Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

St. Martin's, Minotaur
Publication date: 02/2011
original Japanese title: Yogisha X No Kenshin (容疑者 X の献身)
(Buneishunju Ltd., 2005)
Translated by Alexander O. Smith
 with Elye J. Alexander

First things first: my thanks to Librarything and its Early Reviewers program (and to Minotaur books) for the advanced reader's copy of this novel.  File this one under pre-order, because it's not scheduled to be released until February, 2011. 

To keep myself current in Japanese (and Chinese too), I often watch foreign movies with no subtitles, and I had recently added the movie Yogisha X no kenshin (English title: Suspect X) to my Netflix queue.  So when LT offered this on its list of ER books, I jumped on adding my name to the please, please list so I could read it before watching the film. This book was the recipient of Japan's Naoki Prize for best novel in 2006, and there is also a Japanese TV series called "Detective Galileo" based on Higashino's books. Higashino is also the author of another book on my shelf -- Naoko -- which I haven't yet read but it's probably going to move closer to the top of the TBR pile once I get home.

There's no mystery in this story really -- if you read the blurb on the back, the story is given to you: a single mother (Yasuko Hanaoka) of a teenage girl gets a visit from her ne'er do well ex-husband (Shinji Togashi).  She's been trying to avoid Togashi since the divorce, but he eventually catches up to her at her apartment. Trouble ensues, and Yasuko strangles him.  After some hand-wringing moments of wondering what she's going to do now and how her daughter will fare if she goes to prison, Yasuko's problem is solved when her next-door neighbor Ishigami comes to the rescue. Having heard the commotion through the shared thin walls of the apartment, Ishigami (who has admired Yasuko from afar, stopping in daily at the bentei shop where she works), comes up with a plan -- he will help her get rid of the body, and to protect the object of his affection, he comes up with the perfect alibi for her.  Every possible avenue of police questioning is planned out -- but what Ishigami hasn't counted on is his old university friend Yukawa (nicknamed Detective Galileo by his cop friend), physicist, fellow genius and more importantly, a sometimes-consultant for his detective friend currently working on the case. What follows is a rather challenging and often suspenseful game of cat and mouse that lasts right up until the end -- with a couple of nifty plot twists thrown into the mix to keep the reader guessing.

The characters in this novel are interesting, to say the least, especially Ishigami.  He is somewhat of a loner; a gifted mathematician who is wasted in the classroom teaching teenagers who don't care and who don't understand why they should learn math.  He is a genius who would rather spend his time solving complex mathematical problems or working out extensive mathematical proofs, unconcerned with gaining recognition for his efforts.  One of the most interesting parts of this story revolves around his rather odd devotion to Yasuko, whom he met by chance at a point where he felt that there was "no particular meaning to his life."  I spent the entire novel wondering just what it was that made this man do what he did -- waiting up until the very end for the answer to this question. It's Ishigami who is the cornerstone of this situation -- not the detectives on the case, not his friend Yukawa, not even Yasuko -- and understanding Ishigami is the key to how this entire drama plays out.

I had no translation issues at all with this novel,  and overall it was an interesting journey from start to finish -- especially the nifty twisties in the story. Personally, I found it more of a psychological drama than a mystery or crime fiction novel, but there's enough detective work to keep a crime fiction reader interested. Unlike many other novels of Japanese crime fiction or mystery, this one is rather light -- not as dark as say, something by Akimitsu Takagi or on the level of weirdness of Ryu Murakami's In the Miso Soup, but it's still a good read. I'd recommend it to readers of Japanese crime fiction for sure and to those who enjoy Japanese novels in translation.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Pale Horse, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2008
originally published by Dodd, Mead in 1962

"Evil is not something superhuman, it's something less than human."

And Agatha Christie should know, since she spent her illustrious career writing stories about the evil that men (and women) do.  In this later book, there is no Poirot, there is no Marple, no Tommy or Tuppence, but there is still a decent mystery at the core of this tale.

A priest takes a confession from a dying woman in a boarding house, and walks out of there wondering exactly how much of what he's just heard is true and how much is to the delirium brought on by high fever.  He also knows that he must write down a list of names the woman has given him before he forgets them.  He does this at a small cafe (with terrible coffee) then puts the strip of paper in his shoe, due to a torn pocket lining in his cassock. On his way home, he is most cruelly murdered.  The only clue the police have is the list of names and a witness statement from someone who says he saw the murderer on the night in question.

Mark Easterbrook, who is working on a book about the Moguls, finds himself involved rather peripherally at first, then after a few mysterious coincidences is drawn fully into the case. His part of the story begins in a Chelsea coffeehouse with a fight between two women and then a chance meeting with a friend of his, a forensics specialist who has given up private research to make a living; and then it moves on to a mysterious inn known as The Pale Horse, which is run by a trio of Macbeth witch-like women who run the place.  His narrative parallels and then joins that of the police until a cruel murdering maniac is brought to justice.  And the person who provides him with the missing link -- that oh so critical bit of information that is needed to piece it all together -- is none other than Ariadne Oliver, friend to Hercule Poirot, often-scatterbrained mystery writer and probably Agatha Christie's tongue-in-cheek fictional alter ego.

 The reader clearly gets a feel for place and time here --  you can just imagine the coffee houses of Chelsea in the 1960s complete with their "cool" clientele: the "teddy boys;" the young girls who wear birdsnest-type hairdos and sweaters even though it's warm inside, and the young of both sexes who seem rather "dirty" in their overall appearance.  Many of the characters are well imagined and developed, and the plotline is better than just okay. The best compliment I can give for this book is that I did NOT guess the identity of the killer. At one point I thought I had it figured out -- the who and the how, but I was dead wrong, which is always a good thing. There were also a few nice red herrings for the reader to become temporarily sidetracked.  And while The Pale Horse may not one of the better examples of Christie's work,  it is still quite good, and it will keep you entertained trying to figure out the who and the how of the crimes. It's a bit different than any of the other Christie novels in terms of a few members of the dramatis personae involved, and the end came a bit too quickly, but if you're a fan, you'll definitely want to read it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

*Here Comes a Candle, by Fredric Brown

Millipede Press, 2006
Originally published 1950, by E.P. Dutton
297 pp.

"Here comes a candle to light you to bed
And here comes a chopper to chop off your head"

The above couplet is taken from the rhyme called "Oranges and Lemons," and serves as a centerpiece of this awesome noir crime novel written in 1950. The main character of Here Comes a Candle is young Joe Bailey, who has a phobia of candles and axes based on an early childhood trauma associated with that rhyme.

Joe worked as a numbers runner in Milwaukee for a thug named Mitch until a police investigation put that racket on hold for a while, and now just kind of hangs out, supported by handouts from Mitch.  He's kept on the payroll because Mitch might need him later, and everything moves along as normal until he meets Ellie, the niece of the owner of a local diner.   Ellie is a nice girl, who has moved to the area to work for her uncle, and she and Joe hit it off.  But there's another dame in the picture: Francine, Mitch's girlfriend. She's the kind of woman Joe can only aspire to, but it doesn't matter...he wants her, or at least someone like her, but it takes the kind of money that buys a robin's-egg blue convertible and Joe doesn't have it. But he may get his chance when Mitch comes up with a proposition for him that might put him up in the big time.

The story itself is good, but what makes this book unique (well, at least for the 50s anyway) are the various techniques used by Brown throughout the novel in telling Joe's backstory.  Flashbacks and dreams that enter in Joe's psyche are experienced via different "media":  a radio broadcast of "The Adventures of Joe Bailey" starts off these odd chapters, and from there we get a glimpse into Joe's earliest childhood traumas. Then there's "the screen," composed as a screenplay complete with  fade ins, dissolve tos, cut tos, etc.  A sportscasts of a game of cops and robbers is the next format, and a telecast of one of Joe's dreams is also presented. In between each one is straight narrative so that the story continues.  It was probably very unusual for its time, but it works.

The book has a nice little twist at the end and is a bit on the pulpy side.  The characters are rather stereotypical but it hardly matters. Brown also offers the reader a look at prevailing attitudes of the time (life in the shadow of the atomic bomb, for example)  and his experimental cuts into Joe's psyche are incredibly well done. Here Comes a Candle is really a lot of fun as well as a good story. There are also (in my edition) two added entries: a short story entitled "The Joke," which reads like an episode from the old Twilight Zone series, and what Brown calls a "bitch piece," about the foibles of Christianity and religion.

I'm looking forward to more of Fredric Brown's work.  If you like noir or like your crime fiction with a doosey of a twist at the end, you may enjoy this one.

After finishing this book very early this morning, I trotted on over to the website for Millipede Press, only to discover that they no longer are in business.  According to the fans who keep the website going, Millipede is now Centipede.  So off I went to the 100-legged site and discovered that they do reprints of "out of print classics of the horror, crime, and science fiction genres." I've already got my eye on Brown's The Far Cry as a possible splurge purchase in the near future.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

*Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010
Original Spanish title: La aguja en el pajar, 2006
translated by Jethro Soutar
190 pp.

Needle in a Haystack is set in the late 1970s during Argentina's "dirty war," when a military junta has seized power and the regime is constantly on the lookout for anyone opposed to its rule.  Anyone the government considers subversive is picked up and is either killed, imprisoned, or simply disappears.  As the book notes prior to the beginning of the novel, Ernesto Mallo was one of these "anti-Junta activists" who was "pursued by the dictatorship," so I realized right away this was going to be a readworthy novel: it is factually based from someone who actually lived through the terrors of the time.  And I was not disappointed -- considering this is the first in a planned series, it's a definite winner.

As the story opens, detective Superintendent Lascano is assigned to look into a case of two bodies found on the riverside.  When he arrives, he actually finds three bodies, two of which he immediately ascertains are the victims of the military death squads, leaving the mystery of what happened to the third.  Eventually the body is identified as one Elias Biterman, a Jewish moneylender who survived Auschwitz and eventually arrived in Argentina, toughened by his life experiences. But this book is not really a mystery; the reader knows who Biterman's killer is -- the author explains who and why as he moves backward and forward through time up through the 1970s present.  The death of Biterman and the who and the whys really serve as a vehicle to explore this time in Argentina's history.  This is not to say that the book is not an intense novel of crime fiction, because it is -- but it's also much much more.

What really strikes me about this book is the characters and the well-evoked sense of place and time. Mallo has created an incredible conglomeration of people in this book whose stories come together to form the whole of this novel:
Lascano, whose wife recently died in a car accident, and who believes in justice and yet knows when to look the other way;  Eva, a political dissident accustomed to danger who survives a raid only to be found and taken in by Lascano, who is taken aback by her resemblance to his dead wife; callous Giribaldi, a major in the army who believes in helping out his old friends  yet at the same time won't let anyone or anything such as the law get in his way, creating his own justifications for getting rid of those who do; Amancio, who grew up rich, spent his childhood on the family's 20,000-acre ranch or on vacation in Europe, now living on his family's prestigious name but without a penny in his pocket as a result of a dwindling fortune and living the life of a playboy; Lara, his wife, who married into the family but is now looking for escape and more money no matter what it takes; the Biterman brothers -- Elias, the tough moneylender whose life has left him bitter toward the moneyed classes and Horacio, who grew up in Argentina and never really knew hardship.
And always running through the  background of this novel, the author never lets the reader forget that a) it's difficult to know who to trust under these conditions, b) the power over life and death lies in the hands of the military, and c) anyone, at any time, can become a victim:
In the street below, the army has just set up one of its checkpoints. A jeep blocks the entrance to the street. Two soldiers with machine guns are positioned on each corner in the shadows. Three others have placed themselves a few feet further back and three more stop any car that happens by.  The soldiers search the vehicle thoroughly, demand to see the identification papers of the passengers, split them up and bombard them with questions.  The officers hunt for inconsistencies in their stories, for firearms, documents, evidence of something whatever. The slightest grounds for suspicion means being thrown in the back of a van and driven to one of many clandestine military prisons spread across the city, to undergo a deeper, more pressing interrogation....Time passes by, ...the streets are empty, the soldiers, trained for action, grow bored and distracted, until at last the approach of a car brings them to attention. They aim their guns at the heads of the civilians in the car, their trigger fingers twitching as they feel their own fear levels rise, fear being the food that nourishes the soldier.
Although the book is not lengthy, it is extremely compelling and one you won't soon forget. Mallo's writing is excellent and more to the point, realistic: he is able to communicate this brief episode in a horrible period of Argentine history succinctly yet powerfully.   I'd recommend it to people interested in this time period, or readers of translated crime fiction or translated fiction in general.

 fiction from Argentina

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Broken Shore, by Peter Temple

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007
357 pp.
originally published 2005, Text Publishing Company, Australia

When I finished this novel I realized two things: first, that I'd just read something outstanding and second, that (as it says on the dustjacket blurb), Peter Temple is a "master writer." This has to be one of the best and most beautifully-written crime fiction novels I've ever read, and I can't wait to get back to his next novel, Truth, which I've only just started and am already loving.

Joe Cashin is a homicide detective who's recuperating from physical and emotional trauma in the small town of Port Monro on the south coast of Australia. Port Monro is not his normal beat; he's been posted there to put some distance between himself and the events that left another policeman dead and himself hospitalized. It's a perfect place for Joe; he spends a great deal of his time with his dogs, and to get his mind off of his recent troubles, he's rebuilding an old ruined house, as well as himself,  with the help of a "swaggie" named Rebb. But his peace is shattered when he finds himself smack in the middle of an intriguing crime: one of the town's wealthiest citizens has been found dead and the police in charge of the investigation want very badly to pin the murder on three indigenous teens. Cashin is called to help with the case, but he's not convinced that the racially-prejudiced local police are correct in their assumptions.

What sets this novel apart, making it an outstanding read, is not so much the plot, which is believable and well executed, but the writing.  The reader is plunged into an Australia that is divided over racial issues, plagued by corruption among government and local officials, divided between development that would  create new jobs but would wreck the environment and the landscape.  While a reader can perhaps find those sorts of problems in his or her own country, Temple keeps it Australian through  his use of the local lingo (and then puts a glossary of Australian terms in the back for reference-- which is itself quite funny in parts), description of little things like food, and especially in terms of a sense of place. The small community's colorful characters and the small-town problems he's involved with ("a man about a neighbour's tree, the report of a vandalised bench...")  set the stage, as do the vivid descriptions of the landscape.  Take, for example, the description of  Cromarty's Kettle, located in the Rip:
 ...the huge sea, the grey-green water skeined with foam, sliding, falling, surging, full of little peaks and breaks, hollows and rolls, the sense of unimaginable power beneath the surface, terrible forces that could lift you up and suck you down and spin you...the power of the surge would push you through the gap in the cliff and then it would slam you against the pocked walls...
as well as the descriptions of the small pubs, truck stops, the "roads smeared with roadkill ---" or the road to Port Monro: 
the "pocked junctions where one or two tilted houses stood against the wind and signs pointed to other desperate crossroads."
The characters are also very well developed, especially Joe Cashin -- a broken and damaged, yet decent man trying to get it all back together, whose backstory and troubled past (including an unstable childhood) are unfolded little by little, interwoven with his present.  He doesn't mind solitude, although perhaps not so completely as he would have you believe, and he's the consummate professional, yet willing to go with his intuition when the situation demands.

This is an excellent book, and although I've focused mainly on the writing here, the story itself will also keep you turning pages until it's over. And then, I think, you'll be left wanting more.

fiction from Australia

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bad Boy, by Peter Robinson

William Morrow
341 pp.

First, my thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewer program and to Morrow for my copy of this book.

Don't do what I did and start this late at night -- you won't want to put it down.  It's that good. Although this book isn't really a whodunit, the tension begins to build very close to the beginning and doesn't let up.

 The 19th installment in Robinson's Alan Banks series, Bad Boy begins with the discovery of a gun.  Julia Doyle contacts the police to report that she's found a gun in her daughter Erin's room, and that she was hoping to speak to Inspector Banks (a long-time friend of the Doyle family), but he's away on vacation in the US.   His partner Annie Cabbot takes the case (gun laws are very strict in the UK)  but things quickly spiral out of control and lead to a major disaster.  Erin had just recently moved back home -- she had been living with Banks' daughter Tracy (who's now going by  "Francesca") until things started heating up between Tracy and Jaff, Erin's boyfriend. Tracy, who's going through a rough patch in her relationship with her dad and in her life in general, decides to let Jaff know that the police are trying to find out where Erin got the gun. She finds herself even more attracted to Jaff,  and offers to help him out by letting him stay in her Dad's cabin -- which turns out to be a really bad decision as the two become fugitives, first from Jaff's criminal connections and then the police.  When Banks returns home, there is no time to waste -- he must find Jaff and Tracy in a hurry to prevent the worst from happening.

I have to own up to only having read the first Inspector Banks novel, so I'm at kind of a disadvantage here as far as the development of the characters and of the series stories in general.  So the big question for me is whether or not I think Bad Boy could work as a standalone novel, and I'd have to say yes. Personally, I prefer series books in the order they're written, but I think in this one, there's enough of a buzz-through kind of history offered by Robinson that overcomes the need for having read the previous 18.  My only complaint:  I figured some of the ending earlier so I wasn't too surprised, but hey, if that's the worst of it all, I can easily overlook it. 

Overall, I thought Bad Boy was quite good -- a bit on the suspenseful side, with enough twists and turns along the way to keep the pages turning -- and I look forward to books 2-18 in the series.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science, by Douglas Starr

October 5, 2010
320 pp.

My thanks to Amazon Vine for sending this book prior to publication.

Set in 1890s France The Killer of Little Shepherds contains two simultaneously-told stories.  First, there's the account of Joseph Vacher, who roamed the countryside of France and left only gruesome death in his wake.  The second story is that of Alexandre Lacassagne, head of the department of legal medicine at the University of Lyon, who pioneered many forensic techniques in the areas of crime-scene and post-mortem analysis, and was what we would now call a criminal profiler. 

Starr begins his story with army Sergeant Joseph Vacher's full-on obsession with a young woman named Louise Barant, a housemaid. After only one dinner, Vacher proposed marriage, and then later told her that if she ever betrayed him, he would kill her. She tried to avoid him and put up every reasonable excuse for not seeing him, but it didn't help. On a four-month leave from the army, Vacher came after her, she refused him, and he shot both Louise and himself. Both survived, and Vacher was put into two different asylums for a total of ten months, then released. With really nowhere to go, Vacher became a vagabond.  As he wandered the countryside, he committed the most heinous crimes, with young shepherd boys and young women favorite targets.  Because he would wander from department to department, by the time the crimes were discovered, he would have been long gone, thus avoiding detection.

Starr then interweaves his account of Vacher with the story of Alexandre Lacassagne, who was a pioneer in the study of forensic methodologies, including criminal profiling. He also discusses others in the field of criminology including Alphonse Bertillon and Cesare Lombroso, and explains developments in science and psychology that aided in the advancements of legal medicine and crime detection. He also examines  the phenomenon of "vagabondage," noting the correlation between unemployment, the increase of people on the move, and the correlating upswing in crime.

Both strands of this book come together when Vacher is caught, imprisoned, and sent to trial, leading to some pretty major questions. For example, was Vacher insane at the time he killed, or was he perfectly rational? And what exactly legally constituted insanity?  Is there any way to know if insanity is based on physical causes? What type of punishment is suitable if a murderer is found to be insane? Many of these questions sparked international debates, but they also led to further developments in the field of psychology, which was growing rapidly, as was the gap between medical science and legal codes.  And when a person is known to be a "monster," even if he is insane, how can the legal system justify putting him in an asylum where, if he's crafty enough, he'd fake being well and be let out to kill all over again?

Starr expertly catches the era surrounding the crimes of Vacher and the work of Lacassagne and others. He acknowledges work being done in other countries around the same time period, such as Italy, the United States and Great Britain so as to broaden the scope of developments in the science of criminology.  He also examines other crimes as well as the limitations of the local rural police departments in the capture of criminals.

I got very caught up in Vacher's story, and I liked the book. The early efforts focused on forensics and criminal profiling are really interesting, and if you're into this kind of thing, you'll be richly rewarded. It's quite obvious that Starr put in immense amounts of original research in the production of this work.  The stories of Vacher's victims are also  lurid enough so that if you're not interested in the field of forensic study, you'll still find something in the book that will interest you.   I do think he could have done without the "postscript" chapter and gone right to the epilogue, but that's nit picky on my part. Overall, it's a good book that will keep you reading.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King and the International Hunt for His Assassin, by Hampton Sides

480 pp.

My many thanks to Doubleday, who sent me this book as an ARC some time ago. And my apologies for just getting around to reading it.

On April 4th, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down & killed with a single shot as he stood outside of his room on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  It didn't take long until the conspiracy theories began. As the author notes:
In a society already well marinated in conspiracy, it was only natural that every form of collusion would be bruited about.... Johnson had done it. Hoover had done it. Wallace had done it. The Klan, the White Citizens Council, the Memphis Police Department. The Mafia, the CIA, The National Security Agency, the generals who ran the war King had condemned. 
But Hampton Sides believes it was only one man, James Earl Ray, who committed this murder.  From the beginning, he traces the movements of this man (although he calls him Eric Stavro Galt rather than James Earl Ray, going by Ray's alias at the time) starting in 1967 in Puerto Vallarta where he'd hoped to make his mark in the porn industry. Before that time, Ray had been in prison, where he'd escaped in a bread truck some time before arriving in Mexico.

In the first part of the book, Sides puts this year into perspective both politically and socially.  LBJ's in the White House; faced with the Vietnam quagmire and growing social unrest at home, he has decided not to run for another term. He has been criticized by Martin Luther King for funneling money out of the country to finance the war rather than to help the poor in America.  J. Edgar Hoover is still FBI director, caught in a time warp chasing communists in America and expending an enormous amount of effort making Martin Luther King an FBI/Cointelpro target. Younger, urban African-Americans no longer believe that King's policies of nonviolence are effective in their fight against oppression, while King and his associates are  planning a "Poor People's Campaign" to take place in Washington DC.  George Wallace is starting his campaign for the presidency.  It's a turbulent time in American history and Sides captures it well.  He also traces the events that led Dr. King to the Lorraine Hotel, and simultaneously examines how Galt/Ray came to be there at the same time.

The second part of the book focuses on not only law enforcement efforts to find King's murderer, but Galt's efforts to elude capture.  Unlike today, there was no automated fingerprint identification system, nor was there DNA analysis to make the task any easier. FBI agents definitely had their work cut out for themselves. And while they're busy trying to sift through leads, Galt flees the country, making his way northward into Canada and then on to Europe via London and Portugal and back to London again.

The book raises many questions, the most notable being the motivation behind Galt/Ray's actions.  Sides believes that perhaps one reason behind his crime was that Ray wanted to accomplish something truly notable in his life, although we're never really privy to Ray's thoughts about why the death of  Martin Luther King would accomplish that goal. Did he do it for money? And speaking of money, until Ray got to Portugal, he seemed to be flush enough to take care of himself during that year; was someone paying him? How did he manage to always come up with needed funds when he left prison with very little cash?

Hellhound on His Trail may be a bit misnamed -- I never did get the sense that Ray was actually stalking King -- but it's a very readable and credible account of  what led up to a day that made a difference to America on several levels. It's also one I'd definitely recommend.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Murder Room: The Heirs to Sherlock Holmes Gather to Solve the World's Most Perplexing Cold Cases, by Michael Capuzzo

Gotham Books
439 pp.

The dustjacket blurb of this book notes that
Three of the world's finest sleuths -- an FBI agent turned private eye, a forensic artist and ladies' man who speaks to the dead, and an eccentric profiler known as "the living Sherlock Holmes" -- invited the greatest collection of ace detectives from around the world on a grand adventure for justice: to track down the killers in the toughest unsolved murders... The Murder Room draws the reader into the secret investigations of the crime-fighting Vidocq Society...
so, one would think that The Murder Room is an examination of the world-famous Vidocq Society as a whole and that its readers are going to be privileged to enter into the inner workings of this entire group.  But although Capuzzo does delve into the history of the Society and does offer a peek into a few of its meetings, the book is really dedicated to the lives of the founders of the Vidocq Society: William Fleisher, Richard Walter and Frank Bender, especially the latter two. The other "ace detectives from around the world," are rarely mentioned and their contributions as Vidocq Society Members (VSMs) are pretty much non-existent here.  Even when Capuzzo relates the events of a typical meeting of the Society, Walter and Bender tend to take center stage.

Frank Bender, an artist, although probably not a household name, has been featured on American television on America's Most Wanted, most famously as the man who recreated what John List might look like years after he had murdered his entire family and walked away to a new life.  Bender's sex life and his interest in women takes up a great deal of space throughout the book (and frankly, I got tired of reading phrases like "Chrissie has the cutest little butt") as does his on-again, off-again bickering with fellow Vidocq society founder and profiler Richard Walter over who should have received credit for List's capture. Walter can best be described as eccentric and arrogant, as well as a talented profiler who, according to the author, seems to be able to solve pretty much any crime tossed his way at the meetings, waiting until the very end to toss back the solution based on his profiling abilities. Capuzzo also notes that Walter is known as the "living Sherlock Holmes." Fleisher, who came up with the idea for the Vidocq society, doesn't get nearly as much air time as the other two, and the author often makes statements like “Bender and Walter were the most astonishing investigative team Fleischer had ever seen.”

There are some good moments here -- the dozen or so cold cases which the group examines and attempts to solve are all really interesting. For example, there's the case of the Cleveland Butcher, left unsolved by detective Eliot Ness in the 1930s, the "Case of the Shoeless Corpse," which had gone cold in 1984, in which a young student was found dead missing her shoes and socks. She had not been molested or robbed, and the crime made no sense. Then there's the "Case of the Prodigal Son," in which a young Texas man simply disappeared, and whose father just knows he was murdered. And most people are aware of the John List case, as well as one of the most famous and ongoing unsolved cases in the US, that of The Boy in the Box.  The problem is that when the author starts to discuss these and other cases, he interrupts them to go on to something else, bouncing about in time (and usually coming back to either Bender or Walter) so that the reader is left dangling until he decides to once again pick up the story's threads. It's often very distracting and the style is at times incoherent.

This book seems to be getting really good reviews, but my take on it is that I felt like the author promised something he didn't deliver -- and that was the workings of the Vidocq society as a whole. And while he notes how the society is able to take up cold cases and manage a pretty good success rate for solving these crimes, there's just way too much extraneous stuff in here that could be weeded out. I mean really, who cares if Bender spent three days on Bondi Beach with "bikinis cut low", discussing "the shark net, the killer riptide, the hermit in the rocky cave, the record number of bikinis" referring to a Guiness record for largest swimsuit photo shoot. And why does Capuzzo need to note how many cigarettes Walter lights over and over again or how often he coughs? It might have been a much tighter and more concise account of a group that does incredibly meaningful work if the author had kept a better focus. But in many ways, imho, he seemed to be a bit all over the map.

Bottom line: I really wanted to love this book, but that didn't happen, although I did enjoy the accounts of the cold cases and how some of their perpetrators were eventually brought to justice.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The End of the World in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski

original Polish title: Koniec świata w Breslau, 2003
translated by Danusia Stok

Eberhard Mock is back in yet another adventure, this one involving a series of bizarre murders whose victims seem to have no connection to one another, yet which the police know have been done by the same person. 

It's 1960, and Eberhard Mock is in New York City, dying of lung cancer. His old friend Herbert Anwaldt (who first appeared in Krajewski's Death in Breslau) comes to see him and Mock has a "confession" he needs to get off of his chest before he departs this earthly life.  Flash back in time to 1927, to Breslau (which at the time was part of Weimar Germany). A shoemaker who has rented space in a building notices a disgusting smell, which his brother-in-law suggests might be a rotten egg behind one of the walls -- a sort of joke played by masons when they felt they were not paid properly.  The shoemaker begins to knock down the wall and a body of a musician is discovered. The only clue is a page from a calendar with the date of September 12 of that year, written in blood. More bodies follow -- a follower of Hitler (who in 1927 had just made his rousing "Nuremberg Rally" speech), a Communist, a locksmith, and an historian -- each left with the calendar date of the victim's death left behind. Mock is charged with solving these crimes, and to do this, he must find what links all of these disparate victims -- a seemingly monumental task. However, he's got several things on his mind to keep him distracted from his duty, none the least of which involve his nephew and his young, beautiful and unhappy wife Sophie, as well as his own inner demons which have the power to destroy him both personally and professionally.

Once again, Krajewski takes his readers on a descent into the seamy side of Breslau's underworld,a place of hedonistic and lascivious delights designed for the higher-ups in society which would tempt even the most incorruptible of saints; where money will buy some of the most depraved pleasures the city's more adventurous entrepreneurs have to offer. Krajewski is the master of atmosphere, and creates an almost claustrophic aura that lingers throughout the novel, so much so that when you read the last page, you want to take a breath of clean air.  This installment of the Eberhard Mock series gets more into the psyche of the Criminal Councillor than the first book in the series, and rather than go forward in time as is the case of most crime fiction series, this one ratchets back a few years before the action of Death in Breslau.   Krajewski is also a most excellent writer -- my favorite scene that showcases his talent is one in which Mock has had to answer the queries of a private police investigator who is searching for the now-missing Sophie, and as Mock is working a crime scene, his answers to that questionnaire are juxtaposed with discoveries made at the site of this most appalling murder. The characterizations are excellent yet not stereotypical or predictable.  The period detail is plentiful without being bogged down (as is the case with many period pieces) in minutia, and the pacing is perfectly executed.

Highly recommended, but probably not for everyone. There is nothing even remotely cutesy or nice about this story. It is pure seedy, steamy and hard core noir that does not let up and which gets you in its unrelenting grip, keeping you there until the last page is turned. It's claustrophobic and edgy -- in short, my kind of crime fiction. I hope Krajewski keeps writing -- I love these books. And whoever designs these covers should be given some kind of award!

fiction from Poland

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: Murdering Stepmothers: The Execution of Martha Rendell, by Anna Haebich

UWA Publishing, Australia
217 pp.

The blurb for this book reads as follows:
... Professor Anna Haebich brings to life the people of Perth and the entangled mesh of self-righteous bigotry, slander and unbridled revenge they invoke to propel the trial of Martha Rendell - the last woman in the state to be hanged. Based on a true story and meticulously researched, this compelling novel is driven by passion, imagination and an eerie conjuring up of the past.

This is just the sort of blurb that gets my nosy self's heart pumping. I first noticed this book in a copy of the New York Review of Books, and immediately I had to know who was Martha Rendell, why was she hanged, and  all of the gruesome details, never having heard of this person before. So I bought the book, thinking it was a new historical novel based on a real crime.  After reading it, it's a tough call as to whether it's actually a novel or no. But I'll get back to this later.

In 1909, a 14 year-old boy named George Morris ran away from his father William and his "stepmother" Martha Rendell (in reality the two were not actually married), back to the home of his mother. He had claimed that three of his siblings had died in their home in East Perth, and that he was worried he was next. Within the span of 18 months, all of the children had become ill, and after recovering, were being cared for by Rendell. One by one they began to develop strange symptoms, in particular a "peculiar membranous condition of the mouth and throat..." which the physician had never seen before. And then one by one, they died, except for George, who said that  Rendell had pretended to pour out his brother's Arthur medicine, but then replaced it with "spirits of salts." This caused Arthur to scream in pain, and become deadly ill. As the children began to die, George left, seeking shelter with his mother.  There was just enough doubt to cause authorities to dig up the children's bodies and charge both Rendell and Morris with murder.

Haebich tries to reconstruct the case from four different points of view: a newspaper photographer who followed the trial, a detective whose hero and model was Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, a physician, and a reverend, who ministered to Rendell within the prison walls. She provides a wealth of information about the period, including  past poisoners, the power of the press, and the science of medicine and pathology of the time. In each person's narrative, the reader is left with some doubt as to whether or not Rendell was really guilty. If she was guilty, then perhaps there was some physical, psychological, social or emotional reasoning behind her crimes.

After the four different points of view are completed, the final say is given over to the author in a chapter entitled "the researcher." Here she notes that while trying to put together Rendell's story, she
realised early in the piece that a conventional historical narrative could not possibly convey the nuances of this complex and controversial case. Due to the many gaps in the records there were also many questions that could only answered via imaginative reconstructions of people and events.
She then goes on to provide an analysis of what may have actually happened, and discusses her experiences with descendants of the Morrises.

Although the approach she's taken plays out well, I don't think she needed to go that route. Within the different reconstructions, she provides a wealth of factual information related to the case that could have stood on its own put together in a singular historical retelling. There's very little dialogue in the narratives, the voices are not as distinct as those of different characters should be in a novel, and you never really get the feeling that you're actually reading a novel in its true sense. Now, having said that, Murdering Stepmothers is still a book that will keep you reading and involved. The case itself is interesting -- and you as the reader are left to put together all of the different sociological, psychological and physical threads to decide for yourself as to Rendell's guilt or innocence. Haebich's analysis of the available facts is very well done -- and the book is not just another over-sensationalized true crime account that crowds bookseller shelves. Overall -- it's a good book, with few distractions and a well-grounded sense of time and place.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Stone Murders, by Matti Joensuu

St. Martin's Press, 1987
Original Finnish Title: Harjunpää ja poliisin poika, 1983
First English publication by Gollancz, 1986 - Harjunpaa and the Stone Murders
translated by Raili Taylor

Set in Helsinki, The Stone Murders is the first in a series of three, followed by The Priest of Evil and To Steal Her Love. Timo Harjunpaa is a detective sergeant in homicide and he's seen his share of ugliness in the past. It's about to get uglier, as he's called out to investigate what seems to be another murder, but he finds the victim still alive yet barely clinging to life. The man has been brutally attacked -- while knocked out with a beer bottle, his assailant jumped on his chest, pounded his stomach area with a mass of heavy stones, and left him for dead.  Harjunpaa gets to work on the case but has no idea what's waiting for him as he gets closer to the killer.

The Stone Murders is not really a mystery, because the criminals are revealed right away to be young men from extremely dysfunctional families and backgrounds.  It is more of a police procedural, but at the same time, Joensuu interweaves into the story a brief look at the problems of 1980s Helsinki: child abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and teen gangs that have no respect for anyone (especially the police, who fear them), to name a few. There's also a look at the police force itself -- the ridiculous bureaucracy, the lack of officers to handle the ongoing crime problems, and the ineptitude of a few who are supposed to be in charge of others. Joensuu also offers a look into Harjunpaa's personal life, which as things get worse for this particular case, becomes his safe haven.

Considering that this book is a series first, it's very well done. The characters each have a separate identity without going into overly-detailed descriptions.  And every now and then Joensuu fleetingly allows the tough-guy façade of the criminals to fall away, replaced by the young and immature children that they are. Harjunpaa is a good cop, but even more, he's portrayed as a human being, with his own fears for the future of the police force, life in Helsinki, and for his family. All of this is done without ever devolving into something sappy and sentimental.  The story is well paced, the plotline is quite good and believable. There were no distractions that made me want to skim, which is something I always look for in any book.

Readers of Scandinavian crime fiction will enjoy this, as will anyone who likes a good police procedural. It's definitely difficult to believe that this is Joensuu's first novel.

fiction from Finland

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Past Crimes Revealed: The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

John Murray Publishers
292 pp.

As England was heading into and then in the opening years of World War I,  within the short space of three years, three women, all of whom had married George Joseph Smith (who used multiple aliases) drowned while taking a bath.  Each individual death had been legally attributed to natural causes after proper inquests, the doctors finding no evidence of foul play.  But early in 1915, Detective Inspector Arthur Neil from the Kentish Town police station was going through his workload and came across an official memo, attached to which were two newspaper cuttings.  The first was headlined as "Found Dead in Bath, Bride's Tragic Fate on Day After Wedding;" the second as "Bride's Sudden Death in Bath. Drowned After Seizure in a Hot Bath." It seems that the father of the now-dead Alice Burnham, who had married Smith in 1913 and died in the bath during  her Blackpool honeymoon, had seen a news article about Margaret Lofty, a young, newly-married woman who drowned in her bath in Highgate, and brought the similarities between the death of his daughter and Margaret to the attention of the Aylesbury police. They brought it to the attention of Scotland Yard, who sent it to Neil. As official investigations proceeded, and the story became public, another police department informed Neil of yet a third possibility, that of Bessie Mundy, who had also been found dead, again drowned during a bath.

Jane Robins recreates and analyzes the case, drawing from a multitude of modern and contemporary sources. One by one she takes the reader through the three victims lives, how they came to meet George William Smith, and why the women may have been drawn to him, considering that this man was such bad news. Interwoven with their stories, Robins sets the stage in terms of historical context, including contemporary social attitudes and psychology, current events, the current state of police procedure, and traces the science of forensic pathology, which was still in its early stages as a tool for crime solving.  She introduces her readers to Dr. Bernard Spilsbury, a forensic pathologist whose work on the Hawley Crippen case of 1910 helped to send Crippen to the gallows after his return from his interrupted escape to Canada. Spilsbury returns to the stand again as a prosecution witness, with his professional theories about what happened in the cases of the Brides in the Bath. As in the Crippen case, his opinions also led the jury to a verdict of guilty and to a death sentence for Smith.  But  was Spilsbury's opinion accurate?  Was it indeed reflective of what had actually happened to these women? Would his evidence hold up in a modern court of law?

The Magnificent Spilsbury is a pleasure to read, both in terms of the period and because of my absolute fascination with historical true crime. It's quite obvious that Robins did a great deal of research, poring over old trial records, letters, documents, police records as well as examining relevant modern sources. Her constant interweaving of contemporary events and writings allows her to analyze her findings, rather than just setting them all down in a purely factual manner, always asking questions and putting forth a great deal of effort to answer them.  She's also able to bring the case and the principals involved to life through her writing, especially Smith and the women he victimized.

I only have a minor issue with this book. At times there may have been a bit too much period detail. One example: the three pages of treatise about the history and use of zeppelins that proved to be a bit distracting, causing me to want to skim and move along to get back to the story at hand. There were a few spots like this where she could have made her point and then moved on, but chose instead to prolong the discussion.  But overall it's a good book and one I would definitely recommend.

As an aside, if you are interested, I found an article about Spilsbury here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski

MacLehose Press/Quercus
original Polish Title: Śmierć w Breslau, 2006
translated by Danusia Stok
247 pages

First in a series of four novels,  Death in Breslau might just possibly be my favorite crime fiction novel so far this year. I hadn't even finished this book and bought the next two,  The End of the World in Breslau and The Phantoms of Breslau. If the cover doesn't grab you, the story will.

The story begins in 1950 in a Dresden psychiatric hospital, where the director is being pressed by a Stasi  official who wants to question the patient named Herbert Anwaldt. Herbert Anwaldt's identity and the reason he is a patient are questions the author answers as the book moves back and forward in time, beginning in 1933 in Breslau (now Wrocław).  The main character of this novel (and the four that follow) is Counsellor Eberhard Mock, who in 1933 was the Deputy Head of the Criminal Department of the Police Praesidium. That year, Hermann Göring had taken over the posts of Minister of Internal Affairs and Chief of the Prussian police.  The Nazis had become very active in the Police Praesidium, and an entire wing of the building had been taken over by the Gestapo.  

Mock is summoned to a side track of the main railway station, where he finds the bodies of Marietta von der Malten and her governess in a saloon car, savagely raped and murdered.  Clues left behind include some dead scorpions, some live ones, and some cryptic writing in blood on the wall of the train car.  Mock knows the dead girl and  her father, the Baron, a fellow Mason and someone to whom he owes a great deal. His investigation leads him to Friedländer, a Jewish importer specializing in strange "vermin," which makes the Nazi anti-Jewish propagandists very happy.  It also solves some of Mock's political problems, and the arrest leads to Mock's promotion as Criminal Director.  But it's not the end of the story -- after Friedländer "commits suicide", the Baron receives a package containing some clothing that had belonged to his daughter and realizes that the real killer is still out there somewhere.  Herbert Anwaldt, an alcoholic policeman from Berlin, is summoned to work with Mock to secretly discover the identity of the real murderer. 

This book is as dark as dark gets. Spies are everywhere, Mock has enemies that would like to bring him down, the Gestapo is a force to be reckoned with. The sinister atmosphere does not let up for a moment. The characters are well developed, especially Mock, who although married, spends his Friday evenings at a brothel playing chess with two lovely women (one under the table, one at the table) who know that "every successful move was assigned a specific erotic configuration." He is quite adept at playing the game with the Nazis, and becomes a master of the art of self protection, both physically and politically. There are many other characters who indulge in hedonistic delights, and there are the Nazis, and nearly everyone seems to have secrets that they'll do anything to keep hidden. And if ever a book captured a place and a time, it's this one. 

Death in Breslau is stunning, a novel you won't forget any time soon after reading.  While it's great fun, it's also claustrophobic sometimes as you sink deeper and deeper into the world of the dark and sybaritic side of Breslau and its inhabitants. It's also an excellent look at the politics and changing Europe of the 1930s.  I absolutely loved this book and very highly recommend it to readers who want something truly edgy and way off the beaten path in their crime fiction. 

fiction from Poland

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

Scribner Paperback Fiction/Simon and Schuster
300 pp
originally published 1949

Although this is listed as the third book in Tey's Alan Grant series, here he plays more of a background role rather than the main character.  That honor goes to
Robert Blair, a typical small-town English solicitor in the quiet village of Milford. His old and established legal firm, Blair, Hayward and Bennet, handles matters of "wills, conveyancing and investments." But with one desperate telephone call, Blair is thrust into a most bizarre case which takes him to a house called The Franchise.

Upon his arrival, he is met by Marion Sharpe and her mother, the owners of the house, along with Inspector Grant of Scotland Yard.  Grant is there investigating the story of Betty Kane, a demure young schoolgirl who claims that she had been kidnapped by the Sharpes one day after missing a bus and held prisoner in an attic room, where she was beaten when she refused to perform household duties.  According to Kane, Mrs. Sharpe left the door unlocked one night, and Betty was able to make her escape.  She was able to describe the inside of the house to a tee, down to the different types of suitcases in a closet, as well as the distinctive features of their car.  But the problem is that both Marion and her mother swear that they've never set eyes on the girl, and they're absolutely baffled as to her knowledge of the house. Blair is positive that the women are innocent, and despite some misgivings, agrees to help, despite the insurmountable odds against success.   And so it begins.

Tey's characters are believable, the plot is engrossing, but what makes this novel work well is how she successfully plunges her readers immediately not only into the crime, but into the mounting tension surrounding the case up until the end. And although The Franchise Affair is set in the countryside, it is a sophisticated story, not just another English country house-based mystery.

Although written in 1949, Franchise Affair is still a very good read, with some clearly recognizable elements (such as the power of the tabloids to fuel the fires of those who read them), and a completely different storyline than most of her earlier novels and of the novels of that period. Tey based this novel on a true crime of the 18th century focusing on another young girl, Elizabeth Canning.  If you're at all interested, there are two fictional accounts of this 18th-century story that I'm aware of:  Elizabeth is Missing, by Lillian de la Torre and The Canning Wonder, by Arthur Machen.

 For aficionados of classic mysteries, The Franchise Affair is definitely recommended. The end is a little sappy, but you won't care because the case is so satisfying.

fiction from England

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2009
Original Italian title: La vampa del agosto, 2006
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
278 pp.

I had not intended to skip from Camilleri's Shape of Water  (#1 in the Montalbano series) all the way to this one (#10), but the fact that August Heat is one of the  CWA International Dagger finalists inspired me to leave 2-9 for later. As it turns out, I didn't need to have read books 2-9 to be able to enjoy this one.

Without going too much into plot so as not to wreck the book, this particular summer is extremely hot in Sicily, and Inspector Salvo Montalbano is having a great deal of difficulty dealing with the heat.  At the request of his girlfriend Livia, Montalbano has rented a seaside home for her friends Laura, Guido & their 3 year-old son. After they move in for the season, strange things begin to happen, culminating in the disappearance of the little boy.  The search for the boy (whom he finds)  also yields the discovery of the dead body of a teenage girl in an old trunk. Since the family and Livia are finally in a great mood again, ready to start their vacation in earnest, he hides the discovery of the body until the next day. When he finally breaks it to them, they take off, and Livia goes with them, extremely angry at Salvo, refusing to talk to him whenever he phones.  Be that as it may, Montalbano still has to figure out who the girl is and who killed her -- and his investigation ends up not only being about this dead girl, but also spreads out  to include the death of a construction worker, while at the same time eventually sending the inspector down a very treacherous path that he should definitely be avoiding.

Although there are plenty of opportunities for laughs in this novel, the story gradually shifts to something much more serious. At first the mood is lighthearted -- the family's troubles with the house, the banter between Salvo and his fellow policemen, the accepted local politics and patronization,  the beauty of the seaside and of course, the delightful food scattered throughout. And Camilleri even finds a minute to make a sideways comment to readers who
 did not deign to read mystery novels, because in their opinion, they were only entertaining puzzles
while Montalbano is reading a book by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, who, he notes, fill their pages with attacks on social democracy and government (113).

But the easygoing mood that Camilleri sets up at the start eventually fades into a more somber tone as the heat, Livia's absence and the frustrations brought out by the case all begin to take their toll on Montalbano. 

August Heat is very well written, with a much fuller style than is present in Shape of Water, which tells me that I have something great to look forward to in books 2-9.  The setting is excellent -- so well done that you can almost feel the heat coming through the pages and the feeling of relief each time Salvo dives into the sea to cool off.  While the plot is a good one, my only niggling issue with this novel is that once events started rolling toward the end, they picked up speed at an incredibly fast pace, leaving me scratching my head as to why the author was in such a rush to finish so quickly. But -- it's definitely worth your time to sit down and read this book.

fiction from Italy

Monday, July 19, 2010

Third Girl, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2002
originally published 1966
Hercule Poirot is now in his 35th adventure; after this one, he has only three more contemporary appearances -- in Hallow'een Party, Elephants Can Remember, and Curtain.

Third Girl is set smack in the mid-sixties.  It's a time when men are wearing such clothes as  "elaborate velvet waistcoat[s], skin-tight pants," and wearing their hair long in "rich curls of chestnut," while women were wearing
the clothes of their generation: black high leather boots, white open-work stockings of doubtful cleanliness, a skimpy skirt and a long and sloppy pullover of heavy wool.
The Beatles proclaim in 1966 that they're more popular than Jesus. The younger generation is experimenting with drugs and getting high. Girls aren't staying at home much after leaving school, going off to the cities to find jobs and live in apartments, often doubling up or adding a "third" girl to help with the rent.  It is just such a "third girl," Norma Restarick, who early one morning finds herself with Hercule Poirot, to tell him that she might have committed a murder, but then proclaims Poirot too old, and disappears. He's obviously intrigued, and finds out the girl's identity only when Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist, begins discussing a party she'd been to earlier where she'd met this young woman. From that point, the two begin investigating Norma's past and present, trying to discover if she's unbalanced, or if there's someone that might mean her harm. Poirot looks for patterns & death, and Ariadne tries methods that her detective, Sven Hjerson, might use in her popular mystery books.

As usual, there are plenty of suspects and red herrings throughout the novel, and this time Christie puts a secret up her sleeve that she doesn't reveal until the end -- a bit of duplicity on her part which wasn't really fair, but worked.  I thought the final solution was well done and although the clues were there all along, I still managed to be surprised by the ending,  which a) I felt was quite satisfying and b) I should have figured out after the breadcrumb trail of clues Christie left behind. And while the story may seem a bit muddled from time to time, it's still well worth the read. 

Poirot, without a doubt, is one of my favorite detectives ever, with his fastidious mannerisms and personality.  Even toward the end of his career his little grey cells are as busy and sharp as ever; Miss Lemon,  the secretary par excellence,  makes an appearance, always a step ahead of Poirot, and then there's Ariadne Oliver, a rather unique character, often living off of her intuition or using her mystery novelist skills to offer help in Poirot's investigation.  While she does provide some comic relief and comes off as a bit of a bumbler from time to time, she actually manages to also provide a few valuable clues to Poirot from time to time. 
At first I was a bit unsure as to whether or not I would enjoy this novel, but it ended up being a treat. This must be one that either I read eons ago and have totally forgotten, or that somehow I managed to miss until now. I can recommend it, definitely, BUT ... if you're looking for the recently televised Third Girl, you'll find that there's quite a difference between page and screen.

fiction from England

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Bitter Lemon Press
Original French title: Malavita, 2004
Translated by Emily Read

Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy is the setting of this rather unconventional and darkly humorous tale.  The Blake family moves into an old Norman brick-and-stone villa during the middle of the night. They had already lived  in France for six years, first in Paris, then on the Cote D'Azur in Cagnes-sur-Mer. There's Fred, the head of the clan, Maggie his wife, and two teenagers, Belle and Warren.  Just your typical American family relocating to the French countryside, right? Wrong. Fred is actually Mafioso Giovanni Manzoni from New Jersey, and he and his family are in the witness protection program after he testifies against against another crime boss, Mimino.  Along with them are a team of FBI men, assigned to them for protection against anyone wanting to claim the huge bounty put on Manzoni's head by Mimino. All of they have to do is lay low, pretend to be a normal family and get on with their lives.  But for someone like Fred, or for the rest of the family for that matter, being normal in any sense of the word is impossible.

Benaquista's characters are well drawn. In this particular witness protection incarnation, Fred has decided to tout himself as an author writing about the landing at Normandy, while all the time writing his own memoirs about his life in organized crime.  Fred is not a likable person at all and has no redeeming qualities, but he does have principles:  he always takes responsibility for his actions, he wouldn't do anything different over his lifetime if he had it all to do again, and the word he hates most in the world is sorry. Maggie is busy with volunteer work, but hangs out with the FBI team to get the latest on her neighbors, who are under constant surveillance by the feds. Belle, the daughter, is one of those people who makes lemonade with the lemons life has handed her, and Warren has handled the witness protection situation by watching, learning and becoming the mini Godfather-figure of his school.

There are some truly funny moments in this book, especially the story of how a school magazine traveled from France to Thailand to Los Angeles to New York and started a particularly nasty chain of events. That whole little story within a story is laugh-out-loud funny. There's also a great scene where by mistake a local cinema club gets sent the Scorsese film Goodfellas instead of the scheduled program of Some Came Running, the story of a WWII veteran who returns home.  However, As much as I liked this book, I did have a couple of niggling and minor issues with it. First, I kept waiting for the "crime fiction" part to begin, but it never materialized. I might have labeled it more of a "dark comedy" -- there's no central mystery plotline, very little crime and it's really more of a look at the lives and fortunes of this Witness-Protected family while in exile and at times the people guarding them.  And this leads me to my second point: when a plumber meets up with an unfortunate incident at the Blake home, how is it that the FBI surveillance team overseeing the Blake family's every move knows nothing about it? And how is that Fred's nephew in the US is allowed to get a call from France when the family is virtually in lockdown?  There are a couple of places like this where the storyline falters a bit, creating distractions that really annoyed me at times.

If you're looking for a typical crime fiction novel, I wouldn't start with this one, but the book is actually quite good overall -- more of a fun read than a serious crime read. It has been nominated for this year's International Dagger Award, and at the award's website, the judges have noted that "Crime fiction that makes you chuckle is rare and this is an exceptional example of the species." There's enough satire here to satisfy anyone's  snarky and sardonic side, a bit of underworld darkness, and I would most definitely recommend it.  And finally, as one cover blurb notes:
Benaquista's story explores what would happen if, say, the Soprano family were to move to Normandy...
and I'd say that's about hit the nail on the head.

I do hope his other books are a bit more crime oriented, however, because I've got a stack of them sitting here waiting to be read.

 crime fiction from France

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo revisited: the facebook connection


I just finished watching Girl With the Dragon Tattoo today, and while looking around the internet for reviews of the movie, I came across a link for Lisbeth Salander's page at Facebook. I'm not kidding.  And she has 1,430 friends.  Considering she's not even real, that's a lot! Even more than my daughter, who has as astronomical amount of facebook buds. So I started combing through the Lisbeth Salander wall for anything remotely interesting.  Here's a fraction of what I found:

Someone picked out a new outfit for her and posted it at Mall World (another facebook app). 
Another person wrote (and I quote):

Liseth, I finished the book and I will miss you and the last book couldn't have been meant to be the final chapter. No one could ever finish it and hope no one tries. But I couldn't put it sad that I will never read about you again.

 Lots of people sent her birthday wishes, with a few of them sending her the little facebook birthday cake gifts. Someone sent her an "i-heart".

Someone invited her to take the "which superhero are you" quiz.

etc. etc. et cetera.

So, out of curiosity, I did a search to see whether or not Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot had a page of their very own, and I looked for Kurt Wallander as well.  All of those are listed as "community" pages, where people can write in and discuss the books, movies, whatever. Nowhere in any of those did I find people sending birthday cakes or telling Jane, Hercule or Kurt that they loved them.

Okay, okay. I'm sure that the Lisbeth Salander page was put up by someone at Knopf but still. Who writes to a fictional character? 

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery, by Agatha Christie

Originally published 1964
224 pp.

"Like to see the picture of a murderer?"

Major Palgrave was the man with a million stories, and everyone vacationing at the lovely Golden Palm Hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Honoré tried to avoid him like the plague. Once he got started, he never stopped. His latest victim, so to speak, was Jane Marple, who had come to the Golden Palm to recuperate after a serious bout of pneumonia. Knitting bag in hand, Miss Marple was sitting, half listening and making polite replies once in a while, until Major Palgrave started speaking about her favorite topic: murder.  He begins to tell her a rather unusual story about a man who got away with murder more than once, and when Palgrave asks her if she wanted to see a picture of a murderer, the knitting stops and she's all eyes and ears.  But after he fishes through his wallet for the photo, he suddenly stops and changes the subject rather abruptly and rather loudly. Taken aback, Miss Marple looks up to see why and sees several people nearby.  Although curious, she goes right back to her knitting. The next day, when one of the maids finds Major Palgrave dead in his room, apparently from natural causes, Miss Marple can't help but wonder if all is as it seems.  When she creates a clever story to retrieve the photograph Palgrave was about to show her, it's gone, and now she's interested.

Miss Marple is the perfect detective. When people look at her they see "all knitting wool and tittle-tattle," and she becomes more or less invisible that way, easily dismissed by most of the players. But one man, wealthy businessman Jason Rafiel, sees right through her. And since Jane is not in St. Mary Mead at the moment, with no help from the likes of Sir Henry Clithering, it is Rafiel to whom she turns in hopes of preventing more death.

 A Caribbean Mystery is lighter in tone than some of her other Marple mysteries, slowly paced and there are spots where my interest definitely flagged.  The mystery plotline was good, although a bit predictable. The ocean, the sand, the palms and the steel band music definitely brought the Caribbean to mind while reading, since I've been there a number of times.   And although this isn't one of my favorites in the Marple series, I couldn't help but enjoy watching her brain at work.

My advice to potential Christie readers: put this one somewhere in the middle of your reading schedule and start with some of the other Marple stories.  

as an aside:
This book has been adapted for television twice:
1) with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
2) with Helen Hayes as Miss Marple

fiction from England

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin

Delta/Random House, 2009
Original Swedish title: Nattfåk, 2008
438 pp.
translated by Marlaine Delargy

Joakim and Katrine Westin, along with their two small children, have decided to leave Stockholm to buy and renovate an old manor house at Eel Point on the island of Öland.  Along with its two lighthouses, this area has a long history of shipwrecks and drownings, and it is said that the voices of the dead can still be heard. But for Joakim and Katrine, Eel Point offers a new beginning. For their children there are meadows and forests to play in, a definite change from urban life in Stockholm. But after only a couple of months, the idyllic setting becomes a place of dread after a terrible tragedy, which leaves Joakim shaken and inconsolable, unable to deal with his grief.  He begins to become more interested in Eel Point's haunted history, wondering indeed if the dead inhabit the area, and the house begins to act on his damaged soul. He meets Tilda Davidsson, a newly-recruited police officer who has moved to the area to escape from the gossip involved with her affair with a married policeman, and because she has family there.  Tilda's great-uncle is Gerlof Davidsson, who was a major character in Theorin's first novel, Echoes From the Dead, and she spends a lot of time with him, putting his memories of his life on Öland down on tape.

But there's more. As the Westin family is coping with its grief, the two Serelius brothers and their cohort in crime Henrik Jansson are busy breaking into vacation homes where the owners are away, stealing valuables and causing general mayhem. It's not long until their forays escalate and they start breaking into occupied houses and becoming violent, hopped up on meth before each job. Their activities have been reported to the police, but it isn't until Gerlof suggests to Tilda that she talk to a few of his old friends that anything really happens with the case.

These two plotlines, along with Gerlof's oral history of his family and of life on Öland, also combined with excerpts from a book written by Katrine's mother Mirja Rambe, all weave together into a perfectly-crafted thriller with a slight hint of gothic thrown into the mix.  The sense of place is unbelievably eerie and helps to keep the tension and suspense from ebbing at any point in the story. The characters are meticulously and well constructed, especially in the cases of Katrine and Joakim, whose lives Theorin discloses in only small bits and pieces at a time. The pacing of the novel is just a little slow to begin with, but when it picks up, there is no way anyone can possibly put this book down until it's over.

I have to admit to being put off at first by the hint of the supernatural that figures into the story, but as all came to be revealed, my worries were put to rest and Theorin didn't let me down. It is tough to label The Darkest Room as simply a mystery or a novel of crime fiction, because it's also an examination of loss, grief and human nature in its most vulnerable and exposed state. And as in his earlier Echoes of the Dead, Theorin has created a story in which the past has meaning for and acts on the present -- one of my favorite types of novels. I highly recommend this one and considering I read it in 90+ degree heat with a near equal level of humidity, it made me shiver throughout.  The Darkest Room is simply stellar.

fiction from Sweden

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

King Penguin, 1985
Original Japanese Title: Oi Naru Genei, 1962
translated by Simon Grove

An oldie but still a goodie, The Master Key begins with a highly-publicized architectural experiment: engineers are about to move an entire five-story building to make way for widening an existing road. The engineers have assured the women who live there that they can remain in their apartments for the move, and that they won't notice a thing.  They've even convinced the inhabitants of the building that they should all fill a glass with water and watch it ... they won't even see a ripple.  And as the story opens, that is what many of the women are doing. Then -- three flashbacks: an accident involving a man wearing women's clothing, the burial of a child's body in the building's basement, and the tale of the kidnapping of the young son of an American army officer stationed in Japan. 

The K Apartments for Ladies is not only a residence, but is also the world which these women occupy.  It is a place where, according to one woman,  a person can imagine that
 old women pass their days in silence still gazing at the broken fragments of the dreams of their youth, every now and then letting fall a sigh that echoes down the corridor, until they combine on the stairway and roll down to the cavernous hallway, raising one long moan...
Ironically, the original purpose of the building was to serve as a place where "Japanese women could emancipate themselves," where single young ladies could live alone.  Fifty years earlier, when the building was constructed, that was almost unheard of, and people would often look at it with "envious curiosity."  However, now the residents are growing old, living with the "bright days of their pasts," now passing their time largely in a lonely existence of solitude and withdrawal. Rather than being free, women are now stuck there, with nowhere else to go, keeping parts of their past lives away from the prying eyes of others.  And in the face of a changing outside world, many live there in order to continue old traditions.  Now, with the theft of the building's master key,  the safety of their world has been violated.  Someone has access to things the residents would rather keep buried. In the midst of this world of secrets and solitude, there is one person who has no qualms about prying into the proverbial skeletons in the closets.  The looming threat of deadly gossip would be, in some cases, too much to bear. Along with the moving of the building, the theft of the master key threatens to bring about that "one chance in a hundred" of the collapse of the world which these women inhabit, by making public the things they have kept hidden for a good portion of their lives.

The question of who took the key and why is only part of this story. Secrets upon secrets are revealed as the author delves into the lives of  a few of these women to produce a novel that starts out on a high note of tension and stays that way up until the very end. But The Master Key is not only a mystery novel; it also offers a psychological portrait of aging women dealing with their pasts and the loneliness of their present situations.

The story is told from several different points of view so the novel may be a bit confusing at times. The characters and their hidden lives are what drive this book, but I found myself having to go back a few times to remember who was who and pick up the threads of their individual narratives.  While that was a bit distracting, the sleight-of-hand twist at the end made it all worthwhile, as did the sense of place that came alive in the very atmosphere of this stifling and gloomy apartment world in which these ladies live.  And although it was written in 1962 and may seem a bit dated, the suspenseful tone that starts at the beginning does not let up until the end.

fiction from Japan