guido goes through the labyrinthine Italian legal system (which we learn a lot about ), his investigator (a young woman named Annapaola Doria, who is a former cop, a motorcycle enthusiast, and a source of attraction for Guido, something he is ambivalent about).

Carofiglio's skill as a writer is evident in his ability to hold the reader's attention without resorting to weapons, corpses, and other typical plot tropes of the crime genre. Here we have only the judge, the shadowy (and mostly off-stage) world of organized crime, from which the accusation of corruption arises by means of a criminal informant, and Guido's careful manipulation of the legal options open to him. Guido is not only good company, as a narrator, he is also an effective conduit for the forces at play in a social realm that includes many dark paths among the pleasing vistas of Puglia as he travels from Bari, where he and the judge are based, and Lecce, where the legal case will be heard. This series is not a travelogue/crime novel, though. The Italian setting is important, it is not as much a part of the novel's core as is the case in, for instance, the Camilleri novels. Instead, the reader gets a vivid sense of a fascinating character and the milieu in which he operates as an attorney. I highly recommend the whole series and the most recently translated episode is up to Carofiglio's high standard.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Lisa Brackmann's latest

I enjoyed Lisa Brackmann's China-based series of postmodern thrillers, but I've also been waiting Getaway, set in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Getaway is a pure noir thriller about an innocent abroad, a widow whose husband turns out to have been a crook, and whose getaway to a resort town leads her into a breathless getaway of a different kind.
impatiently for a sequel to her

The sequel has finally arrived: Go-between, and I hesitate to say anything at all about the plot because the twists and turns start immediately and carry on until the final pages. Most of the book is set in Houston, and Texas is an appropriate setting in many ways, not least because some classic noir (including some of Jim Thompson's stories) has happened in Texas (the fictional as well as the actual state).

Go-between features a range of topics and backdrops, from a northern California riddled with marijuana dealings of legal and illegal sorts, airplanes (also a factor in Getaway), for-profit prisons and state-run ones, nonprofits that may or may not be sinister fronts for corporate greed, and the failure of wealth and privilege to protect against the encroachment of violence and misery. Brackmann sets up a series of threatening situations from the beginning of the book, and the plot unravels from there as the heroine attempts to salvage something of her life. The pace is fast and the threat palpable, though some readers (one spoiler alert ahead) might find the last few pages a bit anticlactic after the considerable build-up of tension.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

On Danish authors Kaaberbøl and Friis

The power of the series: the authors’ creation  of one of the most distinctive  characters in contemporary fiction.

My review is Here.


Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Argentine Queen of Crime

Betty Boo is Claudia Piñeiro's best book to be published in English so far. Like Nurit Iscar, her heroine in this novel, Piñeiro is the "Argentine Queen of Crime," but unlike her heroine, Piñeiro has not turned away from crime in favor of "serious" fiction. Instead, she is exploiting the norms of crime fiction to investigate serious issues of not only crime but also the contemporary way of life in her homeland and the wider world.

Betty Boo is in part a satire of the decline of newspapers, exemplified by a Jaime Brena, a writer who has been supplanted on the crime desk of his paper, El Tribuno, by the "crime boy," whose idea of investigative journalism is to do a search on Twitter and Google. When a prominent citizen is murdered in the gated community of La Maravillosa, his throat cut in much the same way his wife had previously been murdered, the editor El Tribuno (and Nurit's former lover) convinces her to move into La Maravillosa and send daily posts to the paper from within the community that is the scene of the crime.

So Brena the supplanted crime editor and Nurit, the former crime novelist (she gave up writing when El Tribuno published a damning review of her "straight" novel), along with the crime boy and Nurit's circle of friends are swept up in a widening spiral of murder, influence, and privilege. The resulting story is frequently funny and always compelling. Piñeiro has worked some of these same themes in her previous books, but here all of her interests come together in a story that is both satirical and engaging. Betty Boo is hands down the best book I've read so far this year.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Stan Jones, Tundra Kill

The most recent novel in the Nathan Active series by Stan Jones, set in the town of Chukchi in the north of Alaska, offers a lot of native culture and Arctic life. Jones's books always use native language and the distinctive quality of life in a small town of blended native and outsider peoples (and Nathan himself, adopted out of the culture as a child and now returned as a cop, is thought of locally as half-native, but learning. He's now attached to Grace Palmer, the emotionally wounded woman from an earlier novel, as well as her adopted daughter.

What Tundra Kill adds to the mix is aother artifact of Alaska's history and culture: a female governor with national ambitions and a folksy style: not Sarah Palin but a later (and current) governor cut from the same cloth. There is considerable Palin-esque satire in the earlier segments and in the governor's Palin-esque language throughout. But the plot actually turns on the death of a local man in a still-frigid incident: he was apparently run over by a snowmobile. Afte rthe discovery of the body, the plot actually moves back in time, to a visit by the governor, who asks for Nathan, now the chief of the newly reconstituted local police (he was formerly a state trooper), to be her bodyguard as she tours the area (her original home) on the occasion of her husband's participation in an annual dog-sled race.

The governor and Nathan get stuck in a snowstorm when their plane is forced down (the plane incident is a thrilling piece of writing, I suspect Jones has some knowledge of flying in the Arctic). When we return to Chukchi and the investigation of the death-by-snowmobile, the threads of the plot begin to tighter around Nathan, constricting his ability to conduct his search for the killer as well as his job and his relationship with Grace.

The result is an effective combination of crime story and satire, which moves surprisingly deeply in a sexual direction, because of Grace's difficulty in achieving a normal sexual relationship with Nathan (because of her past trauma) but also for other reasons related to the current plot. The Nathan Active stories are always lively and interesting, as well as offering plots wholly consistent with the Arctic location: plus they have not come along frequently enough--one can hope for another new one before too long.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Helsinki Homicide: Darling

I haven't read all of Jarkko Sipila's Helsinki Homicide series, but the current one (Darling, translated ably by Katriina Kitchens) is focused less on Detective Lieutenant Kari Takamӓki than on his team (in comparison to the ones I have read). The result is very good, right up to the end (which I found a bit rushed and a bit more brutal in a casual way than anything that had come before). I kept thinking of Ed McBain and the 87th Precinct books, in the way that Sipila handles the shifting point of view and the broadened focus on the characters.

The cops are interesting and well differentiated from one another, and along the way another interesting character, defense attorney Nea Lind, also becomes an important aspect of the story. The plotting is also off-beat in an interesting way. When a mentally handicapped adult woman is found dead, the police focus in on a group of men (including the caretaker in her apartment building) who hang out together in the Alamo Bar; each in turn had been exploiting the dead woman sexually. But the police focus in on the caretaker, who quickly confesses, but also asks specifically for Lind as his attorney. The case seems closed early on, with the police simply  consolidating the evidence.

But Lind and a reporter who reluctantly picks up the story, at her editor's insistence, begin to pick away at the case, leading up to the violent conclusion (which is, as it happens, what it takes to convince the police about the truth in the case).

A quick and entertaining ride, if a bit bumpy at the end (imho).