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

And here I am, at long last, at the end of my year-long exploration of the world of translated crime and thriller fiction (it goes without saying (and still I say it) that I mean 'translated into English'). The reading dropped off heavily towards the end, as you can see, and I have combined two months' worth of roundups here, as I did for months 9 and 10.

There have been some remarkably good books in the list over the year, and some incredible duds, and it never ceases to amaze me that publishers bemoan the lack of saleability of translated fiction, and yet manage to publish some obvious crap. Perhaps, their reasoning goes, if it was a big hit in the pulp foreign market, it will do well in the English pulp market as well... A lesser man would have tried to conclude this series on a high, but I am afraid I'm not a lesser man and so I'll end with some abject nonsense.

My favourite Russian is back once again! Erast Fandorin's latest escapades were published in yet another excellent translation by Andrew Bromfeld in Boris Akunin's She Lover Of Death. It sounds a bit kooky to say it like that: she-lover. Russian nouns have gendered endings which don't translate smoothly into English. You could say 'The Woman Who Loved Death', I guess. Anyway, Bromfield is incredibly prolific. This is the third Akunin translation in 2009 alone, and he's worked on some science-fiction and fantasy efforts by other authors. Simultaneously, by the looks of it. Anyway.

Akunin, as those who read or have heard of his Fandorin novels know, aims to write each volume in a particular genre of crime fiction. This one deals with decadence in turn-of-the-century Moscow. A suicide club has formed and it attracts aficionados from all rungs of society. Written in the multi-person perspective familiar from previous books, here we have the story as seen by a young girl arrived in Moscow from the provinces, a newspaper journalist investigating the club, and the police. Bohemians attracted to the society are urged by its leader to write down their ruminations on death in verse, to be praised or condemned by him. The Russians pride themselves on the poetry in their souls, and so they do not necessarily take kindly to being dismissed, but so in thrall are the cultists to their leader that they accept every word of his as manna. Naturally, the world at large is not indifferent to the club, and both the police and the papers attempt to infiltrate it. Fandorin himself, incognito and persona not very grata in Moscow after the disastrous events of the Coronation, embroils himself, too. There are a couple of twists in the tale, and all once again is not as it seems. This is not as good an offering from Akunin as some of his older works, but still worth an evening by the fireside.

Next, we have Nathacha Appanah, a feted Mauritian writer, who has written Blue Bay Palace. Belonging to the long-standing Indian community in that country, she has written a little novella in French of jealousy and murder which is supported mainly by the exoticism of its locale. After all, were a writer to describe the affair of a low-caste woman with a high-caste man in India, people would merely shrug and say, 'Ho hum.' There's little new in this tale for a subcontinental reader, and possibly even for a watcher of Indian films - it's a cliche. The narrator, Maya, meets her dashing and confident lover when she is sixteen, and realises as time goes by that even as he loves her, he is too spineless to do anything about it, and will not stand up to his parents who want him to marry a suitable woman of his own class. He marries that woman but continues his affair with Maya, who, when she is not desperately missing him, is also constantly being reduced by the poverty of her circumstances and the contrast with the rich. There's no way such a tale can end well, surely? Nope. Everybody concerned is ruined. Not so much a crime novel, then; and as a social-commentary-with-romance, and no redemption at the end of it.

We can ramp right up with '54 by Wu Ming, a writing conglomerate from Bologna with a yen for history, crime, Hollywood films of the fifties, and, of course, large quantities of jazz. It is several years after the Second World War, and there are machinations galore between the Allies and the new Italian government about handing control of Trieste to the Italians. Lucky Luciano has cornered the racketeering market by being tougher than the local mafiosi, and by being (sort of) in the pay of the US Government. There are signs that Josip Tito, the main man in Yugoslavia who had once broken with Stalin, is possibly tipping his country back into the Soviet orbit with the advent of the Kruschev detente. The US and the UK are determined to keep him on their side, or at the very least neutral, and concoct a crazy scheme to inveigle him. Enter Cary Grant, an actor in decline but still widely admired, to star in a Hollywood film about Tito. Meanwhile, an Italian communist who had deserted the Italian army during the war in the Balkans and made his home in Yugoslavia, finds his position increasingly untenable as the ruling rabble abandon the ideals of Communism for a self-serving totalitarianism. His son, a high-strung dancer in Italy filled with existential angst and bonking the wife of the local Communist honcho, wants to find meaning in his life, a meaning he feels only his father can give him. The Wu Ming clan manage to weave the disparate storylines quite cleverly. They don't miss a step, their pacing is cool, the humour is dark, the gunplay is classic. An excellent bit of noir.

I have to include a Scandinavian, surely? Surely I must. There has been much coverage of the phenomenon of Nordic crime fiction in the press lately (see, most recently, Laura Miller in the Wall Street Journal), most of it very deserved. Here I present Mari Jungstedt's Unseen, her debut work, translated ably by Tiina Nunnally. Like others of her ilk, she prefers to set her crimes in the idyllic countryside rather than in the gritty capitals. Indeed, there are many complaints about the rush and buzz and noise of Stockholm, and ruminations on how people can ever live in a big city. Here, in Gotland, things are not as idyllic anymore, though: a woman is found brutally slaughtered with her dog. The detective in charge wants to keep the press at bay, but finds that they seem to be able to do his investigative job better than him. Luckily for him, he has a loving family, unlike most other investigators with their alcoholism, so he has some succour from the frustrations of his job. Soon yet another woman is murdered, and the island goes into a spin - it's high summer and the tourists are being scared off by tales of serial killers. Superior cops from Stockholm stomp in and are put in their place by our hero. There are frequently interspersed flashes into the mind of the killer (of course, there is a back story. How can there not be one? After all, serial killers all arise because they were mistreated in their childhood. Or their pet dogs were run over by a lawnmower. Or something.) In true cinematic cliche, the climax has to occur just when the last potential victim goes up to an isolated cottage all by herself. Had it not been midsummer, there would have been a blizzard, and that would have been the icing on the cliche cake. This is not the best of Scandinavian fiction on offer, I confess. But it would very worthily fall somewhere in the median.

From this point, it's all rapidly downhill. We first have the Spanishwoman Matilde Asensi's The Last Cato. What is with the modern obsession with Dante? There have already been several rather putrid works based on Dante's Inferno, and this adds to that list. It's neither a proper historical thriller nor a very good crime novel. There are elements of fantasy that are a complete let-down. There are improbable protagonists who speak particularly improbably. Either the translation is somewhat lacking or Matilde Asensi's got a tin-ear for conversation. Characters don't so much speak as perorate. There's a nun working in the Vatican archives and there's a Swiss Guard and a Coptic polyglot archaeologist, and the three of them are tasked with the investigation into a dead body found decorated with strange symbols and crosses. The Vatican high command (clearly riven by some factionalism) is scared by the rapid progress the nun makes and takes her off the case, only to reassign her when they find that precious relics and crosses (related to the prior investigation) are disappearing from various churches around the world. Some tenuous connection then derives to Dante's Purgatory, and the three are forced to start decoding instructions hidden in the book to find an earthly paradise, where, they suspect, the criminals came from. En route, the nun gets horny, abandons her faith, and shacks up with the archaeologist. The Swiss Guard remains manly and somewhat of a pointless spoke in their wheel. Other reviewers have praised this book for the fact that it's a romantic quest for paradise with emotional sophistication (my words) rather than an investigation of baddies. But even as a picaresque, I thought it was pathetic. If you read it, let me know what you think.

Yet another Spanish romp is Julia Navarro's The Brotherhood of the Holy Shroud. Just when you thought you were safe from the Knights Templar, here they return, as heroic in fiction as they have been derided in history. This is yet another silly historical-thriller-joining-the-Dan-Brown-wagon. If it's not freakin' Dante whose books provide clues to modern crimes, it's the bloody Templars and their rituals. Surely there's enough history in Europe to consider dreaming up a fresh conspiracy? Arturo Perez-Reverte did very well in the genre (see his The Flanders Panel, e.g.) but his successors are lumpen and unimaginative. This book is particularly execrable. The Shroud of Turin, widely accepted to be a medieval fraud, still commands considerable reverence among Catholics. What is its history? Well, you won't learn it from this novel. Instead, Navarro posits yet another secret organisation: based in Edessa (modern-day Urfa), the first Christian city, and trying desperately to get the shroud back. A bunch of Templars are holding them off. What! you cry. Templars? Surely they died off after Philip the Fair butchered them in the 1300s? Oh no. They continued to lead clandestine but powerful lives in Scotland from where they guided mankind's history in the ensuing centuries. The story? When a part of the Turin cathedral is set ablaze and men with no fingerprints or tongues are found lying dead in the rubble, the Arts Crime department of the Italian police is called to investigate. Among the investigators is your usual brilliant and insanely beautiful woman (who, of course, doesn't realise either her brilliance or her beauty). She is shacked up with a plodding cop in her group, much to everyone's surprise. She traces the history of the Shroud, meets sundry people who may or may not be Templars, is particularly struck by the presence and charisma of one of them, and decides that the plodding cop is not good enough for her anymore. It says much for a historical novel when the most interesting in its story is really the most inconsequential portion. Anyway. There is a conspiracy as ridiculous as you'd like, and despite the heroics of the Edessans, they are clearly bumbling idiots who can locate their noses with less facility than they can recover the Shroud. Which, when you come to think of it, is not even really the Shroud. Pullulating putrescence, this.

So! We've had Dante, the Templars, the Turin Shroud. What do we have left? How about Gaudi's lollypop of a Cathedral, the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona? Clearly there are tales within tales in that concoction! The man himself died under mysterious circumstances, but not so mysterious that a bit of spiritual conspiracy can't be adduced. And so we have The Gaudi Key by those Catalans, Esteban Martin and Andreu Carranza, where it turns out Gaudi was the master of seven knights sworn to protect some relic or the other from the depredations of Chaos, better known as the Corbel, who are determined to consign the planet into anarchy. One wonders then, why they limit themselves to what is essentially a provincial backwater. Why not London? Or Tokyo? Or even Paris? Why Barcelona? (Because that's where their readers are, silly! Makes them feel all loved and fuzzy.) At any rate, Gaudi bequeathed the secret of the relic to a little chap, who decades later is falling into senility, and bequeaths it to his granddaughter. She is no ordinary woman, of course. In her will converge spiritual continua, and she'll lead us all into a bright future where the evil ones (headed by one Asmodeus) will be obliterated. But she can't do it all by herself so she needs her Fields Medal winning boyfriend to help. (How many Fields Medallists do you know that are good-looking, incredibly fit, socially ept and brilliant fencing champions to boot? I thought so. Still, it's good to see a mathematician do something other than push his thick glasses onto his bushy eyebrows.) There's a lot of hokum in this novel, and would you believe it, the Templars make an entrance here as well. A guest appearance, but one that ties in strangely with their antics in the preceding book. I guess some of the figurative puzzles in Gaudi's architecture have been put to good use in the book, and a visitor to Barcelona armed with the book may have some fun identifying them. Scarce recompense for plowing through nearly 500 pages of drivel, though.

And that's all, folks. Finis.


Anonymous said...

Are you going to continue reading crime fiction this year? Please do! Your reviews are GREAT. And I love the mixture of subjects on your blog.

Fëanor said...

Hiya! Thanks for the kind words. I'm sort of tired after blogging 3 years on (translated) crime fiction that I read, although there are still quite a few on my unread list. I think I'll be a bit more random this year. Do visit once in a while.

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