Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Deadwater, by Sean Burke

Serpent's Tail Publishing
186 pp

 It's 1989, the scene is the Cardiff (Wales) docklands area of Butetown, a small community commonly known as Tiger Bay. A prostitute who had been slated to testify against two rather nasty brothers -- Tony and Carl Baja -- has been killed in her apartment after changing her mind and returning home. The next day Jack Farrisey, a local pharmacist, wakes up covered in blood with no recollection of anything that had happened the night before, since he was in an alcohol-induced amnesiac state. The local police want this crime solved, because as of two years earlier, the docklands area had been slated for regeneration and redevelopment, so  unsolved murders or murders in general would not be drawing new businesses to the area. The police latch onto the Baja Brothers, who swear their innocence,  but Farrisey still needs to know exactly what happened to him that night, and he has to rely on his friend Jess for answers. But Jess is chasing his own demons that deal with Jack and his pregnant wife.  Both make statements to the police, along with some other members of the community. But to make matters even more complicated, Jack's wife, an attorney, has decided to take the brothers' case to try to prove they didn't do it.

While Deadwater is a novel of crime fiction, it's also an examination of impending loss and futility.   As a child Jack lived in and fully  experienced the community and its "spectacular noise, of cockatoos, penny-slot pianos, of hurdie-gurdies, irrepressible Breton onion sellers, West Indian newspaper touts and stentorian fish hawkers." He spent time with his dad down on the docks. On the other hand, he also remembered the 1960s, when ethnic groups were relocated in an attempt to clear out the area slums because authorities feared
the sight of a creole community evolving its own way of being, its own ethics of spontaneity, respect and cheerfulness -- without need of statute, politician or book..
And now, with redevelopment and change looming over this area that Jack calls home, the very identity and future of the Butetown/Tiger Bay community is at stake:
The promise of redevelopment seemed less an attempt to rejuvenate than to raze a community with its own, self-regulating and irregular forms of justice and peacekeeping.
Mirroring the community's impending decline and the futility of any kind of hope for its future is the downward spiral of Jack's friendship with Jess, as  it leads him down a path that will ultimately end in betrayal and worse.

Deadwater is not a feel-good kind of novel at all, and stays that way right up until the last word. It is bleak and despairing, dark and gloomy. In tone it reminded me a little bit of Ken Bruen's Jack Taylor novels, in which the reader feels like he or she is watching a train wreck about to happen but is somehow glued to the spot and can't look away.  Sean Burke is a wonderful writer whose prose seems a bit out of place in a crime fiction novel because it is so descriptively lyrical (Yes, I know that "lyrical" for prose is one of those words that is way overdone, but it actually fits here). He's established such a forceful sense of place that it is not difficult to imagine the loud pubs, the dark streets, and the docks while you read. There is nothing to distract from the plotlines, and Jack's character is well defined to the point where he becomes real for the duration.

This is one of those novels that are not for the casual mystery reader - it is filled with tragedy and is definitely not for the faint at heart or people who think there is some measure of redemption in any situation. At the same time, I couldn't help but be blown away by Burke's rather heady writing which captured my attention from the outset and never let me down. I would recommend it, definitely, but beware the darkness.

fiction from Wales

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Secret of Chimneys AND how the heck did Jane Marple get there?

288 pp.
originally published 1925

As the story opens, one Anthony Cade is working as a tour guide in Africa. At a bar one day Cade meets an old buddy, James McGrath, who has been tasked with the delivery of the memoirs of the now-dead Count Stylptitch of Herzoslovakia to a London publishing firm. But McGrath has decided to seek his fortune in the gold fields, and offers Cade a tidy sum to go to England with the memoirs and a stash of letters that could be blackmail fodder for an unsuspecting Virginia Revel. Cade is off to England, and finds himself caught up between two sides of a touchy political situation. He also finds that he is a target of some very nasty people who are trying to get both the memoirs and the letters. The situation leads him to a house called Chimneys, the home of Lord Caterham, his daughter Bundle, and various diplomats and others interested in the political situation in Herzoslovakia. Upon his arrival, Cade finds himself as a chief suspect in the death of Prince Michael Obolovitch, the heir to the Herzoslovakian throne and negotiator of British oil interests in that country. Enter Superintendent Battle and the hunt for the murderer begins.

As with most Christie novels, there are plenty of suspects, an abundance of motives, and an interesting array of lead characters. Unlike most of her stories, this one is filled with political intrigue, and the reader has to digest the background story of the country of Herzoslovakia before really delving into the mystery. This may be a bit off-putting to regular Christie readers, but it's worth the time and effort to get the story and the list of who's who regarding that nation as it sets an important backdrop to the various criminal activity throughout the book.  It is rather complicated and at times convoluted, but still an interesting read, with a lovely twist at the end. 

If I were a reader who has decided that he or she would like to read through the Christie novels, I would not want to start with this one, since imho, it doesn't deliver the best Christie has to offer. My advice: read through the Poirots and the Marples, then tackle the others for something just a bit different.

Having said all of that, my local PBS station is airing "The Secret of Chimneys" as part of the Masterpiece Mystery! series, which is set to TiVo from my television this evening. For me, there is absolutely nothing like reading a book and then watching it come to life on the screen (in that order).  So wondering who's going to play whom, I went over to the PBS website and discovered that lo and behold, the star of this program is Miss Jane Marple, you know, the newest one, Julia McKenzie.  And then I said "what?????"  Okay, actually my "what" was more like WTF -- this isn't a Miss Marple mystery at all! How does it happen that this nice little old lady from St. Mary Mead is dropped into a murder mystery at an English country home filled with political intrigue and some pretty rotten bad guys when she wasn't even in Christie's original story? And why does the blurb say "based on the novel by Agatha Christie?"

I wonder if the writers of the screenplay (John Strickland, Paul Rutman) were sitting around one day thinking that they ought to throw in Miss Marple just for the heck of it, because surely they actually read the original story.  But perhaps not -- it seems that Miss Marple has shown up in a Tommy and Tuppence adventure as well. As a Christie purist, this really upsets me and takes out some of the fun of watching the televised Secret of Chimneys because I know that Chimneys didn't really host Miss Marple, so what is she doing there? Maybe the screenwriters thought no one actually reads Agatha Christie any more and that no one would notice.

Not that this issue will consume my entire day, but it is rather annoying. Is it too much to ask, do you think, that screenwriters at least get the characters straight? I like my screen adaptations to be adapted -- not made up. Maybe I'll drop a line and see if I get an answer!

 fiction from England

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Ice Princess, by Camilla Läckberg

Pegasus Books
Originally published as Isprinsessan, 2002
trans. Steven T. Murray

Erica Falck, the main character of this story, is a writer of biographies of famous women. However, after her childhood friend Alex Carlgren-Wijkner is found dead, Alex's family asks Erica to write a commemoration of her life for the local newspaper in Fjällbacka, where Alex lived until age 10 and where she was later found dead in her parents' old home.  Erica does the article, but decides that she would like to write more about Alex - maybe a book. While working on her draft, she noticed that
...the material was increasingly taking on the form of a crime novel, a genre to which she'd never felt particularly attracted. It was people -- their relationships and psychological motivations -- that she was interested in; she thought that was something most crime novels had to give up in favour of bloody murders and cold shivers running down the spine. (112)
Lackberg, like her creation Erica Falck, is also interested in the "relationships and psychological motivations" of the people in her novel.  Alex Wijkner, the dead woman, is an enigma. She was Erica's best friend until one day Alex and her family moved away without saying goodbye. As Erica set to work interviewing people who knew her, Erica came to realize that everyone loved Alex, but nobody really knew her, because Alex never really got close enough to anyone to reveal herself.  But evidently someone wanted Alex out of the way, because now she's dead. But why? What possible motivation could anyone have to want to do away with her, since she was so widely admired? As Erica plunges deeper into Alex's life, she realizes that while the who is important, the why also continues to elude her. For help she turns to an old admirer, Patrik Hedstrom, now a police officer, who can go places Erica cannot, and together they begin to peel back Alex's complicated story, layer by layer. They also come to realize that some people will go to great lengths to prevent this story from coming out so as to protect secrets long hidden and buried away. 

The author's unraveling of  "psychological motivations" behind Alex's death is very well done, eked out little by little, creating a good deal of suspense until all is finally revealed. To start with such an enigmatic victim is a good move and a great way to ensure reader interest until the end. And setting the novel in the small town of Fjällbacka emphasizes the fact that a) tensions can run high in a small town or community where everyone knows your business or at least wants to, and b) murder can happen anywhere, not just in big cities. There is also a nice sense of place evoked here, while at the same time a familiar lament comes through regarding the beauty of this seaside town being wrecked by tourists, although the money from people on their vacations is badly needed. All of these things combined make The Ice Princess  a good read.

But perhaps there is too much emphasis on the "personal relationships" mentioned above. As long as the examination of personal relationships and the character development are pertinent and therefore necessary to the crime, I'm very interested. Human beings and their psyches are, after all, at the root of all crime, and one reason Scandinavian crime fiction authors are among my favorites is because they are very good at creating very human and complicated people, both good guys and bad.  But when the characters slip into lengthy romantic interludes or comic diversions that pull me away from the plot, then I'm distracted.  I realize this is a personal thing I have with crime fiction & mysteries, and I had to think about my own reading prejudices before trying to set down my thoughts about this book. I happen to be one of those people mentioned by Lackberg via Erica who prefers the "bloody murders and the cold shivers running down the spine,"  and I like my crime more streamlined, complicated and somewhat creepy.  For me, there was a bit too much time turned over to romance in this story, and in that aspect, it reminded me more of some cozy novels I used to read. While Erica and Patrik's growing relationship probably helps to make them more rounded characters, I found myself doing the quick skim through these parts to get back to the crime. The romance scenes tended to break up the suspense of what was going on with Alex's death and I couldn't wait to get back to the revelations at hand. The same was true with the scenes at the police station, with the parts featuring the ineptitude of a few of the local cops. While those scenes provided some comic relief, I didn't think I needed any -- again, I was much more focused on the crime and getting back to the main plotline. But then again, that's just me.

I failed to guess the who and the why, so that's a very good thing, and overall, the main thrust of the story was well written with a good plotline and good mystery at its core. This book has received many excellent reviews, and I would recommend it, despite my nigglings above. And I plan to read the other books in this series as well, so obviously I liked it.

 fiction from Sweden

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Water-Blue Eyes, by Domingo Villar

Originally published, 2006 as Ojos de Agua
Translated by Martin Schifino
Eurocrime/Arcadia Books, 2008
167 pp.

--> Leo Caldas is a homicide inspector in the city of Vigo, which lies on the northwestern coast of Spain in the region of Galicia. His partner is Rafael Estévez, who had recently been transferred there from Zaragoza in Aragón, and who has a bit of a problem understanding local attitudes, not to mention the steep streets or the weather. As the novel opens, Caldas is working at his gig on a local radio talk and listener phone-in show, “Patrol in the Air.”  He’s rather tired of doing this show, because while he waits for someone to bring up the topic of murder, most people call in with matters that are more appropriate for the city police. But just after program #108, Estévez arrives to take Caldas to a high-rise apartment building on the island of Toralla, which sits in the bay off of Vigo, scene of a rather brutal murder of a saxophone player.  It’s the method of death which leads Caldas and his partner to discover where they should begin their search for suspects – the vital evidence which may have helped has been cleaned up by the victim’s housekeeper. 

Villar’s characters are well drawn. As a policeman, Caldas is a professional, but with the arrival of Estévez he has to work a bit harder to keep his partner out of trouble. Caldas has a father who makes wine in the countryside, and the two don’t see each other often because the father is unhappy that his son went to live in the city. He also enjoys good local delicacies and local wines, and was in a prior relationship with a woman named Alba, but due to a disagreement about having children, they’re no longer together. Rafael Estévez is a sort of a sidekick figure, who provides a bit of comic relief here and there, but who becomes easily frustrated with the lack of black-and-white answers he gets from the locals and often flies off the handle. Estévez is perpetually amazed that when Caldas introduces himself during their investigation, people readily identify him with “Patrol in the Air,” which happens throughout the story and provides a bit of a running comedy schtick between the two.

Water-Blue Eyes is just 167 pages long, but crime fiction readers will not be disappointed. There’s nothing extraneous to detract from the investigation --  no long-winded character portrayals, no overly-detailed analyses, and even the murder is described just enough to allow the reader to know what happened without going into overkill.  There is never any desire to skim over long, boring sections because there aren’t any. It also easily offers a good sense of place, so that you can smell the forests as well as the sea while you read, and your mouth will water at the delicious local food mentioned throughout the novel.

There’s another book out by Villar featuring Leo Caldas called La Playa de los Ahogados, but it has not yet been translated; when it is, I’m there. But for now, I can highly recommend Water-Blue Eyes. This is my first work of Spanish crime fiction, and now I’m on the hunt for more. 


fiction from Spain


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Taken at the Flood, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins (Masterpiece edition)
2008, 224 pp
originally published 1948
apa: There is a Tide

  In 1944, as the German bombs are falling, Hercule Poirot is safely ensconced in the Coronation Club, when he first hears of the Cloade family. It seems the family patriarch & millionaire, Gordon, was killed when a bomb hit his London home, but his young wife was spared. As it turns out, the wife had previously been married to a Robert Underhay, who had mysteriously disappeared in Africa and was presumed dead. Two years later, Poirot receives a strange visit from one of the Cloade family of Warmsley Vale who has received a message from the spirit world that Robert Underhay is not really dead.  Not long after, he reads about  the death of an Enoch Arden in the same village.

Christie then takes the story to Warmsley Vale, and introduces the Cloade family. It seems that all of them were financially dependent on Gordon Cloade, and that this young wife, Rosaleen, has thrown a bit of a monkey wrench into the situation. Living now in Gordon's home with her brother David, Rosaleen was the sole beneficiary to Gordon's vast estate, and David stands between the family and financial assistance. Rosaleen, it seems, is eager to help, but David despises the rest of the Cloades and refuses to lend them a penny. Things go from bad to worse when a mysterious stranger, one Enoch Arden (the namesake of a poem from Tennyson) appears with a bizarre story about Robert Underhay. Pretty soon someone ends up dead. It is Poirot's job to not only figure out who the murderer is, but to get to the bottom of the whole mess. This won't be a simple task.

With several suspects to choose from, Taken at the Flood is one of those stories where the truth is unraveled bit by bit, so that the reader is not really sure of the whodunit until the end. There are plenty of red herrings to sort through -- and just when you think you know who it is, something else pops up to make you think again. Throughout the novel there is a buildup of suspense as you wonder what is really going on here.

Not my favorite of Agatha Christie's novels, it is still an enjoyable read. There is a small peek at some of the hardships of postwar British life that enhances the sense of the desperation of these characters, and Christie manages to keep the underlying tension running throughout the novel.

Taken at the Flood is Poirot's 27th adventure - and he's still going strong, although the earlier Poirot novels of the 20s & 30s were more to my liking. Recommended for fans of Poirot and for Agatha Christie readers in general - these books may be old, but they're still worth reading.

 fiction from England