Sunday, July 13, 2014

Italians: Camilleri, Lucarelli, De Cataldo

A few short fictions by some of Italy's leading crime writers are coming into English: Andrea Camilleri's Brewer or Preston and a collection of novellas called Judges, with short works by Camiller, Carlo Lucarelli, and Giancarlo De Cataldo.

The Judges collection includes Camilleri's Judge Surra, which deals with the appearance of a northern Italian judge in Montelusa and Vigata (the fictional Sicilian cities of his Montalbano series) just after the unification of Italy; Lucarelli's The Bambina, about a young female judge in Bologna during the years of violent political action that are called the anni di piombo, or years of lead; and De Cataldo's, The Triple Dream of the Prosecutor, which  concerns the lifelong conflict between two boys who grow up to be a crime boss and a prosecuting magistrate in a northern Italian town.

Each of the stories has an element of comedy as well as threat. In Judge Surra, the magistrate's utter innocence regarding the ways of Sicily leads him not to failure but to paradoxical success in his endeavors. The Bambina, whose title comes from a popular nickname for the young-looking woman magistrate, deals with an attempt on the judge's life in which the police force is implicated and, not able to trust anyone, she adopts a somewhat extra-legal strategy. De Cataldo's story deals with the extension of a schoolyard bully's domination of his classmates into a career of intimidation and untouchability, along with the judge's strategies to thwart his activities.

All the stories are short, but long enough to engage the reader effectively in the judges' (and Italy's) struggles. Camilleri exploits a similar strategy in The Brewer of Preston, a short novel that whose brief chaptes each take a different poiint of view and narrative strategy, almost as if the book were an anthology rather than a single novel (each chapter begins with a phrase drawn from a literary classic (there's a key at the end), and one of the books is Calvino's If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and anthology-novel each of whose chapters parodies a literary style.

The Brewer, also set in Montelusa and Vigata just after Italy's unification,  is the funniest of Camilleri's novels to appear in English so far. It takes off from a real incident, in which a bureaucrat sent from the north attempts to put on an obscure opera to inaugurate a new opera house. The locals, however, regard the opera (as well as the bureaucrat) as a cultural intrusion being forced upon them. What ensues is an operatically tragic tale of arson, murder, the Mafia, misunderstandings, and the invention of a steam-powered fire engine. Along the way, the story frequently takes on something of the character of a sex farce, albeit a sometimes deadly one. This is the only one of Camilleri's novels (among those translated) to fracture both the narrative timeline and the style and tone of the narrative approach, to considerable comic effect.

While fans of the Montalbano series may be a bit puzzled at first, The Brewer definitely rewards the reader's persistence. The cultural contradictions of contemporary Sicily have their roots in the social discrepancies that Camilleri skewers in his historical novel.

Friday, July 11, 2014

New French noir: Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails

Antonin Varenne's Bed of Nails, newly translated by Siân Reynolds for Maclehose Press, is a dark, strange book. At first, it seems like a cross between Fred Vargas's Commissaire Adamsberg series and the Department Q novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen, but the story keeps going in a downward spiral darker than either of those.

The setting is the Paris police's suicide squad, an assignment given to a detective that the powers-that-be want to get rid of, Guérin. The novel opens with his assistant, Lambert, showing a surveillance video of a man committing suicide by running naked along the peripheral highway outside the city--the group of cops gathered around the screen as if watching a porn video.

Guérin's downfall, as well as his strength, is that he sees connections everywhere, leading him to conspiracy theories that bring all the evidence together. As Guérin and Lambert investigate the naked runner and other cases, including a fakir, a performer who dies while suspending himself from hooks onstage in a seedy cabaret, another thread of the story proceeds to draw "the American," a hermit- or hippy-like character and an archer living in the woods in rural France, Nichols. (the quirkiness of the cast of characters should suggest why I thought of Fred Vargas when I started reading the story). The dead fakir turns out to be an old friend of Nichols, who is asked to come to Paris to identify the body.

From there, almost anything I could say about the plot would be a spoiler. There are intertwining conspiracy theories that tie Guérin into knots, sending him to the brink of insanity and also threatening to engulf Lambert and Nichols in the maestrom of what might be actual conspiracies. The denouement is a twisted parody of the Simenon or Christie pattern of bringing all the suspects together to extract a confession, but in this case the result is something much darker and more violent. The results derive directly from character traits that have been evident all along, on the part of Guérin as well as Lambert, and the conclusion is rather more bleak than neat.

There have been several newly translated French crime writers published recently, including classics like Jean-Patrick Manchette and newer writers like Pierre Lemaitre, revealing to American readers new aspects of French noir: Varenne's novel is among the best, but also among the strangest.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

An Event in Autumn: not the final Wallander but the last to reach us

Henning Mankell's Wallander saga has ended, with the final novel (A Troubled Man) and the final 6 episodes of the Swedish TV series, which extends the melancholy ending of A Troubled Man in an even more melancholy way, with new cases and new insights into the Ystad detective's last days. But a "new" Wallander story has finally arrived in English: actually a novella originally written for a Dutch book promotion, which offered free short books to crime fiction buyers in a specific month. In the chronology of the series, the story falls after Before the Frost: Linda Wallander is a police officer in Ystad, living with her father for the time being in his Ystad apartment. The novella was filmed as part of the British Wallander series with Kenneth Branagh in the leading role.

What will come later in the series is foreshadowed (Wallander is looking for a house in the country, thinking of getting a dog, worrying about getting older), but this moment in his personal autumn has its own interests as well. The relationship with Linda is clearer here than anywhere else in the book series (somewhat different, though recognizable, from the relationship between the detective and his daughter in the three filmed versions of the stories), and the fact that they are constantly irritating one another has begun to take on a slightly comic character. Previously, one might have wondered why they bothered to stay in touch, family ties notwithstanding, but here the affection between them clearly underlies their spiky interactions.

The case relates to an unfortunate discovery in the garden of a house that Martinsson (Wallander's long-standing right-hand man) has suggested Wallander think about purchasing as his house in the country. In an almost subliminal moment, the detective uncovers a skeletal hand sticking out of the earth. What follows is a pure police procedural, as the investigative team works through the old mystery without much hope of finding a solution. There are false leads, and leads that seem dead ends but turn out to be productive. And there is a brief confrontation with death (not quite an "exciting conclusion") as the solution is achieved.

The usual cast of characters is present, each exhibiting his/her personal characteristics as well as a specific role in the series and the investigation, and while it's a short book, the laconic style and very personal and rounded characters (detectives, witnesses, and suspects alike) that we know from the longer books are very much in evidence. In fact, the very "dailiness" and ordinary nature of the crime are more interesting to me than some of the more global and conspiratorial plots of some of the full novels. Thanks are due to translator Laurie Thompson and publisher Vintage Crime/Black Lizard for making the story accessible to we Anglophones.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Åsa Larsson, The Second Deadly Sin

Dogs have been an important element in Åsa Larsson's Rebecka Martinsson novels before, but in the newly translated (by Laurie Thompson) The Second Deadly Sin (due out in the U.S. this summer) the dogs are more fully characterized than some of the important human characters (and one of the dogs will ultimately be the subject of a crucial and very affecting plot point late in the book). Among the characters who get shorter shrift are the husband of Anna-Maria Mella (the police detective in this series, set in Kiruna, Sweden's most northern city) and a shadowy figure who becomes one of the primary suspects.

The book begins with a bear attack but quickly shifts to the murder of a woman who lives alone with her grandson (who has disappeared). Rebecka is assigned as the lead prosecutor on the case but is quickly relieved of her post by a jealous colleague (and that colleague and his jealousy are a key element in the story). Another thread of the tale goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, to the founding of Kiruna by mining interests: a young woman arrives to be the teacher in the mine-supported school, and is met and courted by the mine's director, who is actually a historical character, the man who is credited as the founder of the city.

The jealous prosecutor is so totally defined by his mania to destroy Rebecka that he ceases to become a fully realized character, and the villain in the historical tale (the mine's manager) is so totally "Simon Legree" evil that he, too, is a cartoon rather than a character. It's a shame to waste two such potentially interesting figures, and their thin-ness takes away from a pair of interesting stories. The historical thread not only fills in the family history that will ultimately lead to the present-day murder but also gives an interesting portrait of not only the northern frontier town but the class and culture struggles of Sweden as a whole around the time of World War I (when the country was neutral rather more for commercial advantage than ideological purity).

In the present-day story, Rebecka takes advantage of the fact that the murdered woman's family has endured a number of sudden deaths in recent years to conduct her own unauthorized investigation, uncovering the deadly avarice that is the mortal sin of the title ultimately. Rebecka's nearly animistic connection to her natural surroundings is only an occasional factor in the narrative, a marker of the isolation caused by the traumas delineated in earlier books in the series as well as her uneasy relationship with her former boss and her former urban life, in the job she left to come to Kiruna (which might be the only route back into a life with her lover). A possible love interest who is resident in the north is a police dog handler who has shown up in previous books, a gentle but terribly disfigured man more comfortable with his canine colleagues than the human ones.

Though the book does carry the series forward in interesting ways, to me it's not the strongest of the Martinsson series, and is definitely not the place for a reader to start (the first two of Larsson's novels deal with a subject not often focused upon in other Swedish crime novels, religion, in interesting ways, and the introduction to Martinsson and other characters in these and the other two subequent books is really necessary to follow what's going on between the lines in the new book.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

All the Things You Are: A departure for Declan Hughes

I must confess to being a bit befuddled by Declan Hughes's new book set in the university town of Madison Wisconsin. Not because of the change of setting from Hughes's earlier books, but because of the change of form. The previous novels form a private detective series self-consciously referring to Ross MacDonald (among others), and carrying that form successfully to contemporary Dublin (a setting meticulously realized).

All the Things You Are is instead a psychological thriller, with a very promising beginning. Claire, a middle-aged housewife who some years earlier left behind a not-so-promising career in the Chicago theater world to marry and raise a family in Madison with a college sweetheart, arrives back home from a midlife-crisis trip to Chicago to find her family missing, all the furniture (seemingly) in the house removed, and the family pet murdered. There is a hint of a private message (in the form of a statuette remaining on the mantle) that keeps Clair from simply declaring the husband a kidnapper.

But while the mystery remains, in various of its aspects, the energy quickly dissipated, for me. The reader discovers some of what's going on rather early on, in sections from points of view other than Claire's, and another mystery, from her husband's youth, begins to take over. By the time the police investigation kicks into high gear, on the one hand, and an Irish hitman, a refugee from the IRA, comes on the scene, Hughes had pretty much lost me. It's partly, I'm sure, that I'm more a fan of the Ross MacDonald influenced genre than the genre of, say, Sophie Hannah, whose work this book in some ways resembles. Hannah, though, seems to me to keep the tension of the central mystery torqued up for much longer.

My problem is also with the setting. I'm sure that (especially for an American) the U.S. college town is less evocative than Dublin, but the setting never really takes on a character of its own here--except as the setting for the family taproom, and even that rather important site is not really evoked in any detail. Others fonder of this sort of thriller will certainly find more to like than I'm suggesting in this review, but I'd be more interested in another Dublin detective story than another Madison thriller from Hughes.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

New series from John McFetridge

A lot of crime writers will do two or even more different series at the same time or in sequence (a trilogy followed by another trilogy, or whatever), but I have seldom read a second series that is so different from the first as is the case with John McFetridge's previous Toronto novels and his new series based in Montreal (Black Rock, from ECW publishers). To make a comparison (always dangerous) he has shifted from Elmore Leonard's territory to Joseph Wambaugh's. What the series do have in common is one factor that both those classic crime writers share: the ordinariness or "dailiness" of the stories.

McFetridge's Toronto novels (there are four, I think) are present-day, and the arc of the story tells the tale of Montreal biker gangs that have shifted to Toronto to take over organized crime there from (in part) the Italian mob from south of the border. The stories frequently shift focus among a number of characters and the plots take unexpected turns in the way that life does. There is a dark, wry comedy to the novels, in the twistiness of the plots, the concrete and thoroughly believable dialogue and "real life" of the characters, and the sympathy that the author derives from the reader for some pretty unlikeable people.

Black Rock (the title comes from a popular name for a monument to immigrants of a previous century) is set in 1970 in Montreal, a time of upheaval and unrest partly shared with the rest of Canada and with the U.S. and partly unique to the violent separatism in Québec at that time. There are so many bombings in the story (and in the memory of the characters) that the violence (or threat, since the bombers frequently warn the police) that they have become part of the daily routine.

The central character, who, unlike in the author's previous novels, is the sole pair of eyes through which we see the story, is a beat cop rather than a detective. He is also an Anglophone, though raised in a Francophone neighborhood, and he is as isolated on the police force as he was in that neighborhood. His name is Eddie Dougherty, and one running bit of comedy is the butchery that the French speakers do with that Irish last name. But the conflict and mistrust among the divided communities is a very serious aspect of the story, as in real life.

McFetridge's style is more straightforward in this series: though he sets out to tell the story of a cop's daily life in the way Wambaugh does, he avoids the intermittently hilarious style of some of the American writer's books. McFetridge seems to be involving the reader in Dougherty's life more directly, and perhaps for the long haul: the arc of this story is the young cop's journey from an outsider officer who goes where he's told to one whose determination and attention to detail will break cases. But McFetridge avoids a simplistic "rise to stardom" or Sherlockian insight and pat resolution of the story. Dougherty gets through to a truth, not the total solution to everything that's been going on.

Amid the search for increasingly dangerous bombers, sucking in more and more of the police force's resources, Dougherty happens to be the first on the scene at the discovery of a murdered girl, a French speaking girl from his neighborhood. Officially and unofficially, Dougherty begins to work with an alcoholic but proficient detective on the notion that her murder isn't a one-off: there are aspects that suggest the work of a serial killer known to the police as "Bill."

Along the way, Dougherty meets a graduate student researcher who's interested in the "Bill" case, but the young cop's involvement with her is as tentative and resistant to final resolution as aspects of the bomber and the murder investigations. The new and more serious and historical of McFetridge's series is ultimately as realistically unpredictable as his previous, more comic and current series: and as engaging as that earlier set of stories for the reader.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Two by Pascal Garnier

Gallic Books has lately been bringing out a series of novels by French noir writer Pascal Garnier, whose voice is very distinctive. It's not too much of a spoiler to say that two of them (The Panda Theory and How's the Pain, end and begin (respectively) with suicide of a sort, and that what follows or precedes the death is a frequently funny (in a deadpan manner) journey through the author's dark imagination but at the same time a closeup view of ordinary life.

How's the Pain is about a hitman at the end of his life, suffering through the mishaps of a final job. He sort of adopts a feckless small town young man as a driver, but other characters accumulate along the way until there is a sort of ad hoc family gathered around the professional killer (family as a need that can be met with the help of strangers is an aspect of both these books). There are a number of deaths. some of them quite dramatic (such as the one alluded to in the cover art) and some quite straightforward. The prose is very direct and the book is short, probably just as well since the story is a dark ride through the human miseries of daily life). Though there's plenty of darkness, there's also a glimmer of hope in the outcome.

The Panda Theory holds out perhaps a little less hope, or perhaps hope of a different kind. For most of the novel, we follow Gabriel in two time frames, flashbacks of the difficulties of his life  and a current narrative of his very ordinary daily experiences in a Breton village that he is visiting seemingly for no particular reason. Gabriel is very helpful to a number of residents of the town, without expecting much in return: often exhibiting a particular talent for cooking meals with minimal supplies or equipment.

But the final favors that Gabriel bestows veer into a philosophy of life that is very dark indeed, based on where happiness and rest are to be found or not found. The end is a bit of a twist but affirms or extends Gabriel's view of life in an unexpected way.

Garnier, who is no longer with us, writes in a manner that is particularly French: his countrymen have often used noir fiction and film in a philosophical and psychological manner more than the sociological style of noir in some other countries. But Garnier's narrator is always somewhat distanced from the story, supplying details but not offering commentary. The philosophy, the humor, and the impact of the stories is instead in the dailiness of his characters' migrations among life's meager pleasures and deep miseries--always in a compelling, even fascinating manner.

The covers and overall design of the series are as understated and effective as the novels they contain, with an elegance one can feel as well as see--reaffirming that there can be physical as well as mental pleasures in reading an actual book that are not possible with digital formats.