Monday, June 29, 2015

Innocence

My new review of Heda Margolius Kovály’s distinctive Czech crime novel Innocence is now live at The

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Irish book and a Swedish movie

Ken Bruen's Green Hell seems at first to be a series finale, but by the end it leaves open the possibility of future entries focused on his melancholy former Garda Jack Taylor. There's a lot of metafiction in it: an American student becomes fascinated with Jack and abandons his research on Becket to write a biography of the Galway private detective, and a good part of the first half of Green Hell is his research on the project. Bruen himself makes an appearance as a customer/drinker in a bar, and Iain Glen, who plays Taylor in the TV series based on these books, also makes a cameo appearance. There is a crime plot, but it mostly takes place offstage. There are some interesting characters, including Ridge, the female cop who's a running character who has survived (many haven't) and a new Goth who seems a bit modeled on the dragon-tattoo-girl (that seems to be the source of the U.S. cover art fro the book). And as usual there are a lot of references to and quotes from crime fiction and crime TV series.

But all of the above is finally subsumed in the same pattern as has appeared in all the Taylor books. The evocative writing serves to set up Taylor's rise from the gutter and his ultimate descent thereto. A regular reader will know immediately upon the entry of a new companion (canine) what the animal's fate is likely to be. I've read most, but not all, of the Taylor books, but I find myself reading them rather rapidly (they're short books, but also easy to cruise through at high reading speed), and growing impatient with the persistent pattern. If this is indeed not the last of the Taylor series, it may still be the last for me.

Johan Theorin's Echoes from the Dead is an impressive crime story set on the Swedish island of Öland that gives a reader a lot in the way of interesting and rounded characters, plus echoes of a larger frame of reference that is mythic or nonrational (without ever abandoning realism). The movie recently made from it maintains the emphasis on character but doesn't manage to convey the fairy tale or mythic quality of the book (maybe that sort of thing is difficult in a film format, unless you go all the way into horror of fairy tale territory). The story develops slowly in both formats, following a double story of a post-World-War II crime and its consequences in subsequent decades. There's a final twist that would seem to upend the life of the cenral character, a woman who lost her child decades earlier and must now return to Öland to help her father (whom she has always blamed for her child wandering away) close up his house after he has moved into a retirement home. But a code gives some consolation, so that the story doesn't end without a note of grace.

All in all, Echoes from the Dead makes a good movie, though a little less distinctive and involving than the book on which it's based.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Donna Leon and Commissario Brunetti

My survey of the Brunetti series by Donna Leon (on the occasion of her new one, Falling in Love) is now live at The Life Sentence.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

New review, new magazine on-line

My review of Helene Tursten's The Beige Man is now live a the new crime fiction magazine and website, The Life Sentence: have a look at the new site! The url is www.thelifesentence.net (and beyond reviews, the magazine features interrogations and feature articles across the spectrum of noir, mystery, cozy, spies, thrillers, etc. The editor is Lisa Levy, until recently the noir editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Jake Needham, The Dead American

The third book in Jake Needham's Samuel Tay series finds the detective on administrative leave, following the suspicious (from the police force's point of view) shooting at the end of the previous book, The Umbrella Man. The always independent and skeptical Tay is approached by Emma Lazar, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, who wants him to help her investigate the apparent suicide of a young American software engineer who had been hired by a Singapore company developing a driverless car.

Tay is reluctant to help but becomes involved (he after all has nothing else to do right now) and becomes, as usual, involved in the complicated politics and bureaucracy of the hyper-nanny city-state. The danger to Tay and Lazar, and everyone else involved, plus the interest shown by Singapore's security establishment, make it clear that there's something going on besides cars without drivers, but the detective and the small team that he enlists to help him cannot penetrate the company's security to find out what's going on.

Needham keeps up the tension by keeping the focus on Tay, not a particularly charming man but a curious one who isn't easily intimidated (except for the ghost of his mother, in whom he doesn't believe but who nevertheless haunts him with advice about his life and the case occasionally). The ghost's presence is not as pervading as the ghosts in the Doctor Siri series by Colin Cotterill, Needham's style is realistic. And the grounding in the real provides a very powerful conclusion to the reasons for the company's secrecy and the murder(s), leading to the dark heart of a conspiracy that is linked to recent headlines and is all-too-believable.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Timothy Williams, new and reissued


Most dialogue in crime fiction moves forward smoothly, the speakers responding to one another and perhaps gradually revealing the truth of the events in the story. In the novels of Timothy Williams, though, the dialogue follows the patterns of life: the speakers are not really listening to each other and definitely not responding coherently to one another. The reader discovers, in the disconnected conversations, the truths that the speakers are hiding from each other, and even from themselves. His recent novel, The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe, follows this indirect method to its logical conclusion: has a crime taken place, and if so what crime? This is not a whodunit, it's a glimpse into the complex life of the citizens of a post-colonial, conflicted culture.

Soho Crime, which published The Honest Folk last year, has recently been reissuing Williams previous series, featuring Italian Commissario Piero Trotti. Trotti, a spiky character with fewer social skills than Judge Anne Marie Laveaud of The Honest Folk and the previous Antother Sun, suits Williams's style perfectly: He talks over people, goes his own way, and has difficulty with everyone in his professional and personal life. In his case, Trotti's investigations lead through some of the most difficult years of Italian history, from the "years of lead" onward into the 1990s, each of the five reissued novels tying local crimes to larger social patterns of violence, corruption, and chaos.

The five Trotti novels appeared originally along with some of the major crime novels set in Italy by English-speaking writers, including Magdalen Nabb, Donna Leon, and Michael Dibdin. Williams is less well known that some of the others, but his work is of the same rank and more specifically links the crime stories to specific facts and events (all of the writers deal with corruption, for example, but only Williams points to specific and specifically Italian corruption. His indirect style is particularly suited to the frequently indirect patterns of life and crime in Italy, without falling back on the more picturesque or charming qualities of life there for solace: his novels are darker, more grimly funny, and in some senses truer. Big Italy involves Trotti in a web of child abuse, conspiracy, and murder, just at the point when he's trying to retire.

The Laveaud books (originally written in French rather than English) show the range of Williams's writing: it's not the same kind of corruption or crime in Guadeloup, and the stakes are different. Laveaud, despite her family troubles, is a more open and social person, caught in the grinding gears of racial and political conficts, corruption of a more distinctively Caribbean sort, and a position in the legal system somewhat more viable professional position than Trotti, whose career is at a seeming dead end. The Guadeloupe books, because of Laveaud's personality and the tropical setting, are quite different fromt he Trotti books, while maintaining the author's quite distinctive approach to crime writing. Both series are highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Noir in new places: Nesbø and Temple


Some of the purest noir being written today doesn't come from the U.S., or France, or the U.K. Two recent novels by Jo Nesbø (of Norway) and Peter Temple (of Australia) show what can be done with the genre today.

Nesbø's Blood on Snow, a stand along novel, is perhaps the purest noir of the two, and much more pure noir than the author's series featuring Harry Hole. The hero, Olav, is a hit man mostly by default--it's the only thing he's good at, having tried all sorts of other criminal enterprises without much success. He's also something of a stalker, staking out the wife of one of his victims and holding off on killing another who is his current assignment, while he watches her. He has a sentimental streak that keeps him human, along with his love of reading (despite his dyslexia). Once he goes off the rails, defying his boss (a drug dealer) and trying to enlist the help of a rival gang, we descend along with him into a noir spiral as he attempts to escape his situation and save someone else along the way. The end is a contrast between a hopeful vision and a cruel truth.

Temple's Jack Irish books have always had strong elements of noir, in the lapsed lawyer at the center of the stories, who lost his wife to an angry client before the series started. And some of the broader elements of noir are also here: Jack works odd jobs (sometimes very odd) for a racetrack manipulator and former jockey (and his elegant but violent helper) and other shady characters. But Jack also has an avocation rather different from the average noir hero: he's learning high-end furniture craft from an artist of the medium, an emigre from Europe who is his gruff mentor and teacher in the trade. And Jack has an occasional love interest, a reporter, who is an on-again, off-again solace. Jack, unlike Nesbø's hero, is a smart-ass, like so many central characters in classic noir, and like them he is the frequent victim of more powerful and more violent enemies that he collects in his pursuit of clarity or justice.

In White Dog, he's hired to collect evidence yhsy might clear an artist who is accused of killing her former lover. In the process, Jack walks into a nest of powerbrokers involved in another of the classic noir tropes, property development. The ruthlessness of these developers leads to deaths, beatings, and an encounter with the nasty dog of the book's title. But the other elements of the story, including the revival of a lapsed racehorse and some elegant sounding furniture, give some respite to Jack and the reader (more so than Olav, who only has the solace of fanstasies of love and escape).

Blood on Snow is evidently set for film adaptation, involving Leonardo di Caprio. Somehow that doesn't seem too promising (let me know if you're more hopeful about the film). The Jack Irish series is the basis for a set of Australian films starring Guy Pearce that are in fact a pretty good version of the stories, with convincing performances by Pearce and the rest of the cast. As far as I know, White Dog hasn't yet been filmed.