Monday, January 30, 2012

Salvo Montalbano revisited

Luca Zingaretti, who plays Salvo Montalbano
I haven't quite had a lot of crime reading time lately but while I was laid up with a rather nasty bout of flu for a few days, I discovered the joy of the Detective Montalbano series on DVD.  I got the first three episodes of the series for Christmas, so I pulled them out and watched them.  Oh my god! What an experience! They're all in Italian (of course -- it's a TV series) with subtitles, but I swear, after a while I totally forgot I was reading the words on the screen and was totally immersed. 

The first set of DVDs covers Camilleri's The Snack Thief,  The Voice of the Violin and The Shape of Water, so they don't really follow the same order as the series of books, but who cares.  They're so well done that it just doesn't matter.  Salvo Montalbano transfers well from page to screen, as do the officers who work for him. The locations where these episodes were shot made me want to get on plane to Italy right away, to take a dip in the beautiful ocean and they also made me really hungry for pasta.

Naturally, I couldn't be satisfied with just three episodes, so I bought two more sets of DVDS to watch. Seriously -- this is one of the best film adaptations I've experienced and I highly recommend them.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Erast Fandorin rides again: She Lover of Death and He Lover of Death, by Boris Akunin

Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009 (UK)
originally published as Liu bovnitsa smerti , 2001
translated by Andrew Bromfield
263 pp.

In the eighth installment of the Erast Fandorin series, She Lover of Death , the author changes his usual  narrative style to tell this story via several different points of view. A young girl's journal, newspapers, the reports of an undercover agent, and even poetry all come together to weave a somewhat bizarre tale of a suicide club in Moscow. While suicide clubs are definitely not a new phenomenon in the rest of Europe, in Moscow they have been previously unheard of until now, at the dawn of the new century.  She Lover of Death tells the story of a young woman from the provinces and how she came to be mixed up in such a group.  It explores the burgeoning society of "decadents" arising around this time period, often delving into the influences of Russian poets such as Lermontov or Pushkin on sensitive psyches, especially those wondering about Russia's fate in this new century.  Of course, there's a mystery element to it as well, one involving our illustrious hero and his ever-faithful servant Masa. 

A young girl arrives in Moscow from Irkutsk, drawn there by a young man named Petya she had met previously while he had visited relatives in the provinces.   Marya Marinova (nicknamed Masha) had been truly captivated by this young man she called Harlequin, who "cast a spell on her with the halo of fiery-red curls scattering across his shoulder, his loose-fitting blouse and intoxicating poems."  Masha, who saw life as "an empty, stupid joke," was also captivated by Harlequin's comment about the only true beauty being in dying.  Upon her arrival in Moscow, she changes everything about herself, including her name, rechristening herself simply as Columbine.  When she catches up with Petya, he introduces her to a secret society of poets, brought together not only by their art, but with their fascination with death.  The group is called The Lovers of Death; it is within the confines of this group that Death speaks through previous members (now dead by their own hands)  via a medium to pick its next victim.  The chosen ones must wait for three signs of confirmation before making their way to their rendezvous with Death.  The head of this group is an strange character named Prospero, aka The Doge, and the club attracts the attention of a reporter who manages to infiltrate the group, unbeknownst to the others.  It also attracts the attention of a strange man with dark hair which is graying at the temples, a person the group knows only as Prince Genji. But you guessed it -- Prince Genji is none other than Erast Fandorin, who believes that there is something more sinister lurking under the surface.  

The various points of view work well in this novel, making the reader work a little bit harder to suss out what's really going on here.  Since Akunin's regular readers are already quite familiar with Erast Petrovich by this time, the author mixes things up so that the reins of the story are given over to others actually involved in this odd tale, choosing to focus instead on accounts written by those smack in the middle of all of the action.  What you end up with instead of more of a textured account of events that flesh out the rest of the story, rather than simply a linear mystery going from point a to point z.  While Columbine's character is representative of one of these new "decadents" appearing in Moscow society around this time, sometimes it's a bit over the top, while at other times you can't help but feel sorry for this poor naive and very impressionable girl fresh from the provinces. 

There is a bit of a supernatural feel to this book at times, making for a bit of fun and chills to the spine here and there, but luckily this is limited and doesn't consume the entire plotline.  She Lover of Death is another trademark installment in the series -- it's a great deal of fun to read and it offers a realistic sense of place and time owing to the author's research and knowledge of the period.  And as usual,  it exceeds the boundaries of the regular conventional mystery novel with its characters' actions, especially those of the erstwhile Fandorin. As I've noted before, I don't really read these novels for their mystery component -- they're much more adventurous than a standard mystery story.  And I can't help it -- I've been a huge Fandorin fan since the publication in English of Akunin's first novel.

I can definitely recommend She Lover of Death, both to followers of Akunin's Fandorin series, and  to readers of historical crime fiction.   I'm a stickler for following a series in publication order, and you could probably read this one without having read any of the earlier books.  On the other hand, you wouldn't have all of the necessary nuances of Fandorin's character that make this series so much fun under your belt.

Overall, a fun read, one I had a great time with.


Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010 (UK)
originally published as Liu bovnik smerti, 2001
translated by Andrew Bromfield
279 pp.

And now we've come to number nine in the Fandorin series.   This time the story is told in a third-person narrative, as seen through the eyes and experiences of a member of Moscow's criminal underworld, Senka Spirodov.  And FYI, whoever wrote the blurb for the dustjacket cover  put his name as Skorikov.  I noticed that on Amazon UK, one reviewer repeated that name ... is it just my copy that has him as Spirodov?

The action takes place at the same time as Fandorin's involvement in the suicide club investigation from She Lover of Death, and involves another young person infatuated with Death.  However, in Senka's case, Death is the nickname of a living person, a beautiful young woman whose lovers all ended up dying -- not by her hand, but from different causes.  After a while Death gained a reputation, leaving people who walked by her to cross themselves or to spit over their shoulders.  Now she lives in the Khitrovka district of Moscow, where decent people don't venture and where the criminal organizations are pitted against each other in a struggle for control.  Senka ended up here after family circumstances left him orphaned and with an uncle who used him for free labor and other abuses; a desire to do a good deed ultimately got him into trouble and he had to run away. Where better than Khitrovka, where no one would dare come to find him?  It is there where he becomes infatuated with the woman called Death, whose intervention sends him into the employ of The Prince, the leader of one of the two top crime organizations in the area, and a lover of Death as well.    On an errand of mercy for Death, Senka discovers the location of a treasure buried in the labyrinthine tunnels underneath the city -- and realizes that he has a ticket out of the criminal life.  However, others who inhabit Khitrovka are not so lucky -- there are a series of ghastly murders occurring there. Enter Erast Fandorin, who must get to the bottom of these horrible crimes, and who knows that Death is the key to uncovering the truth. 

He Lover of Death is much more of an adventure story than a mystery, although there is plenty of crime and a growing list of suspects as the novel progresses.  There might possibly be more humor in this installment than in the others preceding it, as Fandorin and Senka team up for some crazy adventures and Senka is roped into helping to solve the crimes. Quite a bit of time is given over to Senka's character and his changing life before Fandorin actually gets involved.  The reason: he's been very busy with events from She Lover of Death, and now and then the author references some of that story in this one.  

It's a fun read that will keep you turning pages, not so much for the mystery but to find out what's going to happen to Senka next.  It's almost like a rags-to-riches story where the hero finds himself in one desperate plight after another, but with the added interjection of humorous situations that you just know Akunin had a great time inventing. 

Again, my suggestion is to read these books in order, but you can get by with this one as a standalone if you don't want to go back and read the books that came before.   This one may be the most fun book in the series -- less mystery really, but all the same, a good time will be had by all who poke their noses into this novel.

 crime fiction from Russia

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Fandorin times two: The State Counsellor and The Coronation, by Boris Akunin

Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008
originally published as Statskii sovietnik, 1999
translated by Andrew Bromfield
300 pp.

Years ago when I read the first Erast Fandorin novel, I knew there was something unique about this series, and I liked the books so much I bought them from the UK as soon as they were published. Sadly, as I got more interested in other authors, these books got set aside.   That is one.  And while I think the mystery component of these novels is a little transparent in each book, Akunin, pen name of  Grigory Chkhartishvili,  is an awesome story teller, incorporating historically- accurate details and interjecting his own ideas here and there via his characters.   That is two.  Face it -- for a challenging, in-depth mystery Akunin is not the best, but for very entertaining stories, fast-paced action and larger-than-life characters, he's the go-to guy.  And sometimes even seasoned crime fiction readers like myself need a break from the intensity of modern crime novels -- the Erast Fandorin series is just the ticket!  That is three.

***note: Because of events that happened in this novel -- especially the change in governor general for Moscow --  I'm thinking that the action in this story takes place in 1891.  Not that the exact date is too important, but I always like to have my historical bearings when I'm reading historical fiction. That year, one of the Grand Dukes in the Romanov family, Sergei Alexandrovich (note the same initials of the GG at the end of the novel), took over the post, so this event coincides with what's in the book.  ***

As the novel opens in this, the sixth book in the series, Adjutant General Khrapov,  newly-appointed governor-general for Siberia, is on his way to Moscow by train.  The train stops to receive an expected passenger on a train, who just happens to be Erast Fandorin, Deputy for Special Assignments to the Governor General of Moscow.  Fandorin is ushered into Khrapov's private car, and after only a few minutes, plunges a dagger into the General's heart, and leaves the train.   But wait! As it turns out, it's not our hero after all; instead it was someone disguised as Fandorin, leaving behind his calling card: on the knife's handle, the letters "CG" are carved.  Fandorin realizes that someone at high levels has provided information to the leader of a revolutionary group, but his hands are a bit tied trying to figure out who the traitor might be: he is caught in the middle of a higher-echelon power struggle where others have their own ideas about how to handle the situation.  He must discover who is the traitor, and why he or she is feeding information to the revolutionaries before any more deaths can occur.

The story is told from two very different points of view -- Fandorin's story alternates with that of Green, the revolutionary leader of the Combat Group whose parents had been killed during  a pogrom against the Jews when he was younger.   While Fandorin is trying to weed through several potential suspects to stop a traitor and thus stop the Combat Group, Green and his fellow revolutionaries are able to stay a step ahead of the law, wreaking havoc and bringing death along the way.

While Fandorin's often over-the-top detective work is fun to read and the plot is easy to follow, what I really liked about this particular book is that the reader gets a glimpse into a) the problems in Russian society in a view from below and even more importantly, b) the mindsets  of those in power and those of the majority of the nobility.  Decisions are made at this time which, combined with later decisions made by czar Nicholas II and other factors,   will change the face of Russia and the rest of the world forever.  Seeing the various points of view makes this book a bit less one dimensional and offers insight into  events that will come in only a few short years.  

As with the previous installments of this series,  The State Counsellor is entertaining, a good romp offering great period detail without becoming tedious like the works of some other authors I won't mention here.   I've already read The Coronation, book number seven, and have all of the other ones stacked and ready for my perusal.  I would recommend this series to people interested in the time period, for cozy readers who want just a little more than your normal cozy adventure, and for readers of crime fiction in general who want something a bit different. I'm not sure if many people are aware of Akunin's pattern, but he puts Fandorin in a different sort of crime fiction scenario with each book.  Here he's set him squarely in a politically-charged adventure, so if this is your thing, you'll probably also like this book.   If you realize that this novel (and the series in general) is generally a little farfetched, and that there are times where one must suspend disbelief, then the reading experience can be much more relaxed and fun.


Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2009
originally published as Koronaciya, 2000
translated by Andrew Bromfield
311 pp.

Book seven in the Erast Fandorin series brings us to 1896 and the coronation of Nicholas II as the last Russian czar.  Like its predecessor The State Counsellor, The Coronation is steeped in accurate historical detail, from the name of the new Czar's horse to the horrible events that occurred in the field at Khodynka.  Unlike The State Counsellor, Fandorin is acting as a lone wolf here, no longer holding his previous position as Deputy for Special Assignments to the Governor General of Moscow.  The story is told through the eyes of the head butler at the Hermitage in Moscow, temporary  home to the St. Petersburg contingent of the Romanov family and its retinue.  His narrative spans two weeks,  beginning with Fandorin's death.  What????

The coronation is imminent, and the family of the czar's uncle Grand Duke Georgii Alexandrovich is settling into its Moscow lodgings.  There's a great deal to do before the big event, but there's plenty of time to take the Grand Duke's little son Mikhail Georgievich on a walk through the park.  Out of nowhere, Xenia, grand princess and daughter of the Grand Duke, is snatched up, but the attempt at a kidnapping is thwarted.  But sadly, while Xenia is being rescued, even though  the little boy is moved away for his safety, the whole thing is only a clever ruse, with Mikhail Georgievich as the real target.   A shaggy-looking gentleman, along with an ice-cream seller in the park reveal themselves to the family as (who else!) Erast Fandorin and his Japanese servant Masa, and thus Fandorin is launched into the effort to gain  Mikhail's safe release.  His opponent is one Dr. Lind, someone with whom Fandorin has scores to settle, and someone who demands something no less than the Orlov diamond, the key jewel of the coronation ceremony.  But this is not going to be an easy task -- Lind holds all the cards, Fandorin is not trusted by many in the household, and the family, while concerned with little Mikhail, still have duties to perform to ensure that the coronation goes off without a hitch.  After all, nothing can be done to get in the way of the Romanov destiny -- and rumors of a royal kidnapping might undermine the stability of Nicholas' rule even before it is officially acknowledged.

There are several moments to divert one's attention away from the main action of the novel.  Some are humorous, for example,  the butler's undercover adventures  in a club for gay men is only one  pleasant diversion to be found.  Some are darkly serious and based on a terrible reality where over 1300 people were trampled to death at the Khodynka field on a day when the royal family set up food and drink for their citizens and rumors escaped that there wasn't enough for everyone.  And then Akunin offers insight into how the Imperial family views its common citizens, and just how far the family is willing to go to hide anything even remotely detrimental to its image -- a factor  that later is going to help bring down the house of Romanov in terms of Nicholas' only son and his hemophilia.

I'll admit to not having figured out the kidnapper's identity in this hostage mind-boggler of an adventure,  and I got very caught up in the story while trying to do so.  I think, though, that  knowing the sad story that's yet to play out with the Romanovs, the history took me in more than the mystery, although it was quite enjoyable and very fast paced.  Akunin's sense of place is undeniably vivid, as is his knowledge of detail of the period, more fully fleshing out the events going on around the story of the kidnapping.

The Coronation
may be my favorite of the Fandorin novels so far, with The State Counsellor a close second.  There's a big leap in quality between these two books and the earlier ones, and I hope the remaining  three  (She Lover of Death, He Lover of Death and The Diamond Chariot) are just as good as these two have been.

Anyone who enjoys hostage and kidnapping stories will like this, as well as cozy readers who want a bit more of a challenge than the usual fare.  Readers of this series will also enjoy it, and I think readers of historical crime fiction will do well with this book.  Again -- some of the scenes are just completely over the top, but it still a very good read.

crime fiction from Russia

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bloodline, by Mark Billingham

Mulholland/Little Brown and Company, 2011; published in the UK, 2009
344 pp

With thanks to LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program and to the publisher for sending this book, Bloodline is the 8th foray into the series featuring DI Tom Thorne, a police procedural series which started ten years ago with Sleepyhead, a book I read and enjoyed a great deal way back when.  In fact, I read the first two books in the series, then didn't come back to it until book number five (Lifeless), which was an ARC from the publisher at the time.  Now here I am back again with book eight, and I'd really forgotten how much I enjoy this series. I believe I was scheduled to receive this book last summer sometime, but it didn't arrive until the beginning of December. That's okay ... it was worth waiting for.

Murder is not new in Thorne's line of work,  but this case is a definite puzzler. One of the victims is found clutching a bloodstained piece of X-ray, a clue that helps lead the detectives in London's Murder Squad to a connection between her death and a serial killer named Anthony Garvey. Garvey is now dead, but it seems that someone is going around killing off the relatives of his victims.  When a second murder follows with a third, Thorne is convinced that the remaining relatives needed to be found and put under police protection.  While searching for them and trying to work out what's going on, the killer remains at large and no one is safe.  It's a tough time for Thorne, who has just recently been faced with personal tragedy, but as always, he will not stop until the job is done. 

Considering I haven't picked up a Billingham novel since 2005, I was amazed at the ease of sliding back into the series after such a long time away.  I obviously missed a few things in Thorne's personal life, but it didn't matter in terms of plot.  Thorne is a great character, a very good cop who's human as well.  I appreciated the fact that the author did not channel too much energy away from the storyline and into Thorne's personal life, so that the bulk of the story focused on the police squad and the investigation.  As far as police procedurals go, Bloodline is a good one -- not too bogged down in detail, but credibly paced as far as police work and plot. The only thing I have a niggle about is the use of the journal-type entries from the killer -- having read mountains of crime fiction in my time, this device is getting old. I tend to prefer good, old-fashioned police work and watching the investigators get from point A to point B on their own without interjections from the killer

Definitely recommended for readers of British crime fiction, or for readers who enjoy a fine police procedural as well. I do need to take some time and start this series again to see what I missed, but if it didn't bother me that much to read this installment out of order (and I am definitely very fussy about reading the books in the order of publication), then it shouldn't be to difficult for anyone else, either. 

By the way, I added the UK version date of 2009 on purpose: two years to be published in the US??? Crazy -- and the reason I tend to buy most of my books at Book Depository!

crime fiction from the UK

I'm back, finally, and I've missed being here.

After lots and lots of traveling, taking a vacation from my vacation, and trying to get back into the swing of it all again, I'm finally back and  ready to get back to the sordid side of life in crime fiction. I've missed reading all about the bad guys! Time to get back to work.