Tuesday, December 03, 2013
The story begins with the almost complete annihilation of an indigenous tribe in the Brazilian jungle: only a hunter and h is son, away from the village at the time of the genocide, survive. Jade, a young woman who is the local agent of the agency tasked with the protection of the indigenous peoples (FUNAI) attempts to bring the murders to the attention of the police but no one in the remote town or its provincial city is interested in the deaths of "some Indians." Through a personal connection, she enlists the help of the Federal Police, and Silva and his crew travel, reluctantly at first, to the town closest to the site of the killings.
Gage brings attention to several issues in his story: the survival of the tribal peoples (some still not contacted by civilization), rampant racism, and ecological devastation at the hands of loggers, ranchers, and gold miners in the Amazonian jungle; not to mention one of the persistent themes of the series, the corruption among the law enforcement agencies that should be engaged with these issues as well as with ordinary crime.
The novel is populated with a rich assortment of characters from Silva's team as well as the town, including rapacious ranchers and their hangers-on (a whisky priest, the mayor, and others), and a rich vein of the story comes from the sexual and violent relations among those characters. This book is one of Gage's most vivid in its dialogue, setting, and characterization (though all of the above can be pretty unpleasant at times, particularly in a graphic explanation of death by hanging in all its forms). The story also loops back in a hopeful but not resolved manner to the back story emphasized in the first Silva novel, dealing with the grief of the Inspector and his wife over the death of their young son (especially important in the very different ways in which they deal with their grief). In the larger, social story and in the more personal aspects of the tale, there is a glimmer of a hope that Gage has not always offered in his grim portraits of contemporary Brazil. And as always, Silva draws together the several strands of his tale (the slaughter of the tribe, the murder of a local citizen and the lynching that follows, the brutality of one character toward his wife, a blooming love affair for one of the cops) with a moral rather than a legal rigor. Silva is the conscience of the series, and the imagined conscience of a troubled country.
The Ways of Evil Men is a final gift from Leighton to his readers (both the novels and his on-line writing) and to those of us privileged to have met him in person. His voice, his portrayal of vital fictional characters and stories, his outrage at injustices in Brazil and beyond, and his lively participation in the on-line crime fiction community will remain as his testament.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
Maybe it's not fair to start a review with questions like that, anyway. I picked up a free Kindle book called Extreme Malice, by R.E. Swirsky, which seemed to be a legal thriller or a "perfect crime" story (or possibly something else entirely) set around Calgary (a city I've visited and about which I've only found a couple of crime novels). It sat in my Kindle for a while and yesterday I finally got around to opening it.
It starts out slowly, but a lot of books do. More troubling, there is a lot of repetition in the language (spots where a pronoun would be fine, but a name or noun is used repetitively instead). But the plot was OK, as Jack leaves on a business trip only to be called by the police a few days later to be told that she has been murdered. Jack is of course a suspect, but damning evidence implicating a young man who lives next door comes to light and, though a detective is still suspoicious of Jack, the young man is prosecuted.
We learn a lot about Jack's ordeal, in police questioning and in the loss of his wife, and partway through the truth begins to be revealed. I won't spoil the plot, but the reader goes from being kept in the dark by the narrator (who is mostly limited to Jack's perspective) to being told what had previously been concealed by that same narrator. There is a sort of alternation from Scott Turow sort of thing to an almost Jim Thompson kind of thing, but mostly without the edgy quality of either of those writers.
So I have one final question: is it fair to review a book when you've ended up skipping long, repetitive sections of it? Not to mention the long expositions of funeral, trial, mourning relatives, etc. If anyone cares to comment, I'll either leave this post up or delete it, depending on how everyone thinks about all these questions...
Thursday, November 14, 2013
What got me into the novel (as with all the books in the series) was the comic interior monologues of the various voices through which the story is told. DS Charlie Zailer is a quick-witted and sarcastic observer of everything going on and everyone involved, and her now-husband DI Simon Waterhouse is comic in a completely different way: laconic, brilliant, and emotionally damaged in a way that only becomes clear well into the series, Simon is a center of gravity around which everyone in the Spilling police station orbits.
And in The Carrier there's an additional, compelling voice, with whom the novel begins: Gaby Struthers, a brilliant inventor and businesswoman (according to her and her friends), though what we actually hear from her is her sarcastic wit and sharp tongue. She is ann alternate Charlie, and the novel is brighter for their being two of them. Gaby's target at first is a slow-witted and emotional young woman (whose role in the plot I won't reveal) and the interplay between these two forms a frame for the rest of the book.
So far so good, and those voices were enough to twine me into the story. But the rest of the characters are pretty tedious. The confessed murderer (or not-murderer, since Simon can't believe his professed lack of motivation) is as twisted and unavailable emotionally as Simon (though he isn't "on stage" very much, he's the alternate Simon in the same way Gaby is the alternate Charlie). And the friends in whose house the murder took place are characterized mainly by their prevarication and lack of cooperation with the police. Clearly there is some secret behind the whole twisted situation.
But some elements of the story that would seem to have interesting possibilities are simply passed over, such as the inventions that Gaby has made in the past and is currently working on. The covers of Hannah's books, as presented by Hodder, her publisher) have always been icons of understatement but even more effective for their subtlety. The Carrier's cover suggests, even, something related to Gaby's career, but the connection isn't followed up, and in fact this image has less to do with the story than has been the case with previous books. Another loose thread is the title, which has an ominous quality until the reader discovers its actual connection with the story.
I hear that Hannah has been tasked with continuing Agatha Christie's oeuvre, and what she does with that project will surely be interesting. A "Christie" would surely be more compact and more plot driven than the Zailer-Waterhouse books. But I hope that she does carry over the dry wit and pointed comedy of her own writing: I wouldn't recognize Hannah's voice otherwise, and her voice (or that of her striking central characters) is one of the liveliest in current crime fiction.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
The misdirection continues with the opening pages, when Ian, a freelance journalist, is sent to cover the attempted suicide of a young actress who, as it turns out, may be his own half sister. But what seems to be the start of a newspaper-based crime story turns out to be something else, and in fact the book begins at the end of the story (or ends before it begins, perhaps). Most of the book is backstory, as we see Ian's difficult family life, dominated by an Iles-like egomaniac for a father and envlivened by two foundational episodes. The first is his father's primary claim to fame: when Ian is young and his father is a deckhand on a river ferry, a young woman falls overboard and both Ian's father and the captain of another boat dive in to save her. The other incident is a wartime murder that occurs in an air-raid shelter; Ian is a witness and the conviction and execution of the admitted killer turns on his evidence.
We return to these episodes, and to the odd father, repeatedly as we also follow Ian's brief career in the air force, an attempt to recruit him into another, more secret, service, and his life as a journalist (as well as his family life once he's happily married--his wife is in fact an interesting character in her own right, one of several intriguing women in this book and in James's oeuvre as a whole). What seemed to be a crime story about a journalist becomes, along the way, a wry spy story (with frequent references to espionage novels not yet written at the time of the narrative). Wry is in fact an apt description of the whole book, especially the prose style (which you'll recognize if you've read any of the Harpur & Iles books). James (not his real name, I believe, and he writes under at least one other) is a kind of P.G Wodehouse of crime fiction (and he invokes that writer as well in these pages). The characters conceal more than they reveal in their conversations with one another--in fact their interactions might be more aptly described not as conversations but as dislocated speeches or salvoes launched past one another.
The text is frequently very funny, and the progression of the novel quite eccentric. What seems to be a slow-moving coming-of-age tale shifts into high gear along the way and as a reader nears the end it seems hardly credible that the story is going to be able to conclude in any coherent way in the pages remaining. James accomplishes a satisfying conclusion, though, in his own way and the book is ultimately satisfying. It's unlike any other spy novel, though perhaps closer to Mick Herron than John LeCarre.I received both this and the most recent Harpur & Iles book through NetGalley.com, and I confess I bogged down in the detective story, which seemed to repeat the tropes of the series in high gear, but Noose was a pleasant, satisfying, and surprising read.
Friday, October 18, 2013
The introduction by editor Amir Muhammad is very helpful in positioning the stories both in a Malaysian and an international noir context (and also helpfully refers to the supernatural elements in the stories to follow). The collection itself is diverse and of high quality. Some of the stories are quite short, others almost of novella length, but in every case the tale and the setting are vividly evoked. Several deal directly with the Islamic culture of the country, while many are more influenced by a more animistic religious tradition. All of them are heavily influenced, too, by global pop culture: even when the setting is more tribal than urban, there is a confluence of Malaysian and non-Malaysian pop music, culture, movies, etc.--and especially the collective culture of noir fiction and the specific history of Malaysian pulp writing. There is also a good bit of Malay slang, but the meaning is always pretty clear and the language adds to the distinctiveness of the stories and the collection.
Many of the stories give primacy to female characters, too, and a substantial number of the writers are women. The first story, by Adib Zaini, in fact describes the arc from girlhood to criminal of a young woman (daughter of an imam) who takes a job in an internet cafe to supplement her allowance. She is a student and a runner, and her voice is clear and vivid, from her normal life to her downfall and flight.
Eeleen Lee's story brings together traditional oracular divination, modern technology, Chinese gangs, and contemporary shopping in a grim but still entertaining nightmare. Kris Williamson offers a Malaysian spin on serial killers, police corruption, and in particular Jim Thompson. Dhivani Sivagurunathan's The Dualist, one of several stories that focus sympathetically (in one way or another)with homosexual characters, deals with obsession that reaches an ultimate point. Megat Ishak gives us a nightmare vision that is enough to terrify the story's gangsters.
Other stories deal with sea monsters, revenge tragedies, and everyday crimes, all from the distinct perspective of the denizens of KL's dark corners. I hope to have a chance to see the sequels to this collection since the first is a tantalizing glimpse of a world not easily accessible to outsiders.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
The Monster is quite different, in one striking way, from the other Guarnaccia novels. While all of them deal with large topics of human life through the watery lens of Guarnaccia's eyes (he's allergic to bright light), in terms of ordinary families and ordinary crimes, Monster is a documentary novel, with barely obscured material from the case files of the actual Monster of Florence case (also the subject of a Douglas Preston best selling true crime book and a Roberto Benigni movie). But overall, Guarnaccia remains as his usual melancholy and laconic self, anchoring the book in the canon of Nabb's celebrated crime fiction and in the recognizable reality of the citizens and the tourists of Florence.
The case involves, on the one hand, a group of Sardinians and rural Tuscans suspected of the brutal murders of a series of couples parked in dark lanes, seeking some privacy at a time when that commodity could be difficult for young Italians to find. The case spans a number of years from the '60s well into the '80s, and while it was the subject of much investigation and many theories, no one was definitively convicted (though a number of suspects were detained and even brought to trial). In Nabb's telling of the tale, Guarnaccia is roped into a new investigation, some years after the last murder, in which a prosecutor seeks to shift the case away from the Sardinians previously suspected onto a subliterate child abuser, perhaps an unattractive patsy sacrificed to the prosecutor's ambition. The Marshall as usual is very humble regarding his own abilities, a situation that is for a while seemingly reinforced by the others involved in the investigation. But Guarnaccia and a few others begin to pull on a thread that may at least suggest who the real killer was, and what his motive might have been.
Alongside the Monster case, the novel includes a subplot concerned with the possible forgery of a painting left to a young architect by a father who had abandoned him, and the relief from the sometimes confusing documentary evidence concerning the primary case is gratefully appreciated by the reader. In fact, when the conclusion (if it can be called that) arrives, it is clearer to Guarnaccia than the reader. Nabb requires the reader to do some work, rather than feeding a solution as if predigested. One has to read between the lines, even mull over (or look back over in the text) the facts of the case. The suspect (the one proposed by the prosecutor and the one proposed by the Marshall) remains unnamed; the one in the prosecutor's case is frustratingly present in the novel (an annoying subject of long interrogations) while the one proposed by Guarnaccia is frustratingly absent.
The fogginess of the "answer" is singularly appropriate to this actual case, but once in the mind it's very persuasive (and it's the same solution proposed by Douglas Preston, in a very different narrative). The reader has to follow Nabb and Guarnaccia and reach the goal on his/her own. The solution of the secondary case is equally ambiguous but more expllcitly portrayed, and more typical of the series.
The Monster is powerful in its indirection and its presentation in a fictional context of the facts of a real and celebrated case. While it may not be to everyone's taste, not even to every Nabb fan's taste, it's both a very effective crime novel and something more than a crime novel. We should be grateful to Soho Crime for making it more accessible to American readers.
Friday, October 11, 2013
Sundstøl digs deeply into the culture of the area, juxtaposing Norwegian and Ojibway traditions in particular. There are considerable comic elements in his portrait of Norwegian-Americans, obsessed with their origins, embodied in the forest cop (who works for the U.S. Forest Service, mostly issuing tickets to non-Native-Americans trying to fish out of season), Lance Hansen. Lance's obsession with genealogy and local history irritates some of the locals (because he doesn't take their family stories at face value), and places him at the head of the author's near-parody of Minnesota Norwegians.
But Lance rises from comic to tragic figure when he faces a choice between family and duty, a track that begins with his discovery of two naked Norwegian travelers in the forest, both bloody, one dead and the other alive. For most of the novel, the surviving traveler is suspected of killing his friend (they're on a sort of bachelor's last chance canoeing trip before the deceased one was to have returned to Norway to be married). Lance isn't directly involved in the investigation, which is conducted by the FBI because the body was discovered on federal land, and we see the search for the killer mostly through the eyes of a Norwegian detective sent over to assist in the case (some of the puzzlement about Norwegian-Americans is also filtered through his point of view).
But in the process of mulling over the murder, Lance begins to investigate the hundred-year-old disappearance of a Native-American, a local legend that turns out to have some overlap with a legendary event in Lance's own family history. The confluence of the two stories will lead not only to the forest cop's ultimate dilemma, but also to a good deal of interesting discussion of Ojibway history and customs, and to some ghostly presences (if not outright ghosts) that appear from time to time.
The narrative is a bit repetitive, but not in an unreasonable way, since Lance is mulling over things as he twists his way into a knot. The reader is also pulled along by a sense that everything is going to come together in a difficult way for all concerned, as more is revealed about the Norwegians and their stay in the U.S. as well as the private revelations in Lance's own head. The small town setting is vividly evoked in all its positive as well as confining and comic aspects. This is not a sentimental portrait of Minnesota Americana, but neither is it a parody. And the dreams of the title are also a difficult milieu for all concerned (we are reminded that the Native American "dream catchers" so evident in tourist kitsch were actually intended to prevent nightmares from reaching the owner). I'm very interested to see how the rest of the trilogy will carry forward Lance's dilemma, and how Sundstøl will sustain the various juxtapositions and contraditions through two more novels.