Friday, September 19, 2014

Police, by Jo Nesbø

Some of Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole novels stretch credulity a bit when Harry gets into impossible situations and works his way out of them somehow. That doesn't stop the stories from being great entertainment, though. Police, the latest and perhaps last (a great many readers may have assumed the previous novel was the last, given how it ended) is a more straightforward police procedural, with Harry offstage (spoiler alert) for a good portion of the time.

His absence gives the other detectives (both his friends and his enemies) a chance to come forward into the spotlight (hence the more conventional structure) and the result is a quite enjoyable novel, with a lot of twists and turns (Nesbø likes to take the reader down a path, only to reveal that things are not what he has seemingly prepared you for).

The story follows the progress of a serial killer of policemen, seemingly punishing the individuals and the force for their failure to complete a series of earlier investigations. While some readers may guess who is performing this crime wave (there are some hints, but many, many false leads connected to very violent people who don't happen to be involved in this particular series of murders). And there are some ongoing characters who will meet their ends along the way.

There's a lot here that will depend on a familiarity with the books that have gone before, so this isn't the place to start with Harry. Harry himself, though, when he appears, is quite a bit more human and likable than he has seemed in the low points of his drunken self-destructiveness or the high points of his amazing abilities. He reaches a point from which he might fade into the sunset or become a detective of a more normal sort (perhaps the former would be more appropriate for such a larger than life character). There is, however, a bit of unfinished business at the end that seems to lead to another chapter...

Opinions about Harry or the current state of his career?

Sunday, August 31, 2014

crime victim's reading room

Last Monday night someone came up on the deck of my beach house, poured gasoline on the decking by the back door, and set it on fire. The house is pretty much a total loss, between flames, smoke, and water. That house is where I kept most of my books of international crime fiction, about 450 copies, and though none of them burned, all are thoroughly smoked and wet. Though the books are certainly not our biggest problem at the moment, I thought I should post a brief elegy for them here, in a place where people might understand this particular piece of the loss. The  photo is from the "reading room" on the top floor, not originally so open to the view. The library is just behind you, if you are standing where the picture was taken from. The detectives from the state fire marshal's office are looking for the arsonist, but no report so far.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Review of Carlo Lucarelli's new novel

I had one request for an English version of my review in Italian (below) which is pretty good for a blog response. So here goes:

Between 1994 and 2000, Carlo Lucarelli, the master of italian crime fiction, published 4 novels featuring Inspector Grazia Negro, a detective in Bologna. Only two of them have been translated, Almost Blue and Day After Day. All the stories deal with a brutal serial killer. Lucarelli has just published a new novel with Inspector Negro, in 2013. After these thirteen years between the last and the newest novels, Grazia and her lover Simone (who has been in all but one of the books)are trying to have a baby, and she is hot pahhy at all to be investigating a serial killer: but Bologna has one, nonetheless.

The tracks of the killer carry the inspector and her colleague in the Carabinieri to a popular song by Andrea Buffa, The Dream of Flying (also the title of the novel). The song is comic, at the beginning. A loose translation of the first verse is:
Since I was young I've dreamt of flying like a bird,
but now when I press against the air my weight isn't a good thing,
I fly like a brick, like a stone, like a wrench
It seems obvious that flying without wings is a problem.

But Buffa is really talking about two important social issues: the story of the song deals with the death, on a construction site, of a foreign worker. And Lucarelli's serial killer wants to kill all the people who are involved in the death of a construction worker, also a foreigner. It seems as if there's not just one killer, as the murderer sends messages to the police, until a psychologist consulting on the case suggests that in fact it is one person with a multiple personality.

I've heard that most psychologists today don't believe in the diagnosis of multiple personalities, but Lucarelli has created from the idea an interesting novel from his diverse materials: the policewoman, the song, and the social environment of the city. Can we hope for a translation, perhaps of this book and the first one in the series, some day?

Carlo Lucarelli: Il sogno di volare


I'm taking advantage of a homework assignment in my Italian class to post a short review in Italian of Carlo Lucarelli's new Grazia Negro novel (corrected by my teacher--thanks Federica!). If anyone's interested I can add an English version.

Fra il 1994 e il 2000 Carlo Lucarelli, il maestro dei gialli Italiano, pubblicava quattro romanzi con protagonista il personaggio Ispettore Grazia Negro, una poliziotta a Bologna. Solo due di loro sono stati tradotti, Almost Blue (il titolo originale è in Inglese) e Un giorno dopo l’altro. Tutti le sue storie tratta di un serial killer brutale. Lucarelli ha appena pubblicato un nuovo romanzo con Ispettore Negro, nel 2013. Dopo questi tredici anni, Grazia e il suo amante Simone stanno cercando di avere un bambino, e a lei non piace per niente di indagare un altro serial killer, ma Bologna ne ha uno, nonostante tutto.

Le tracce dell’ assasino portano l’ispettore e il suo collega dei Carabinieri à una canzone popolare del cantautore Andrea Buffa, Il sogno di volare (che anche è il titolo del romanzo). La canzone è divertente--il primo versetto è:

Da giovane avevo un sogno, volare come un uccello
Ma adesso che schiaccio l’aria, col mio peso non mi pare bello
Io volo come un mattone, come un sasso, una chiave inglese
Volare senza le ali, è un problema mi sembra palese

Ma Buffa sta veramente parlando di due importanti questioni sociali: la storia della canzone tratta di una morta sul lavoro di un lavoratore extracommunitario. E il serial killer di Lucarelli vuole uccidere tutta la gente che è coinvolte nella morte di un operaio in un cantiere. Ma sembra che non sia solo un assassino fino a quando uno psicologo suggerisce che è infatti una persona con personalità multiple.

Il maggior parte degli psicologi oggi non credono nelle personalità multiple, ma Lucarelli ha creato un romanzo intesressante dai materiali diversi (la sua poliziotta, la canzone, e l’ambiente sociale della sua città).

Friday, August 22, 2014

New review at Los Angeles Review of Books

My first review at Lost Angeles Review of Books is now live, discussing two new books dealing with dark passages of Italy in the 20th century : http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/bleak-world-italian-noir
The books I'm reviewing there are Dominique Manotti's Escape and Maurizio De Giovanni’s By My Hand. (The Los Angeles Review of Books is a nonprofit literary and cultural arts magazine in great American tradition of the serious book reviews.)

Philadelphia noir series

Just a word about a TV series that I'm guessing too few people are aware of: The Divide, on basic cable channel WE tv. It's a smart updated noir set in the Philadelphia of today but hearkening back to the classic noir Philly writer, David Goodis.

The Divide begins with an Innocence-Project-like group that specializes in revisiting the DNA evidence in prior convictions, in this case investigating the conviction of a white man awaiting the death penalty for murdering 3 of the 4 members of a middle-class black family. The cast includes the surviving daughter of that family, the black district attorney and his family, a young man convicted of complicity in the murders, now serving a life sentence, and members of the legal group, with a particular focus on a law student whose own father is imprisoned for a crime he may not have committed.

But what's interesting about the series is the issues it confronts, beyond the issues of crime and punishment. The continuing reverberations of race as an issue in American life are at the forefront, but also the influence of money and position on law and politics. It's a smart blend of ideas, dialogue, issues, and plot that's among the best things on television right now. WE tv isn't a flashy pay cable channel and isn't as well known as some of the basic cable outlets, but this series deserves a wide audience, and would reward a bit of binge watching if you can get it on demand or streaming. Several thumbs up...

Monday, August 04, 2014

Down a dark road in France...

Pascal Garnier's 2010 novel La place du mort (the title literally means "the death seat," I think) has just been translated into English as The Front Seat Passenger (Jane Aitken is the translator and Gallic Books is the publisher). Garnier is an amazingly economical storyteller: he packs an amazing amount of menace, humor, and violence into 139 pages, and he does it in the milieu of an ordinary man whose orderly life is upset (twice).

The novel begins with a traffic accident, and then moves to the point of view for the rest of the book (told in the third person): Fabien, whose marriage to Sylvie has become more a matter of routine than love. But he hardly expects to discover that while he has been on a reluctant visit to his father, Sylvie has been killed in a car driven by her lover, whose existence he had never expected.

A good deal of the rest of the book involves his stalking of the dead lover's widow, without a clear motive. He moves in with his friend Gilles, who is estranged from his wife, and the son of that broken marriage, who spends a lot of time with Gilles. The three males develop a sort of all-male family (with all the maleness that one might expect, with considerable comedy), but Fabien continues to stalk the widow in secret, eventually following her and her constant female companion on their vacation, where he meets them under false pretenses.

Once he meets them, the tone gets edgier, building toward a violence that the reader knows is coming yet is nonetheless unexpected. There are several abrupt twists, with Fabien always the front seat passenger in the journey, since he doesn't drive.

Each of Garnier's novels is quite different, but each portrays a life that is very ordinary in most ways (even his novel about a hitman), but twisted out of the ordinary into the nightmare along the way. In addition to comic scenes, there is a comic aspect even to the violence, in the intricacies of the plot and the close analysis of the characters involved. The cover blurb compares Garnier with Patricia Highsmith (though his writing is tighter than hers) and Georges Simenon (though the comparison is apt for his "serious" novels, not the Maigret series). But Garnier is quite unique, in a very French and philosophical manner.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Karin Fossum: The Murder of Harriet Krohn

To her credit, Karin Fossum doesn't adhere to a formula in her series featuring Inspector Sejer, the calm, relentless Norwegian detective. In the newly translated The Murder of Harriet Krohn, Sejer and his team are almost completely offstage: Sejer himself appears toward the end in the role of interrogator.

At the center of the novel, instead, is the murderer, Charlo Torp, a compulsive gambler who lost his marriage and his daughter due to that compulsion's effects on the family. Now, he has turned to theft, initially to get out of debt but finally as the basis for a redemptive gift to his daughter, but his target, the titular Harriet, doesn't cooperate.

Most of the novel occurs after the murder and in flashbacks, Charlo re-envisioning his life as a reformed addict. He's not a total sociopath, there are moments of guilt. But he is so focused on his goal (to reestablish contact with his daughter) and so self-centered that the guilt and even the fear of being caught are minor impediments to his plan.

Staying in Charlo's point of view is a risky narrative strategy: he is not a pleasant man, and his self-justifications are painful. What Fossum gains is a sense of doom related to the inevitability of classic tragedy: we know that this is not going to end well, and though we see the daughter only through Charlo's eyes, we feel as much compassion for her as for Harriet. Sejer becomes primarily the engine of the fate we know is coming.

Fossum's experiments with the genre are not always to my liking, and I still prefer her more directly police-procedural novels: but The Murder of Harriet Krohn is a remarkable descent into the mind of a troubled, twisted soul who is less a hardened criminal or a psychopath than simply one of us, twisted by ego and addiction into a disastrous parody of normality.

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.