The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

The argument that a translated book cannot do full justice to the original holds considerable water where nuance and wit and linguistic idiom are concerned. Happily, this is probably not so important a loss where thrillers and crime novels are concerned, plot-driven as they are. So I am pleased to say that I haven't restricted myself to the big Anglo writers: I have been reading a fair amount of the genre by non-English writers lately. Below (or hereunder) are a paragraph or two summarising each.

First off the gates is Holy Smoke by Tonino Benacquista. This writer of Italian origin lives and works in France, and this novel, a darkly comic tale of iconoclasm is in its own way a search for his own roots. His protagonist Tonio, just like him, comes from claustrophobic rural Italy, where the reach of the Mafia is long, the young yearn to escape the mind-numbing monotony of daily existence, the Catholic church is all-powerful, and superstition and selfishness cause generations-long feuds. Tonio write a letter for a low-level gigolo Dario and finds shortly thereafter that Dario is killed, he has inherited a vineyard in his old village, and people are gunning for him. He returns to the village to claim his inheritance, determines that its wine is undrinkable and is visited by the local Mafiosi who want him to give up the plot. The locals suddenly hate him with a passion and he sets up a scam that brings him to the attention of the Vatican. And the fun starts!

There were witticisms and esoterica galore in Benacquista's work (he reveals the recipe for the proper puttanesca sauce, for instance, and droves of details on the perfectly al-dente pasta). But Saskia Noort's suffocating novel Dinner Club has no pretension to local colour. She deals with the power dynamics among five yuppy couples who find themselves allied against the xenophobia of the suburban town they move to. The husbands work together but it is clear that one of them is the alpha male; there are also smaller cliques within the women. When one of the men dies in a domestic fire, the others assume it is suicide caused by depression, but only a little later, another death occurs, and suddenly all the hatreds and suspicions that were hidden by the outward amity explode. Noort, a Dutch writer, explores the corrosive effects of the dichotomy between perception and reality. There is nothing particularly Dutch about this story - it is probably played out in similar fashion anywhere in the world that a bunch of well-off sophisticates begins to look down upon the hoi-polloi.

Because the German writer Jan Costin Wagner's wife is Finnish, the couple spend some time every year in Finland, that melancholy country of wood, despair and loneliness. This lends considerable authenticity - as far as I can make out (I might be falling into a stereotypical trap that I am unaware of) - to the descriptions of the town in which the grieving policeman Kimmo Joentaa lives and works. In Ice Moon, he has lost his beloved wife and is barely able to function, every day sinking deeper into his agony. When a series of murders occur, he finds himself able to empathise with the killer, seeing in him a kindred lost soul. The perp is revealed early and the novel then progresses with a sort of 'understand the mind of the killer' motive. Overall, a rather weak psychological study, I thought. The translation, sadly, does not help. It is clumsy and the prose reads ploddingly, a problem I have found with some other Scandinavian fiction.

From one dank milieu to another all the way around the world. The Japanese author Natsuo Kirino's Out is a scary book, relentless in the bleakness of the story. I'm too lazy to come up with a new thought about this book, so I'll just cut-and-paste what I wrote in Jabberwock's blog recommending the book to the man. What a desperate life led by the four protagonists! And how they despise one another! And still, how they stick by each other! Clearly a dynamic that will elude most men. The violence is graphic and the descriptions of the horrors perpetrated are hair-raising. One's usual picture of Japan is of a homogeneous society with a formal hierarchy between men and women, with everyone knowing their place, but I haven't come across a similar expose of the underbelly, the tribulations of those living on the margins, and subcutaneous passions that seethe among them.

Back to Europe and we have the Italian Carlo Lucarelli, whose beautiful detective Ispettore Grazia Negro hunts a chameleon assassin-for-hire in Day After Day. The killer leaves no traces and is a master of disguise. His superb thespian skill leads him to act as a different character he commits murder, so that no two victims see the same. Witnesses cannot agree on his description, and the only link between the crimes is a picture of a Pit Bull he leaves behind as a signature. Grazia Negro is an energetic and assiduous investigator, but behind her self-possession is a failing relationship with her lover, and she is slowly ground down by the casual sexism she encounters on a day to day basis. Lucarelli's empathy for his heroine is palpable and his plotting is taut. His descriptions of the colour and texture of the underbelly of Bologna are sizzling, and - I have been in that town several times and never seen any of grunge - titillating. What's not to like?

Another Italian product is the funny Steal You Away by Niccolò Ammaniti (the famous author of that absolutely gut-wrenching tale of kidnapping and abuse I'm Not Scared). It is set in Ischiano Scalo, a dusty corner of Tuscany criss-crossed by motorways that serve to remind the villagers that life, really, is elsewhere. Its heroes are a middle-aged Lothario, Graziano Biglia, who, after decades of seduction and alcoholism, decide to retire to married life with a young wannabe actress; and the sensitive and artistic Pietro Moroni, the son of an abusive father and a beaten-down mother, who tends to be the fall-guy for the local bullies in their nefarious schemes. There are other colourful characters, all of whom plot complicated intertwining plans for advancement or profit, with increasingly hilarious ramifications, but at the climax, the laughter ceases and the tragedy of gratuitous murder leads to a disturbing conclusion.

The French sisterly duo comprising Claude Izner wrote the whimsical Murder on the Eiffel Tower. Set in 19th century Paris at the time of the Exhibition and the installation of the eponymous tower, this breezy book deals excellently with the history of the period. The murders that occur are not as fascinating. The main protagonist, Victor Legris, is a bookseller who lives with the (Japanese) man who brought him up. Victor is puzzled by the deaths of several people in the lead up to the grand opening of the Eiffel Tower (and indeed on it), supposedly attributed to bee-stings. From then on, it's pretty much straightforward. In the original French, the book was a bestseller, but in translation, it is fairly pedestrian, reading almost as a parody (for another weak series, check out Gilbert Adair's Agatha Christie tributes).

Now the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra's Autumn of the Phantoms is difficult to place in either crime or thriller genres. It is much much more than escapism. It is social criticism, a withering lambasting of the censorship laws in Algeria, a powerful cry against the constant undercurrent of fundamentalist terror. An (autobiographical, I think) Inspector Llob has written a book showing the country and the army in poor light and he is forcibly thrown out of the force; he is targeted by a terrorist bomber and, while recuperating, pulled into the surreal world of the super-rich and intellectual Algiers, where he finds that corruption and power work hand-in-hand. [Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a high-ranking military officer in the Algerian armed forces, who was castigated and vilified for writing what were considered lies about the incestuous nexus between the government and the radicals.]

Darkly witty writing doesn't get much better than by Jakob Arjouni, the German-Turkish author of Kismet. It stars the private investigator Kayankaya who wisecracks his way through a violent takeover of the streets of Frankfurt, possibly Germany's dullest city, by a bunch of Croat nationalists. There's butchery galore, mafiosi fall by the wayside. Kayankaya - an ethnic Turk - usually finds himself on the margins of German society, facing racism and occasional odd jobs from immigrants. When one, a Brazilian, asks his help in dispatching the new thugs in town, the case quickly escalates into a war between rival gangs, and rather unpleasant details about human trafficking and poisonous confectionary reveal themselves.

When you feel you've had as much witticism as you can take, you can look into Pierre Magnan's dark and dank and (again) claustrophobic thriller of selfishness, familial discord and greed set in the cold winters of Upper Provence. In The Messengers of Death, a man finds an unstamped letter lying by postbox outside a cemetery in a village and posts it. The recipient is shortly murdered. And then another letter is posted and another victim is found killed. And yet another. The retired inspector Laviolette is dragged into the case and he has to use his deeply sympathetic understanding of the closed and serf-like minds of the locals to track down the killer. Meanwhile, Magnan's overwrought plotting, descriptions and histories stretch and curl around the reader. A sumptuous and exhausting treat.

There seems to be quite a fascination with Dante these days. There was Matthew Pearl's Dante Club, and now there's Arnaud Delalande's The Dante Trap. Both novels use Dante's Inferno as inspiration for wild murders based on the various tortures faced by the damned in the great Florentine's work. It's painful when real historical characters are suddenly transformed into detectives (I've seen Newton and Dante in this role), so I'm grieved to say that in the former book a bunch of American poets (led by Longfellow) track down the killer. In the latter, set a century or so earlier in Venice, Viravolta, the dashing spy and friend of Casanova, is tasked to uncover a murderous plot against the state. Actors die in Dantean fashion, secret societies abound, and altogether, this silly book becomes sillier and more far-fetched with every page. Add to that a translation that makes large parts of it read like a history text, and I'm surprised I managed to finish it.

Günter Ohnemus wrote The Russian Passenger, a paean to the unlikely connection between a middle-aged German man and a young and beautiful Russian woman evoking the shared bitterness and understanding between these two great nations. Sonia Kovalevskaya is escaping her KGB-turned-Mafia life, and Harry Willemer is struggling with the ghosts of his youth, and his quarrel with his wife that led (indirectly) to the death of their beloved daughter. In Sonia he finds a kindred lost soul in search of escape, and while he can't escape his own grief, he attempts to keep her safe. The lives of the two protagonists becomes increasingly paranoid: they know that the Russian Mafia has its reach everywhere, and the action moves across Europe to the US, where the book suddenly becomes introspective. The first half of the book is a true thriller; the rest is all philosophy. (On an slight tangent: Ohnemus translated Richard Brautigan's Revenge of the Lawn into German!)

The Swedish wife-and-husband team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö skillfully plot the violent murder of a bus-load of passengers and a young up-and-coming police trooper in The Laughing Policeman. The usual Scandinavian characters abound: Martin Beck, chief detective with a failing marriage, surrounded by other rather dour characters who - rarely - crack smiles. There's the usual sardonic back-and-forth, nothing too funny. A classic police procedural, this attempts to solve the crime many years after it occurred, when Beck realises that the murdered policeman had actually been on the hunt (and close to catching) a dangerous criminal at the time the bus was blown up. Which naturally opens up an entire kettle of fish - was the attack on the bus not just a random act of a radical? How vicious does one have to be to resort to mass-murder in order to eliminate a single man?

Finally, just for added colour in a sea of non-English crime, I mention the American writer Olen Steinhauer's Bridge of Sighs. It deals with power plays of a different kind from Saskia Noort's book: political corruption and idealism and venality in a newly Communist country. Set in an unnamed East European country (it could be Czechoslovakia), it stars Emil Brod, a fresh and uncomfortable young graduate from the police academy who finds himself detested by his colleagues. They think he is a political agent spying on them. They refuse to help him in his first case - a murder of an important member of the Communist party. Suddenly the body count starts to rise, Brod's life is in danger, he falls in love with the first victim's wife, the case becomes very personal indeed, and the action moves across countries. The bleakness of the story is very apropos of the time, when the people were struggling to recover from the ravages of the Second World War amidst a forcible change in their society and beliefs by stern Communism, and somehow find the wherewithal and strength of will to survive.


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