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

Jul 20, 2009

Crime - Sixth Month

For the princely sum of £5, I requested several books via inter-library transfer, and I am somewhat taken aback to note that one of those requests has already failed. 'The book is not available in a format suitable for library use' said the helpful response from Camomile Street Library. Somewhat puzzled, I quizzed the librarian about it. It turns out that she could only get the book in electronic (hence unsuitable) format. 'The British Library, I would have thought, would stock a print copy,' she said, in a perplexed tone.

Well, whatever. As I await the rest of the crime novels, I am able to boast of this month's reading. It has been rather good. We can begin with Koji Suzuki's short stories, titled Dark Water. Widely considered to be Japan's equivalent of Stephen King, Suzuki is better known as the author of the Ring - cult-book-turned-cult-movie. In this book, he bases his tales of horror around the Tokyo-Yokohama bay. I should hasten to add that I wasn't horrified by any of the stories, although one or two had a couple of moments of causing me anxiety. The stories are supposedly recounted by a grandmother to a young girl, but little other than the omnipresence of water links them. And of course all the protagonists are somehow flawed, troubled people - if not abusive, then paranoid, or passive-aggressive. The story I liked the best is called 'Dream Cruise', in which an aggressive salesman and his irritating wife take his classmate, a somewhat laid-back and self-satisfied fellow, on a cruise, with a view to recruiting him to their pyramidal sales scheme. Those of you who read my experiences with Amway will note that I have little patience with these evangelists. So the horrors that await the salesman and his wife when they encounter a child's shoe in the sea and their boat snags on something are music to my ears... Suzuki's interested in the people's back-stories, and he expends pages elucidating this or that aspect of their characters. The plots then begin to thin a bit, and it appears as if - story after story - he loses patience, and attempts to wrap it all up. His attempts at a twist at the end are not entirely fortuitous. I can't tell if the prose is leaden because of the translation, or if it is a particular trait of the Japanese short story. At any rate, this is not a book to savour; on the other hand, reading the stories in rapid succession results in a melded confusion. If you have better luck with it, please do tell.

Arturo Perez-Reverte is back with the latest of his Captain Alatriste swashbucklers to be translated into English, The Man In The Yellow Doublet. This is superb stuff, twirling moustaches, withering scorn, flashing swords, love across social classes, all set in the declining Spain of the 17th century. This is not literature of nuance, but it is exciting, punctuated by sparkling line and verse by the greats of the time: Quevedo, de Vega, Cervantes. The young narrator of the series, Iñigo Balboa, is growing up, as besotted as ever with the beautiful and treacherous Angelica de Alquezar, who has no qualms about loving him at the same time as plotting his and his foster-father Alatriste's demise. Alatriste is the lover of the famed actress Maria de Castro, but the King has his eye on her as well. When the monarch is felled during one tryst with the beauty, Alatriste is fingered as the jealous killer; it later turns out that it was actually the King's double who was murdered. Alatriste then has to investigate the conspiracy that has led him so close to the gallows, and this escapade involves swords and daggers, whispers in the night, and the deaths of old friends. The Spain of Philip IV is a cauldron of competing interests, and mercenaries like Alatriste are mere pawns in a greater game, but true to the genre, the pawns end up saving the day.

Håkan Nesser is this month's obligatory Scandinavian, and I am pleased to say that in his acerbic and sardonic detective Van Veeteren, we have a wonderful winner. As police procedurals go, The Mind's Eye is representative of the genre; what raises this above the usual is the meta-text provided by the author - knowing asides and darkly humorous commentary that enliven the pages. Often, the chapters start with pronouns, requiring some amount of concentration from the reader to decide exactly who is being talked about; unlike other reviewers who found this confusing, I thought it refreshing, serving to keep the story going as well as keeping me alert. Van Veeteren is the classic noir footpad with a troubled marriage and a jailbird son, and has the usual likes (jazz and classical music) one expects from such a detective. He investigates the case of a husband wakes up one day to find his memory gone and his beautiful wife slaughtered. A sparkling set piece in a court enumerates the facts of the case. The husband is consigned to a mental institution where his memory returns, and for no reason I can discern, he sends a message to the killer. Shortly thereafter he is killed as well. The police procedural then takes over and the investigation proceeds meticulously. It is fairly obvious who the murderer is, even if it's not clear for a while what triggered the murderous spree; it is also disappointing that Nesser needs that old trope of Scandinavian fiction, namely abusive parents, to give credence to the tale. Still, this is one of the better crime novels I've read, and I heartily recommend it.

Talking about Scandinavian fiction, and why a supposedly idyllic and peaceful land has been gutted by bloodthirsty explorations of its underbelly, this article from Salon tries to figure it all out.

A few years ago, I read the mathematics-tinged The Oxford Murders by the Argentinian writer Guillermo Martinez, and found that somewhat irritating in its insistence of mysticism around logic and set theory. The writer now comes up with an even more fantastic tale in The Book of Murder, in which, it appears, characters are killed by a mad author and nobody is able to establish that fact. The narrator is approached by a distraught Luciana, a secretary who had briefly worked with him a decade earlier, who accuses the far more famous novelist Kloster of systematically killing off her family in revenge for her own actions that (in Kloster's mind) resulted in his abandonment by his wife and in the death of his daughter. Luciana used to be a beauty but now she is deformed by her paranoia and anguish, and the narrator - a somewhat less successful author himself - finds it difficult to believe her. Still, some vestiges of loyalty to her lead him to accost Kloster who dismisses him brusquely. Inflamed, the narrator decides to put down Luciana's story in the form a novel and threatens Kloster with its publication unless he agrees to reveal his involvement. At this point, Martinez appears to lose the plot and introduces a peculiar agent who is supposed to have committed gross crimes in the town. Suddenly, the book we are reading and the book the narrator is writing become aspects of a single unifying theme; exactly what that theme is I am unable to determine, and just like so many books with interesting premises, this one also meanders into opaqueness and stultification. Read it if you must.

In the past six months of translated criminal roundups, the dominant writers have been Nordics or Italians or French. There are one or two Spaniards, too, in the mix, and Javier Cercas can be added to the lot. His The Speed of Light is not really a crime novel; instead, it is a rumination on the effects of war and war-crimes on a thoughtful intellectual. Its foundation is a horrific assault on women and children in a Vietnamese village by American special forces during the US campaign in Indo-China. The narrator is a Spaniard visiting as a research fellow at Urbana-Champaign, a young man who still has supreme confidence of his own literary ability, which is simultaneously undermined and energised by his encounter and subsequent friendship with a veteran of that same massacre (as he later finds out). Much of the book deals with literary criticism and the shadow of experience on writing; it also details in tawdry detail the fall from grace that inevitably follows success; the nature of friendship is examined in subtle detail. This is a densely written book with much superfluous detail and cascading clauses, and it careens from philosophy to conspiracy theory and back in staccato bursts. But the denouement once again disappoints - it is stereotyped and weak - involving deaths of loved ones as metaphor, and the ensuing search for redemption.

Emil is the much-loved hero of Erich Kästner's series of books for children set in the 1920 and 1930s, and in Emil and the Detectives (Red Fox Classics) we encounter the little fellow going to Berlin to meet his grandmother and cousin. En route, he falls asleep and awakes to find that one of his companions in the train has stolen his money. Naturally, he won't have any of this, but recognising that it was unlikely that any policeman would take his word against that of an adult (and recalling with embarrassment and fear that the police might indeed arrest him for painting a moustache on the statue of a famous man in his village), he decides to follow the thief himself. He then encounters an entire cohort of kids who offer to help him out, and with true Prussian sang-froid, run the thief down. Everything ends well. As far as sophistication goes, I dare say a five-year old might find this entertaining - there's far too much of the smug and upright here to interest any hot-blooded child older than that. Contrasted with the naughtiness and scrapes of William, Emil is a pale imitation. He insists that he will fight anyone who thinks he is a mummy's boy just because he is protective of his mother and far too responsible for his age, but this is too mild a protest to convince anyone. There are a couple of other jaunty boys who are superficially more appealing, and might have made far better heroes. Oh well. When I checked out the book, the librarian sighed 'I loved this one', and frankly I'm baffled why. If this is the sort of book that has been thrust upon generations of British boys by a feminised teaching community, I'm not surprised that they have been permanently turned off reading.

In desperation, I'm forced to return to authors I've read before, and few are better than Fred Vargas, archaeologist-historian-turned-crime-novelist-of-class. Several of her later books featuring the ethereal detective Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg have been translated into English, and recently, the very first one in the series was rendered into English as well. (There was a cri-de-coeur recently about this phenomenon of out-of-order release of translations, and I find it quite irritating that I am unable to follow the development of a character from start to finish just because publishers can't be bothered to publish chronologically. This is especially egregious when the full series is already available in the original language, and still they are translated at random.) The Chalk Circle Man introduces the provincial detective-turned-Parisian-commissioner who can sense evil in people and prefers to doodle instead of following up on clues and interrogating suspects. His evident success (summed up by one of his rivals as ''You sit around daydreaming, staring at the wall, or doodling on a bit of paper as if you had all the time and knowledge in the world, and then one day you swan in, cool as a cucumber, and say "Arrest the priest. He strangled the child to stop him talking."') has attracted various curious individuals, each more peculiar than the other, and all of them in some circumstantial way involved in the latest puzzle that is attracting his attention. All of Paris is agog by a street artist who goes about drawing perfect chalk circles on pavements in various arrondissements, enclosing some object or the other within them - a hat, a mouse, a lighter. Is this the latest break-out art? Adamsberg senses cruelty, however, and keeps alert to any developments, and is proved right when a murdered woman is found one day within one such circle. The investigation then splits into competing hypotheses - is the chalk-circle man responsible for the death? Or is someone following him around to piggy-back off those circles and implicate him? This is a detective novel with a surreal premise: unlike Poirot who uses strict logic, or Van Veeteren, who is a meticulous footpad, Adamsberg arrives at his conclusions mystically, and expects his deputy Danglard to fill in the gaps. Good fun, though.

Finally, if we have one Scandinavian, then we should have another, and Helene Tursten fills the gap with her Glass Devil, The (Inspector Irene Huss Investigation), as poor an example of the genre as we can imagine. This is a very poor effort, I'm saddened to say, especially because in Inspector Irene Huss is an interesting protagonist - a loving wife and mother and workaholic. A teacher is found brutally slain, and when the police go over to his parents' place to break the news, they find that the couple have been murdered as well. There are signs of Satanism (inverted pentagrams and all), and evidence of computer geekery - the hard-drives of the machines have been found completely wiped. It turns out that the surviving member of the family is a daughter (a computer geek) based in London, who has been so stunned by the deaths of her kin that she suffers a mental collapse. Huss is forced to travel to London to interrogate the woman, and there's an entirely pointless addition of a travelogue about the places she has time to visit and H&M shopping she is able to accomplish while she awaits the woman's pleasure. Even more egregious is the several pages describing a gruesome attack on Huss by drug-addled rapists that she is able to repel owing to her Olympic-level jiu-jitsu. What was the point of this? What are the chances that a chance visitor in London will suffer such an attack? Negligible, I'd have thought. The attack does nothing to advance the plot, adds little to Huss's character development, and serves no earthly purpose I could discern. But what really got my goat were the footnotes that dotted the book at various places. The publisher evidently is targeting an American audience, for whenever the text used metric measurements, a footnote would translate into imperial measures. Now consider - how many readers of translated fiction would be unaware of the metric system? It's just a puerile insult to one's intelligence. And, I'm sad to say, the book is no better, falling back on that old standby of Scandinavian child abuse. Evidently there are no other social problems worth addressing in that idyllic land.


Space Bar said...

all exciting stuff!

Fëanor said...

i'm beginning to lose the plot a bit. overdosed, i think!

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