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

Mar 23, 2009

Crime - Second Month

Here we are at the end of the second month of my reading of sundry non-English crime-fiction. You may recall I started with the grandiose plan to read one book by every author listed in the Eurocrime website, but as I am too cheap to buy the books and because the local libraries do not stack them all, I've had to modify the goals a bit. I'll read any crime fiction as long as it is translated into English.

So here we go with month 2. First off the blocks is a somewhat whimsical tale about an old lawyer who has a shrewd business plan. Whenever he encounters a crime that intrigues him, he sticks around to solve it. Then he approaches the murderer and offers to defend him (and possibly get him off successfully) in return for a suitable honorarium. Invariably the gendarmerie and the prosecutor, plodders as they are, will find themselves outclassed. In Pierre Véry's The Old Ladies' Tea Party, the lawyer, old Prosper Lepicq, is on holiday in a small town called Criquebec, where he falls in with a bunch of elderly ladies with a fetish for the occult. Lepicq likes to ingratiate himself amongst the residents so as to pick up all the gossip, and these ladies favour him with multiple points of view of nearly every resident. Then one man is murdered. It appears that he cunningly sold a piece of land to the town council in return for a substantial annual stipend. The council, hoping to make back the investment, constructed an old people's home on the land. Unfortunately, no old people wanted to live there. The murdered man was much loathed for this supposed con. Could that be reason enough for his death? Then another innocuous person, a known associated of the first man, is killed. Lepicq soon uncovers blackmail, envy, sibling rivalry and poison. The case itself is not surprising in its revelation, the prose is somewhat breathy and excitable, but Véry, one of France's popular authors, describes the petty-mindedness of small-town life accurately, and the various characters add some eccentric colour to this thin book.

From whimsy to hardboiled noir: Giampiero Rigosi's Night Bus is about two rootless characters and seedy Bologna. Leila is thirty-ish, pretty, a hunter of men's wallets (she picks up her marks, drugs them and absconds with their money). Francesco is a bus-driver with a gambling addiction. There is a politician who is being blackmailed and who has arranged for payment to be made in return for the incriminating document. There are secret service agents, no better than thugs, who are after the blackmailers so that they can make case against the politician. Another agent, slightly better than a thug, works for the politician, and wants to ensure a smooth transfer with the blackmailers. Leila unknowingly gets her hand on the documents after seducing one of the blackmailers. Meanwhile Francesco is being chased by a giant of a man to repay his gambling debts. The disparate story-lines, written in staccato fashion, serve very well to maintain tension, and do converge in a collection of set-pieces that are both hair-raising and funny. Rigosi has a considerable affection for Quentin Tarantino, I guess, evident both in the action-film-script-like prose and in surreal touches of humour (e.g., see here for an excerpt where the secret service thugs take a break from violence to make pasta). Good stuff.

We must have an obligatory historical crime fiction piece this month, and (like the poor example last month) this one is provided by another Frenchman, Armand Cabasson, in his Wolf Hunt. Cabasson is well-known for his obsessive study of the Napoleonic wars, but he has considerable trouble separating his hobby from the necessity of terseness in his prose, and so this book has the usual long excursuses into regimental history, battle plans (both French and Austrian), and a few supercilious put-downs of the Viennese. Quentin Margont is a French soldier who, when he is not butchering the enemy, likes to ponder egaliteraniasm and the remains of the Revolution of 1789, and, at other times, solve crimes. He encounters a beautiful Austrian woman (during a truce in the conflict) who begs him to help locate a missing orphan. The orphan is subsequently found brutally murdered. Meanwhile, an Austrian-turned-French soldier Lukas Relmyer is on the chase of the murderer who, he believes, was the man who had very nearly killed him several years earlier. The two men decide to join forces, and in the midst of their hunt, there is opportunity to describe a Viennese ball, corruption in the bureaucracy, Franco-Austrian disdain for each other, a few bouts of fencing, and Margont's love for the beautiful Austrian woman. As far as investigations go, unsurprisingly, this is not of very high calibre; eventually the two men do catch up with the murderer, but the villain's motivation was not very clear (to me, at least).

Nordic crime fiction is now so numerous that no month can go by without having at least one exemplar from that genre, which is provided today by Liza Marklund's The Bomber. This is a good piece of work that is undone by a somewhat loose denouement, and again, the villain's motivations do not appear meaty enough to result in the carnage produced. Of course, we could attribute this disconnect to the murderer's psychopathy, but even that revelation is so late in the book that it appears almost as an afterthought. But I liked the book overall for its acute description of a workplace that is suffused with rivalries, political and professional (I think I've used this expression before so I'm getting sloppy myself), and the difficulties faced by working women (especially working women who are good at and passionate about their work) vis-a-vis their families. This book is written from the perspective of a journalist, Annika Bengtzon, who is deep in the investigation of a bomb that has destroyed Stockholm's Olympic arena, killing one person, and who, despite having a police contact, is not entirely certain how the police investigation is going. She herself does not aim to solve the mystery; rather, she chases separate strands of possibilities raised by the information dug up by herself and her team. This is a neat trick on Marklund's part - the real police story is elsewhere but we get glimpses of it at third-hand, as it were, and Bengtzon's investigation reveals various side stories, which eventually all combine at the climax (which is where it all begins to go downhill, as I mentioned above). This is a very good thriller for a long flight, and I guess the Swedes must travel a lot, for the book has done phenomenally in their country.

In last month's roundup, I mentioned the Mexican novel co-authored by the Zapatista leader, Subcommandante Marcos; in that book, there were several references to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's books, and I picked up one: The Man of My Life. This is set in Barcelona, where the detective Pepe Carvalho plies his trade, freshly back from a stint in Buenos Aires. The book is more a rumination on the politics of Region Plus and Catalan nationalism and various groups for and against the -isms that plague Spain (including, of course, Catholicism and Satanism), than a detective novel. Much energy is expended in describing why an economic union of Barcelona, Toulouse and Milan is inimical to the idea of Catalonia (if people can make money in the new regime, why will they bother to agitate for separation from Spain?), and why devil-worship is the new religion to counter Catholicism (which has been tarnished by its association with the depredations of Franco's era). Indeed, Carvalho does little detecting, although by what looks like authorial fiat, he locates one crazy group of anarchists and another, and deduces links among them that perplexed an unsubtle mind like mine. In the midst of all this, he also gorges himself on some of Barcelona's famed cuisine (see here for an example) and on Barcelona's lovely women as well. How a somewhat weary and downbeat sixty-year old gets all those women, I have no idea. Still, they like him, and he proceeds to confound the various politicos with his smart-alecky humour, before settling the case with his own idea of justice.

It should be a warning to any reader when an author is pretentious enough to suggest that his book be read to the accompaniment of music; when he goes so far as to recommend the piece of music to go with each chapter, it's all I can do not to kill myself. Maxim Chattam's The Cairo Diary is terrible. Anyway, quick plot summary: a woman hidden in present time in Mont Saint Michel by the French secret service finds the diary of an English detective who chased after a particularly vicious serial-killer of children (gratuitous descriptions ensue, followed by much reflection on oriental mystique and the fatal attraction of women) in Cairo in 1928. The book bifurcates: one trail following the Englishman, and the other following the fugitive woman. I can't think which is worse: the unrelentingly florid language or the vanishingly thin story-line. It then appears that someone is hunting the woman, and it's all somehow related to the putrid plot in Egypt. I, well, I can't go on with this anymore.

Finally - to end on a high note (and after the last book, a slug would have been a high note) - we have Petros Markaris's Zone Defence, set one hot summer in Athens when the garbage collectors are on strike and Inspector Haritos is ailing, trying to avoid his wife's hypochondriac concerns for his heart, smoking and pigging out, and chasing after the perpetrators of a gangland shooting of a restaurant owner, and pondering about an unknown corpse that may or may not be linked to said restaurateur. This is very funny book and every page is a joy; it is remarkably un-PC (Haritos says, for example, there are two things in life I hate: racism and blacks.), sledging Greece's various Balkan neighbours, but not particularly positive on Greeks either. Haritos himself has been married for years, and although he is frequently exasperated by his wife, they do love each other deeply, which is quite exceptional (and even exceptionable - which detective is happy in his personal life?); much of the novel deals with his relationships with her and their adored daughter, amidst ruminations on Greek techniques of tax-evasion, illegal immigration, low-level football leagues, politics and the exigencies of fame. It is a solid police procedural, well worth your time.


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