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

May 26, 2009

Crime - Fourth Month

This month I'm a tad late with the round-up of non-English crime fiction consumed and I blame the weather for this. It's been remarkably good. But all good things must end, and today we have a tremendous downpour, I'm off to Luxembourg, and I'm shooting off this post.

So, where were we? Ah, yes. War crimes in Pavel Hak's Sniper was the last book in last month's survey, and we segue into governmental oppression with Imre Kertész's
Detective Story. Imre Kertész is, of course, a Nobelist. He is also an emigre Hungarian author (having been based in Berlin for decades), which is why this book strikes me as a bit of a cop-out. To explain: he sets the novel in an unnamed Latin American police state where the internal security apparatus wields its power of arrest and terror with impunity. To my mind, he is excoriating the arbitrariness of dictatorial power, and his book would make as much sense in Mexico as in Hungary - so why did he not just base it on his homeland? For some reason, he preferred to report on the action at a remove, through the confession of Martens, a man who was once an enforcer (and police spy) for the previous regime. Now that that regime has been overthrown, and its apparatchiks are in prison, Martens awaits the kind of tortured death that he indirectly laid upon innocents in his youth. In any country, especially in one that is as insecure as Martens, there will always be scapegoats for perceived or imagined political threats. Surveillance and arbitrary arrest and torture is a logical concomitant. The torture can be physical as well as psychological; Martens explains how his organisation systematically destroyed an innocent father and a son. After all, even the most innocuous cannot be ignored, for the slightest threat is a danger to an absolutist regime, and every operative can hide behind the excuse of merely following orders. Detective Story is spare prose at its best, a small book concentrated in its chilling horror.

Entirely accidentally, I also picked up another Nobel Prizewinner's book. An Austrian, Elfriede Jelinek's
Greed is supposedly her most accessible work. At least, it says on the blurb. If this is accessible, I don't know what her other novels are like. It completely defeated me. Jelinek's prose is dense, long (paragraphs extending for pages), frequently unpunctuated; it roars in places, quivers with ferocious disdain for its characters (many of whom are unnamed). Nominally, this is about a country policeman who wants to amass property and so seduces every middle-aged landowning woman in his village; there is much furious and seedy coupling and complete lack of understanding between men and women; there is a murdered girl and her mother who is often terrified by her absence and at other times relieved. I could make neither head nor tail of this novel. Perhaps it is one to be grappled with, treated as an adversary? A reviewer in the Guardian, who has no patience with people demanding easy reads, called it daredevil, risk-taking prose (What is killing the novel is people's growing dependence on feel-good fiction, fantasy and non-fiction. With this comes an inability or unwillingness to tolerate any irregularities of form, a prissy quibbling over capital letters, punctiliousness about punctuation. They act like we're still at school! Real writing is not about rules. It's about electrifying prose, it's about play.) But I made no headway. If any of you read it and understand it, please be sure to explain it all to me.

To lighten up (both emotionally and muscularly), I zipped through the very delightful
The Fairy Gunmother. Set in Belleville, a district of Paris where drug-runners and muggers and deliciously human characters all dwell, it is the second of a quartet of ironic and merry novels by Daniel Pennac. Ably translated by Ian Monk, this one deals with old women who go around murdering policemen and other old women, and has a voluptuous investigative journalist who is the beloved of a literary scapegoat (a chap who is hired to stand around looking depressed and thus deflect the fury of disgruntled authors who come to their publisher to vent and complain) with a fecund mother and many siblings, and a strangely empathetic policeman who manages to extract confessions from even the most hardened criminals, and a hearty Yugoslav who drives old ladies around historically important parts of the country, and drug-addled grandfathers who are taken in and cared for by the scapegoat's family. What a novel! It hums along at frantic pace, filled with lovely wordplay and clever mots and a joie-de-vivre. Several thumbs way, way up.

We continue to be light-hearted with Mehmet Murat Somer's tale of a transvestite detective in
The Prophet Murders. The idea of a murderer using some literary or religious concatenation to commit serial crimes is, of course, very old. It has been variously attempted in the 'Christian' world by the likes of Matthew Pearl (The Dante Club) and Arnaud Delalande (The Dante Trap), and in the 'Hindu' world by Ramesh Menon (The Hunt for K). It is now the turn of the Islamic world, and how unlikely a source for it? In any Muslim country other Turkey (or possibly Indonesia), Mehmet Murat Somer himself would not have survived long - a flamboyantly gay transvestite is not exactly the most welcome of people even in his native land. His detective appears to be very like him, a likeable no-nonsense martial-arts expert who runs a transvestite club and is a foodie and expert oenophile. The other 'girls' look up to him for support and protection, even as one by one they are killed off by some crazed maniac. The club owner, whose name escapes me now, decides to go on the hunt, and of course ends up - in true slasher stereotype - in the maws of the villain, but not before conducting a stellar tour of the gay underbelly of Istanbul and introducing us to its very witty and frothy and dark and troubled denizens.

Massimo Carlotto went on the run when falsely implicated in a crime in his native Italy, but he returned eventually to serve out his term. The miscarriage of justice that he faced colours his perception of the ruling classes in his country, and his
The Master of Knots is filled with revulsion for the entire legal and investigative establishment. Carlotto is a left-wing activist, which informs the novel considerably: the juxtaposition of a crime procedural with Communist politics might appear a bit contrived, but the main characters in this novel manage to straddle both worlds with equal facility. At any rate, this is an exploration of yet another underbelly: the extreme S&M scene, very disturbingly graphic at times. Women willing to be dominated are a rare and prized commmodity in those circles, so it is somewhat puzzling to find that one of them has been murdered; shortly thereafter, her husband and another woman he dominated also go missing. Carlotto describes the extreme precautions members of the S&M tribe take to avoid trouble with the law and suspicion with their 'normal' families; he goes into considerable detail about 'snuff' porn; he throws in an anti-globalisation demonstration in which the police viciously club protesters to pulp; amidst all this, the three protagonists stalk their prey in the shadowy underground. An uneven read, and often troubling.

Unwilling investigators are not very common in crime fiction, as far as I can tell, but Carlotto offers one example of the type. Another is Bernard Schlink, whose
Self's Deception is the story of one man's principled search for a missing girl, although he suspects (and is soon proven right) that his generous patron has reasons other than familial concerns to locate her. Gerhard Self is a one-time Nazi prosecutor; now he is a middle-aged man struggling to decide whether or not to marry his younger girlfriend. He is an introspective man of principle, very thoughtful, mordant in his analysis. Such a man spends much of his time examining his own motives (and piling on the calories with rich food wherever he goes), and when he acts, by his own estimation, irrationally, it only serves to add richness to his own complexity. Meanwhile, there's a convoluted plot involving eco-terrorists and an American military base and frequent appearances of extraneous characters that do nothing to aid the plot, but do add to an overall atmosphere. This is a slow-paced story underneath a frenetic superstructure - short chapters, lots of information - good stuff.


Space Bar said...

dunno about th ebook but love the keretz cover!

Fëanor said...

depending on the publisher, there are more or less simple covers as well. i think i saw one where there was just name and title in classical font on a beige background. (simble and besht, as our wedding photographer assured us.)

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