Friday, July 22, 2011

Three Seconds by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom wins the CWA International Dagger Award

Well, that just goes to show you...don't ever bet on my choices for award winners!  I just read on EuroCrime that this year's International Dagger goes to Three Seconds.  My bet was on Needle in a Haystack, but as usual, I was wrong.

So, congratulations to the authors, and I hope that this win shows people here in the US that there is Scandinavian crime fiction beyond Stieg Larsson.  Now, I'm just going to sit and wait for Karen to post the list of next year's possibilities so I can start reading for next year!

Total Chaos, by Jean-Claude Izzo

Europa Editions, 2006
originally published as Total Khéops, 1995
translated by Howard Curtis
248 pp.

Note: Yes, I'm supposed to be reading Sweet Money by Ernesto Mallo, but I needed to make an initial entry for the Europa Challenge Blog before the month runs out.   On to the review of this book.

Marseilles isn't a city for tourists. There's nothing to see. Its beauty can't be photographed. It can only be shared.  It's a place where you have to take sides, be passionately for or against. Only then can you see what there is to see.  And you realize too late, that you're in the middle of a tragedy.  An ancient tragedy in which the hero is death. In Marseilles, even to lose you have to know how to fight.

First in a collective set of works known as The Marseilles Trilogy, Total Chaos falls into the neo-noir category, which is more modern and literary in character while sharing many of the same characteristics of classic noir.   There is nothing cutesy at all about this novel. It is a gritty, down and dirty kind of story that is set in a Marseilles of the 1990s.  It is also, like many other translated crime fiction novels, steeped in the politics, social issues and economic realities of the day.  While this can be off-putting for some readers, for me, it only enhances the setting and sense of place of these works, resulting in a much more believable and realistic end product.

The story is told through a mix of current action and through the main character, Detective Fabio Montale, who spends a great deal of  time reflecting on his past.  Two of his childhood friends, Manu and Ugo, have been murdered. In their youth, all three boys, from immigrant families, got caught up in the criminal life, but after a druggist was shot during a robbery,  Montale, who didn't have the stomach for this kind of life,  made a vow that if the druggist "pulled through", he'd become a priest; if not, he'd become a cop.  After leaving Marseilles for a stint in the Colonial Army, Montale returned to Marseilles, where he did become a cop; Manu and Ugo graduated to the full-time life of the criminal underworld.  But now, despite the past and the fact that he had virtually alienated himself from his two friends,   those old bonds lead Montale to step in to find out who killed Ugo, who had returned to avenge Manu's death and had then himself been killed. As he sets about investigating their deaths, he is stunned when the daughter of a friend is killed -- and discovers that there is a link between all of the crimes.  But this is not a police procedural novel -- it's noir, which often consists of action that is like watching two trains about to collide -- you know that it's going to be bad, but you just can't pull yourself away. And as Montale gets closer to the whys and the whos, he finds himself not only in danger, but in a downhill skid in both his personal and professional life.

And if the crime story was the meat of the book, it would be good, but much like other books out there on the market or on library shelves. However,  Izzo draws the reader deeply into the neighborhoods of the city of Marseilles, from the cuttlefish pizza and the street music to the longstanding pressures and mistrust brought about by fears based on immigration.   He portrays Marseilles as a vibrant mix of cultures -- Italian, African, Middle Eastern, Vietnamese, Armenians and Portuguese to name a few.  Then, of course, there are the French.  But it's also be a place where racism and prejudice are sparked by  a "fear as old as the city," (lately augmented by the xenophobic National Front party), starting with a
downturn in the economy and the rise in unemployment.  The more unemployment there was, the more people became of the immigrants.  And the number of Arabs seemed to be increasing along with the unemployment! In the Sixties, the French had lived off the fat of the land. Now they had nothing, they wanted it for themselves! Nobody else was allowed to come and steal a crumb. And that's what the Arabs were doing, stealing our own poverty off our plates.
 Izzo notes that no one really believes this, but states that people of Marseilles found themselves in somewhat of a stranglehold based on these fears, not being able to "think straight," or see how to "reinvent themselves the way they'd always done."  And the police weren't helping ... while Montale believes in community policing, his boss makes it patently clear that the politically, there were "higher dividends" to be made by fanning the flames.  As he tells Montale, community policing, outreach and prevention were all "crap". Considering the corruption and racism that runs through Montale's department, this is no surprise.

But at the same time, the reality of life for the bulk of  immigrants like those from the Middle East was along these lines:

Fear of Arabs had made the people of Marseilles flee the downtown area to other neighborhoods away from the center where they felt safer....The Arabs had regrouped downtown. They'd taken over from the whites who'd fled, who'd washed their hands of Cours Belzance and Rue d'Aix, and all the narrow rundown streets between Belzunce and the Alles de Meilhan and the Saint-Charles railroad station. Streets full of hookers. Buildings unfit for human habitation, flea-ridden hotels. Successive waves of immigrants had passed through these streets, until redevelopment had pushed them out to the suburbs.  The latest redevelopment was happening now, and the suburbs had moved to the very edge of the city. Septiemes-les-Vallons, and out toward Les Pennes-Mirabeau. They were farther out all of the time, until they'd be out of Marseilles altogether.

But the kicker is that despite all of the ugliness,  Montale (and obviously Izzo as well) loves Marseilles, and believes that life is more than the hatred, racism and violence -- that it is a place where "people liked to live, to have a good time. That happiness was a new idea every day, even if the night ended with some strong-arm guy checking your identity."  And he is quick to note that the "immigrants" are more likely the sons or daughters of immigrants, native French citizens in their own right.  Izzo's beautifully captured the scene: the neighborhoods that stick together against outsiders, the fear-driven prejudice and above all,  the contradictions that exist in this society. Time and again he comes back to the point that in many cases, the practices established by  local  politics, police, business owners etc., are what continue to keep the immigrant population down at heel, both economically and socially, leading many to seek material gain (or simply make a living) through crime.  

As a novel, Total Chaos definitely has all of the classic traits of any noir story and they work.   Montale is surrounded by the beautiful buxom babes that provide him comfort and assistance. He has a fine affinity with the booze. He's had it as a cop and takes on avenging his dead friends and trying to be a friend to the down and out as a way of finding some meaning in his otherwise empty life, and meanwhile, finds peace in his boat in the sea.  As a character he becomes real through his love for the city and through his disgust at the system.  There's also the morally-bankrupt, Mafia-type gangsters who run not just the backstreets of the city, but have their claws into the more sophisticated joints as well.  The system, including the cops, is corrupt.  But what keeps it from becoming just another novel full of crime-ridden clichés is the city of Marseilles and the"total chaos"  of life there.  It's a good novel, although at times it is difficult to follow and relies on a couple of coincidences that as a rule, rankle me as a reader of crime fiction. The end comes quick and heavy, as if Izzo reminded himself that "oh yeah. I also have a crime I need to see through to the end." And I disliked a couple of Montale's female cohorts -- they didn't come across as very realistic people and they were annoying.   But despite those niggles, I enjoyed the book, not so much for the crime element, although  it serves my intermittent need for the guilty pleasure of edgy and gritty noir.  For me the illumination of  a small specific slice of life was an eye opener, a piece of France I'd never read about.  Total Chaos is not a novel for cozy readers, to be sure, but people who enjoy more hardboiled crime fiction, a cop with an existentialist crisis, and a sense of place that never stops might like this one.

crime fiction from France

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Three Seconds, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellström

Silver Oak/Sterling/Quercus, 2010
originally published as Tre Sekunder, 2009
translated by Kari Dickson
489 pp.

Three seconds:
The time it would take for the ammunition, in a wind strength of seven meters per second and a temperature of eighteen degrees Celsius, to leave the church tower and at a distance of fifteen hundred three meters to hit a head in a workshop window.

Just whose head is in said window is only of the questions in this quick-paced thriller ride of a novel, the third by Roslund and Hellstrom after The Beast  and Box 21, both of which were superb, although the latter was  infuriating.  Three Seconds also won the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers’ Award for Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, and falls just this side of the line of what I would consider more edgy and gritty crime, although it's closer than most of what I've been reading lately.

The authors take a new tack in this novel, which centers around a police informant code name Paula, real name Piet Hoffman. Piet has done something unprecedented: he's infiltrated the Polish mafia to the point where he is put in charge of their drug operations in Sweden.  When we meet Piet, he's going through the regurgitated stomach contents of a drug mule, who has smuggled in amphetamine in little rubber balls.  He also has an appointment with a buyer who's going to drop a lot of money if the product is good.  But during the deal, watched over by no-nonsense mafia associates, something goes terribly wrong -- and the buyer is killed.  The police are called in (long after Hoffman and friends have vacated the place), and Detective Inspector Ewert Grens is put in charge of the case. It isn't long until the body of the buyer is identified: it is an undercover Danish police informant, working on a drug case for the cops there. But this story is just the tip of the iceberg: this little branch of the Polish mafia has decided that they can increase their coffers by taking over the prison drug market, "the closed market" -- and leave it to Hoffman to figure out how to make this work.  There's really only one way -- Hoffman must get himself arrested and put into prison to remove the current drug dealers and take over the system.  At the same time, Hoffman will be helping out the Swedish police nail the Polish drug lords.    But first he wants a guarantee....

While the novel thankfully doesn't proclaim Roslund and Hellstrom to be the "next Stieg Larsson," as many publishers touting new crime fiction coming from Scandinavia seem to be doing, I couldn't help being reminded of Larsson's Millenium series, especially The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest, due to the vast amount of detail about political and police corruption that exists in Sweden.  The authors are also meticulous in detailing Hoffman's plans down to the last possible contingency -- and frankly, the attention given to Hoffman is one of the finer points of this book, although I didn't like him personally as a character. Grens is the other star of this show, and if  you've read Box 21, you'll remember him as the older, curmudgeonly inspector of a most horrifying case who made a very bad decision (I won't go into it here, but suffice it to say, it was most disappointing and I remember wanting to throw the book across the room at the time), or as the cop who was never without his music by a Swedish pop singer named Siw Malmkvist, driving his colleagues crazy -- well, he's quite different in this novel, having to finally deal with his grief over the loss of his partner both at home and on the force, Anni. Still in the throes of depression, still sometimes laying on the floor, he has only a few days to bring something more to the death of the dead Danish police informant before the prosecutor downgrades the case.  And as things begin to heat up in the investigation, which sadly, doesn't really happen for quite a long time here, he becomes a pit bull, refusing to let go of his findings, no matter what the cost. As an aside,  I have to wonder if he did this to atone for his earlier actions, but that's something the reader will have to decide for him or herself. 

While the book is definitely an action-packed page turner as you ponder a) how the heck Hoffman is going to come out of all this as things begin to fall apart from the very beginning and b) if Grens is going to be able to solve this case, it is a bit slow in places.  For example, there are several spots where the author repeats bits of conversation and plans we've already read, most notably when Hoffman mulls things over and over in his mind.  This happens quite frequently throughout the story and is a bit irritating.  Or then there's the odd page or two showing what a bad dad Hoffman is, drugging his kids here and there, or  taking them along to watch videos of Winnie the Pooh while he cuts amphetamines with grape sugar at his office.  And it takes forever for the really dynamic stuff to happen. And okay, enough with the politics sometimes.  But overall, it's a good read, one that will keep the reader's attention from page one onward through until the end. 

I liked this book, and it's definitely recommended if you're into Scandinavian crime fiction, although I think that it might be wise to start from the series' beginning so you get a handle on Ewert Grens and what makes him tick. Coming into this one without that background might be a bit tricky.  I've already preordered Cell 8, by this awesome writing pair, and if that's not recommendation enough for their books,  well, I don't know what else I can say.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Just a few things: 1) re the CWA International Dagger shortlist reads; 2) my choice for said award; 3) review of Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo

With sincere apologies to the author (like he's going to read this, but whatever) I've decided not to read Parot's The Saint-Florentin Murders, because after looking at it, I've realized that it's #5 in the series and I can't jump this far into the middle without knowing anything about the characters or the past storylines, etc.  I can't help it -- I'm a series purist and there's absolutely no time to pick up the other four and read them, especially if they're as hefty as this one!  I probably should have figured this out much earlier, but it is what it is.

This means I have a brand new, unread copy if anyone would like it -- gratis, international is okay. First person to leave a comment on this post takes it.

Second, I'm currently finishing up Three Seconds, and will post a review probably on Sunday. Let me just say that I liked Box 21 much better, but we'll get to that in a couple of days.

If I were voting, my bet would be on Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo. I read this last November and was completely blown away by how very well written it is.  After finishing that book, I went on to make a list of other books set in that awful time period (both crime fiction and literature), and have been happily reading ever since.  When I got back from my vacation, his Sweet Money was waiting for me here, and I am going to waste no time delving into it, although I did wonder how he was going to do a sequel, considering the ending of Needle in a Haystack.  

Finally, a note about upcoming reads: I'm plowing through all of the Camilleri books and seeking out crime fiction authors enjoyed by Salvo Montalbano, noting, ordering and stacking, so expect to see reviews of books by authors like Antonio Tabucchi, Manuel Vazquez Montalban and Friedrich Durrenmatt.   I also joined the Europa Challenge, so I'll be reading crime fiction published by Europa Editions for a while -- by authors like Jean-Claude Izzo, Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett and Carlo Lucarelli to name a few.  And then there are all the new books I've been slowly piling up, like Misterioso by Arne Dahl, which has been tempting me since I got home.  I often regret having to sleep -- there are so many evil deeds and great detectives to read about.

Death on a Galician Shore, by Domingo Villar

Abacus, 2011
originally published as La playa de lost ahogados,  2009
translated by Sonia Soto
371 pp

Death on a Galician Shore is the second book in the Leo Caldas series, following Villar's awesome Water-Blue Eyes,  which I read and enjoyed very much last year.  It's not a gritty, edgy novel, but it's not on the lighter side either. 

Set in Galicia, which is composed of four different provinces in the northwestern part of Spain, the action begins when the body of fisherman Justo Castelo (aka El Rubio)  is washed up on the shore at Panxón. His wrists were bound, his palms pressed together with a flexible, green plastic tie strip. It might have been suicide, and it may have been an accident, but Inspector Caldas doesn't think so.  There's just something not right about the placement of the cable tie on his hands, and then there's a head wound to take into account, leading the Inspector to believe that it's looking more like a possible murder.   The problem is that the last time he was seen was on a Sunday, out on his boat, alone, which a) is normally a day of rest so no one fishes, and b) puts Justo in the boat by himself with no one else.  So Caldas and his assistant Rafa Estevez leave Vigo and head off to Panxón to investigate.  What they find is a great deal of reluctance among the villagers to talk and few clues, except for a couple of things:  Castelo had seemed to be scared lately, and he had  once crewed with a captain whose boat had foundered in a storm ten years earlier.  The crew made it to shore, but the captain drowned, and  recently people swear they have seen his ghost.  But with so many people unwilling to talk, it's not going to be an easy crime to solve.

Villar starts with an intriguing premise that quickly captures the reader's interest.  As the crime takes some time to investigate, the action slows while Caldas and Rafa are in the midst of gathering information, taking statements and doing other necessary police investigative work. The pace picks up later in the book as new information is gained, and Leo can pick up the various threads of the story, try out his various theories of the crime,  and pinpoint various suspects with motive to get rid of Castelo.   It seems there are a few, and there are enough red herrings to keep the reader busy trying to sort through them.  The best part of this novel, however, is the atmosphere of the fishing village -- the auctions,  talk about the sad state of the fishing industry, the suspicious and superstitious locals, even the food  -- which all come together to provide a very realistic sense of place that adds to the overall enjoyment of the novel and allows the reader to immerse him or herself in the scene. And, to the author's credit, the novel reads like a novel, not a screenplay, which is highly appreciated and gives the book a very solid footing in the world of crime fiction.

The characters in this novel are all finely drawn -- there's Caldas, who during this story, is preoccupied with thoughts of Alba (the woman who left him) and his father.  There's a constant running gag throughout the novel about his radio show Patrolling the Waves, and the added music that becomes a type of jingle while Leo's thinking of his answers. He's recognized everywhere his show is broadcast.   As a policeman, Caldas is the kind of guy who "...was never interested in the culprits.  To him, the main thing was knowing the motives, the reasons, " and this fact makes him a very diligent policeman, never flagging during an investigation when he feels he's on to something.  If you've read Water-Blue Eyes, you know that his character was well established in that novel; here, there's a bit more about him on the personal side, but nothing really is needed to enhance his detective personality. Rafa Estevez (who isn't actually a native Galician) is also interesting but a bit heavy handed, lacking in patience, and always ready to get tough with a suspect or anyone else that he might not like or who is giving him trouble. But he's Caldas' right-hand man, and has learned much from his boss, especially not to discuss business if Leo's hungry.  And even the suspects and the quirky villagers are well detailed. 

Death on a Galician Shore is a good novel, a solid crime fiction read with a good backstory, and I liked it a great deal, although I think I enjoyed his first book, Water-Blue Eyes a little bit more.  For the sake of understanding Leo's character better, it's best to start with Villar's first novel, but I think anyone could read this one and still have a feel for this Spanish detective. I'll definitely be looking for more of Villar's novels in the future.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An Uncertain Place, by Fred Vargas

Harvill Secker, 2011
originally published as Un lieu incertain, 2008
translated by Sian Reynolds
408 pp

With the publication of An Uncertain Place, English-speaking readers have come to the last of Vargas' translated novels in the Adamsberg series.  And it's probably a good thing to take a break from these novels right now, with the strange direction the stories are beginning to take. More on this topic later.

While in London for a conference, Adamsberg, Danglard and Scotland Yard's DCI Radstock are called to the entrance to Highgate Cemetery, where they come across a bizarre sight: eighteen shoes (nine pair) with seventeen feet inside of them. The feet and the shoes are all from dead people, and Radstock knows that this is going to be problematic. First, he's well on his way to retirement and second, the fact that the feet and shoes were found at Highgate Cemetery is going to open several old cans of worms based on events that had happened there previously.  Adamsberg is captivated, of course, with the strangeness of it all.  But while back in Paris, his attention is diverted (for a short while) by a most gruesome and ghastly murder, one where they can't recover the body, since, as Adamsberg explains to the victim's son:

The body's in pieces.... He was -- what word to use? chopped up? pulverised? -- cut into pieces and scattered round the room...there's nothing left to identify... We've collected what's left of him, by going ever square metre of the room and placing what we find in numbered containers. Fory-eight square metres, forty-eight containers.

It's not long until the police believe they've discovered a motive for the murder - the dead man left the bulk of his estate not to his son, but to the gardener.  But, as usual, working on his intuition, Adamsberg is sure the gardener didn't do it.  Eventually DNA and a second murder will prove him right, and the real killer is identified. His identity is published in the newspaper, giving him a chance to flee. But despite the identification, there are still a number of details that bug Adamsberg, and as he's investigating, he begins to realize that there are forces at work behind the scenes that wish to prevent the murder from being solved. He only has a few days to get to the bottom of things, and his work will eventually lead him to a village in Serbia populated by people who still believe in the old vampire legends.  That's the bare-bones plot of this novel, but as usual, there are many other storylines that crop up and converge before it's all over.

Once again, Vargas has presented her readers with a highly unlikely and implausible plot, this time with gothic overtones and hints of the supernatural that take on a life of their own as the story progresses.  And there are, as in her previous novel, also some highly unlikely moments that keep the reader on his or her toes trying to keep up with events.   New people are introduced and some old ones return, some of whom link back to Adamsberg's past.  I didn't guess the who; I did figure out the why early on -- the plot is quite obvious, but there are some red herrings to swim through to keep the reader occupied with all of the twists and turns that characterize this book.

I'm of two minds about this novel.  First, as I noted above, it's probably a good time to put this series away for a while, because I'm not sure what prompted Vargas to take the direction she did in this novel (unless it's the paranormal fiction blitz of the last couple of years) and in the last, This Night's Foul Work. I can understand her wanting to have fun with her characters and with her readers, which is a good thing, but it seems that these last couple of books were way over the top in implausibility and  plot, veering off into the realm of myth and legend. And the twists and turns of this novel really turned into meandering streams at times, a bit muddled and difficult to follow.    As one commenter on another one of my Vargas posts wrote, it's highly likely Vargas wrote these books "tongue-in-cheek." I have the same impression, and it's fun for a while, but I need something different now, something more on solid footing as a novel of crime fiction.   On the other hand, I must say that I liked this book a) for its rather odd characters and b) because I couldn't wait to get to the various plot elements coming together in a coherent link, my favorite part of any crime fiction story.  But overall, I wasn't as fond of this one as some of her earlier ones -- putting aside the crime fiction element, to be really honest, it just didn't provide the entertainment factor I've been getting from the others.

An Uncertain Place isn't going to appeal to everyone, but regular readers will still find the characters they know and love, as well as a well-established sense of place no matter where Adamsberg and his colleagues find themselves.  I'd recommend it, but certainly not as your first outing in the world of Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg and company.

crime fiction from France

This Night's Foul Work, by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 2008
originally published as Dan les bois éternals, 2006
translated by Sian Reynolds
409 pp

O Earth, when I query, why disdain to reply?
And of this night's foul work all knowledge now deny?
Has the key been withheld, or are my ears too weak
To hear of they suff'ring, a sin too great to speak?

Book number five in the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series, and appearing on the the 2008  International Dagger Award shortlist,  This Night's Foul Work  begins not too long after the events of  Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand.  As the novel opens, we find Adamsberg in his newly-purchased home, talking to his neighbor about the ghost of an evil nun who inhabits the place. But the Commissaire is unphased -- he knows it's the living that he needs to worry about, not the dead.  And in this installment, events will prove him right.  The squad is  working on the case of two dead drug dealers that Adamsberg doesn't want to turn over to the Drug Squad because he knows there's more to the picture, but the team has only a limited amount of time to gather proof before the case is handed off.  Then there's someone who is killing large stags in the forest, leaving the antlers but taking out the hearts and chopping them up.  If that isn't enough, an elderly serial killer has killed a guard at the prison where she's incarcerated and has escaped, whereabouts unknown.  Someone is also digging up graves, but only opening the coffin at the head.   Adamsberg and the team must sort out this jumble and make sense of it all before anyone else is killed -- but the task will not be easy.  To add to the confusion, a new recruit joins the crime squad, who has an odd head of hair and speaks in twelve-syllable alexandrines, which must have been a great deal of fun for translator Sian Reynolds.   As if Jean-Baptiste and the squad don't have enough to deal with re the bizarre string of crimes, the new recruit seems to have it in for Adamsberg based on something that happened from childhood days.  And then there's Adamsberg's off again, off again relationship with Camille.

Adamsberg and his colleagues at the Crime Squad in Paris are run ragged in this installment.  Danglard, the walking repository of knowledge, has to step in and keep Adamsberg on track when he tends to wander off; Violette Retancourt, the lieutenant who once saved Adamsberg's life, has an amazing ability to "channel her energy," a skill that serves her well in this story; and there are a host of others, each with his or her own individual talents that makes the Crime Squad the unusual group that it is.  The character portraits are amazingly drawn and are the most successful element of every novel in this series, although at times you might believe you're sitting at the table with Alice at the Mad Tea Party rather than at the Brasserie des Philosophes as the squad plans strategy.

To be honest, the plotlines are all highly improbable and a bit convoluted, and there are some scenes that I can only describe as "yeah, right. Uh-huh. Sure." I must say, however, that despite the silliness and the required suspension of belief,  I liked this one. I could tell that the author was having a great deal of fun here in terms of both personality and plot -- and it paid off for me. Vargas' sleight of hand also got the better of me this time -- just when I thought I had it all figured out, she threw a curve ball into the works that threw me.

These books may not be the best or most believable mystery/crime fiction novels out there, but once you get started on the series, you won't be able to stop.  They're definitely among the best for character portrayal and development, and that will be enough to take your mind off the whole implausible storyline.  Besides, they're quite fun and become addicting after a while.

crime fiction from France

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand, by Fred Vargas


Vintage, 2008
Originally published as Sous les vents de Neptune, 2004
translated by Sian Reynolds
388 pp

In 2007, Fred Vargas walked away with the CWA International Dagger Award for this book, which is the fourth outing for Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg in this rather quirky crime fiction series.  This time Adamsberg goes international, as he and a few of his colleagues are scheduled to go to Quebec to study the newest techniques in DNA science from the RCMP.  He has a lot on his plate: the heat is broken at headquarters, Danglard is petrified of flying, certain that a flock of starlings will fly into the wing and bring the plane crashing down, and a young women has been savagely murdered in a way that Adamsberg knows well.  It seems that as a teenager, his brother Raphael had fallen under suspicion for the murder of his girlfriend, but the brother had no recollection of anything that happened.  The girl was killed with something like a trident that left three holes in the girl's abdomen.  Helping his brother out, he arranged for him to disappear before any arrest could be made.  Adamsberg knows who really killed Raphael's girlfriend: it was Judge Fulgence, whose long arms reached out wide and far throughout the country in a network of legal contacts and some who were downright shady, offering him protection and leaving someone else to be framed for the crime.  Since that time, Jean-Baptiste has been following the judge's murder trail all over France, but is always one step behind.  This latest murder has the judge's name all over it -- but there's only one problem: the judge has been dead for the last 15 years, and Adamsberg had even attended his funeral.  Trying to convince the gendarmarie and even people who know Adamsberg that the man under suspicion for the crime is innocent and that the judge was responsible ends up making him look ridiculous and in some quarters, leaves him without much credibility.
But his work is interrupted by the Canada trip, where after hours Adamsberg finds solace in his long walks along the portage trail of a nearby river.  It is there he meets the oddball Noella, a jilted woman who manages to get Jean-Baptiste in the sack after a visit to Montreal that leaves Adamsberg in a very jealous frame of mind.  But soon enough, he returns to France, but it isn't long until he is asked by the RCMP to return to Canada -- and once he arrives he realizes that he's become the number one suspect in a murder, which once again bears all the hallmarks of having been perpetrated by Judge Fulgence.
There are some cleverly funny moments in this story, and another quirky character is added to the cast of regulars -- an elderly ex-society matron named Josette who wears tennis shoes with elegant clothes and whose hobby is hacking her way through the internet steals the last part of this story. And I have to admit that for a while Vargas had me going, trying to figure out who was doing all of these murders.  But as the story went on, it moved into the realm of the predictable, and came to depend on a series of highly unlikely coincidences that had me raising an eyebrow  every so often.  The trick with this book, as with most of the Adamsberg series,  is to just give in, suspend your belief and let the plot go until its inevitable conclusion.  It's really the characters that keep will keep you reading, although I do have to say that I was a bit disappointed with Adamsberg's behavior in this installment.

All in all ... Wash This Blood Clean From My Hand is a good way to spend a few hours with some old friends, although it's definitely not the most credible of plots I've ever read. Definitely recommended if you're reading the series. 

crime fiction from France

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Have Mercy on Us All, by Fred Vargas

Simon & Schuster, 2005
originally published as Pars vite et reviens tard, 2001
translated by David Bellos
353 pp

 Have Mercy On Us All is book number three in the delightful series by Fred Vargas. Although this one has an interesting (although somewhat farfetched)  mystery at its core, it really stands out because of the crazy cast of eccentric characters that populate its pages. 

One such character is Joss Le Guern, whose current vocation is town crier in the square at the intersection of Boulevard Edgar-Quinet and Rue Delambre in Paris. For a mere 5 francs, anyone can drop a message about anything they want to say in his box and have it read that day. When read, each message begins with a number, for example:

Five!...For sale, litter of white and ginger kittens, three male, two female. Six: Could the drum players making jungle noises all night long opposite number 36 please desist. Some people have to get some sleep. Seven: All types of carpentry, especially furniture restoration, perfect finish, will collect and deliver...
But lately, Joss has been reading out some rather odd messages, which another resident of the square named Hervé Decambrais has been following with interest.  Decambrais realizes that all of these very odd messages have been copied from different texts dealing with the outbreak of the bubonic plague of the 17th century.  Concerned about what he views as the ominous tone of these messages, Decambrais and LeGuern contact the police -- and Adamsberg becomes involved in the case. But at the same time, Adamsberg has been investigating the strange occurrence of a number of apartment doors throughout Paris being painted with an odd symbol:

and the two lines of investigation converge when a corpse is discovered, looking like a victim of the plague.  Many more corpses soon follow -- and Adamsberg has to figure out what's happening before panic erupts in the streets of Paris.

The mystery itself is intriguing and moves along at a good pace, but the plot is definitely secondary to the people in this novel.  Vargas' forté definitely lies in the creation of her quirky characters, as well as her ability to give the reader a sensory experience of the city, especially at the Place Edgar-Quinet where LeGuern broadcasts the news.  She's captured a slice of life in this square which sometimes the reader forgets exists in the 21st century -- it could have been (with a few exceptions), a portrait of life in an earlier time.  And if you've read her novel The Three Evangelists, you'll recognize some old friends that make an appearance in this novel; the ongoing story of Adamsberg and the lovely Camille also continues. 

I definitely recommend this novel and this series -- it's light and fun, and at the same time Vargas' work as a medieval historian is most definitely transferred to these pages, adding another dimension to the overall reading experience.  While I suppose you could read this book as a standalone, it's better to start with her first work, The Chalk Circle Man and follow the novels in publication order. 

 crime fiction from France

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Seeking Whom He May Devour, by Fred Vargas

Simon and Schuster, 2006
originally published as L'homme a l'envers, 1999
translated by David Bellos
289 pp

“Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour.”

Seeking Whom He May Devour is book number two in Fred Vargas' series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg of the French police nationale, following The Chalk-Circle Man.  In 2005, it was nominated for the CWA Gold Dagger Award.  This novel is another one which I'd label as "crime light," and actually reminds me a great deal of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series.  There are a host of quirky characters, a bit of humor, a chief inspector who isn't anywhere close to what one would consider normal, and a lot of local color.  Also like the Montalbano series, my sense is that these books aren't written to focus mainly on the crime elements or the police procedural aspects, but rather on the people who populate these novels.

The small village of Saint-Victor in The French Alps is the setting for this adventure, which begins with the report of the deaths of four sheep.  This took place at Ventebrune, on Tuesday; on Thursday, nine more were found savaged at Pierrefort. As the number of dead sheep increases, the villagers begin to suspect that the culprit is a rogue wolf that roams the mountains.  But after the savage death of Suzanne Rosselin -- the owner of the breeding station just west of Saint-Victor -- there are those who begin to suspect that perhaps it's something not of this world, and that the real killer is a werewolf.  Suspicion falls on one Massart, who works in the municipal slaughterhouse, keeps to himself in his shack, and is rarely seen in the village. But what really makes some believe in Massart as a werewolf is the fact that he has no body hair.  "Smooth-skinned as a choirboy," he fits the bill:  the mark of the werewolf is that he wears his hair on the inside, and at night he "turns himself around and his hairy coat appears."  This, as one person notes, makes him an "inside-out man," which reflects the original French title of this novel.  After Suzanne's death Massart vanishes, leaving behind only a map with a specifically-marked route that includes the sites of the previous sheep slaughters. Convinced that it's their duty to go after Massart and rid the French countryside of this werewolf killer, two unlikely companions decide to go after him.  First, there's Suzanne's adopted son Soliman, who had been found at the the village church as a baby.  Soliman is black, and the villagers were a bit bewildered at seeing a black baby just left there, and it wasn't until Suzanne came along and picked him up that he was comforted.  Suzanne had spent a great deal of time teaching Soliman about his African roots, and Soliman is constantly spouting often unfathomable African legends to apply to various situations.  Second is old Watchee, Suzanne's shepherd at the breeding station. And to drive the old (and very stinky) cattle truck, Soliman and Watchee recruit Camille, the elusive, on-again/off-again love of Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg's life, who is now living in the village, composing music for a soap opera and working as a plumber.  Her current love interest is a  Canadian scientist who studies wolves in the wild, currently in the Mercantour National Park in France, near the village.   As the strange trio sets out on the road, there are even more deaths, and they begin to realize that this project is beyond them. They need to find some help ...a

special sort of policeman. A very special flic. A flic who'd pass on all the info about giving us any grief, and who'd let us carry on tracking the vampire down.
And as it just so happens, Camille knows just the guy -- Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, in Paris, at the police headquarters in the fifth arrondissement.

While the mystery itself is a bit predictable, it's not really the who that counts, but rather the getting there that makes this story.  Adamsberg is no ordinary cop -- he deals quite a bit in intuition, has his senses alert to odd situations, and from time to time gets little insights out of the blue as to when things are important.  He has a good rapport with his colleagues, although they find him a bit strange, and an even better rapport with the common man.  The rest of the characters are quirky, as is the dialogue from time to time.  If not laugh-out-loud funny at times, there is a great deal of humor interlaced with the serious business of finding a killer and bringing the culprit to justice.  The author is really good at bringing out the sense of place, down to the hairpin curves on a French mountain road or the stink of sheep fat. In short, there are many things to experience within this novel, and it's obvious that Vargas really enjoys writing these books. 

As I said earlier, this is a novel on the lighter side of crime, and so should appeal to readers who tend to stay away from more hardcore crime fiction.  It's also a book for readers who enjoy quirky crimes, quirky people and a good laugh here and there, much (as also noted above) like the Salvo Montalbano series.  Definitely recommended.  I'm already on book #4 (Wash This Blood Clean From My Hands) on my way to the latest, An Uncertain Place, which is on this year's CWA International Dagger shortlist.  You should probably read the series in order of publication, not English translation, because the whole Adamsberg/Camille relationship starts in book one and may be difficult to follow otherwise.

crime fiction from France

Hotel Bosphorus, by Esmahan Aykol

Bitter Lemon Press, 2011
originally published as Kitapçi Dükkâni, 2001
246 pp.
translated by Ruth Whitehouse

First in a series of mystery novels to feature Kati Hirschel, Hotel Bosphorus is set in the city of Istanbul and features an unlikely main character -- a 40ish owner of a crime fiction bookstore.  Kati was born in Istanbul, but her parents took her to Germany when she was only a small child.  Around the age of 30, Kati returned to Istanbul, where she's lived ever since. Istanbul, a city of some ten million people, "the size of a nation," is a city Kati loves and knows well. 

Some time after Kati receives a phone call from Petra Vogel, an old friend from university days, Petra arrives in Istanbul. She is there to star in a film, and makes her temporary home at the Hotel Bosphorus.  After catching up with Petra about their lives, requiring a night of heavy drinking on Kati's part, a couple of days later Kati is stunned when she calls Petra at her hotel and a policeman answers.  It seems that there's been a murder at the hotel, and Petra is the main suspect.  The victim is the director of the film, Kurt Müller, and the rumor was that Petra and Kurt were an item. Petra, of course, denies any involvement other than professional.  But Kati's just not sure, and decides that she needs to get to the truth of what really happened.  Her credentials? Well, as silly as it sounds, she owns a crime fiction bookstore, and as she tells Batuhan, the police Inspector, who also reads crime fiction, "Deep down, we all want to be a detective really."  Her "detective" work, a la Miss Marple, leads her in several directions and to meetings with a wide variety of people: to those involved in the making of Petra's movie, to a powerful Istanbul family -- one of whom is a feared, kind of mafioso-type gang leader, to the police, and ultimately to a chance encounter with someone who will help her crack the case. 

It's a classic mystery scenario, with the added bonus of being set in the city of Istanbul.  The sense of place is definitely well evoked, as the reader gets a tour through different areas of the city, with its various local haunts and the different types of people that live there.  There are also a few tidbits of interesting commentary dealing with the effects of economic crisis on the locals and on the country scattered throughout the story.  Kati spends a great deal of time making observations about the cultural differences between Germans and Turks, noting that "only those who have lived abroad have what it takes to criticize their own people, especially in the case of Germans."  At first, these observations are interesting since Kati herself is kind of a muddled individual, with "a bona fide Turkish passport," who while in Turkey," is a German who "speaks good Turkish."  When in Germany, although she has a German passport, and her mother is a Roman Catholic, she's a Jew.  But soon enough, as these observations start taking over the story, they a) get to the point of becoming  denigrating and further the negative cause of cultural stereotyping; b) start to grate on the reader's nerves; and c) leave the murder mystery elements very muddled.

In fact, this book suffers from poor organization, clunky writing, and a murder mystery that by the time you get to the end seems to have taken a back seat to the rest of what's going on in Kati's personal life.  It's really difficult to get through in terms of the crime -- you have to literally sift through what's irrelevant to get back on track to the murder's solution.  This is sad, really, because Istanbul is such an exotic locale that I was looking forward to something new here. I was also looking forward to seeing how the author could blend Kati's ownership of a crime fiction bookstore and her detective work. But that was not to be in Hotel Bosphorus.  Nor were the characters very realistic -- the police inspector, as an example, who tried to get Kati in bed a couple of times or the over-the-top portrayal of the local mobster.

This being the case, I'd still give the next one a go, if only to find out if Kati has been able to mellow out a bit on the negatives and get into some real crime solving in Istanbul.  I think this very gutsy character has some potential and I would love to see the author give more space to local crime, this time using Kati's rather unique personality traits to help her in her detective work rather than constantly ragging about the Germans in Turkey.

crime fiction from Turkey

The Hypnotist, by Lars Kepler

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
originally published as Hypnotisören, 2009
503 pp

The Hypnotist is a novel of Scandinavian crime fiction, the first in a planned series featuring Detective Inspector Joona Linna.  Although the book's author is listed as Lars Kepler, the real authors of this novel are Alexander and Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril.  As shown in this interview:
Lars Kepler ...  is the person they become when they write crime novels.
 "It seemed perfectly natural,” Alexandra says. “We’ve both been very keen on crime stories, and when we started writing together we couldn’t stop. It was just too much fun. And originally the idea was that we’d keep it secret, but then it somehow leaked out.”
Just months after his debut, Lars Kepler had become an established figure in the wave of Swedish crime writers that has washed over the world in recent decades. But there are still questions that can be asked about his identity. Does he look like someone specific? Does he have any particular interests or habits?

“We picture him in our imagination,” Alexandra says, “and he has a very specific persona. Lars is older than us. He has a full beard.”

“And he’s a bit unkempt, and suffers from social phobia,” adds Alexander. “He used to be a teacher but now works at a night hostel for the homeless. He likes plain Swedish food, meatballs and stuff like that.”

Lars began his pseudonym life as a woman called Lotta, who suffered from electro sensitivity. But the Ahndorils didn’t think this figure felt quite right.

“So she underwent a sex change,” says Alexander. “The fact that he’s called Lars has partly to do with Stieg Larsson — the name is actually a tribute to him.”
Their character, Linna, has been working for Sweden's National CID, which deals with serious crimes on a national and international level.  He becomes involved in this case after a janitor finds a dead man in the locker room at the Tumba playing field  and the police are called in.  Officers Eriksson and Björkander take the call, and what  they find is so  horrifying that after viewing the scene of the crime, Eriksson refuses to let his partner go in and look. After the dead man is identified, Björkander is sent to notify the next of kin -- but what he finds at the dead man's home is even worse.  The dead man's family have all been slaughtered, with two exceptions: first, the fifteen year-old son, Josef, who is currently in the neurosurgical unit of a hospital in Solna, and secondly, his 23 year-old sister Evelyn, who was not at the house at the time of the crime.  Josef is in circulatory shock and unconscious, which raises a problem: he is the only witness to this bloodbath.  The police fear that the killer is on some kind of vendetta against the family and may go after Evelyn, but they need Josef to talk so that they can get to Evelyn before the killer does.  Linna believes that if someone could put the boy under hypnosis, they could find out what happened and discover Evelyn's whereabouts.  To do this, Linna calls in Dr. Erik Maria Bark, the hypnotist of the book's title.  Against his better judgment and despite his reluctance to practice hypnotism after he'd given it up ten years earlier, Erik decides to do it anyway.  What he discovers locked in Josef's mind stuns everyone, and unleashes a series of terrifying events that puts a number of people in danger, including Erik's own family.

The Hypnotist starts out with a bang and the tension is kept high for a while.  Then there's a very noticeable change, as we go back in time to get to the root of  part of the modern-day mystery. And although this part is necessary to the overall storyline, the anxiety level falls off several notches as Erik's past is revealed. There are a number of details (and let's face it -- a number of pages) that are superfluous to the story that could have definitely been left out with absolutely no consquence to the overall plot, largely dealing with Erik's family life.  And when things get back on track yet again, the solution becomes obvious.  I'll chalk this up to the fact that this book is a first-in-series novel, and perhaps the next Joona Linna novel will be a bit more streamlined and to the point. Hopefully the second one will also evoke more of a sense of place, something I found lacking in this one.

This novel definitely does not fall into my "crime light" category.  The authors manage to  conjure up some pretty graphic scenes of violence, abuse (both psychological and physical), and wholesale slaughter that at times seem geared for the big screen, but which at times comes across as nothing more than overkill on the page, especially in the final scenes of the book.  But I liked the character of Joona Linna and the other policemen he works with, and am willing to give the next novel (coming out in May of 2012) a try. I'd definitely recommend this one to people who like their crime reading on the edgier side -- but if you're into concise, to-the-point and more streamlined crime fiction, you may be a bit disappointed. On the flip side, it's always good to have new Scandinavian authors to try among the old favorites. 

crime fiction from Sweden