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

Sep 20, 2009

Crime - Eighth Month

I'm afraid this month is a little less than prodigious in my reading. You see, Camomile Street Library has six books on order for me, none of which arrived for my eighth month of reading translated crime fiction. I hope that the ninth month will prove a bit more numerous.

Anyway, we have good stuff this time. I start with the absolutely superb Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel. I mean, this is absolutely superb. It is the tale of outsiders in an isolated village, and how no matter how many decades an outsider spends in such a village, he will always be an outsider, and when push comes to shove, the outsider is the first to go. So what do we have here? Brodeck is the one educated man in this village somewhere in the Alsace region of France, in the period between the world wars. He had arrived there as a child and the villagers, recognising his academic potential, paid for his post-school education. When the German army marched into the village in 1940, the villagers denounced him as an outsider and he was dispatched into the concentration camps, where by means of sheer will and self-abnegation he survives and returns to the village, to find that his family has been raped and ruined. For some reason he continues to live in the village, and all the guilt and sins of the villagers are somehow buried into their subconscious. But of course this doesn't last long - when a colourful visitor appears in their midst and settles down amongst them and reflects the poisons in their natures back to them in a series of innocent paintings, the villagers kill him. As an educated man, it's Brodeck (who had nothing to do with it) tasked with writing up an account of events to the judicial authorities to exonerate the villagers' action. Brodeck complies but also writes up a separate account for his own sanity, and that is what the readers see. All manner of sickness dwells in the hearts of men, and no amount of goodness can keep it at bay. Eventually, the wicked and the strong tend to win. This is a powerful work.

From France to Bolivia, and we have Juan de Recacochea's Andean Express. This is not a traditional crime caper in the oeuvre of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, but owes much to that great book for its inspiration. Sometime in the 1950s, a motley bunch of people board the train bound for Chile and one of them is murdered. It's fairly clear that most people aboard the train wish the victim ill, and it's quite clear why as well - he is not a particularly nice fellow. But de Recacochea's intent is not to analyse the crime; there's no eureka moment when all becomes clear - there's nothing, really, to make clear; rather, he spins a left-wing rhetoric which is slightly offset by the viewpoint of a young, upper class high-school student, who, of course, sees events through the prism of his own wealth and status and inveterate horniness. It's funny in many ways; all in all, a slim, easy read.

Now if you pick up Andrea H. Japp's The Season of the Beast: The Agnes De Souarcy Chronicles 1 thinking that it is a self-contained work, you will be, as I was, horribly disappointed. This is historical fiction set in the 13th century with the usual suspects - papal ideology, kingly intrigues, and Templars. You can't have medieval fiction without the freakin' Templars, it looks like. All right, so Japp throws in a super-smart Hospitaller into the mix, emphasising this order over the soon-to-be destroyed militant Knights. And there's mention of some document that purports to show evidence of the New World. Very spooky. Oooh. But that's all part of a papal grand game. What concerns the author more is the goings-on in a little feudal estate run by an insanely beautiful and terribly impoverished Agnes de Souarcy, who is managing by the skin of her teeth to avoid being ravished by her pedophile brother (who also has an eye on her 11-year old daughter). There's also a cross-dressing mini-genius child who is investigating anything even remotely suspicious that happens in the Souarcy fiefdom. Nearby, in the woods, a series of monks are found brutally murdered. It becomes quite clear at about 75% of the way through the book that there is no way in hell all the various strands of the tale will be resolved, and so it proves. This is only the first part of a long chronicle! There are two sequels to this and I'm not sure I have the puff to read them to find out what happens to the benighted (and beddable) Agnes or the ultra-smart Hospitaller.

And then we have Akashic Press's latest in their Capital Crime series - Paris Noir (Akashic Noir), edited by Aurelien Masson. (Such a nice name, Aurelien, eh? When the French pronounce it, it sounds exactly like Orleans. At least to my ear. I met a chap called Aurelien once. A student at Rutgers. No, I don't think it's the same as this Masson fellow.) In many ways this is a much better collection of crime shorts than the previous one edited by Maxim Jakubowski, also called Paris Noir, which I reviewed here. Many of the stories here are really hard noir, brutal and unforgiving in their characterisation and the milieus. Indeed, the stories range into parts of Paris I'd never heard of, although some of them are set in the usual red-light areas of Pigalle. Chantal Pelletier's The Chinese Guy is disturbing, written from the point of view of a psychotic woman who likes to cook for her victims. The story by Salim Bachi called Big Brother is another one that throws quite a wallop - an erudite Arab man turns out to have hidden depths of violence in him. The one I liked for its twist at the end was Precious by DOA, all about heists and torture and deflecting the reader's attention. The book is, I've got to say, a nice-time pass.

And, finally, after this preponderance of French fiction, we put in Sebastian Fitzek's Therapy, a German thriller with misdirection following misdirection, and dealing with particularly beastly crimes. A psychiatrist collapses after his daughter is kidnapped and retires, abandoned by his wife as well, to a remote island in the North Sea to recoup and recuperate. He cannot believe that his daughter is dead, and he has hired a detective who has been keeping the case alive for the past four years. Of course, there's a storm that cuts off communications, and the psychiatrist finds himself stalked by a schizophrenic woman who claims that her characters are coming alive. One of these characters turns out to be a 12-year old girl in every way identical to the psychiatrist's daughter, and despite himself he is drawn to psychoanalyze the woman. And then the twists in the tale begin, and what twists! Nothing is as it seems. Even the story is less psychological than about psychology itself. There's entry-points into the subconscious that are later revealed to be real events, and events apparently real that are only figments of imagination. The denouement is startling and affecting in equal measure. This was a smash hit in Germany on its release in 2006, and is well worth a read.

And that's it for the Eighth Month, folks.


Anonymous said...

Hm,I'll have to see about Season of the Beast. Although I have a weakness for anything Templar/Hospitaller I may have reached saturation point. But Brodeck's Report has had loads of good reviews so may plump for that instead:)

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