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

Another year, another round-up of translated-into-English crime novels that I mulled over and swallowed whole. This time around even I recognised some of the translators. Notable among them is Anthea Bell, whom any Asterix-philiac will recall with considerable affection for her work with Derek Hockridge in translating with verve the oeuvre of Goscinny and Uderzo. Andrew Bromfield continues his excellent work with the Erast Fandorin and Pelagia series, and I look forward to more from his prolific desk.

Jörg Fauser's The Snowman (Bitter Lemon Press) can hardly be said to be crime fiction, although there is crime, or even a thriller, although there are occasional subdued thrills. This book, originally published in Germany in 1981, appears to be some sort of pseudo-autobiographical tale about a bum who finds he can't sell his Danish porn in Malta, exchanges it for high-grade cocaine which he hopes to offload to make enough money to be comfortable for the rest of his miserable life, and ends up rushing about Holland and Belgium and various parts of Germany, falling out of one mess into another. Blum, the bum, is variously paranoid and strangely trusting; adding colour to this strange little book are a Pakistani (agent? smuggler? businessman) Mr Haq and an American (agent? smuggler? businessman?) Hackensack.The author evidently led a dissolute life comparable to Blum's: after kicking off a heroin habit, he spent the rest of his tired life mired in alcohol. But, chemically-fueled, his brain evidently was a superb recording medium for acute description, and the book abounds in neatly executed portraits of the low-life and the marginal that one finds dotting pretty much all of Europe.

Boris Akunin's Special Assignments (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) narrates two episodes in the life of that talented detective and stammerer Erast Fandorin. The first, Jack of Spades, is a mad-cap and rollicking cat-and-mouse adventure, with Fandorin pitting his wits against a clever swindler, who appears to be able to con enormous amounts of money even from the most cynical, such as Fandorin's boss, Prince Dolgorukoi. Accompanied by a trusting sidekick, Fandorin gets involved with beautiful women who may or may not be entirely genuine, dons several disguises, and has Inspector Clouseau-like fights with his Japanese servant Masa. The second story, The Decorator, is altogether darker and pitiless. Fandorin suspects Jack the Ripper has returned to Russia to continue his murderous spree, and has to go undercover to unearth the killer. But the tables are quickly turned on Fandorin when the killer realises he is being chased, and suddenly Fandorin's friends and loves are targeted in a bitter vendetta. The gore escalates and mood of the book becomes ever darker, and there is no redemption at all for anyone at the end. Akunin has stated several times that he intends to cover every genre of crime writing in his Fandorin series, and in this tale, he executes the serial killer motif superbly.

A. C. Baantjer's DeKok and the Geese of Death (Intrigue Press) introduced me to the Dutch criminal argot known as Bargoens, which I have mentioned elsewhere. This is a fairly pedestrian and literal translation of the original Dutch novel, which struck me repeatedly as jarring and uninspiring. DeKok is a Sherlock Holmes-like detective with a vast knowledge of the arcane that he uses (even if unconsciously) to awe his colleagues and sniff out criminals. In this very weak tale, however, it is fairly obvious early on what is going on, and I had to will myself into an accepting torpor to be able to finish it. Had there been a vicious twist at the end, the book might have been redeemed somewhat. In the event, DeKok thinks that Igor Stravinski (blamed for the murder of an old man) is innocent of that particular crime, but Stravinski breaks out of jail, and various people with strong family resemblance to each other begin to suspect everybody else, beg for police protection, and get murdered. Baantjer is no Simenon, has little subtlety to show in this particular book, and, having written over sixty novels starring DeKok, clearly is scraping the bottom of the barrel of his imagination.

Dominique Manotti's Rough Trade (Arcadia Books) is set in the gritty immigrant district of Le Sentier in Paris of the 1980s, when left-wing anarchists, drug runners, Turkish workers, corrupt policemen and child prostitutes all melded into an explosive cauldron of disaffection and violence. The turbulence of times left scarcely anyone untouched. Even Dacquin, the protagonist of this book, supposedly a refined man of intelligence and culture, doesn't think twice before maltreating witnesses and suspects, or blackmailing and sodomising a Turkish illegal immigrant into becoming an informant. Manotti is a cynic, evidently, but has an ear for dialogue and description. Several strands of the story unfold - heroin smuggling, internal police affairs, governmental corruption - but, as the tale progresses, are seen to converge. Real events of the day, including the struggle of immigrant workers to be legalised, and porn clubs that attracted the high and mighty in the government - are neatly interspersed into the narrative. A gripping, brutal book which won the French Crime Writers Association prize for best thriller of the year.

Jean-Claude Izzo's One Helluva Mess (Arcadia Books) caught my attention for two reasons: its vivid description of seedy yet proud Marseilles, and its lavish accounts of gorgeous food. I'm not certain if this is a new oeuvre developing in crime fiction, the combination of great food and grisly murder, but Izzo could very well be a star in this field, along with the likes of Domingo Villar (see below) and Tonino Benacquista (of whom I wrote in last year's roundup), all of whom treat food with passion. In this tale, Inspector Montale is forced to revisit his childhood to solve a crime involving old friends. The daughter of Algerian immigrants is brutally murdered, a potential consequene of which is sectarian strife on a massive scale. Marseilles is a true melting pot, but the rise of the racist National Front mirrors the fall in the fortunes of this city. When the police itself is affected by the canker of us-against-them, it is only a matter of time before corruption seeps in and the innocent are victimised. With this terse thriller, Izzo comes up with a procedural gem; in literary terms, Marseilles comes brilliantly alive. I'm well pleased.

Massimo Carlotto's The Goodbye Kiss (Europa Editions) produces yet another anti-hero in the vein of Ripley. Pellegrini is an amoral and self-serving Italian fugitive who aims to set himself up for life in the home country after years of exile in South America following atrocities he committed with the Marxist Red Brigade in the 1970s. As part of his masterplan to reinvent himself, he bullies and blackmails weak women, rips off shady criminals, allies himself with a corrupt cop, starts a fine restaurant and claws his way into the upper classes. Meanwhile, ex-colleagues and sundry low life are gunning for him, Croatian terrorist and nihilists enter the action, and Pellegrini - true to his credo that death is the final solution to all problems - has to come up with ever more inventive ways to knock off his adversaries. There is no charm to him at all, but there is enough deviousness in this twisted person, and enough googlies in this twisted story that it is all becomes great fun.

Marek Krajewski's Death in Breslau (Quercus Publishing) is a work of historical fiction by a Polish crime-writer of distinction. Set in the pre-World War II period when Breslau was under German dominion, this is atmospheric stuff. Eberhard Mock is a chief investigator with a delicious sense of politicking - he manages to play off the Gestapo against the Abwehr and maintain his own precarious independence. He is not a kindly man, not above brutalising witnesses to elicit information, but he is a man of honour, and absolutely determined to bring down every criminal in sight. The daughter of a powerful Baron is murdered, and he is called on to find the killer. The Gestapo torture a confession out of a Jewish dealer and close the case, but the Baron is unconvinced, and he forces Mock to continue the investigation. This leads nowhere, and when some of the victim's clothing is sent to the Baron, he calls on yet another investigator, Anwaldt, to join forces with Mock. The city is under the grip of irrepressible heat and unrelenting paranoia, and anti-Semitism is rife. It seems to be quite the vogue in crime fiction these days to have gay characters as I have noticed in at least three of this roundup, and Krajewski doesn't stand apart from the vogue. Anyone in Breslau even remotely suspected of homosexuality is viciously targeted. Mock and Anwaldt have to dig up family histories from decades ago to solve the crime, which stems from an unsurprising motive. But the war intervenes and the Communist oppression follows, and the investigators find that they will have to wait years before they can wreak their final retribution. Danusia Stok's translation is efficient; this is a decent read.

Domingo Villar's Water-Blue Eyes (Eurocrime) is set in Vigo, once the centre of a rich Atlantic fishing industry and the Galician struggle for autonomy but now somewhat cloven into distinct worlds of arty gay types and gastronomes and the super-rich and the depressingly quotidian. A quiet jazz musician is found hideously tortured to death in one of the fanciest penthouses in Vigo, and the protagonists, a disillusioned Inspector Caldas and his hair-trigger-tempered Zaragozan colleague, spend several days consuming fine white wine and simple gastronomic delights, interrogate high-society homosexuals and their coterie, fend off inquisitive questioning into their private lives by friends and family, and eventually discover that the murderers had been motivated by that oldest desire in the world - for filthy lucre. I may add the descriptions of the victims are particularly graphic, of the sort that Ian Rankin associated with lesbian crime-writers, but I have to say that Villar bows to nobody in his hair-raising prose.


Space Bar said...

this is a nasty thing to do to me. now how will i lay my hands on these books, huh?

Fëanor said...

drat. didn't think of that. so let's talk of something else. what are you reading?

Space Bar said...

i have a better idea: if we ever do meet, you'll already have a list to pick from.


just finished Middlesex last night. Starting on A Fraction of the Whole today.

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