Monday, June 25, 2012

The Paris Directive, by Gerald Jay

Nan A. Talese, 2012
336 pp
arc -- my many thanks to the publisher!!!

The Paris Directive is the first novel by "Gerald Jay," the pseudonym of an author who lives in New York City.  His protagonist is Inspector Paul Mazarelle, "formerly of Paris but now living in Taziac;" according to the blurb, the author is busily writing another book featuring this detective as we speak. It is a combination of crime fiction and political thriller where the murderer is known up front.  Overall, the book was okay, although  it might have worked a lot better for me personally had the author had made this a straight-up work of crime fiction without the political conspiracy thriller elements that left me sort of shaking my head in places.

A professional hit man named Klaus Reiner,  who is very good at his job and in great demand by very top-level clients who can afford to pay, is commissioned to do a  job in the Dordogne area of France.  Reiner's work has made him rich -- an estate in Spain, his luxury cars and multiple bank accounts reflect just how much Reiner charges for his work and his popularity as a a hit man.   He's also lethal -- a sociopath who sees his work as just another job.  The first exposure to Reiner in this novel is a hit on behalf of a distinguished judge who left a dead bicylist behind in a drunken hit and run. A witness to the crime has to go -- and Reiner makes expedient work of it by pushing her down an elevator shaft.   In the little Dordogne town of Taziac he makes his move on Schuyler Phillips, a wealthy CEO of a company whose aerospace division also handles military projects, and takes his leave.  Unfortunately, there's "collateral damage" in the form of Phillips' wife and their two friends the Reeces,  who are all sharing the same vacation rental.   The murder is unlike anything the police in the town have ever seen.  At first the local gendarmes are put on the case, but soon an order from a higher-up source turns it over to Inpector Paul Mazarelle at the Bergerac police station.  Meanwhile, Molly Reece, the daughter of two of the victims and a district attorney from New York city, is informed about the murders and boards the next plane to France. An arrest is made, but Molly's presence in Taziac, along with her conviction that the wrong guy's in custody, makes Reiner's life complicated -- he is ordered back to France to get rid of her.

It's very easy to get caught up in the story while watching events play out among the characters and waiting for Mazarelle to solve the crime. The book does have some awesome moments, especially in how the murderer sets about framing the poor guy who ends up getting the blame for the Phillips/Reece killings. Jay's characterization of Mazerelle is also very well done -- he's a grumpy but good cop who, since leaving Paris, has been rather unhappy -- the calm life just isn't for him. As he notes, "homicide is my life," but he's now toying with retirement while trying to get over his wife's death.  He's a guy who walks around under an umbrella while bleakness is raining down on him most of the time.  Having the hit man's identity established at the outset doesn't really give Mazarelle a chance to show his stuff as a detective; hopefully he'll get to take out his magnifying glass more often in the next book.

There are some problematic moments as well.  First,  while the nature of most political thrillers almost demands that the reader suspend some measure of their disbelief, in this instance, the reasons behind Phillips' death seem really implausibly way, way out there and hard to swallow, and we don't find out the why until part three of the novel.  Then there are clumsy plot elements. For example, you wouldn't expect that the investigation of the death of a man as important as Phillips would be initially entrusted to the local gendarmes -- this is a man whose company does high-level work all over the world and you'd think some higher-level police agency would get the case right away.   When the Phillips killing is over, having the same hit man come back for another job when the cops think they have their murderer behind bars makes absolutely zero sense, and calls attention to the fact that they really don't.  The two "agents" carrying out the work for some unknown Mr. Big don't seem to be the kind of hardcore bad guys anyone would put in charge of such an important mission, and if that's not enough, the hit man goes through some odd changes that aren't really satisfactorily explained.  At first undeniably confident and keenly skilled at his craft, he not only ends up botching things so badly it's hard to believe it's the same guy, but he loses his Mr. Cool persona and goes a little nuts in the process.  He also makes a lot of mistakes where you'd think he would be more careful, especially in picking up Molly while the police are obviously watching where she's staying. 

While I may not have been blown away by this book, The Paris Directive is garnering some outstanding reader reviews which likely means that I'm the odd man out here.  While the trip through the story was okay, for me it was Mazarelle that made reading it worthwhile. I'll probably give the next one a try just to revisit the gloomy inspector, and I'll recommend this one to readers who like to escape for a while with a political thriller/conspiracy novel and don't mind some odd moments.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The First Fingerprint, by Xavier-Marie Bonnot

MacLehose, 2009 (UK)
originally published as La premiere empreinte, 2002
translated by Ian Monk
341 pp
trade paper ed.

Moving away from Italy and into France for a while, I've just started Xavier-Marie Bonnot's series featuring Police Commandant Michel de Palma, aka the Baron.  I'm still not sure why that's his nickname, but oh well.  The First Fingerprint is a police procedural with a serial-killer  plot line that draws on the study of prehistory to help guide the story, which takes some very odd turns before getting to the big reveal.  Filled with enough suspects and red herrings to make any mystery reader happy, it's a good start to the series -- intelligently written and interesting enough to make me want more of Bonnot.

Michel De Palma is approaching his 25th year on the force; he knows retirement is just around the corner, although he's not quite ready for that step yet.   He's a dedicated cop, not averse to bending the rules or slamming a suspect's head on a desk until blood is drawn, even though some of his younger colleagues protest loudly against his violent methods.  He is also known for getting in the faces of his superiors when he doesn't agree with their orders.  Yet even criminals he's dealt with in the past know that he's "straight and a very good policeman."  

A walker finds the body of prehistory lecturer Christine Autran floating in the ocean below Le Torpilleur off the Marseille coast.

Le Torpilleur

 She had been strangled, tossed into the sea, and her neck had been broken.  De Palma is put on the case, and recalls that some time earlier, another victim, Franck Luccioni, a "small-time thug,"  had been found in the same exact spot near an underground cave, a site of prehistoric activity, now underwater.  The previous death showed no signs of violence, and was found to be the result of a diving accident.   At first, he finds the coincidence odd, but when Luccioni's sister shows up with information about her brother, he begins to wonder if there might be some connection between the two cases.  That's a tough enough job, but when other murder victims turn up, the stakes get even higher for De Palma and his team.

If this is just the first novel in the series, I can't wait to get to the rest.  The First Fingerprint  has an enigmatic mystery at its core, and in Bonnot's hands, the murder investigation is anything but dull. It wanders into the academic world and the experts in the field of prehistory. Where some writers will fill space with lengthy exposition to explain a particular subject to their readers,  Bonnot's  characters offer sufficient explanations that don't become sloggy or overburdened with detail. The pacing is spot on, and the conflicts between law-enforcement agencies and case jurisdiction seems realistic.  The sense of place is very real as you move through the city streets or stop alongside the road with De Palma and look out at the sea, listening to the birds or the "tot-tot" of freighters.  There are also a number of social concerns expressed throughout the novel, and considering that this is the first book of this series, the characters are already on their way to being well developed, at least in the context of their professional lives.   Some readers might find De Palma to be a bit more unsympathetic than a cop or lead character should be, but his no-nonsense refusal to put up with crap helps make him who he is. I also find it refreshing, although I'm  wary when an officer of the law feels he has  to use excessive violence to get people to give him what he wants.   On the flip side, I had part of it figured out a quarter way through the book -- although kudos to the author for completely throwing me off with a curveball I didn't see coming.  Sometimes the story verges toward the melodramatic, but to be fair, that happens close to the ending, so it's excusable.

With plenty of suspects, several murders, a twisted and zig-zaggy line of reasoning and deduction to follow through to the end, there is more than enough in this novel to keep crime-fiction readers happy.  It's intelligently written, has interesting characters and the plot is  just odd enough to be different. I recommend, mainly to fans of translated crime fiction or to crime fiction readers who are looking for something well above average in their reading.

crime fiction from France

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Black Rose of Florence, by Michele Giuttari

Little, Brown, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Le rose nere di firenze, 2010
translated by Howard Curtis
450 pp
Hardcover ed.

I've now  come to the fifth and most current of Giuttari's Michele Ferrara books published in English, The Black Rose of Florence.

Strange things are happening in Florence, the first of which is that someone has taken a knife to the face of a dead woman awaiting her funeral. When the police get involved, they discover tobacco leaves under the body -- which Michele Ferrara interprets as a message aimed at himself.  After all, he did just return from Rome after being on temporary assignment in the Anti-Mafia Investigation Department, a measure intended to get him out of Florence after just barely missing being killed in a bombing attack.  Now he's back, and Florence, "seemed to be doing everything it could to put him off staying."  His wife, Petra, has long been trying to convince her husband that it may be time to retire; he isn't quite ready.  After the strange incident with the dead body, Ferrara begins to wonder if it could possibly be the work of satanists who hold their black masses in "deconsecrated churches." While trying to puzzle out this mess, and a shooting in the Via di Novoli,  the body of young Giovanna Innocenti, 24,  is discovered in her home -- naked, bound to her bed with handcuffs, with an artificial black rose between her legs.  Ferrara, who declares that "this was all very unusual," now has his work cut out for him.  The girl's family seems very indifferent toward her death and all but refuse to cooperate with police; in the meantime, the police department  is under a great deal of pressure when the press gets hold of the story.  Anonymous notes speaking of "the hooded ones" sent to Ferrara seem to hint at some sort of  secret society behind the weirdness -- but is it really a group of Satanic worshippers, or perhaps Freemasons, or are there others he doesn't even know about? When others start to die, Ferrara knows there's no time to lose.

The Black Rose of Florence is a police procedural, and as far as the work the cops put in to solve these strange crimes, it's pretty good -- Giutarri's background and knowledge shine through here.  But far from being the "masterpiece of detective fiction" as noted on the blurb, it's filled with Giuttari's standard clichéd elements I've discovered in pretty much all of his novels:  the higher-ups who run things yet remain clueless about exactly what police work entails, the lack of cooperation between the various law-enforcement agencies in Italy,  corruption at the highest levels, conspiracies, and the true powers behind the powers who pull all the strings in the country.   I have to say that I wondered when Giuttari's fascination with Satanists (à la the real-life Monster of Florence case) was going to appear in novelized form, and here it is.   But then again, he has flirted with the secret society aspects in some of his other books -- here it's just become a bit more blatant, detracting from the  good scenes where the policemen are doing their jobs. I don't understand  why, with his experience as a cop, he feels he has to sensationalize these crimes and make them larger than life when he could have played it absolutely straight and done a better job.

Maybe it's just me, because so many other readers enjoyed this book, but I thought it was more like something in the sensational thriller range (the ones I tend to skip over) rather than a "masterpiece of detective fiction." On the other hand, waiting to see how it all was going to play out kept me reading, so that's a good thing. I will probably read the next one when it's translated and published, but let's just say that there are better Italian crime-fiction novelists out there.

tre libri di Giutarri: A Death in Tuscany, The Death of a Mafia Don, and A Death in Calabria

There are three books between Giutarri's  first Michele Ferrrara novel  A Florentine Death (which, as I noted earlier, really bothered me) and The Black Rose of Florence, the latest installment of the Ferrara series (#5), which will get its own post since it's the latest of Giutarri's novels to be published.  After my experience with A Florentine Death,  I probably would have left the series alone, but having bought the other four, I just couldn't abandon ship without giving them a read.  Here's how they shook out: I liked A Death in Tuscany in 3.3 stars sort of way, thought The Death of a Mafia Don was not so bad, but didn't really care much for Death in Calabria.

Abacus, 2009 (UK ed)
originally published as La loggia degli innocenti, 2005
translated by Howard Curtis
381 pp
trade paper

Abacus, 2010 (UK ed.)
originally published as Il basilisco, 2007
translated by Howard Curtis
369 pp
trade paper

A Death in Tuscany and The Death of a Mafia Don are sort of companion pieces in which the events in the latter are related to the former; actually Death in Calabria is sort of related to these two but only kind of marginally.  

In A Death in Tuscany, a young, teenaged girl who was found in the Tuscan woods and brought to the hospital ER dies as a result of a heroin overdose.  The case catches Ferrara's personal interest, especially when no one seems to have reported her missing after some time.  Ferrara develops a few theories about the girl: she might possibly be an illegal immigrant; he also wonders if she might not have been a victim of human trafficking, a crime on the rise in Florence largely credited to the Albanian gangs who have also been supplying the North African drug dealers in Italy.  Another idea he's playing around with has her as the victim of pedophiles.   But some irregularities in the hospital reports and other factors, lead Ferrara to suspect that there's something very wrong going on here, and he is keen to get to the bottom of it. But while he's gathering information on that case, his friend, bookstore-owner Massimo Verga, has vanished along with a woman he's been seeing -- and the Carabinieri are on his trail after the recent murder of the woman's husband.   

Death of a Mafia Don begins with a bang -- literally -- as Ferrara becomes a victim of an unknown bomber while on his way to work in Florence.  It's not even a month since the 9/11 attack in the US; the rumors are running rife that the bomb may be the work of terrorists.  But some suspect that Ferrara himself may have been the target due to events that happened at the end of Death in Tuscany, a suspicion which is later confirmed when the target of a second bombing, who is closely linked to Ferrara, is killed.  In the meantime, a newspaper reporter stirs up the specter of a possible Mafia-Al Queda connection, and Mafia wars are looming on the horizon. 

Abacus, 2011 (UK)
originally published as La donna della 'ndrangheta, 2009
translated by Howard Curtis
323 pp 
trade paper 

Before the author gets to Italy in A Death in Calabria, he makes a stop in Manhattan, where a group of policemen enter the lobby of an apartment building. When the doorman goes to help them, he is attacked.  The bad guys make their way to an apartment, where they kill six people.  The niece of the apartment's owner, who is eventually identified as Rocco Fideli, is waiting for her uncle to join her and her parents to watch the New York Marathon, and uses her key to get in when there is no answer, and discovers the carnage. The real police get to work to solve the crime, and eventually,  a detective from the NYPD, along with FBI agents travel to Rome, where they will become part of a joint investigative team with Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigation Department (the DIA).   It seems that Ferrara has been reassigned temporarily, after the events in the previous two novels,  to the DIA as Director of Investigations, currently working on a number of  unsolved crimes.  Tracing the Fideli connection, the team realizes that they're dealing with groups of Calabrians known collectively as the 'Ndrangheta; it seems that different families within the 'Ndrangheta are at war with each other. The Americans want to solve the brutal murders, and the DIA seems to be their only hope.

There are several commonalities between these three novels.  There are people in the higher echelons who either seem to have no clue about the realities of police work or no real police experience, yet they run the show and dictate how the police must act. Of course, Ferrara is known for being a troublemaker and for doing things his way.  Second, there's a distinct lack of cooperation between the various law-enforcement agencies in Italy -- for example, the Carabinieri keeps its distance from the Squadra Mobile so that in some cases, even when ordered to share evidence and keep each other abreast of developments, the two groups hold some revelations close to their respective chests.  Third, there is a great deal of corruption at the highest levels, some of which seeps down into the police department so it's often difficult to know who to trust. Then there's Ferrara's investigations, which seem to lead him down the path of conspiracy theory -- often to the Freemasons.  These same traits also find their way into the newest novel, Black Rose of Florence, but more on that later.  There is also the sense that in each and every case, there is someone behind the scenes who pulls the strings, often known only by some silly codename, and others jump to his or her tune in fear of some kind of exposure.

A Death in Tuscany, followed by Death of a Mafia Don are the better two of these "tre libri di Giutarri;" with Death in Tuscany the best of the group.  Here the action is a bit more believable than in Mafia Don, although in all of the books, the characters seem a bit cardboardish, most of the action is over the top, and really, I think Ferrara might have been a much more sympathetic character if he wasn't so obviously modeled after his creator.  Sometimes I felt bad for Michele Ferrara, especially in Death of a Mafia Don, but when I got down to Death in Calabria, I wondered why he was even a character in the novel.  Most of the real action occurs in New York; in Italy, Ferrara has much less of a role than in the previous books of the series.  In all of these novels there is very little in the way of necessary sense of place that transports the reader into Italy, a definite drawback for those who want to soak up the local atmosphere.

If you've started the series and are invested in it, then by all means don't miss these; Giuttari has come a long way since A Florentine Death, and for the most part the stories in these three novels are definitely interesting at their core.  There is a lot of procedural in all of these novels but they are exciting in parts; I think, however, if the author would just relax and not get so involved in conspiracies they'd be much better.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Age of Doubt, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2012
originally published as L'età del dubbio, 2008
translated by Stephen Sartarelli
274 pp
(trade paper ed.)

Still trying to get through the crime fiction of Michele Giutarri (which, I must confess is not so easy but I'm not a quitter)  and finally catching up with things at home after my 3-week vacation,  I had to pause to read Camilleri's latest offering in English, The Age of Doubt.  Finishing it in one sitting, there is no doubt in my mind that Camilleri just keeps getting better and better.  Each reading of this author's novels  just solidifies how much I love this guy -- his writing, his series, and above all, his Inspector Montalbano.

As with many of the recent books in the series, Age of Doubt begins with a dream -- in this one, Montalbano walks into the station to let Catarella know he'll be away on a surprise trip to visit Livia in Bocadesse.  Catarella responds that Salvo can't go to Bocadesse because he died the day before. He's also told  he can't investigate the case because "he's too personally involved."  Even worse, Livia's not sure she can make it to the funeral.   After analyzing his dream, it's back to work; he gets stuck in a major traffic jam caused by the washing away of the road.  In the first of a long line of cars, he comes across a woman whose car is sticking out over the edge of the washed-out road and  rescues her, taking her home where she dries off and where he calls Gallo to come and get them.  She's not his type, so they spend the time waiting talking about her.  It turns out she's Vanna Digiulio, who was on her way to the Harbor Office to meet her aunt's yacht, also named Vanna,  at 10 a.m.  Gallo arrives; the yacht, as it turns out, is not supposed to arrive until 4, so Vanna waits with a book at the police station until it's time to go the harbor.  But it isn't long after she leaves there's a call that sends Montalbano to the harbor -- it seems a dead man has been found in a dinghy and that it had been picked up by the Vanna.   When Montalbano goes to talk to the Vanna's captain, the yacht's owner, Livia Giovannini, complains about having to be stuck there and Salvo gives her a list of things she might want to do to pass the time.  When she wonders about how to get around, Salvo suggests she use her niece's car, to which she replies "What niece?"

While trying to figure out the corpse's identity, Salvo meets Lt. Laura Belladona of the Harbor Office and zing!!!! There is an instant mutual attraction, a dual-pronged Cupid's arrow that  lands simultaneously in both of their hearts.  As the story progresses, Salvo, now 58, begins to wonder if it's real love he's feeling for this  much younger woman who makes him absolutely crazy or if it's something else completely:

"He hadn't done this sort of thing when he was sixteen, and now he was doing it at fifty-eight?  Fifty-eight, Montalbà! Don't you forget it! Or was it perhaps the folly of old age that made him act this way?"
The Age of Doubt continues Camilleri's tradition of a good mystery at the core of the novel, surrounded by the characters that are by now like old friends to regular Camilleri fans.  There are a number of incredibly funny scenes here, including Mimi Augello's undercover work (giving "undercover" a whole new connotation here!) , but there are also very serious moments.  In just one example, Salvo muses critically about the government's handling of the immigration issue as he  witnesses a load of hopeful  immigrants being rounded up by the authorities at the harbor.  The book is very well paced, and as usual, Camilleri takes his readers to the Vigata shoreline with the sights, smells, and tastes of this small corner of Sicily.  This is also one of the more poignant Montalbano stories I've read; Sartarelli's translation making it even more so .  Someone give that man an award for his work!!

I highly recommend this book to anyone who's followed Montalbano from the beginning -- although all of the series novels accentuate Montalbano as a person, this one goes beyond the norm.  I loved it.