Monday, September 26, 2016

another seriously good novel, this time from Russia: The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin

Glagoslav Publications, 2015
originally published 2012
translated by Melanie Moore
336 pp


"Irredeemable guilt, you either forgive or forget without forgiveness. But living with it is impossible." 

This book is yet another example of why I'm a huge advocate for smaller presses, who tend to put out some of the best and sadly unknown work, making for some of the most intelligent writing and through them I've been introduced to authors whose writing I would read again and again.  Let's take this book, for example, The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin.  I had never heard of either Khemlin or this particular title before Ksenia at Glagoslav got in touch (and I thank you very, very much for the books you sent) re Slavic books in translation.  I actually turned her down at first because of my majorly-sagging tbr shelves through November,  but she assured me that there are no time pressures so I agreed. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the back cover and discovered that it was shortlisted for the 2013 Russian Booker Prize.  I knew I had something special here and as it turns out, I was absolutely correct.  

What lies at the very heart of the story in The Investigator is something I never expected, remaining a mystery throughout the entire novel and I aim to keep it that way here, because any hint will wreck what lies beneath.   Set in the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, in the town of Chernigov, the story is narrated by police captain Mikhail (Misha) Ivanovich Tsupkoy, who was previously a military intelligence officer  until he was demobbed and became an police investigator.  The novel is, as he notes, his reminiscence of "a single incident from my long and extensive career," the death of one Lilia Vorobeichik in 1952.   A suspect in her murder comes to light very quickly, an actor named Roman Nikolayevich Moiseenko, who eventually confesses to the crime, and then saves himself a court trial by hanging himself in his cell.  Case closed? Well, we're only at page eight, so obviously not. As it happens, two events spark Mikhail to continue digging -- his best friend's suicide, and the interference of a certain neighbor of the dead woman who somehow manages to come up with the heretofore undiscovered murder weapon.  This woman, dressmaker Polina Lvovna (Laevskaya), turns out to be the proverbial thorn in Misha's side, sowing doubt on his integrity as an investigator to whoever might listen to her, which turns out to be troublesome for our investigator. Secrets acting as smokescreens abound in this book, making Misha's job all the more difficult as he tries to unravel them to get to truth. But as the reader moves closer and closer to the why of things, it seems that everyone involved here has something to hide and that they have their own reasons for holding their secrets and their stories close. 

Now, when a novel starts out with a murder, it's easy to understand why it might be labeled as crime fiction, but The Investigator turns out to move well beyond the standard crime tropes to become a serious piece of historical fiction taking the reader beyond the novel's present into its past and back again.   It can come across as murky or even a bit silly at times, as Tsupkoy travels hither and thither between Ukrainian towns interacting with a complex set of characters over and over again; however, among other things, what seems to come out of this (for me, anyway), is that the people who live here are very much connected to their past histories, to each other, and most especially to the very troubled history of this area, and that it is impossible to separate any one of these elements from the other.  I won't say why, but this point becomes very, very clear by the end of the book.  There is a LOT of ambiguity here to be examined, and the stories that are eventually revealed are beyond satisfying as far as my own interest as to what drives people to do the things they do.  I'll also say that there are some very big surprises to be had that I wasn't at all expecting.  Sorry to be so vague, but I don't want to give away a single thing. 

Looking at it solely from the perspective of a crime fiction reader, the story of the investigation itself  is a good one and as noted earlier, the surprising solution is kept at bay until close to the ending, as is the secret that underpins everything.   At the same time, also noted earlier, this book goes well beyond the realm of a simple crime novel, and becomes a lovely yet disturbing piece of historical writing done very, very well. If The Investigator is an example of what Glagoslav has to offer, they will be seeing their books talked about here a lot.  Highly, highly recommended for serious readers who are always looking for something new and different.  Frankly,  I've read some seriously excellent books this year, and this one just got added to that list.  

Thanks again, Ksenia. I loved it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book!!! His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband, 2015
280 pp


There is no doubt that when I go back to look over what I've read this year (hence this reading journal),  this book will probably be at the top of my favorite books of all categories for 2016.   I loved this book. Hear me? I said LOVED. I don't often express my LOVE for a book in all caps, but this one just blew me away.  His Bloody Project was nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize, and made it through to the shortlist, so evidently the judges thought it was great too.  It was so good, in fact,  that although I'd decided to read the entire longlist this year, after finishing this one I knew I'd found my winner.  How the official  judging plays out may be a completely different story, but this would be my hands-down choice for sure, so no point in reading further down the list for me. 

The time is 1869, and a young (17) Roddy Macrae of the small remote village of Culduie, Scotland has just killed three members of one family.   His family and the other villagers are crofters, ekeing out a harsh, miserable existence, and are always at the mercy of their benefactor "the factor," and his representative in the village, the Constable. Roddy confesses right away, and there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he is guilty.  But the major question in this novel is "why?" and the story surrounding the murders  is revealed slowly via different sources in this book: Roddy's memoir, written "at the behest of  [his] advocate," witness statements, police statements, psychological assessments, and other voices that join in to tell the story.  However, there's a big catch: from page one on, it becomes very clear that truth and perception are in the eyes of the beholders, and that both may just be slippery and elusive.  

I'm really not going to say more than that little bit about the plot, because really, it's a book that should absolutely be experienced on one's own.  It's a stunningly superb novel, and aside from offering readers the challenge of  trying to piece together what may have actually happened and why,   the author has done an excellent job here in bringing us into life  in the small, rather claustrophic village of Culduie, mid 19-th century.   I'll just note that aside from the mystery of the why, the social, political, religious and class explorations in this novel elevate it to something well beyond anything else I've read this year.  

Reading this novel at a slower pace pays dividends, and it is definitely a book to be savored.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I will say that anyone thinking about it would be wise to avoid any reviews or reader posts that give away much more than what's on the back-cover blurb or what I've said here.   I'll also say that it is a story that demands active reader participation --  it's a thinking person's novel that really demands close attention, but also one that highly satisfies in the end.  Sheesh! It seriously just does not get better than this!!!!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Off to Italy this time with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as I giovedi della signora giulia, 1970
translated by Jill Foulston
122 pp


Set in 1955, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is one of the most truly baffling mysteries I've read in quite some time.  By the time I finished this book, I was totally perplexed.  And trust me -- after having read thousands of mystery novels in my time,  "baffling" is not a term I throw about willy nilly, but I'm certainly not going to spill my guts as to why I found it so.  

 Commissario Corrado Sciancalepre returns from a conference with the Chief Constable in the "small town of M_____" in Northern Lombardy and gets a big surprise.  Waiting in his office is Esengrini, the area's "most agile and authoritative criminal lawyer" who is there with an "incredibly serious matter," which, as he puts it, will likely turn his entire life "upside down."  It seems that his wife, the titular "Signora Giulia," has left home, and Esengrini needs Sciancalepre's help in trying to find her.  La Signora was supposed to have caught a train that day for Milan, which she does every Thursday, to see their daughter Emilia at her boarding school, to make the rounds of various places in the city, and to do things for her friends while she's there, catching the two p.m. train and coming home by 7:30 in the evening.  On this particular Thursday though,  it seems that Signora Giulia never caught the train.  When Sciancalepre returns with Esengrini to his home, he discovers that perhaps she'd been planning to stay longer than her usual few hours this time -- her bedroom is "a complete mess," a lot of clothing has gone with her and so has her jewelry.  Her husband had also heard her "moving around continually, opening drawers, shifting chairs" the night before, and according to him, she was "agitated."  But wait. It's here that the first of a number of secrets pervading this novel comes tumbling out, as Esengrini confesses to the Commissario that he'd known for some time she'd been seeing other men on those Thursdays, using the visits to her daughter as a cover.  He'd even had her followed four months earlier because Giulia, 38, had started turning cold toward her 60 year-old spouse in the last year, and Esengrini had wanted to know why.  Sciancalepre offers to try to find her, but this is 1955, and he needs Esengrini to bring a charge against her so he can do so.  Esengrini decides it's going to be a case of "abandoning the marital home," which is enough for our Commissario to begin his search.  But this is definitely NOT going to be an easy or simple case of finding a runaway wife, and Sciancalepre doesn't realize at the time that this case is will be years in the solving, and even then ....

Despite some minor lulls here and there in the telling, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is beyond compelling and it's certainly one of the most unconventional crime stories I've ever read. It is a true whodunit in every sense of the term, with a big, no make that huge,  twist I never saw coming.  When I finished it, the first words coming out of my mouth were "that's just brilliant," and if anyone reading this post decides to read it, you'll see why.  I pondered over that ending for some time and when a book makes me do that, well, I call it a good one.

Very much recommended, especially for readers of older crime novels, for readers of international crime, and for readers of crime fiction who enjoy something completely different.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

another winner from Pushkin Vertigo: I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Ich war Jack Mortimer, 1933
translated by Ignat Avsey
186 pp


"This man had messed up everything with his death." 

Ferdinand Sponer is a taxi driver in Vienna, "about thirty," whose only mistake was to pick up the wrong passenger.  Waiting in the taxi rank at the Westbahnhof, his turn comes up, and his passenger directs him to the Hotel Bristol.  After some time, he realizes that there are two Hotel Bristols, so he opens up the partition between front and back seat, and asks his passenger which one.  Receiving no answer, he asks again, and is met only with silence.  Sponer turns on the light inside the cab, looks at the man in the back seat, and realizes that "the man was dead." To his further surprise, since he hadn't heard anything at all, he discovers that the guy had been shot right there in his seat.  Sponer tries to tell the police, but panics -- after reporting a fake accident and unable to think straight,  he goes through what I can only describe as a serious lack of judgment, and then makes a fateful decision that will make his life a living hell over the course of the next couple of days.  Believing that if his passenger fails to show up at the hotel that the game would be up and he would be blamed, he decides Jack Mortimer will keep his reservation at the Hotel Bristol, just for one night.  Afterwards, Sponer figures, he can get on with his old life without anyone ever finding out what had happened. But, as we all know, the best laid plans and all that ...

I've seen this labeled as a thriller, and I suppose there are a number of thriller-type elements, but I got more of a noir sort of flavor from it -- the hapless Joe who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, looking for a way out of his predicament only to discover that he just may be trapped by his own choices.  The suspense picks up once Sponer decides that he will become Jack Mortimer, and as we discover exactly who Jack Mortimer actually was,  all manner of things happen that send Ferdinand's life spiraling out of control.  But, as we're told,
"One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end,"
and with our poor taxi driver, that just might be the case as he finds himself smack in the middle of a collision course between the past and the present.

from Quixotando
I watched the film (1935, German with English subtitles) this morning, and while not as suspenseful as the book, the movie itself is pretty good.  It starts pretty slowly, introducing the main players, and instead of letting the tension build in discovering the past history of Jack Mortimer we get that whole shebang near the beginning. It takes the actual discovery of the dead man in the back seat of the taxi to get things rolling, but from then on, it's one of those movies where you don't want to miss a second.  A few noticeably surreal scenes at times make it stand out, as does the main character spiraling into panic mode when he realizes that absolutely no one is going to believe that he has nothing to do with his passenger's death.

Both book and movie are definite yesses.  Alongside the main story in the novel, by virtue of Sponer's job as taxi driver, we are privy to the sights, sounds and smells of interwar Vienna as he travels through the city; class distinctions are also nicely detailed here.  As a character study, it also works quite nicely -- again, my focus in reading is on people, looking for what drives them to do what they do, and I was not at all disappointed.  Evidently, though, my high opinion of this novel isn't shared by a lot of readers, who in general give it an average overall rating mainly because of the plot.  Well, this book is a prime example of what you miss when plot and "story arc" are the only things you care about.  Trust me, there's nothing average about this book at all -- it's another fine example of an old book that has been largely forgotten, and thanks to Pushkin Vertigo, it's now widely available.  Once again I'll say that I do understand that crime from 1930s may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I seem to be encountering a lot of these old novels that are really, really good and which definitely ought to be part of every serious crime fiction reader's repertoire.

Recommended to all crime readers, but most especially to readers who love these old books as much as I do.

Monday, August 15, 2016

New! The Hanged Man: A Mystery in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, by Gary Inbinder

Pegasus Crime, 2016
235 pp

arc - my thanks to Katie at Pegasus and to the author

This one I liked. It moves along quickly, has an interesting plot where time is of the essence before something catastrophic happens, and it's historical crime fiction done very nicely.

The Hanged Man is the second installment in Gary Inbinder's historical crime series that began with The Devil in Montmartre, which introduced  Inspector Achille Lefebvre as the main character and a supporting cast that continues on into this book.   Here, our erstwhile detective discovers that what should be a straightforward investigation into a murder is anything but, and that he is going to need all the help he can muster.  And as Lefebvre gets closer to the answers to his questions, he realizes that time is of the essence in order to foil a sinister plot that could have serious repercussions that reach well beyond the city.  It's mystery with an edge of espionage and terrorism, all playing out on the streets of Paris that Lefebvre has sworn to protect.  While much lighter than what I normally read, there's still a lot of suspense and some good detective work going on here.

I am a major fan of historical crime fiction when it's done right (and trust me on this one, not all of it is),  and all of the research that the author has done comes through in a big way.  Lefebvre's  desire to move crime-solving techniques forward is one area of interest, but Inbinder's understanding of how things work historically is what makes this book more than just a standard crime novel.   He really gets that things don't just happen out of nowhere, and he's done a great job of linking a troubled past with the contemporary present (1890) here.  There are anarchists (split between "evolutionary" and "revolutionary")  and Russian émigrés who find themselves under covert or otherwise surveillance;  there are also people with "painful memories" of  the short-lived Paris Commune and the resulting Bloody Week of 1871,  "an old wound that had never completely healed." The author slides this background in without it being over lengthy in terms of exposition -- it fits nicely and naturally into the narrative.   And then there's the cultural side of Paris at this time which is also done well -- everyone knows about the can-can, the Moulin Rouge, the artists etc., but then there's also the darker and more decadent side -- as just one example,  the Cabaret de L'Enfer where absinthe is the drink of choice and doormen dress as Mephistopheles.

Cabernet de L'enfer, from Cool Stuff in Paris

As a matter of personal preference, when I'm reading crime I'm much more into an investigation or a case than I am in the more domestic aspects an author provides in fleshing out his/her character. Here, the same is true --  at one spot there was a block of five pages of conversation between Madame Lefebvre and her mother, which sort of threw me a bit off balance and kind of took me away mentally from the suspense going on up to that moment.  That whole scene,  I think,  might have been shortened a bit, but as I said, it's a me thing.

Aside from that one issue,  The Hanged Man is a good read that will most certainly appeal to historical crime fiction readers, historical fiction readers in general, and readers who are looking for a new crime series.   I'd advise starting with The Devil in Montmartre  before grabbing a copy of this one, just for continuity's sake.  The two together will make for some fun hours of reading, and when book number three comes out, I'll be there. Considering that I rarely read series novels any more, that's saying something.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

and another badass mommy hits the streets. Sigh. Woman of the Dead, by Bernhard Aichner

Scribner, 2015
279 pp


 The main character of this novel is truly one of a kind -- a young woman, happily married to a cop with two little daughters, who has a unique occupation: she's an undertaker, running the family business after the death of her parents some eight years prior to when this story begins.  But the fact that she's comfortable around dead people isn't what makes her stand out.

Blum is married to the love of her life, Mark and all is perfect in her world until one day her husband is killed in a hit-and-run accident. When she's finally able to start to pull herself together, she takes on the task of cleaning out Mark's stuff.  It's then that she runs across a series of conversations between Mark and a woman -- all professional, no hanky-panky -- but Blum's curiosity gets the better of her and she listens.  As the conversations get darker and more serious, she is convinced that the investigation  Mark was running had a major connection to his death.  She does what any normal person would do and runs to the police with her information, speaking with Mark's friend and trusted colleague, who assures her that the woman in the recordings is nothing but a liar. In short, he says there was nothing to any of this, and she should forget about it and go on with her life.  But Blum isn't convinced -- there's something about this mystery woman that catches her attention, and, of course, if this all has something to do with Mark's death, she wants to know. Eventually, she begins to realize that Mark was into something really ugly and really deep, and that his death was more likely a murder to keep him from getting too close to the truth.   So she decides to look into things herself, and ends up setting herself on a course of revenge.

When it comes down to it, this story has all of the elements of a typical badass heroine thriller, with a dark, actually psychotic twist involving her past that helps her do what she does once she has revenge in mind. But I do have to say that this book didn't set my heart racing as I think it was intended to do.    First of all, I figured out the BIG reveal quite early on so finishing this novel became a game of waiting to prove myself right.  Let's just say that guessing the who and the why has happened to me before, but when it happens so very early in the story, it actually wrecks things for me beyond repair.  And absolutely nothing after that point in this book made me question myself whatsoever.  Way too easy --  I think when someone is writing a crime novel, considering that his or her audience is probably full of seasoned crime-reading veterans, there should be the added bonus of an actual mystery going on.  Second, there is so much violence here that for me, at least, it was not at all a pleasure to read.  But those are minor issues compared to my third, which is that everything happens and falls into place so unrealistically easily that there was no challenge whatsoever in the reading.  I mean, seriously -- if you're going to write a thriller, shouldn't it be thrilling? Whoever wrote the dustjacket blurb saying this book is "Vivid, tense, and written with breakneck narration" probably needs to go back and read it again -- I didn't see any of this in here.

I feel absolutely awful when I don't like a book that I know someone has put so much effort into but I can't help it in this case.  On the other hand, a huge number of readers gave this book high marks and enthusiastic praise, so anyone considering this book should probably decide about it on his or her own. As for me, I'm just so done with badass mommies in a big way.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Monster's Daughter, by Michelle Pretorius

Melville House, 2016
455 pp

hardcover/arc (read earlier this month)

To put this very bluntly, and without naming names,  I've been a bit disappointed with the so-called summer blockbusters that have come out this year from the big publishing houses.  I've been waiting for someone to get beyond same-old, same-old, and well, here it is. I can honestly say that The Monster's Daughter is an original.  It begins in a normal enough way for a crime novel, with the discovery of a dead body, but trust me, there is nothing at all normal about this book. And that's a good thing.

 There are three different things going on here: first, one of the two main narrative threads has its roots in science/speculative fiction; second, the other thread follows a police investigation into murder, and third, when the two come together, the book serves as a vehicle for exploring a century of South Africa's troubled past and its repercussions in the present.  It's this third aspect, I think, that made this book so incredibly interesting to me -- what a great way to take on such a difficult topic.  So what you get in The Monster's Daughter is a sort of hybrid mix of sci-fi, crime and history, and if that's not original, I don't know what is.

As I said earlier, the novel begins with the discovery of a dead body in the small South African town of Unie. It's December, 2010, and the victim has been burned beyond recognition, so it's going to be a tough job just trying to figure out who the victim is. Plus, the method of death is one that the detectives haven't seen in this area, so it's definitely unusual and seems to be some sort of smokescreen, creating a puzzle for the detectives to solve.  As we're meeting the main characters from the present, the story then goes back in time to 1901, when the British were trying to get rid of the remaining Boers and were sending families to concentration camps. At one of these camps some bizarre experiments are taking place  (and here's where the sci-fi edge comes in); eventually all of this comes to an end, but a bit too late and at a terrible cost. This movement from present to past continues throughout the book until, of course, the two storylines merge.

As the crime story moves forward, Alet Berg, who is working on the crime, begins to uncover some pretty disturbing things that may not only jeopardize  her already faltering career, but may also have some bearing on her personal life.  She also discovers that the death of this victim may be one more in a long-running series of murders where the killer has never been caught.  As time moves forward from 1901, we get a serious look at South Africa's violent apartheid history through the story of Tessa, who finds herself constantly having to change identities and homes to ensure her own survival.

So -- I have to admit that when I first came across the parts about the experiments at the concentration camp, I did a major eyeroll since this is so normally not my thing,  but as things turned out, I just decided to suspend any disbelief, relax, and roll with it and The Monster's Daughter turned out to be pretty darned good.  I will say that it tends to get a bit boggy because there are so many things going on here -- for example, the author throws in some conspiratorial subplots that while important and germane to both present, past, and the novel's title,  received (imo) way too much attention and time when all I really wanted to do was to get back to Tessa, South African history,  and to the murder investigation. Then again, I'm not a big conspiracy fiction person, so that may just be a matter of personal taste. However, as I am so fond of saying, less is more, and this one could have been pared down some without any damage. Other than that, though, as I said, this book is definitely original, and would be well suited for historical fiction and crime readers who don't mind suspending disbelief (and let's get real here -- we do that in most cases anyway),  and I'd also say for readers who are interested in the human costs of racism.  Given the direction of today's politics, it might very well be worth taking a look at the past as so well presented in this novel.

I really need to thank TLC book tours and to Melville House (one of my favorite publishers!!) for my copy of this novel.  I'm just one of several readers of this book, so clicking on the link will take you to their thoughts as well.