Wednesday, April 09, 2014

A Few Drops of Blood, Jan Merete Weiss

The second volume of Jan Merete Weiss's series featuring Carabiniere Captain Natalia Monte (and set in Naples) is embedded in the life in the streets of the city and in the troubled social history of the region. In the first book of the series, Monte goes underground (literally, into the catacombs, as well as figuratively) jbut in the second, she is immersed in the light of day (though it may not illuminate much).

The story begins with a gruesome crime, two naked, murdered men discovered on the back of a sculpted horse in the garden of a wealthy Neapolitan widow. Natalia and her new partner, a young woman from Sicily, pursue the crime in a fairly straightforward way, through the art, gossip, and gay circles of the city, and at a certain point get derailed into a different kind of story altogehter: one in which conventional law and morality are not at the center.

The murders may have something to do with a vendetta that involves not only the Camorra but also the intertwined stories of the mob, the partisans, and the Fascists during the 1940s. Then there's the mob family perched on the verge of change, as the old boss is about to get out of prison and the young son may not be too willing to give way or go back to the old ways.

Weiss's style is polished and straight-ahead, with a third-person narrator who sticks close to Monte. The result is occasionally elliptical, as murders happen outside the Captain's view and she's left to pick up the pieces. Her personal story, involving not only her former partner in life and work, the Zen-oriented Pino, but also her childhood girlfriends, some of whom are involved in the Camorra in ways that may compromise Monte herself. The plot takes some twists and turns, but Weiss keeps the reader involved and up to speed throughout. By the end, the strong woman a the book's center is matched by strong women other, related fields in ways that have implications for future editions in the series.

A Few Drops of Blood shows Weiss honing her craft and keeping us looking for more and even better things int he future. There are other crime series set in Naples (some in earlier eras) but though Weiss is not a native of the city her portrait of it is concrete, sympathetic, and totally credible (without descending into travelogue).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Cold Hearts, by Gunnar Staalesen

Gunnar Staalesen is one of the most distinctive voices in contemporary Scandinavian crime fiction, and one of the most venerable, in terms of the length of his career. His voice as a writer is also, in a way, the most distinctively Scandinavian. His hero, Varg Veum, is a private detective but also a former social worker. And his cases inevitably reflect his background.

Cold Hearts, the latest Veum novel to be translated (by Don Bartlett, for Arcadia Books), deals with prostitution, drugs, and murder, but the essential subject is the one Veum most frequently confronts: the impact of adult crimes on the children directly or indirectly involved. In Cold Hearts (the use of the word "cold" seems too tempting for publishers to resist for far-norhtern crime fiction, but the title is in this case a direct translation of the original Norwegian, and very apt for the topic) a former girlfriend of Veum's son approaches him to try to find a missing colleague (like the former girlfriend, a prostitute).

What Veum finds is a disheartening story of the girl's upbringing in a family of alcoholics as well as the care of a committee of community "well-wishers," once the parents' inadequacy is at least in part out int he open. There's a parallel plot concerning a missing shipment of drugs, which comes occasionally into a relation to the main plot, as we expect in crime novels, but is resolved in an unexpected way.

The two covers I've reproduced here are for the current Arcadia edition and for an earlier one that, as far as I can tell, was never released. Like the use of the word "cold," cover images of prostitution seem irresistible to publishers, though I must admit in this case it's a clearer reference to the content of the book than anything to do with the miserable home life of the main characters.

Veum's voice as a narrator is always sympathetic, and Staalesen's plotting is natural, never forced. It's only at the end that we see how the complicated twists and turns are really only misunderstandings, and the real story is as straightforward as it is unfortunate. In both voice and plot, Veum's (and Staalesen's) sympathy for the characters (and their empathy with their misfortunes) is always evident. While not breezy or comic, the stories are eminently readable.

As with some other books I've read recently, this one has been made into the most recent of the Varg Veum TV films--and as in the other case, the story is considreably changed for TV, partly to accommodate a running character not drawn from the books (Varg's girlfriend). The TV series is very good, and the actors very well chosen, but the distinctive tone and the particular point of view of the stories is clearer in the books.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Swedish Agatha Christie

Maria Lang (pseudonym for Dagmar Maria Lange) published her first murder mystery in 1949 and continued to bring out one a year for 42 more years, plus some "deckare," as the Swedish call mystery novels, for children. She was definitely influenced by the British crime genre, and was repeatedly called "the Swedish Agatha Christie," though she also makes references to Lord Peter Wimsey in her books. She was definitely in the cozy branch of the genre, and reportedly clashed with Per Wahlöö in a meeting of the Swedish society of crime novelists, and quit the organization over the direction in which the genre was heading.

There's a Swedish 6-part TV series that was made from some of the novels, which is being shown now on the U.S. MhZ World View network. I looked for some of the novels, to compare them with the series, and was only able to find one in English translation (Kung liljeconvalje av Dungen, literally King Lily of the Valley of the Shady Grove, a phrase from the Swedish poet Fröding), under the title A Wreath for the Bride. A couple of the others are promised in translation in Kindle versions for later in the spring.

In the TV series, the primary investigators are Chief Inspector Christer Wick and his friend Puck Ekstedt, along with Puck's love interest and later husband  Einar Bure, called Eje. There's an intersting triangular sexual tension among them throughout the series, and Puck (an unusual name for a Swedish woman, I would have thought, but the name is never explained) is an aspiring academic for wom murders are only an abiding interest rather than a profession (as in the purely "amateur detective" genre, bodies are constantly appearing in her presence, and always in the vicinity of the small town of Skoga, where Eje and Christer are from, rather than in Stockholm, where all of them now live).

The TV writers have preserved the atmosphere of the book A Wreath for the Bride, without sticking too closely to the actual plot or language. In fact, Puck is absent in this text, referred to only in passing by Christer, who wishes she were nearby to offer her help. but Christer himself is very recognizable, though his literary pipe is replaced on film by cigarettes, and tobacco is ubiquitous in both.

The books are quite naturally a bit dated now, but offer an interesting glimpse into pre-noir Swedish crime fiction and culture. The translation is also a bit of its day, though Joan Tate is quite well known for her work as a translator. But Lang could certainly be said to be the founder of Scandinavian crime fiction, and her work is a vivid contrast to Wahlöö and the others who would follow--both the TV series and the arrival of new books (in Swedish, as Norstedts is bringing back some of the novels in new editions, and in English, assuming those e-books do materialize soon, are very welcome additions to our bookshelf of far-nothern crime.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Parker Bilal, The Golden Scales


Parker Bilal's first crime novel, The Golden Scales, languished on my tbr pile for the past year, until I saw a review of the 2nd novel in the series, which sent me back to the pile. Turned out to be a good decision. Bilal is a pseudonym for literary novelist Jamal Mahjoub, whose other work delves into cultural conflicts of various sorts, apparently.

His new crime series, featuring Makana, an ex-cop from Sudan now working as a private detective in Cairo (in the years prior to the recent Egyptian revolution and coup). The Golden Scales starts with a large coincidence, linking a preface that shows us an Englishwoman in 1981 who is desperately looking for her daughter, lost in Cairo. The novel proper begins in 1998, when Makana (whose private detective business is more than a little less than succesful) is hired by a prominent Egyptian developer (with a criminal background) to find the missing star of the football team he owns.

The coincidence is Makana's brief encounter with the same Englishwoman, back in Cairo and still searching for her daughter. Makana begins (as these things go in crime fiction) to see links between the missing footballer and the Englishwoman. To say much more about the plot would involve spoilers, so I'll confine myself to more general comments. The novel is written in a direct style, in the third person, mostly from Makana's point of view. There are some flashbacks to the sad story that caused Makana's flight to Egypt, and the whole pattern of stories provides a rich overlay of conflicting cultures, the topic of the author's other novels as well. But the crime story is not being condescended to. Though the story develops somewhat slowly,  and over a fairly large number of pages (almost 400), the book remains lively and involving throughout. The complexities of Egypt of the late '90s is particularly interesting, given the more recent events. But the story is at base (like many noir novels) one of unhappy families, rich and poor.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arnaldur Indriðason, Strange Shores

In what seems to be the last of his Erlendur series, Arnaldur Indriðason's Strange Shores takes what was already a melancholy character a step further. Erlendur has been for the last few books absent from Reykjavik, visiting the remote location where he grew up and where his brother had been lost in a snowstorm, an event that has colored his character (and the whole series). Erlendur became interested, because of this family history, in the more general topic of people lost and never seen again, and he begins (without any official police backing) to investigate the case of a young woman who disappeared in a mountain pass, at the same time and in the same area as a group of British soldiers stationed in Iceland had gotten lost in sudden storm. The British were all found, alive or dead, but the Icelandic woman was never seen again, alive or dead.

Indriðason's writing is very straightforward, but his stories can be a bit elliptical, with the same people and incidents being revisited again and again. We visit with Erlendur, one after the other and then around again, everyone still alive with any relation to the missing woman, as well as the descendants of others. Very gradually, a picture of what happened emerges, with a couple of surprises at the end. 

Interspersed with this investigation is a series of inner monologues of a man (not always named, but plainly the detective himself) struggling to stay awake while he is himself trapped in a snowy wilderness. These passages make clear what the ending of the book (and the series) will be, but the advance warning does nothing to lessen the impact of of the novel's conclusion. The two threads (his investigation and his own end) are not intertwined in any obvious way, as neither is the story of his long-lost brother--though all aspects of the tale are related in a more subtle and metaphoric way.

This is a very Icelandic story, it seems to me, a tale of the far north to be sure. And it is a rural story, with little to do with the distant city (though modern times are encroaching even here, another melancholy aspect of the tale). The rural (and cold) setting is vividly (and freezingly) evoked. All the elements of a police procedural are here, but not in the usual way, and all the elements of this series are also present, though the other detectives are only mentioned in passing (each of the major characters in the series was featured in the previous two books). This is perhaps not the book to begin reading Indriðason, though nothing in the story requires knowledge of something that has gone before (Erlendur reflects back upon things that have happened in his career, but in a self-explanatory way). But as the capstone of the series or as a novel in itself, the story is powerful, involving, and compulsively readable, in the manner of, but more so, all that we have so far seen of the author's work in translation, but in a tighter, more intensely focused, manner.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Hotel Brasil, by Frei Betto

Hotel Brasil, subtitled "The mystery of the severed heads," is less a crime novel or even a mystery than a social satire that stakes out a slice of life in Rio de Janeiro and explores it thoroughly and enjoyably. But if you're expecting a mile-a-minute thriller, a police procedural, or a noir crime novel, the book will defeat your expectations (though maybe that's a good thing, in the era of  foruula fiction?).

Betto, who according to publisher Bitter Lemon Press is a priest and social activist, begins and ends the book with grisly murders with beheaded victims, and there are others along the way. But there are frequent digressions into each of the "closed room" sort of mystery that the initial murder sets up (each of the denizens of the low-class hotel of the title, in the Lapa section of Rio). As each is interviewed by the police detective, his or her life story is explored by the narrator in quick, interesting sketches that frequently demonstrate the theological and political interests of the author.

But one of the major subjects of the satire is publishing in Brazil, as in Patricia Melo's In Praise of Lies, reviewed here a couple of years ago, which shows a crime writer turning to self help writing in order to make it big. Betto's central character, Cândido (surely named after Voltaire's satirical hero) is a ghost writer and former seminarian who is talked into a career in popular writing by his publisher, with comic results that give the character opportunities to demonstrate his sympathy for the spiritual, the underprivileged, and various philosophical topics. Cândido also keeps up a running dialogue with an "inner self," whose name is Odidnac.

There is also a touching romance, an adventure concerning a lost girl living on the streets, and some black magic, plus the individual portraits of the hotel's tenants are lively and interesting. There's also a wider portrait of the political and social realities of today's post-junta Brazil, and one that doesn't pander to foreigners' conceptions of fun loving, carnival-seeking, beach-hanging, or favela-dwelling Brazilians. For Brazilian-native mystery or police precedural, go to Garcia-Roza; for an insider/outsider's unflinching vision of the country's problems, to to the late Leighton Gage. But for a serio-comic but also bloody, romantic, and touching tour of Rio, Hotel Brasil is entertaining and enlightening (and continue's the amazing world tour of crime fiction being offered by Bitter Lemon).

Friday, February 14, 2014

Jake Needham's The King of Macau

Jake Needham's character Jack Shepherd is a lawyer and fixer whose specialty is money: not so much making it for himself as tracing it for his clients. His exploits have taken the reader from Thailand to Hong Kong and Washington DC and now to the tiny strange district of Macau.

The Shepherd stories are mostly told in his voice, and he's an interesting guy to listen to--entertaining in the story and the way the story is told. In The King of Macau, there are also a few chapters from the point of view of another mysterious character who is pleading for Jack to help him achieve asylum in the U.S. (and it would be a spoiler to let you know who he is, even what his nationality is).

Simultaneously with Jack's growing sense of responsibility for this mystery man, he's also pursuing the investigation that brought him from his (now) home base in Hong Kong to the neighboriing international zone of Macau, like Hong Kong a former European colony (of Portugal) subsumed under Chinese rule, but unlike Hong Kong Macau is all about gambling. The so-called "king of macau" formerly controlled the whole gambling enterprise in the city, but has now been at least partially pushed aside by the larger gambling interests invited by the new Chinese rulers.

And the King's daughter, not trying to inherit her father's empire but simply to run her own casino, wants Jack to find out who is bringing large amounts of cash into the casino, and why. Jack assumes that it's the Triads, still powerful in the new China and its territories, and if that' s the case he wants nothing to do with the investigation. Among those persuading him to take the case is an American FBI agent (maybe, anyway), and among those Jack enlists to help is another face we've seen before in this series, a shady Australian who may once have been a spy and may still be (for someone).

All of the intrigue revolves around the circulation of money: Needham's stories (particularly in this case) prove that it doesn't have to be the body count that propels a crime novel. Money in large amounts has its own aura of power, threat, and fascination, and its movement through casinos, banks, gangs, and private hands is Jack's expertise and the motor of the series based on him. Like a brand new banknote, the stories are crisp and colorful engines. And, as in the other Shepherd books, the locations (here Hong Kong as well as Macau) are an essential part of the story. The history and current state of Macau is a little known (to we in the West anyway) tale but one with overtones of crime, greed, and compulsion that we recognize from all crime stories--but with the added interest of the new audience for the gambling floors of Macau: the citizens of the new China's new capitalism (or at least the newly released hounds of the nation's drive for wealth and cash).