Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Black Minutes, by Martín Solares

Black Cat (Grove/Atlantic), 2010
433 pp
translated by Aura Estrada and John Pluecker

The setting of this novel is Mexico, in the city of Paracuán, a fictional port town,where "everything good disappears right when it's about to arrive."  It is a town where graft, corruption, and violence are an every day reality, where justice is just another word rather than a true concept.   While the police there are busy investigating crimes, the politicians ensure that if the drug cartels are involved, the police direct their attention elsewhere, often leading to the arrest and sentencing of otherwise innocent people.  Journalists who question the system are about as welcome as the plague. 

It is one such journalist who is at the heart of this mystery.  Bernardo Blanco died during an investigation into a case of multiple homicides that had occurred twenty years earlier.  At that time, a number of young girls were killed by a man known only at the time as "The Jackal." The crimes were particularly gruesome, and Blanco, it seems, was on to the true identity of the man and was researching and writing a book.  When he is found murdered, the police chief puts Agent Ramón "Macetón" Cabrera on the case, "the only subordinate, who, in his opinion, could still be trusted." The chief's choice of lead investigators doesn't sit well with another police detective, Agent Chávez, and throughout the story, Cabrera finds himself in a precarious position both physically and politically for good reason: in Paracuán, between the power of the local drug cartel, the politicians in its pockets, the powerful business interests and the criminals whose crimes are often ignored, an honest cop is a rarity.  His questioning begins to produce some interesting leads, but just when he feels he's starting to get somewhere, he's pulled off the case.  It isn't long before Cabrera finds himself in a hospital after his car is deliberately rammed by a pickup -- it seems someone else doesn't want Cabrera on the case either.   As the novel progresses, Solares takes his readers back to the 20-year old Jackal case and its investigation by Detective Vicente Rangel, a former bar musician turned cop.  The story runs along two parallel courses, and eventually both plotlines are united. 

Yet while the book is definitely a novel of crime fiction on the noir side of a police procedural, it also takes several surreal turns.  There are several areas where Solares introduces what is in the minds of the characters via their subconscious, the only orderly respite they have from all of the disorder of the society in which they exist. For example, Rangel brings in a known criminologist, Dr. Quiroz Cuarón, called "The Mexican Sherlock Holmes" by Time Magazine. Cuarón is this close to solving the case, but is plagued by a strange man in black before he can give Rangel his answer.  He also carries antidotes to known poisons in his first aid kit, which comes in handy when he suspects a conspiracy against him. Then there's the story of the author B. Traven (most known for his The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), one of the most famous visitors to Paracuán, who describes in detail how he came to be there, straight out of his novel The Death Ship. And if that's not enough, there are constant references to UFOs and the UFO craze.  But the writing is not random -- at the novel's heart is a look at a corrupt system that Solares seems to pin not only on the influence of the drug cartels, but on the presidency of Luis Echeverria -- a leader well known for his link to the cartels, for corruption and graft, and especially for the brutality of his special forces.  The book truly is, as Junot Diaz notes in his little blurb, "Latin American fiction at its pulpy phantasmagorical finest," but in an outstanding sort of serious way.

Frankly, it's tough to believe that this is Solares' first novel, because it is so intense and so captivatingly well written.  The Black Minutes is a mix of crime fiction and literature; simultaneously, it's an indictment of the corruption and the lack of the chance for real justice in a country where the police seem to be powerless due to several factors, most notably politics and the power of the drug cartels. It also predicts an uncertain future for the lives of Mexican citizens and for the country in general.  The novel is dark, edgy and downright unputdownable, and if you're a reader of crime fiction who doesn't mind the occasional trip into the human psyche or into politics, I highly recommend it. If you don't read crime fiction for the writing but rather the crime, you might still like it... there are enough suspects, a desire to get to the truth of it all, and the why behind the crimes, all classic elements of mystery and crime writing. Personally speaking, however, the crime aspect began to take on more of a secondary role as I got to the end  of the book, and  I came to see it more as a vehicle through which Solares could examine this most distressing situation that currently exists in his country.  
fiction from Mexico

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Troubled Man, by Henning Mankell

Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf
2011; originally published as Den orolige mannen, 2009
translated by Laurie Thompson

Without giving anything away, pretty much everyone knows by now that The Troubled Man is the last Wallander novel, and once again within the space of a month I'm having to say goodbye to not only a favorite series, but to a favorite character as well.  I hate when this happens, but series readers know it's likely inevitable at some point.

"It began with the troubled man," who in this case is Håkan von Enke, retired naval officer, husband of Louise and father of Hans. Hans, as it turns out, is a hedge-fund manager and Linda Wallander's significant other, with whom she has a new baby girl.  At Håkan's 75th birthday party, he takes Wallander aside and tells him a rather odd story about a strange incident that occurred during the Cold War, involving Soviet submarines in a Swedish naval installation.  As Wallander listens with interest, he notices Håkan watching someone watching him.  And then, shortly afterwards, Håkan simply disappears while out on a routine walk.  Even though he vanishes out of Wallander's police jurisdiction, Linda begs her father to find out what happened, and Wallander becomes involved.  But when Louise vanishes without a trace, his involvement deepens, and he begins to wonder if both incidents have anything to do with events that happened in the past, in terms of both politics and long-held family secrets.  But von Enke is not the only troubled man in the story -- that title can also be applied to Kurt Wallander himself.  At 60, with a new granddaughter, he spends a great deal of time looking back at life and his relationships -- with Linda, his ex-wife Mona, his father, his co-workers and old friends, often with regrets, sometimes with questions about what might have been.  But more importantly, he's got another cause for concern: lapses in his memory that begin to worry him, especially as he reflects on his father.

I've loved this series from its beginning, and although I've  liked some books better than others, it's always been consistent even up to this last installment.  Wallander remains the same old gloomy Gus he's always been, deeply involved in whatever case he takes on to the detriment of his health and sometimes his family.  This is a much more morose Wallander in The Troubled Man, but he's still working hard to solve the mystery of the two disappearances.  Unlike most of the other books, however, there's a lot of detail here that tends to bog things down sometimes -- mostly involving Swedish Cold War politics, NATO, the US Government -- that can get a bit tedious after a while.  Not that it's not important to the's just a bit overdone. And Mankell's novels (like those of many author Scandinavian authors)  all have a message to be conveyed dealing with politics or social issues -- that also is the case here.  But what really made this book for me unlike the others in the series  was not so much the mystery or the detective work (both of which are well plotted, by the way), but this time it was Wallander himself. Seasoned Mankell veterans who've followed the series book by book will notice through Wallander's reflections and other devices little reminders of the other Wallander stories scattered throughout, all the more poignant now that this is the last of them.

You don't need to read them all in order, but why wouldn't you? Especially given that this is the last of one of the best crime fiction series out there, wouldn't you want Wallander's entire history before opening this final book?  As Mankell is telling his readers in this story, there are just some things you need to figure out for yourselves, but as for me,  I'm happy I read each one book by book.

Thanks to  Henning Mankell (like he'll ever see this, but what the heck) for the number of hours throughout my life I've had my nose buried in a Wallander novel  -- I've loved every second.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Frozen Assets, by Quentin Bates

Soho Press, 2011
330 pp.

Frozen Assets is both the author's first novel and the first entry of a new series featuring Gunnhildur Gisládottir of the Hvalvik police in Iceland.  Gunna is in her mid-thirties, a widowed mother of two, and used to dealing with small town crimes like speeding and the occasional uncooperative drunk. But things change when the body of a drunken stranger is discovered floating in the water of a small boat dock with no ID except an odd tattoo.  In trying to identify the dead man, her investigation leads her to a company called Spearpoint, a PR firm headquartered in Reykjavik which just incidentally happens to have an interest in a development project in Hvalvik. The inquiries remain pretty routine until one of the staff at Spearpoint reveals to Gunna  that some time back, a friend of the dead man had been killed in a car accident.  Gunna begins to wonder if there is a link between the two deaths, and the investigation takes off from there, with Gunna setting her sights on catching a killer and not letting up until the job is done. 

But wait...there's much more. Interwoven into the main story are entries from an anonymous and elusive "Skandalblogger," a muckraker who seems to have his or her finger on the pulse of what's happening in government circles and in the private lives of connected others, such as the owner of Spearpoint, Sigurjóna Huldudottír and her randy sister, two of the blogger's favorite targets.  The blogger's mission is to expose high-level government corruption and personal greed that affects the average tax-paying citizen, while simultaneously spilling personal secrets that embarrass and enrage the already high-maintenance Sigurjóna,  who wants the Skandalblogger's head on a platter.  As things heat up, the author also  builds on the environment and Iceland's banking crisis of 2008 to add another dimension to the story. All of the various threads are eventually linked together, with enough of a hint of a series yet to be at the end.

Considering that this is the author's first novel, Gunna's character is quite well developed. She's down to earth, common sensical and follows her nose, despite unwanted interruptions from superiors.  She's to the point, often brash in her role as cop, but at the same time, the reader senses some vulnerabilities within her on a personal level.  And she's not a stick-figure gorgeous detective like so many authors insist on having as a main character but more on the bigger side, and is often referred to as the fat cop or even once "a big fat lass with a face that frightens the horses." It is downright refreshing  to have a strong female lead character who isn't too overly concerned with her love life or lack of one, who is built like a real person and in her mid-30s and one who speaks her mind and follows her instincts and her nose.   The author also does a great job with the people you come to dislike in the novel as well -- Sigurjóna, the histrionic owner of Spearpoint whose employees cringe when anything goes wrong knowing they're going to hear about it; the bad guy who has a personality as cold as glacial ice, government officials who don't care about the average citizen, and others as well.

You won't find any romance or silliness here (yay) but what you will find is an intriguing story that is well paced, with a sense of place that adds to the overall atmosphere of the story.  It's definitely not in cozy league, but  it's not quite as edgy or dark as an Indridason novel.  What you get is  something a bit lighter in overall tone that picks up as the story moves along.  The author continues the trend of adding in the political and economic woes of the system, a trend I happen to like,  but I know of many other people who can't get past it and want only the action of the crime and its solution. Personally speaking,  I think incorporating these various elements only adds to the overall sense of place and time, creating something more realistic in the long run.

 It's  difficult to believe that Frozen Assets is the author's first novel. I think this one will appeal to crime fiction readers in general because of the strong lead character, and regular readers of Scandinavian crime fiction will also find it to be a good start to another ongoing series.