Sunday, December 30, 2012

and speaking of conspiracies....Thursday at Noon, by William Brown

kindle edition
sent by author (thanks!)

Thursday at Noon is one of three books written by William F. Brown, along with Amongst My Enemies  and The Undertaker.  While the action-packed thriller/suspense kind of story isn't my usual thing, I agreed to read the book and discuss it here. Actually he had emailed me back when I was in the middle of trying to read through this year's Booker Prize longlist when I really didn't have the time to read much of anything, so it got put on the back burner until a recent email nudge reminded me that I said I'd give it a go.  A promise is a promise, so over Christmas, while sitting on a hotel balcony overlooking the Gulf of Mexico,  I pulled out my kindle and got going on it. 

Set in 1962, CIA agent Richard Thomson has recently arrived in Egypt after having  screwed up bigtime in an operation in Damascus.  He's sort of persona non grata in Cairo at the moment, so he spends a lot of time in a bar drowning his sorrows.  One night while downing the booze he's approached by an Egyptian guy who has something to sell him.  It seems that this stranger was told to find help from another CIA agent,  but the instructions never said how to locate him.  Anyway, the man has an envelope filled with photos that he tries to sell to Thomson, who, suspecting a set up after his poor showing in Damascus, refuses to have anything to do with the guy.  The other man is frantic and highly agitated, and it isn't long until he is found dead. Now the police get involved, as does Egyptian state security and Thomson finds himself embroiled in  in a nightmarish situation.  When he starts putting two and two together and figures out that something really bad is going on, no one believes him -- not his fellow agents, not the ambassador, and especially not the police.  It is up to Thomson to try and stop a catastrophe that could affect the entire world.  He has until Thursday at noon -- and time is running out.

There is truly never a dull moment in this novel, and the book is aimed at an audience of readers  inclined toward the "what if" fast-paced, explosive political thriller/conspiracy genre.  I had to finish it to see what happens, and for a lazy day of  reading it was easy to get caught up in the story.  The premise is different and considering that it was set in 1962, with a few changes it might be set in our modern-day world, making it approachable to today's readers.  It also expresses the animosity felt by many living under the thumb of their British colonial minders prior to Egypt's independence; a point the author captures very well.  He's also established and evoked a realistic sense of time and place.   At the same time, it has more than its share of over-the-top moments -- Nazi scientists, the SS and  an improbable love affair are but a few that really made me do the inner eye roll -- which spill over the floodgates of anything remotely resembling credulity, so prepare to suspend any measure of disbelief while you're reading it. But I suppose that's the nature of the beast in these types of books and maybe what makes them sell so well.  I also wonder if we really need any more books about wayward Muslim brotherhoods and nationalist fanatics right now.


While it's an easy way to spend a day, and while I was engaged and had to know what else could possibly happen to this poor guy,  it was a little too over the top for my taste, especially incorporating the  Nazis and the SS.  I get why the author did this, but it's asking way too much. To be very fair, I think I'm just not the right audience for this book. However, people who are fans of this genre will probably really like it -- it has pretty much every kind of bad guy there is, lots of action and the inevitable hapless, Cassandra-like character who knows what's coming and can't get anyone to believe him.  It's a definite roller-coaster ride that should keep thriller fans entertained.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

*A Temple Twosome: Bad Debts and Black Tide by Peter Temple

Bad Debts
McAdam/Cage, 2005
originally published 1996
318 pp

".... the system is not about fairness. It's not about good and bad. It's not about right and wrong. It's about power...You should know that."

A newcomer to the Jack Irish series by Peter Temple,  a couple of days ago I finished the first novel Bad Debts, became instantly hooked and slid right into the second, Black Tide.  Number three, Dead Point,  is winging its way across the Atlantic as we speak. Heck, I probably should go order #4, White Dog, while I'm thinking about it.  With only a couple of issues regarding Black Tide, I really like this series so far, and I love the writing.

Set mainly in Melbourne, once a criminal lawyer, Irish is now making his way out of a dark period of life that he drifted into after the death of his second wife who died at the hands of an unhappy client.  Trying to deal with his pain, Jack drowned his sorrows in alcohol and became a collector of "serious debts," as well as a gambler betting on the ponies. He does some odd work for a couple of men in the horse racing business. But there's another side to Jack -- as a sort of therapy, he also helps a friend make furniture, finding a bit of peace and pride in his work, and he has a huge heart. He's a dad to daughter Claire.    He tries to stay on the side of law and order, but there are moments when he sometimes has to cross over that border.

As the novel opens, Jack checks his answering machine to find a number of messages from a client, Danny McKillop, who Jack once defended in a hit and run accident.  He pleads with Jack to meet him, but Jack doesn't remember him at the time and the last message was left a couple of days earlier.  Now curious, Jack digs into the case files, where he discovers that McKillop had been accused of the death of Anne Jeppeson, a young activist some ten years earlier. McKillop had pleaded guilty after a witness positively ID'd him as the driver of the car. McKillop had pleaded guilty and received ten years for his crime. Now out, it seems that he really wants to talk to Jack.  As Jack pokes around, he starts thinking that perhaps McKillop wasn't the one behind the wheel; little does he know that he is opening a veritable Pandora's box of an investigation, helped along by a gorgeous journalist named Linda Hillier. It isn't long until he discovers that someone is willing to kill to keep Jack from getting to the truth.  In a story that is part hardboiled noir with added bits of action-packed conspiracy thriller, Jack has to navigate between bullets, explosions and a host of shady people to get to the truth. The problem is that Jack has no idea who to trust.

My first experience with Peter Temple is with his The Broken Shore, which I loved and which has much more of a literary feel to it than does Bad Debts.   Having said that, Bad Debts really kept me on my toes and kept my brain engaged trying to figure out the 10 year-old mystery of Danny McKillop.  And while I'm normally not a huge fan of the fast-paced variety of thriller/conspiracy novel, this one I liked, not only because of the writing in which Temple has crafted a very tightly-woven and controlled story despite the number of crazy twists and turns,  but also because of the characters, especially, but not limited to, Jack himself.  Rarely do I like a first series novel this much, but I was sucked in from the beginning and just couldn't let it go.


Moving on, the second novel in the series is Black Tide, another noir/conspiracy/action-packed combo set mainly in Melbourne.

MacAdam/Cage, 2005
originally published 1999

In this second installment, Jack Irish returns to do a favor for an old friend of his father, Des Connor.  Des shows him pictures of his father and mother, and regales him with stories about his father, the dad Jack grew up not knowing.  Des also has a son, Gary, and loaned him some sixty grand which Des now needs back to repay the bank for a mortgage Gary took out on the home, where Des now lives.  If he's not able to pay the bank, Des will be homeless; Gary defaulted leaving it up to Des to clean up the mess.  But Gary seems to have disappeared, and bighearted Jack decides to go find him to get the money for Des.  As was the case in the previous novel, Jack's search for the missing Gary leads him into a very messy and complex situation -- this time involving money laundering, other missing people, hush-hush organizations and once again, finding someone to trust is becoming harder and harder.  While Jack tries to get to the bottom of Gary's disappearance -- no easy task --  Linda has moved on to Sydney, where she has not only a new job, but apparently a new man, leaving Jack wondering about any kind of future with her.

As with its predecessor, Black Tide not only takes on a complicated tangle of shady operations that keep you guessing as to who's trustworthy and who's not, while the author manages to keep his well-crafted plot under a great deal of control.  Temple holds the reins tightly as the disappearance of one man slowly begins to branch out into even more nefarious dealings, so that everything that Jack uncovers fits into the main plotline without going off into tangents.  The author also weaves in different facets of Melbourne's population, from the very wealthy who prefer that the tradesmen use the back entrance to the aging Aussie rules football club fans who've lost their local team, to people who buy sandwiches on plain white bread, no focaccia sold here.  The problem with this book is that in terms of the basic setup, it's much like Bad Debts, but sadly I can't disclose why without giving away important details.  Let's just say that there seems to be a pattern that follows from book one to book two that made it easy to figure out something important;  I'm hoping that with book three the author will fall out of that trap and move on to something slightly different. All the same, even with this most annoying matter of personal contention, Black Tide managed to hold my interest to the last action-packed minute and beyond.  Considering, as I said above, that I tend not to like this sort of fast-paced rockem-sockem type thing, I'm drawn to the main character and his immediate circle enough to where I can't help but want more.

I can definitely recommend both novels -- the plots appeal to the mystery solver in me, and the writing makes these books intelligent reads that don't fail to engage.

crime fiction from Australia

*part of this month's focus on novels from Australia.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Words Without Borders December Issue -- Crime

Today's email brought the December issue of Words Without Borders, one of my favorite literary websites.  The focus this month is on Crime, and inside is an interesting article from Bitter Lemon Press (my favorite publisher of crime fiction) jumping in late to the Scandinavian crime game.  You'll also find an article taken from Andrea Camilleri's nonfiction Voi non sapete, "a mafia dictionary of sorts."  A nice issue all around.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miloszewski

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010
originally published as Uwiklanie, 2007
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
336 pp
(UK ed.; softcover)

 - "It's impossible not to be entangled -- so says Hellinger."
 -  "It's possible to be free, and so say I."

 I can honestly say that this book is one of the best crime novels I've ever read -- not just this year, but in a seriously long time. The next book by Miloszewski is sitting here waiting to be picked up and I have to say that  I'm so wowed by Entanglement, the first novel in this series,  I can only look forward to something as great in his A Grain of Truth.   My collection of Bitter Lemon Press novels is also growing and kudos to these people for constantly bringing new and for the most part, outstandingly fine crime fiction to readers of  this genre. I don't know how they manage to bring out winners each time, but keep up the good work.

In Warsaw, a very weary  public prosecutor Teodor Szacki is finding life rather tiresome when on a Sunday home with his wife and little daughter he receives a call that he has to come in to work. Szacki, in his mid-30s, "an underpaid civil servant" whose wife is also a lawyer and similarly underpaid, is not in the best of moods to begin with, he's sent to what used to be a monastery, now a "red brick chimera, a cross between a church, a monastery and Gargamel's palace," where aside from the church in the building, there are also sublet spaces and rooms available for rent by various organizations.  One such set of rooms has been rented by a psychotherapist for himself and four of his patients, where over the weekend, they are engaged in Family Constellation Therapy, founded originally by German psychologist and philosopher Bert Hellinger. They are there hoping to resolve some of their personal issues; one of the attendees, businessman Henryk Talek, endures a particularly grueling session and afterward ends up dead with a meat skewer in his eye.  Very much overworked, Szacki is hating the idea of having to add this case to his current list; to him it's either a badly-botched burglary or a case of  “one body, four suspects–all sober and well-to-do,” as the detective working for Szacki puts it.  Yet  the more Szacki  investigates, the more he comes up with things that just don't fit right and which create more questions than answers:
"Why was this happening to him right now? Why could there not be one single ordinary element in this inquiry? A decent corpse, suspects from the underworld, normal witnesses who come to be interviewed by the prosecutor with fear in their hearts. Why this zoo?"
Meanwhile, in the process of trying to fill in the holes, what he doesn't know is that there is someone taking stock of his every move. 

Szacki is one of most realistic characters I've come across.  He's extremely believable as a person, with flaws like every human being. Although he loves his wife Weronika, he starts focusing on things like her double chin and the growing fat around her middle, the way she wears the same t-shirt to bed every night, washed only once a week and some other shortcomings that lead him to wonder if this is his future.  His thoughts about his career are much the same.  He is an ardent believer in truth and justice, yet he is often torn between his "human conscience" and his "civil servant conscience," both of which frequently clash. But he's also capable of some very poor choices, including a flirtation with a reporter that goes a little further each time they're together.  And while Szacki is the main character, the other characters are just as credible, all free standing and real, described both in terms of their physical selves as well as their own quirky behaviors. Take, for example, Kuzniecow,  the cop working for Szacki who has sex on the brain pretty much 24/7; the obnoxious psychobabbling psychotherapist Cezary Rudski, the head of the group at the session the night Telak died; the strange pathologists who make odd quips while they're performing an autopsy; a retired police captain living in a roach-infested apartment with no electricity; a dying historian whose short career has been devoted to studying Poland's secret police; and also Szacki's boss, Janina Chorko, a very ugly and lonely woman who "gave the lie to the theory that there aren't any ugly women." She is actually  "the last person on earth he'd want to flirt with," making him tense as he prays he never gets an invitation to join her in a glass of wine and a chat. Chorko
"consciously made herself sour, malicious and painfully businesslike, which was in perfect harmony with her appearance, turning her into the archetypal boss from hell. The new prosecutors were afraid of her, and the trainees hid in the toilet whenever she came down the corridor."
The punch and pizazz he invests in his characters to make them believable also follow suit in the overall writing throughout the book; they keep the action moving, and there are places where you can't help but smirk at Miloszewski's insertion of wry humor.  But there is nothing at all funny about this story, where the tension grows not only in terms of Szacki's personal life, but in the murder investigation as it moves toward an incredible ending, as it dawns on you that even in a free society, being free and unfettered may just be a mirage.  

Super book, one I definitely and most highly recommend.  I don't believe I've read anything like it before.  If you want a crime read well above the norm, something utterly sophisticated, this is the one.

Friday, November 16, 2012

*From Blood, by Edward Wright

Vantage Point Books, 2012
407 pp
originally published in the UK by Orion

(copy from publisher; thank you!)

"She was responding to a call, and not from logic or reason. It came from a primal place, from bone and muscle, from childhood sorrows, from lost voices in dreams.

It came, she realized from her very blood."

When I received an email about reviewing this novel, what caught my attention was the following blurb:

When her academic parents are brutally murdered, Shannon discovers that they were part of the radical anti-war movement of the 60s and begins to suspect that their killer’s motive may lie in their past…She soon finds that they were friends of Diana Burke and John Paul West, two of America’s most wanted fugitives, anti-war militants who went underground after a fatal bombing in 1968 and never resurfaced.  

As I'm smack in the middle of Seth Rosenfeld's book Subversives, which deals with student radicals, the blurb for this book whetted my appetite and I decided I had to read it. From Blood is a good combination of thriller and suspense that takes its readers on a wild ride from present to past and present again and takes a look back at a time when domestic protest was torn between two fronts -- those opposed to violence and those who felt that violence was a necessary means to producing real change.

As the novel opens, it's 1968 and Danny Kerner is doing his job as a night watchman at LaValle University's Crowe Institute. By day he's a graduate student in philosophy, a new dad and he's on his way to divinity school.  Just before 2 a.m. he hears a noise but can't make out exactly where it's come from; he's tired and drowsy and still has another 45 minutes before his next set of rounds begins.  As he's settling in to read Nietzsche and thinking about his wife and new baby girl, an explosion "tears through the quiet night," and an explosion rips through the building, burying Danny under tons of rubble.  Sadly, Danny's wife had the flu so he had brought his baby daughter with him to work that night.  A group calling itself The Red Fist claims responsibility; one of the group was captured while others went underground.  Fast forward to the present and Shannon Fairchild, living in the California university town of San Malo.  Shannon was a PhD student in history before she gave it all up and started a business cleaning houses.  One night while she was sleeping the phone rings and her sister is on the other end telling her that her parents' home had been torched.  As Shannon arrives on the scene, she finds her father dead and her mother Mora barely surviving.  At the hospital, when Mora's able to talk, she gives Shannon one final, cryptic message:

"You have to find them and...Warn. Them...God, he's so full of hate. We should have guessed...We're giving back the treasure...You're..."

After Mora dies,  the police begin their investigation, and in a discussion about what to do with the property their parents left behind,   Beth and Shannon decide that they need to go through the less-destroyed garage & take out anything of value they might wish to keep.  Shortly afterward, the FBI visits Shannon, and inform her that there may be some kind of connection between the deaths of her parents and a case they're working on. They ask her lots of questions about her parents' student days; she has very little to tell them.  But going through the garage and then her father's locker at the university where he works, she stumbles across photos and other things that may shed some light not only on her parents' murders, but also on why the FBI is so keen on questioning her.  As she's trying to make sense of it all, a woman Shannon had first met at the memorial service for her parents shows up and demands to know the whereabouts of Nadja and Ernesto, and threatens Shannon with bodily harm if she doesn't give up the information.  Obviously, the FBI isn't the only one interested in the Fairchilds' past; as Shannon delves deeper, she embarks on a journey that will send her back to that fateful night in 1968.  But, as she soon realizes, she's not alone in her quest.

While thriller/suspense novels normally aren't my cup of tea, From Blood got to me right away and kept me prisoner because I just couldn't put it down.  I am fascinated with anything focused on the turbulence on the home front during the Vietnam War, and it's very obvious that the author did quite a bit of research before putting this book together.  I'm also very much interested in the lives of people who had to drop off the map and go underground, and the author is very skilled at creating lives for his characters who underwent that experience in his book.  He also has this way of building tension that just doesn't stop so that putting the novel down just doesn't seem to be an option once you've started it.  Let me also point out that I was just positive I'd figured out the "who" and was totally wrong on that score, so that's a definite plus.

On the flip side, even though I really liked this book, it's one that requires you to set your suspension-of-disbelief factor to high, a move that seems to be prerequisite to reading any kind of thriller/suspense-type novel.  This isn't the case in every scene, but there's one character, Diana, who's just too over the top to be credible. The ultimate question of the "who" seems perfectly logical to me, along with motive,  but credibility went way down in terms of the final, climatic scenes set in Seattle with a deus ex-machina  experience that while kind of exciting, made me actually groan inside.  And then there's that final chapter, which, unlike the tone the author set in the rest of the novel, came out sort of sappy and out of place.

Considering that I don't normally choose this genre of books as my routine reading fare, I have to say that this one kept me on my toes as the action progressed and that  overall, I really found it a fun and exciting read.  If you're looking for something different in terms of thriller and suspense, you'll find it here, especially if you're also interested in America of the 1960s. I'd be very willing to give this author another go when I feel the need for a fast-paced thriller.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Michael Joseph/Penguin, 2012
originally published as Der Fall Collini, 2011
translated by Anthea Bell
191 pp

"You are who you are."

The Collini Case is, much like Pia Juul's The Murder of Halland, a novel based on the commission of a crime yet really isn't crime fiction per se. There is a murder, but the focus of this novel is more on what lies beneath the decision of a retired Mercedes-Benz toolmaker to walk into a man's hotel room, shoot him, and then brutally kick him -- breaking all of the bones in his head while grinding his shoe into the man's face.  Unlike many crime novels, this book is not meant to be entertaining; on the contrary, it is a story designed with a specific purpose in mind. If you're looking for the typical whodunit kind of read, pass on this one; it's not a staggering legal thriller, nor is it meant to be. However, since The Collini Case was listed on Eurocrime's list of novels possibly eligible for the International Dagger award for 2013, I'll post about it here.  

In an interview at BBC Radio 4, Von Schirach notes that when he writes about crime, the whodunit is not important to him, but rather it is the motive behind criminal acts that he finds interesting.  This is certainly the case in his novel, where Fabrizio Collini, a long-time worker at Mercedes Benz,  makes an appointment with a wealthy industrialist at his hotel in Berlin. Posing as a journalist, Collini is welcomed into the man's room, where he promptly proceeds to put four bullets into the man's head, and repeatedly grind his shoe into the dead man's face. When the act is finished, he goes downstairs, asks the woman at the front desk to inform the police that the man in room 400 is dead, then quietly waits to be arrested.  It isn't long before he is taken into custody, but when his lawyer, Caspar Leinen, arrives, Collini provides only minimal answers. Yet he will not answer the crucial question as to why he killed the man.  Leinen, a new defense attorney, knows he's going to have his work cut out for him; but little does he understand the ramifications of taking on Collini's defense.  

The Collini Case is difficult to summarize without ruining it for prospective readers, but even in its spare, understated tone, this slow-paced story is powerful and gets to the thematic issue of guilt as determined by a person's circumstances. Also present throughout the story is the idea of justice in the present world where the past still has a strong foothold within a system that may have very well failed at its own mission.  While these themes are writ large, there's also a side trip into the reflections of one's own life in the light of revelations of  family secrets.  You may think as you read that you know what's coming down the pike, but trust me, that's not really the case.

Ferdinand von Schirach is himself a criminal attorney with a past not unlike that of some of the characters in The Collini Case.  While some readers found it "predictable," "pedestrian," and found that the core issue may have been better served in a pamphlet or magazine article, I have to disagree.  It is an all-too human story about the consequences that evolve out of fundamental wrongs within the system that somehow everyone overlooked, with devastating results all around.  I think people started into the book with expectations of a legal thriller and the fact that it came out to be something entirely different may have proved disappointing,  but that's certainly not the fault of the author.

While true blue mystery/crime fiction fans may not find what they're looking for in this book, to me it was an eye-opening story with a punch.  Perhaps a crime-fiction audience isn't the best market for this novel, but it's quite an engaging read that I finished in one sitting.  Now I'm going to pull out my copies of his other books Crime and Guilt which have been collecting dust on my shelves; I can't wait to read what else this man has written.  Definitely recommended. 

--number 6 of my books labeled as eligible for the 2013 international dagger awards. 

 fiction from Germany

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Dark Winter, by David Mark

Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2012
originally published by Quercus, 2012 (UK)
292 pp

The more crime fiction I read the more I think I'm starting to see it all, but that's not at all the case in The Dark Winter, by David Mark.  Sure, you'll find some of the same character tropes in this novel as you might in any other, but the original premise of this book,  the main character and the setting are the things  I found most appealing here. Without giving away the show,  I definitely haven't seen this plotline around before, and it's a good one. I think this author definitely has a future in writing.

The action of this novel takes place largely in and around Hull, West Yorkshire, where Aector McAvoy is a detective sergeant with Humberside CID. McAvoy is a cop with a troubled past. Because of him, a senior officer was relieved of his duties and other crooked cops were "scattered the four winds," but what actually took place is kept under wraps within the department. The officer's dismissal and McAvoy's involvement have made Aector the target of some of the other officers' derision; refusing to take a transfer that would remove him from all of this only made things worse for him. Now on the Serious and Organized Crime Unit, he now serves in a more administrative, ambassadorial kind of role, and his inner mantra runs something like "be the gentle soul...Keep your head down. Get on with your job. Earn a wage. Love your wife."

 It's just coming up on Christmas and McAvoy is out with his little son Fin while his wife Roisin does some shopping. They're sitting at a cafe and McAvoy is captivated by the sound of a choir in nearby Holy Trinity church. While he's listening, lost in thought, from the church comes screaming, the sound of "terror unleashed." He reaches the church just in time to watch a figure emerge from the doors carrying a knife -- which is promptly raised against him. As the man flees, someone yells "He's killed her. She's dead. She's dead!" The victim is a young girl dressed in a white choir cassock, half of which is saturated with blood, killed in front of everyone during the service. However, the case is going to be handled by acting Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh, while Aector is sent out on a mission to break the news of a man's death to his sister, the wife of the vice chair of the Police Authority. But when McAvoy's visit to the vice chair's wife leads him to suspect that something is not at all right with the manner of her brother's death, he can't help but to get involved.  As more people begin to turn up dead, he slowly begins to discern a connection among these seemingly-random killings, and his own advice about  laying low is laid by the wayside.  Trouble is, can he convince the others, some of whom have already made up their minds who the killer might be?

I came into this novel after much time away from UK crime fiction, and I started it hoping that there would be something setting it apart from many of the other hundreds of novels in this category.  Mark's fresh premise and storyline kept me guessing the entire time, as did his evocation of the economic decline of local industry, his take on the negative sides of journalism and the publishing industry, and especially the character of McAvoy. But as much as I liked this book, and as much as I offer kudos to the author's manipulation skills, there are a few things that made this novel less than perfect for me. First, the obligatory sex scene that has absolutely zero to do with the plot or with character development; second, the clue that cracks this case wide open and leads McAvoy to the killer is based more on coincidence than on detection; finally, the epilogue -- had the author ended the book prior to that short section, even with the coincidental link to the killer it would have finished on a much more realistic note.

In the acknowledgments section, Mr. Mark thanks someone from Blue Rider in part for "believing that American readers would give a damn" about reading his book.  If I'm any kind of judge, they definitely will.  And if this first taste of his writing is any hint of what's to come, they'll be interested in the rest of the series as well.  Super first effort.

crime fiction from the UK

Saturday, October 27, 2012

*His Name was Death, by Fredric Brown

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 1991
originally published 1954
141 pp

"You'd never in a thousand years have guessed that he was a murderer and a criminal. You'd have thought him dull, plodding, honest. And up to the time when, a year ago almost to the day, he had killed his wife you'd have been completely correct."

This is the city. Los Angeles, California. I kill here. I carry a gun.

With apologies to Jack Webb, aka Sgt. Joe Friday, for some reason after I finished this book, this redo of the old Dragnet opening monologue  was the first thing that popped into my head and I had to use it.

If you haven't read Fredric Brown's work, you are missing something truly exquisite. Considering that the guy absolutely hated to write, what's come out of his brain is genius. His Name was Death makes two by Brown that I've read; between this one and Here Comes a Candle, the second one was far more intense and had me heebie-jeebied all the way through, but both are super books. Now waiting in the bullpen is Homicide Sanitarium -- oh god, what a great name! -- which I'm dying to crack open soon. That should give you an inkling of how much I like this author. Better known for his SF stories, Fredric Brown is a top-notch crime writer as well.

1940s Los Angeles is the setting for this very small book, with an opening line that whets your appetite right from the start:
"Her name was Joyce Dugan, and at four o'clock on this February afternoon she had no remote thought that within the hour before closing time she was about to commit an act that would instigate a chain of murders."
It isn't long until we find out who Joyce Dugan is and what she's done to "instigate a chain of murders," albeit unwittingly. Acting out of friendship, she starts a series of events that ends up in a gut-punching shocker of a finish. At the printing shop where she works one day, in walks Claude Atkins, one of Joyce's old boyfriends from high school. He's not there to see Joyce, but to pick up a check from Joyce's boss, Darius Conn, with whom he'd recently swapped cars with a little extra coming from Darius to make up for the difference. Joyce decides to give him money out of the petty cash box but there's not enough, so after a call to her boss, she writes out a check. But Atkins needs cash for the weekend. Just then Joyce remembers the envelope full of money in the office safe; she has Atkins endorse the check and pulls out $90 in brand new ten dollar bills, leaving the signed-over check in the envelope. Now everyone's happy. But wait.

When Darius gets back to the office he discovers what Joyce has done and it's a big problem. The money Joyce gave Claude just happened to be counterfeit, part of a batch Darius was planning to parlay into a net profit of about $2500. The printing office is a front for his operation, and Joyce has just given nine of his newly-printed test bills to someone who, if he was caught with the fake money, would know just where it came from. Darius can't take that chance:
"He had to get that money back from Claude Atkins. Somehow. No matter what the risk of doing that, it couldn't be any greater than the risk of doing nothing or the risk of running.
Get it without killing if possible, but kill if that turned out to be the only way.
He'd got away with murder once, hadn't he?"
His plan: to improvise, to take the opportunity when it knocks -- even if it means he has to kill. Darius is still proud of himself -- the reader discovers early on that he's gotten away with murdering his wife just a year earlier -- so he figures if saving himself prison time for the counterfeit money means he has to kill again, well, it's what he has to do. He still gloats inwardly about having fooled the cops and acting the grieving husband; he even become friends with the detective handling his wife's murder case. The rest of the novel follows Darius as he tries to retrieve his fake funds -- but well, even quick-thinking Darius can't predict the hitches along the way.

Los Angeles, 1940s

Considering the edge of darkness that you ride as you read through the novel, Brown is very economic in terms of story telling -- the novel is sleek, with absolutely nothing unnecessary weighing down the plot, a lesson many modern crime novelists really need to learn. The dimly-lit, seedy bars along with the city streets and back alleys of Los Angeles give an honest feel for place and time which enhances the story. He manages to hold you in suspense all along the way without resorting to the burdensome backstory to make his characterizations work, there is no unnecessary exposition, and there's even a good measure of black, sardonic humor thrown into this book. And then the classic Fredric Brown ending -- well, it's truly what you would least expect.  Highly, highly recommended.

*another installment of my overall focus on American authors for October and November

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

and now, for something completely different: Lady of the Shades, by Darren Shan

Orion Books, 2012 (UK)
312 pp
(read in September)

If you go to the author's website you might notice that UK writer Darren Shan is a guy who really isn't a crime novelist at all, but instead specializes in Urban Fantasy and horror, mostly for teens and young adults.  Lady of the Shades is not in either category; actually, it's something very different.  I don't have the foggiest idea how I heard about this book (maybe a blurb somewhere connected to something else I was exploring online), but I bought it, read it and had a lot of fun with it.

the author of Lady of the Shades, Darren Shan
Although this book may not be standard crime fiction fare,  I've come to realize that sometimes pulling away from the formulaic and reading outside the box can produce some eye-opening moments.  Lady of the Shades turned out to be as twisty as a sack full of  Philly pretzels;  I actually thought I'd had it figured out a couple of times but alas it was not to be.  Sadly I can't really get into why this book is so twisty without giving away the show, but I will say that just when you think things are one way, the rug is twitched out from underneath your feet leaving you flat on your can in surprise.

I'll offer just a brief synopsis because I don't want to kill it for anyone else.  Lady of the Shades is ultimately a novel about how a person's past continues to have a strong bearing on his/her present, and it's also a rather odd story about the power and hold of love.   Ed Sieveking is an American author who, much like the hero of Stuart Neville's series that begins with Ghosts of Belfast, carries ghosts around with him where ever he goes. He understands that his ghosts are "probably the workings of a deluded mind," and likely "the projections of a deeply troubled psyche."  He doesn't want to accept that he's "a loon," and is looking to find a way back to normality. In London, where his newest horror novel (involving Human Spontaneous Combustion) is set, he finds himself at a party where he bumps into a beautiful woman named Deleena Emerson.  Ed's previous books are not ones you'd find on the bestseller lists at any time, so he's very flattered when he realizes Deleena knows who he is and that she's read his books.  From that meeting on, Ed is severely smitten, boinged straight through the heart by Cupid's arrow, but any hopes of the two of them becoming a permanent item are quickly put on hold  when Ed discovers a well-guarded secret about her.  Like Ed, Deleena's present is very much affected by her past, and Ed soon finds himself caught up in a very strange predicament or two or three, where anything can happen and where nothing is at all like it seems.  All he wants is the truth -- but that's not going to be so easy, as the line between what is real and what is not begins to blur and get hazier as the novel proceeds, continually testing Ed's ability to "make sense of the world."

Actually, Lady of the Shades tests the reader's ability to understand things as well.  The first half of this novel introduces all of the players, especially the intriguingly-flawed Ed, who comes from a very troubled past that he is trying to forget.  Ed is basically a good person, hopeful for his future, but when love hits, it hits him hard and it tends to screw up his decision-making processes.  It's very easy sometimes to groan out loud over some of Ed's choices, which aren't always that smart.  The pace of the book is a bit slow at first, but quickly picks up, and in the second half, the author takes his readers into hyperdrive as one revelation after another comes flying off the pages.  Much of what you find out frankly stops the show; other times you just find yourself laughing at the craziness.  Then you reach the bizarre ending, which, considering the context of this novel, does actually work.  It's strange, but it does fit.  And if you've ever wanted to read a  novel where you don't mind being manipulated, this one is perfect.  Seriously. 

I truly wish I could say more about this book, but then these paragraphs would be filled with unforgivable spoilers and someone somewhere might be upset.  I will say that this is one of the screwiest (in a good way) novels I've ever read, especially in terms of crime fiction, where twists and turns are the general rule of thumb; here, Shan's imagination elevates them well beyond the norm.   This book is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, especially crime readers who like to go from point A to point B in a well-ordered fashion.  It also strains the credulity that most crime fiction readers, including me,  look for in their reading.   But frankly, this book is just plain fun and even better, it gets the better of you.  Lady of the Shades is a treat, and is perfect for times when you want a break from the serious and just feel like going with the flow.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

*Beast in View, by Margaret Millar

Orion, Crime Masterworks Series, 2002
160 pp

" was  not an evening stroll, it was a chase, and she was the beast in view." 

 Trying to break a little from the same old same old, I rummaged through my American crime bookshelf and pulled out this golden oldie.  The publication date of this particular edition is 2002, but Beast in View originally came out in 1955.  A year later it won the Edgar Award for best novel,  up against Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley (which, had I been a judge would have been my choice) and another book called The Case of the Talking Bug (also on my shelf, an old Doubleday Crime edition) by a husband and wife duo known as the Gordons.   Millar's husband Kenneth  was also no stranger to the crime-fiction scene --  his books continue to enjoy great popularity today under his pen name Ross Macdonald.  Margaret Millar produced some 21 crime novels herself; her first one, Invisible Worm, was published in 1941.  Beast in View is really more of a story of psychological suspense rather than a full-blown crime novel, set in Southern California of the1950s.

Helen Clarvoe, a young woman now 30, lives alone in a small hotel in Hollywood. Her mother, with whom she only rarely communicates by mail, lives six miles away with her brother Douglas.  The hotel  was the kind of place usually frequented by
"transients who stayed a night or two and moved on, minor executives and their wives conducting business with pleasure, salesmen with their sample cases, advertising men seeking new accounts, discreet ladies whose name were on file with the bellhops, and tourists in town to do the studios and see the television shows..."

all very much the opposite of Miss Clarvoe and "yet she chose to live in their midst, like a visitor from another planet."  Helen lived there in a self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world,  "behind her wall of money and the iron bars of her egotism," never going out to see much of the world, although because of prudent investments, she certainly could have.  She receives a phone call one day and the woman at the other end of the line claimed to one of her friends, calling herself  Evelyn Merrick.  As Helen listens, she is convinced the caller is mad, although the caller disagrees -- telling Helen that in fact, she is the one who is mad, calling her a "little coward," accusing her of being jealous, and saying that she can see everything about Helen in her crystal ball. After questioning the switchboard operator about the incoming call, Helen gets in contact with her family's former investment counselor,  Mr. Blackshear, who comes to the hotel to meet with her.  She talks to him about the call, then shows him a money clip which was missing quite a huge sum of cash, and explains that she feared that her caller, Evelyn Merrick, may have been the one who stole it. She wants Blackshear to find Merrick. The only clue that the caller left in her conversation with Helen was that someday she planned to be "immortal," that "her body would be in every art museum in the country."  Helen offers that hint to Blackshear as a place to start.  As Blackshear sets off on his quest in private-investigator mode, he begins to hear much more about Evelyn Merrick -- whose forté, it seems, lies in discovering other people's deep-seated insecurities and using her knowledge to provoke her victims into a state of gut-wrenching despair, leaving a trail of desperation and devastation behind her as she goes.  As Blackshear follows in Merrick's wake, the story develops through the points of view of different characters,  Blackshear, who is starting to relish his role as PI, ultimately discovers a slowly-unfolding  panorama of long-kept, long-buried secrets relevant to his investigations. 

 What comes out of this case goes far beyond the stuff of normal crime fare, as Millar takes her readers into middle-class Los Angeles of the 1950s, a place of societal constraints and, especially for this cast of characters, a number of unfulfilled expectations that have, over the years, remained dormant until finally germinating into crushing disappointments. Furthermore, while the central character, Helen Clarvoe, is a loner,  Beast in View is a novel with a profound emphasis on  human interactions and human failings at its core.  While many reviews I've read have noted that the solution was easily grasped from the outset, I didn't figure it out until the end when all was revealed, and decided that I liked being artfully manipulated by the author throughout the entire story. 

Don't let its age fool you.  Beast in View is very dark, almost noirish in tone, and probes deeply into the human psyche, in many ways much more realistically than many modern offerings.  This book will not be the last of Margaret Millar for me.  Highly recommended, but beware -- there is little in the way of happiness to be found in the entire novel.

*part of October's focus on American authors. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chalk Valley, by D.L. Johnstone

kindle edition, 2012
363 pp
download from author -- thanks!

Reading this book is a first for me -- I received an email from the author, who asked if I would be interested in reading & reviewing his new novel.  Normally I'm just too busy in my nonbook life, I have my reading lists pretty much established for the month, and I have a few publisher ARCs that I somehow have to weave in to the stack as time allows, so I generally turn these requests down.

Well, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised after reading this book. It's not a mystery, but more of a mix of police procedural and suspense. The bad guy is known to the readers from the beginning, and as the novel opens, he's at a mall in East Vancover, BC, where he's managed to lure a young girl to his van with the promise of a job if she'd go with him to his office to pick up some conveniently-forgotten forms.  In the meantime, two Chalk Valley cops are outside of a  roadside restaurant where they notice a car screaming by.  Rather than go after the driver, the cops are too focused on each other, and they go their separate ways.  Fast forward a month to Chalk Valley, about an hour and a half away, where a group of teens are gathered to smoke pot and drink.  As they scour the woods for firewood, they first notice a "putrid" smell - following their noses, they come across a body.  In the meantime, on a highway near Blind River, a reckless driver has an accident right in front of Dave Kreaver, who just happens to be a police sergeant.  When Dave goes to check on the guy, he realizes that there's a second person -- a young girl who is totally out of it, whom the driver, Phil Lindsay, says is his niece.  But Kreaver isn't so sure that the guy's telling the truth, especially when he runs away from the scene. Searching through the van the police now on the scene discover a bag containing rope, duct tape, metal pipe, a pry bar, handcuffs and a black pantyhose leg with two eye holes cut into it.  Later, at the hospital, the girl, Denise,  tells Kreaver a strange story about the man in the van, who offered her a job but had forgotten the application forms at his office.   Kreaver knows that the driver, Lindsay, is a kidnapper and probably a rapist, but legal issues, the fact that Lindsay has a good job, a family and  no previous record, and finally, the he-said/she-said situation all  make it likely that he won't be staying with the police for any amount of time.  But Kreaver is not about to let go. Back in Chalk Valley, the search for clues regarding the recently-discovered body  leads to the discovery of two more bodies. With very little to go on,  John McCarty knows this is going to be a tough case. As the two storylines converge, nobody is prepared for the eventual outcome of this case, which winds up taking a great personal toll on the people involved.

The author has obviously put in some research time and one of the highlights of this novel is his portrayal of conflicting police jurisdictions.  McCarty's boss reluctantly calls in profilers, but is determined that when all is said and done, the case will stay the property of the Chalk Valley police department.  As tips begin to come in and pile up, McCarty and his staff are buried chasing down leads, but McCarty wants to solve the case by himself, despite the task force that is formed as a joint police venture.  Valuable information comes in but is ignored or given low priority, stalling the investigation even further.  These ongoing segments are among the best parts of this book.

For a first novel by someone who's never even written in the crime field before, Chalk Valley is much better than what I would have expected.  The story is good and for the most part, credible, although it is a bit rushed toward the end when everything up to that point has rolled out at a slower pace.  Some of the characterizations could have been reined in and a bit more controlled.  For example, the news reporter Jamie Straka is realistic when she's doing her job, but a bit overdone in the scenes involving her personal life.  On the other hand, there are two characters who seem especially credible: Kreaver, a former RCMP officer who changed directions when his little boy died, and Phil Lindsay, the bad guy who's manipulative, in control and whose behavior progressively gets much worse as the novel progresses.  Of those two, Mr. Johnstone has done the best with his portrayal of Kreaver -- a character I wouldn't mind seeing again.   I also  have to give the author a huge amount of credit for his ability to create a viable sense of place -- the woods in this area of British Columbia are very beautifully described and I know because I've been up there; at the same time, in some places the prose  was a little overwritten.  Sometimes when switching chapters after a tension-filled previous scene, he throws out a descriptive phrase or paragraph about weather, temperature, the moonlight, etc. which detracted from the earlier action and lessened the impact of what's just happened.  Less would have been so much more here!

All in all, it's pretty good with a few rough edges that could easily be smoothed out as the author's writing career progresses.  There is a definitely a lot of action and tension which would make thriller-oriented readers happy; there's a great villain for readers of serial-killer novels, and for police-procedural fans, there is his portrayal of the intra-agency conflicts that gives this first attempt an edge over other the work of other nonprofessional writers I've read. 

Aside from all of the first-time mistakes and a few instances of overwriting, the story is a good one and I liked it.  I'll look forward to seeing more of the author's work in the future.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Viper, by Håkan Östlundh

St. Martin's/Minotaur, 2012
originally published as Blot, 2008
translated by Per Carlsson
358 pp

After a long hiatus from Scandinavian crime fiction to focus on the a) Man Booker Prize longlist and b) a number of ARCs,  many of which I still have yet to write up, I finally got around to this one after it sat here for a month.  Östlundh may be new to the American crime scene, but he's an established crime writer in Sweden, where his series featuring Fredrik Broman has already enjoyed success.  The Viper, written in 2008, is book number four in this series, so  here we go again, starting American readers with a book way down the series list instead of book #1, not giving us a chance to familiarize ourselves with the main characters before plunging us well into the thick of things.   -- sigh -- This novel  is a police procedural which also tries to be a psychological study; as a police procedural it's pretty good but otherwise it comes off sort of flat. When the Visby cops are doing their job it's quite interesting; otherwise, it's a bit confusing, incomplete and rather so-so. 

There are two main stories at work here.  As the novel opens a helicopter is landing at a hospital, its patient none other than Fredrik Broman himself.  He has sustained terrible injuries that will keep him hospitalized for some time.  That storyline is interspersed with the investigation that ultimately put him there, as the police are called to the scene of a double homicide. The female victim is Kristina Traneus, wife of  Arvid, who is returning to his life in Sweden after a number of years away as a corporate "annihilator" in Japan.  Kristina was not at all happy about Arvid's return; it seems that while Arvid has been gone, she had taken up once again with her former lover (and Arvid's cousin) Anders. But the question on the minds of the detectives is that of the male victim's identity -- who is it? His identity has been virtually wiped out after having been attacked in a frenzy with some sort of very sharp blade, and the police are left to wonder if it was Anders, Arvid or even a third, unknown party.   During their investigation, the police pick up clues about Arvid and Kristina's family life, which, according to everyone,  was all but happy -- including the death of a daughter some years earlier, something "hush-hush," which "may have been cancer, or else something psychological that made her commit suicide." 

While the central mystery behind the identity of not only the killer but the victim is solid, keeping the reader interested enough to keep reading on, the characterizations leave a lot to be desired. Chapters move quickly, and each character plays a part in moving the story along.  But therein lies the problem: considering that the story moves via an omniscient narrator between the viewpoints of different characters, you'd think the author would have put much more effort into careful character construction.  Sadly, with the exception of Arvid and Kristina, the others come across as less than credible, especially when the author tries to delve inside of their respective heads.  And I'm sorry -- but why do we need a high-class prostitute talking to Arvid's penis before performing oral sex in the very first chapter?  I hate when authors do this. Arvid's inner thoughts could have been done while looking out the window, his womanizing described succinctly, but no, the author has to throw in some really stupid fellatio moments right at the outset. Really?

I would love to read his other work to find out if this one is an anomaly among the other series novels; normally I would chalk this up to the problems often found in series' first novels, but this one is the fourth.  To be fair, I was interested in the main murder plot, and I was interested in the story of the dead sister, but the latter had to be guessed at, pulling in clues here and there as the story progressed, ultimately to be somewhat disappointed.  And to be fair, this book is getting a number of great reviews, with people comparing the author to other masters of Scandinavian crime fiction.  I may not agree with their assessments of this book, but as I'm always saying, after years and years and years of reading crime, I'm a very tough audience.

crime fiction from Sweden

#5  2013 International Dagger eligible novels.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A Private Venus, by Giorgio Scerbanenco

Hersilia Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published in 1966 as Venere Privata
translated by Howard Curtis
250 pp*

My Italian crime section of the Eurocrime shelves is rapidly expanding, and I'm happy to welcome Giorgio Scerbanenco to my list of new authors. Of course, Scerbanenco isn't new on the scene of Italian crime fiction, but he's new to me and I hope that the powers that be at Hersilia will consider publishing more of his books. A Private Venus is the first of a series featuring Dr. Duca Lamberti, a physician who at the start of this novel has just been released from prison. Lamberti was sent away for three years for helping a terminally ill patient to die with some amount of dignity and free her from her terrible pain.  Now he's back and has been taken on by Auseri, a wealthy engineer, to help his son Davide who just the year before had started drinking heavily.  Davide, according to his father, is a "big lump" and a hopeless drinker -- he would like Lamberti to act as his son's friend and doctor and use any means available to help his son get back to normal.  As he notes to Lamberti,
"I don't care if it takes a year, or what means he uses, he could even beat him to death, I'd rather he was dead than an alcoholic."
Lamberti is hesitant, but because of the needs of single-mother sister and her daughter, decides he will take the job.  After some time with Davide, he begins to realize that the young man is not an alcoholic, but rather that something traumatic lies at the root of his drinking problem.  After some time together, Lamberti brings Davide with him to visit his father's grave, and as Lamberti expresses his sadness, Davide reveals that he would like to visit a grave as well, but he doesn't know where it might be.  Lamberti tells Davide that all he has to do is to go to the office with the name of the person and they would help him locate the grave. Out of nowhere, the dam  in Davide's troubled psyche begins to burst in a most unexpected way and he reveals that the grave belongs to  "woman I killed last year. Her name was Alberta Radelli."

Davide's revelation turns out to be not that of a murderer, although he has taken personal responsibility for the death of Alberta Radelli, a prostitute who one year earlier had been found dead by the roadside, wrists slashed in an apparent suicide. But the police who investigated her death had never found any sort of sharp instrument that might have done the trick. But Davide isn't finished. He also happens to have saved something that Alberta left in his car after he'd picked her up and then later made her get out -- a small film cartridge that came from a Minox camera.  The photos left behind are of two women, one of them Davide, in various poses, naked.  The police restart their investigation into Alberta's death, but who is the second woman? How will they ever find out who was really responsible for Alberta's supposed suicide? What is behind it all?  Lamberti begs to "play policeman," and promises Davide that when they find the guy who killed her, he will be able to take his revenge.  What Lamberti doesn't realize is that once he starts getting answers, he has already stepped on a path which will take him into a sordid world of darkness, from which for some there is no escape.

Written in 1966, much of the action is pretty tame for today's more jaded readers of modern crime fiction (such as myself) who are used to  in-depth visual imagery and some pretty horrific descriptions of violence that turn up in current crime novels, but the impact of this story is just as potent as any modern-day author could hope to establish. Much like the main character Lamberti, the novel is simultaneously edgy and intense, especially in its exploration of  human nature. Lamberti's personal views of morality express themself in this passage, which, incidentally, seem to apply to today in some cases: 
"Society is a game, right? The rules of the game are written in the civil code, and in another imprecise, unwritten code called the moral code. They may be debatable codes, and have to be constantly updated, but either you keep to the rules, or you don't. The only person breaking the rules of the game that I can respect is the bandit with his rifle hiding in the mountains: he doesn't keep to the rules of the game, but then he makes it quite clear he doesn't want to play in good society anyway and that he'll make his own rules as he wants, with his rifle. But not swindlers, no, I hate and despise them. These days there are bandits with lawyers in attendance, they cheat, they rob, they kill, but they've already worked out a line of defence with their lawyer in case they're found out and put on trial, and they never get the punishment they deserve. They want others to keep to the game, to the rules, but not themselves. I don't like that, I can't stand these people, just knowing they're near, just smelling them, sets my nerves on edge."
And because this novel was written in 1966, today's political correctness was not employed in writing as it is today, so there are references to a homosexual character as a "pederast," or a  "mutant;" women in the city can be "prone" to prostitution that should not be judged in modern terms.  

This is only the first book in this series, so if A Private Venus is any indication, there are even better times to come with this author.  The dark that lives in men's souls is a prominent feature in this novel, so if you want happy endings or lighthearted crime, this may not be your best choice.  But if this doesn't bother you, or like me intrigues you, you should definitely give it a go.

** there are 250 pages of A Private Venus; the remainder of the book is a short autobiographical sketch by the author which is also well worth reading.

#5 read,  2013 International Dagger eligible novels

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook

Mysterious Press, 2012
292 pp

"He was like Mephistopheles...He took hell with him wherever he went."
A week or so ago I was flipping through the books that Amazon has so kindly recommended for me, and as if there was a checklist in my head beside each title, the invisible pencil in my brain was ticking the no boxes on down the line until I saw this book by Thomas H. Cook.  Some time back I had bought his The Chatham School Affair, which I loved, one I really must dig out and reread sometime soon.    Anyway, evidently some algorithm linked me to Mr. Cook's newest novel,  The Crime of Julian Wells, based on my earlier purchase, and since I was looking for something different to read, I thought I'd take a chance on it.  It paid off -- in spades.  Although there are some very solid mysteries at its core, technically it's not a "crime" fiction, so to speak, but I'm discussing it here because Mr. Cook is a well-known author of crime fiction, largely psychological in nature.  He has twenty-five other novels to his credit, his first published in 1988. He's also written three nonfiction, true-crime books, and has shared editorship with Otto Penzler in two series: Best American Crime Writing and Best American Crime Reporting.  Now he's delivered a story that gradually unfolds within a world of darkness while examining the people who dwell there -- a world in which  
“The road to moral horror is never direct. There are always ramps and stairs, corridors, and tunnels, the secret chamber forever concealed from those who would be appalled by what they found there.”
Philip Anders, "stay-at-home" literary critic and the narrator of this story,  was the best friend of  Julian Wells since childhood until the day Julian rowed himself out into the middle of a pond bordering his Montauk family home, opened his veins and bled to death in the boat.  His death was a surprise to both Philip and Julian's sister Loretta.   His decades-long writing career  led to  articles "about plague and famine and holocaust," and five books  which focused on some of history's  most horrific crimes and the monsters who committed them.  As Philip, Loretta and later Philip's father, a former bureaucrat at the State Department,  begin to ponder the whys, Philip wonders if Julian's long immersion into human darkness might have taken its toll on his friend; Loretta believed he was "like a man in a locked room, trying to get out," and Philip's father thinks that "Julian had a lot of feeling...too much of it morbid," and that darkness was all Julian knew.   As Loretta and Philip talk, Loretta informs him that she believed Julian was already on track for another book -- she had seen him looking at a map the day he'd died, the first step in Julian's writing process, after which he'd read all he could then travel to the site. The map, she says to Philip, was of Argentina, and  a part of it had been circled.  Julian and Philip had visited the area together some thirty years earlier, where they had met a lovely young woman who served as their guide.    When Loretta wonders if their trip may have been on Julian's mind, Philip discards the idea because it was so long ago that they'd been there.  But soon he begins to wonder -- was it possible that  Julian's state of mind that day had something to do with that old trip? And what about the dedication in Julian's book where he acknowledged Philip as the "sole witness to my crime." What crime? What was the crime of Julian Wells?  Philip decides he must act as Julian's friend and try to uncover the mystery behind Julian's death.

Very cleverly constructed, the novel takes the reader not only through Europe and Argentina as Philip follows Julian's footsteps, but also into a journey where the author explores such thematic issues as the nature of guilt, deception and betrayal, the various forms of cruelty and the hearts and minds of the people who employ them, as well as  the meaning of  friendship. Each chapter brings Philip closer to the truth, not only about the answers he seeks but about his friend Julian as well.  Philip's travels also reveal the darkness and malevolence that take root and sometimes come to maturity in the souls of human beings.  At the same time, his search will reveal that  life has a "cruel randomness"; that it is a  "lottery upon whose uncontrollable outcome everything depended.

The author throws in several references to classic crime writers like Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, and conjures up old spy and noir novels in a smoky cafe in Paris with 
"a dim, oddly undulating light that throws this mysterious figure into half shadow, that one into silhouette, by turns revealing or concealing a forehead, a jaw, an eye with a patch, each face broken into puzzle would put two men in linen suits, one with a very thin moustache, the other clean shaven, wearing a panama hat...where a man in a red fez drinks tea from a white china cup..."

Philip at one point describes Julian as being "like Orpheus," bringing his "music into hell, and like him, he had died in a world that no longer wished to hear it."   Julian's  approach to his writing was to view each of these horrible criminal acts  "part of a larger disorder, one fiber sprung from a hideous cloth."  He's even witnessed some of these horrific "fibers" firsthand:  a king who bought several luxury cars while the people in his country starved, with very little water, maybe living to age 31.  He's seen battery cables hooked up to cars outside  leading inside into a basement where torture is underway, fully justified in one man's mind as being good for the country's future.  But for others, guilt eats away at the soul, not easily if at all assuaged. Ironically, copywriter Loretta finds that the big trend in the publishing biz is "happy talk. Tips on how to avoid thinking about the only things Julian ever thought about"   In this world where Gatsby is condensed down to 17 pages, Julian's work and the truth behind it is destined to be forgotten, as will all of the victims caught up in this "cruel randomness."

The people in this book are terrifically and at times frighteningly well drawn, some of them have enough personality to send the occasional shiver down your spine.  The Crime of Julian Wells is an incredible novel, one I absolutely recommend.  People who are interested in Argentina's Dirty War would be great readers for this novel; historical crime buffs and anyone interested in the darker events in European history would also like it.  It's not a cozy-type thing at all; some scenes are graphic although not terribly overdone -- considering the subject matter, it could have been much, much worse.  The novel also ventures into the philosophical at times, something that  might turn some readers off, but for others it might be that something different you've been looking for.  Super, super book -- some of the best and most original writing I've seen in contemporary American crime fiction.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Minotaur's Head, by Marek Krawjewski

MacLehose Press, 2012
originally published as Glowa minotaura, 2009
translated by Danusia Stok
289 pp

This is book the fourth book in the Eberhard Mock series to be translated to English, but hopefully more will follow soon. This is one of those series of novels that a reader must truly experience for him/herself -- it's a combination of historical and noir fiction with the added elements of  raw carnality and decadence lying under the "civilized" European veneer.  In short, it's just my kind of read. The other novels so far translated are always "something something ...Breslau"; this one has no mention of Breslau in the title because the bulk action has moved from there to Lwów, Poland, now Lviv in the Ukraine. This is one of the most sordid crimes so far in this series, and the true villain one of the ultimate worst Krajewski has come up with yet. 

Set between 1937 and 1939, the beginning of this novel circles back on its ending as the police in Lwów  come across the body of a savagely-murdered young boy and decide that the case should be handled by Commissioner Popielski.  But Popielski doesn't want to take the case; in fact, he adamantly refuses to do so.  When his cousin asks him why, he replies that  "It's to do with the case of the Minotaur." Popielski decides to tell her the entire story; she tells him to start "with that Silesian city and thick-set Silesian you call your friend," referring to none other than Abwehr Captain Eberhard Mock, now 54.

The whole ignominious business started with a monstrous crime assigned to Mock --someone has raped, strangled and eaten half the face of a young girl at the Warsaw Court Hotel.  In just a short amount of time, Mock discovers that that the murdered girl was brought to Breslau from Lwów.  After he phones the police there, Popielski reveals to his staff that the crime described by Mock "looks like the case of the Minotaur," a case that has remain unsolved for the last two years, when two girls met the same fate as the young woman in Breslau. The news that the Minotaur is back chills Popielski to the bone; already anxious about his teenaged daughter Rita and the gossip that puts her in seedy, lowlife establishments, hanging out with some "rough company,"  now he knows he'll have to watch her even more carefully -- the Minotaur is drawn exclusively to  virgins.  It also begins an alliance between Mock and Popielski in a case that will bring Popielski to the edge of his very sanity, as  "Like Theseus," he enters the labyrinth.

As with the other three books in this series -- Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau, The Phantoms of Breslau -- the crimes are intriguing but even more so is the atmosphere, best voiced in the thoughts of Popielski's cousin Leokadia:
"She could not believe that aside from the world she knew so well -- bridge on Thursdays, at the home of Assistant Judge Stanczyk and his wife; her reading lessons in the mornings; ancient home routines; Holy Hours sung by Hanna; Juraszki ginger biscuits and Zalewski's cake shop -- there was another world of dark and hidden places full of sadists, lunatics and morally warped madmen given to brutal appetites, monsters who gnawed the cheeks of virgins..."
The contrast between the two worlds is where Krajewski absolutely shines and why these books are so worth reading.  The crimes in this novel are ghoulish and grotesque, but even so, Mock and Popielski seem to find time to satisfy their own lustful appetites along the way; beneath their respectful exteriors, they are much  like many of the seedier characters who populate this novel -- brutal, often boorish and uncouth --  albeit on the right side of the law.

Definitely not for everyone's tastes, The Minotaur's Head  and for that matter the previous three novels in the series will probably appeal to people who are seasoned noir readers -- these books offer noir in its darkest connotation, in spots leaning toward the grotesque and surreal.  People who read historical novels and are interested in this period may also like this one for its rich period detail, as would crime readers who are ready to step out of the norm and try something way above and out of  the ordinary. But do NOT make this your first foray into Krajewski's world -- start with Death in Breslau just to get a feel for Krajewski's writing style, his characters and above all the darkness they inhabit. 

Keep them coming, MacLehose! There are still two of Krajewski's Mock books left untranslated.  And kudos to the cover art genius, whose work sets the tone for what's inside. 

crime fiction from Poland

#3 read, International dagger eligible list