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

Aug 20, 2009

Crime - Seventh Month

Camomile Street Library has come up trumps, I must say, and delivered four out of six books I had requested. If the remaining two do not appear, I am allowed to request - at no extra charge - two other books. There are another five in the pipeline. This inter-library loan business is a good business. Foreign crime, here I come.

I'll start this month's round-up, however, with an old favourite: Boris Akunin's latest in the Erast Fandorin series. The Coronation (Erast Fandorin 7) is Akunin's attempt at the high-society detective (recall that he writes each novel according to some stereotype of the genre), and in this novel, Erast Fandorin is as high-society as high-society can be - beloved of a Russian princess and investigating the kidnapping of a cousin of the newly crowned Czar. Nicholas II is a weak man and needs his coronation to complete without a hitch, but the kidnappers promise to deliver pieces of the little boy if their demands are not acceded to, and the Czar finds himself torn between regal duty (the Imperial diamonds absolutely should be present during the ceremony) and love for family. The story is related by a family retainer, a butler, and the story is deeply reminiscent of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, wherein loyalty to the family is the man's creed, and he is willing to sacrifice everything at the altar of duty, including his happiness and the happiness of the princes and princesses he has taken care of since their childhood. This is a reflective novel, elegiac in tone - Nicholas II is, after all, the last of the Czars, although nobody knew this at the time he acceded to the throne. It is quite different from the humorous and over-the-top and bombastic tone of the earlier episodes in Fandorin's career; it is clear that a coldness has entered Russia's heart, and Fandorin feels it, and even if he saves the Romanovs, it is at terrible cost and ends in tragedy for everyone concerned.

From the philosophy of loyalty to the philosophy of detection, it is no great leap in the hands of the Argentinian author Pablo de Santis. His account of the development of the twelve Master Detectives followed by a brutal series of murders in the run-up to the inauguration of Paris's World Fair, you know, the one that unveiled the Eiffel Tower, is ponderous and pondering. The Paris Enigma describes a secret club comprising the top detectives of the world and their faithful assistants, and reports their petty machinations for power and influence, and discusses the classification and analysis of crime. The structure of the detectives' club ostensibly mirrors society at large: the detectives are supposedly men of high social status, while the assistants are commoners; women are excluded; but it also analyses the possibility of upward mobility and reveals that a detective is only as good as his assistant. The novel reads somewhat jerkily as it attempts to intersperse a criminal investigation with a larger rumination on the art of detection; the two halves of this narrative would be fairly trite individually, but together form a sort of clumsy completeness. I was somewhat bemused at the end, having neither liked it much nor disliked it.

Didier Daeninckx wrote Murder In Memoriam (Five Star Paperback) in 1984 and caused a sensation in France. The French have a long history of self-analysis, even if little concrete comes out of it. The collaboration with the Nazis is something that was hidden in bureaucratic archives soon after the Liberation; the brutal suppression of the Algerian independence movement is another blot on their history. The French like to claim that once someone is French, their origins are irrelevant - a fine theory but much remiss in practice. So when crowds of Algerians decided to demonstrate in 1961 against French policy in North Africa, the police clubbed them to death in their hundreds; the ensuing news embargo ensured that the population at large remained ignorant of the truth, and continued to believe that the protestors had been violent (what else to expect from those uncivilised Beurs?). A French teacher on his way home is shot during the demonstrations; twenty years later, his son meets a similar death. Inspector Cadin, an iconoclast if ever there was one, pursues the investigation with single-mindedness, and uncovers dirt on monumental scale suppressed by the powers-that-be. Because it is France, justice can often be denied in favour of power. But Daeninckx is as left-wing an author as they come, and makes no apologies for his revulsion for this kind of national anomie; small wonder that his revelation of the terrible truths of 1961 and earlier created so much angst and outrage among his countrymen. This is a book well worth a read.

Yet another North African connection is revealed in Amara Lakhous's sparkling little book about a murder in a multicultural building in Rome, Clash of Civilisations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio. Lakhous is of Algerian origin but writes in Italian, and this book was quite a success in that sunny country. It comprises interview accounts by the residents of that building on the Piazza Vittorio; each interviewee reveals further information about the motivations and passions of their predecessor. And what a motley bunch of characters! The vicious thug Gladiator is the murder victim, but not before he has terrorised women in the building; there is a Milanese professor filled with revulsion at the uselessness of the southern Italian (mirroring, in fact, a desire among many northern Italians to secede from the unemployable social leeches of the south) and disdain for the immigrant; the Bangladeshi and the Iranian, each of whom has fled some terror in his past and finds some measure of acceptance in Rome; the Neapolitan concierge who resents the foreigners and hates the Milanese; and there is the elevator itself, which crystallises the residents' loathing for each other. But Amedeo, the man suspected by the police of the murder, is uniformly respected and liked by the residents; his identity comes as a surprise and eye-opener to the bigots and the welcoming alike. Lakhous is not polemical at all in this novella; rather, he likes send up stereotypes; above all, he recognises that in Rome, a foreigner is as welcome as any Italian, despite the hostility and the boorishness shown both by the native and the immigrant.

Next up, Emilio Calderon's The Creator's Map, which is set in the emigre Spanish community in 1930s Italy. Although Spain is riven with sectarian strife, the snooty expatriates are all Nationalists, and would like nothing better to ally themselves both with Mussolini's Fascists, and the nascent Nazis who are going from strength to strength. This is a somewhat laboured spy novel with all the simplifications and generalisations attendant upon a conspiracy to take over the world. Calderon, however, seems to be pitching it as a sort of Indiana Jones caper, with frequent references to the Nazi desire to snatch antiques of power, such as the chalice of Jesus and the Ark of the Covenant and sundry other relics from the Christian past. The main narration follows an architect who rises in the Fascist and Nazi hierarchies under the aegis of an influential and immensely wealthy prince; both these men are in love with a (obviously) beautiful and vivacious girl. There is a motley collection of men named Smith who recruit the architect and his girl to spy upon the prince and the Church; meanwhile, the spies are being spied upon by the counter-intelligence of the Nazis and the Vatican; the plot is somewhat tenuous and the book is ultimately quite plodding. At the end comes the rather facile conclusion that nothing is as it seems, and people fighting on the opposing side may just as likely be on yours. The blurb calls it 'part love story, part espionage novel and part mystery'. It fails at all three.

Rolo Diez, though, is a wonderful find. In his Tequila Blue, we see his sympatico character, Carlito Hernandez, a cop who is honest by his lights, but sees nothing wrong in dealing in arms, running a protection racket, or maintaining two households (a wife and kids in one, a mistress and kids in another). He is that non-pareil, the Mexican macho man, capable of deep love (his kids adore him) and incredible selfishness (he'll sleep with any woman who gives him an erection - and he is quite catholic in this department). This is as thorough a social criticism as you can find of the deep corruption in Mexico: the police barely get paid and so have to fund their pursuit of serious crime by tolerating and abetting lesser crime. The entire structure of justice is rotten, of course, with everyone on the take; women recognise their relative powerlessness in this male-dominated hierarchy, and promote their own agendas with sexual cunning. On top of it all is the overbearing presence of the mighty neighbour to the North from where arrive protected individuals seeking release for their tawdriest and most brutal passions among the impoverished and desperate Mexicans. Carlito seeks his own version of justice for the indigent and the brutalised, and braves gang wars and politicos and large quantities of alcohol in his quest. This is a darkly humorous and deeply satirical novella. Don't miss it.

To round it all off, I will mention Nii Ayikwei Parkes's Tail of the Blue Bird. This is not translated fiction, although really it could be, as it has lengths of conversation in the pidgin of Ghana with little more than context to help the reader to decipher it. But it is a lovely tale of the clash between modernity and traditional values, and somewhat mystical in its acceptance that science and technology do not always have the answer when the age-old magics are at play in the world. So what happens in the book? Well, the girlfriend of a high-level politician finds a misshapen body in a hut in a little village she is visiting, and is so horrified by it that the politician demands a thorough investigation. Nobody can tell if the body is human or animal, much less if there is even a crime to investigate, but the policemen sent in are baffled by the villagers' lack of cooperation. A newly-minted forensic investigator, a genteel and polite Ghanaian man educated in England, is forcibly coopted by the chief of police (who, obviously, has his own agenda in pursuing the case). Once in the village, his innate courtesy admits him into the village's confidence: both the great hunter and the medicine-man take him under his wing. He soon recognises that there is hidden evil in the minds of men even in this bucolic setting, and the consequences of that evil are not readily explained by his rationality and science. An endearing book.


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