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.