Saturday, April 28, 2012

Liar Moon, by Ben Pastor

Bitter Lemon Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published 2001
268 pp.
trade paper ed.

Liar Moon is Ben Pastor's second novel to feature Wehrmacht Major Martin Bora, following her earlier novel Lumen.  Bora is headquartered near Verona, in northern Italy, where the Fascists still maintain control and the Nazis are occupying the territory.  And although Bora is in the German Army, after what he's been through and what he's seen, he has no heart for this war.  He's a man with a conscience and a troubled soul, with very little stomach for SS policies, which, by the way, has not gone unnoticed by the SS. Bora has to walk a very fine line between what's in his heart and what he is expected to do as a German army officer.  Now, after a partisan attack, he's also been injured, leaving him with worries about his future with his wife. 

His regular work is interrupted by a directive from headquarters asking him to help police inspector Sandro Guidi investigate the death of a prominent Fascist of Verona, one Vittorio Lisi.  Lisi's death was publicly declared to have been the result of a stroke, but Lisi was known as "a comrade of the first hour," by Mussolini himself, and the real reason for his death might be embarrassing to the current regime: Lisi was murdered while in his wheelchair, run down by a car within the grounds of his own home.    Ultimately, the tarnishing of the Fascist image  is what ultimately convinces Bora to help Guidi, despite the fact that he doesn't really want to do this.  Guidi is also hard at work on a case involving an escaped convict who also happens to be a sniper. 

Liar Moon
is very much a character-oriented novel, a work of historical fiction with a different slant -- rather than repeating what her readers already know about the horrors of the Nazi regime, Pastor tends to focus on what the war has done to her main protagonist Martin Bora. It's an interesting choice to have the war related through his perspective; even better is Guidi, who feels much the same way as Bora and is often horrified at things Bora does, including arranging transport for Jews on their way to their final destination and arresting a priest, who acts as Bora's confessor.   What Guidi doesn't understand is that Bora is not really in a position to take up a public rant against the Nazis or the Italian Fascists even though Bora thinks largely along the same lines as the Inspector -- it is largely through interior monologues that Guidi expresses himself and it's also what is not said between the two main characters that really makes this book a very interesting read.   While the focus is on the characters, the mystery of Lisi's death provides a few good red herrings to keep the reader guessing, as well as a conclusion that while sad and somber, makes sense and comes as a bit of a surprise. 

At the same time, Liar Moon seemed to drag in spots, and although both of Guidi's cases cross paths, the sniper subplot was not so intruiging as to keep me glued to that particular investigation, and I eagerly waited to get back to the unspoken interactions between Bora and Guidi as well as the Lisi murder.   It's also a very melancholy novel, much more angst ridden than its predecessor Lumen, which also moved a bit faster in terms of pace, although admittedly it had its fair share of darkness.  Liar Moon  is very intelligently written, although personally, I felt it worked very well as a novel of historical fiction, less so as crime fiction.  I've also seen it reviewed as a "thriller," but I'm afraid I have to disagree with that assessment -- while the core mystery is good, it's the main characters who are really at the heart of the novel, not the whodunit.

You can read other reviews of Liar Moon at Eurocrime; Richard Z. Santos also reviews it for;  the book rated a solid 4.5 on Amazon and also received some nice star ratings on Goodreads.  I'd recommend it to readers who like historical fiction that deals with the Nazi occupation of Italy or World War II; I'd also recommend it to crime fiction readers with the caveat that it does move rather slowly and depends more on characters than plot.   Overall -- it's a good read and one I've been waiting for since I read Lumen; I'll definitely be following the rest of the series as the novels are translated and published. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

She's Never Coming Back, by Hans Koppel

Sphere, 2011 (UK)
originally published as Kommer aldrig mer igen,2011
translated by Kari Dickson
393 pp
(trade paper ed)

In She's Never Coming Back, an old crime sparks a vendetta against four people in the present.  The parents of a girl who went through an unspeakable crimeordeal as a teen want their revenge years after something terrible happens to their daughter and they'll go to any length to get it.  One of their targets is Ylva Zetterberg, who is married to Mike with whom she has a daughter named Sanna. After work one day, Ylva is offered a ride, accepts, and is never seen by friends and loved ones again.  Mike doesn't call the police immediately, since he and Ylva have an ongoing thing about her freedom; he's thinking she went out with friends and wasn't paying attention to the time.  But when it becomes obvious that she's really gone, seemingly vanished without a trace, Mike contacts the authorities, who begin to suspect that Ylva is the victim of foul play and that Mike is behind it.

Little does anyone know (and this is not a spoiler -- it's on the book blurb) that Ylva is actually just across the street from her house, being held prisoner in the cellar.  The owners of the home had recently had the house modified, putting up soundproof walls and a living space in the basement.  And now this is Ylva's space, where she's locked in, subjected to random rapes by her captor as well as other degrading humiliations. The worst part is that she is able to see what's going on at her house across the road, since her kidnappers have installed a camera on the outside of the house.

The police are worthless in this investigation; they've already made up their minds that Mike has done away with Ylva. But when the prosecutor eventually closes the case, there's nothing they can do.  In the meantime, a couple of men who were at Ylva's school at the time of the incident -- one now a journalist, one a lucky businessman who sold his share of a company and made millions -- start noticing a pattern about the deaths of their school friends who've recently died and start their own investigation.

The revenge premise is good, and there are other positives about this book -- the ending, for example, where the horrific crime of Ylva's school days is replayed and the reader is left wondering about Ylva's ambiguous morality; there are also a few good scenes with Mike and his daughter as they try to pick up after such a hole has been left in their lives. I also tend to like stories dealing with revenge.  But I have to say that I wasn't overly thrilled with this novel as a whole -- the basement captive routine is not new (the addition of the camera, though,  that was different);  the characters were sort of cardboard cutouts with not a lot of depth, and the same is true for the writing -- very light and a bit shallow for a novel where such terrible things are going on.  Plus, while I get Ylva's degradation routine as a vehicle for breaking her spirit, the forced sex is way too much in this book. I'm not a prude but jeez!  Enough already.  And as someone who thrives on the road to a solution in a crime novel, this one just didn't perk my interest. It came very late, sort of halfheartedly outlined and I didn't find it credible.

There are several reviewers who liked this book, so perhaps it's just me -- but let's just say it wasn't one of my favorite novels for the year.  You can find a positive review here at The Newtown Review of Books, and also at Book After Book.  For another point of view, check out Karen's review at Austcrimefiction.

Read at your own risk, seriously. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

I Will Have Vengeance, by Maurizio de Giovanni

Hersilia Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Il Senso del Dolore, 2007
translated by Anne Milano Appel
213 pp
(trade paper)

Naples in 1931 is the setting for this novel, about nine years into the rule of Mussolini and the Fascists.  Twenty-five years earlier, little Luigi Alfredo Ricciardi, who had been mesmerized by Emilio Salgari's "Tiger of Malaysia," stories was pretending to be on an adventure out in the jungle when he came across a man with a pruning knife in his chest. The man spoke, and feeling the weight of his sorrow,  Luigi Alfredo ran home.  As it turned out, his description of what he saw jibed perfectly with a crime that had happened some five months earlier; this vision became known as "The Incident," a "scar on his soul" that was only the first of many such emotional encounters with the dead who had died violently:  He

"saw them as though in a photograph that captured the moment their lives ended, one whose contours slowly faded until they disappeared...The image of the dead man, bearing the marks of his wounds and his expression at the very last moment before the end; and his final words, repeated endlessly, as if to conclude something the soul had begun before being torn away...He grasped their sorrow, their surprise, their rage, their misery. Even their love."

*** Umm, hellooo -- this sounds like Haley Joel Osment's character in The Sixth Sense and it was at this juncture, four pages in, that I had to decide whether or not to  continue reading.  I happen to love particularly good, well-written weird fiction --  as a matter of fact I'm busy reading it right now --  where this sort of thing happens, but definitely NOT in my crime novels.  After two votes to one in favor of sticking with it, I didn't put it down, and I Will Have Vengeance  turned out to be an okay read where good, old-fashioned police work, rather than the supernatural, is the key to solving the crime.   I am saying all of this in the off chance that someone else will have my experience.  ***

 Now 31, Ricciardi  is the Commissario of the Mobile Unit of the Regia Questura di Napoli, somewhat of a loner in the force because he gives most of his co-workers the willies. He wears his sorrow on his sleeve, and although he solves a lot of crimes, other people don't really understand him, with the exception of his friend and colleague Maione.   Now the two of them have a tough case to solve: at the San Carlo Theater, a tenor playing the lead role in Pagliacci has been found dead in his dressing room.  Ricciardi is under a great deal of pressure; the tenor, Vezzi, is a favorite of Il Duce, so the case takes on political undertones:  a solution must be found or heads will roll.  Ricciardi is in no hurry despite the threats of his superior --  he takes his time to uncover the truth.  What he finds is that there are several people who may have had it in for Vezzi -- however great a tenor he may have been, his conduct as a human being was atrocious.

Despite my initial misgivings, the novel turned out to be an okay read that launches an entire series.  The solution to the crime is solidly constructed, step by step, and there's a very nice twist at the end that lends an element of surprise to the solution.  He adds more than just a sense of place in his Naples of 1931; it's a time when political connections are everything to those either on the top tier of society or those who aspire to get ahead but at the same time the author does not shy away from the situation of the poor.  While friends are sitting at a cafe drinking coffee and eating sfogliatelle, there are some people who don't eat for days.  The author spends a great deal of time on character development in this novel, not just in terms of Ricciardi, but other people as well.  Each character has a personality with a backstory, a critical factor in this book but also in terms of an ongoing series.

I have to be honest and say that I wasn't too taken by the supernatural approach and although I realize it's kind of a metaphor made manifest to understand the main character, it seriously could have been left out with no problem. I'm just wondering if de Giovanni is flying on the tails of the paranormal epidemic in publishing, but really, the story would have been good on its own without this device. I get it -- the dead  and their sorrows are a weight on Ricciardi's shoulders, so  he seeks out ways to help alleviate the suffering of the living so that they don't carry it with them to the next world unheard or uncared about; he also feels like someone needs to find some measure of justice for the dead.  Ricciardi's sense of fair play and his ideas of justice are actually elements of the novel that I liked -- rather than caring about keeping his career intact, the Commissario cares about people. 

There are several reviews of I Will Have Vengeance; here are three:  Maxine at Eurocrime, Mrs. P also takes a look at it, and there's a review at Crime Fiction Lover as well. While this book may not be perfect for everyone, I'm happy to add yet another Italian author to my growing international crime fiction library.  It's not a cozy read, nor does it really turn out to be  a paranormal story, despite the frame.  And do not expect an Inspector Montalbano-type read at all if that's as far as your Italian crime fiction experience goes -- not even close.  The book's premise may scare people off, but do give it a try -- you'll be surprised at how tangible the crime and its solution turn out to be.  My thanks to Laura, Maxine and Eric!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

oh me oh my what do I do?

Last night I started Maurizio de Giovanni's I Will Have Vengeance, only to discover that the main character sees dead people and solves cases partially based on what he's seen.  This is just not my thing in crime fiction, but I'm trying to read as many titles on the list of books eligible for the International Dagger Award.  I hate to call it quits, but at the same time, I have other books I want to get through.

Someone help me out here -- should I finish it because it's on the list or should I drop it? And will someone give it a home (absolutely free)  if I choose not to read it?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Holy City, by Guillermo Orsi

MacLehose Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Ciudad Santa, 2009
translated by Nick Caistor
302 pp
(trade paper ed.)

"There aren't any people in this city, Verónica. Only monsters."

Setting down my thoughts about this novel is not an easy task; it has a level of complexity that is not easy to translate into a standard summary or review.  Holy City is no ordinary novel of crime fiction -- it is a look not only into the darkness of  the Buenos Aires underworld but also its connections to corruption among  politicians, the legal and justice systems, and the police of the city, all  institutions that are supposed to function as protectors of the city's populace but which  have instead carved out their own little niches of power, money and influence. It also provides a glimpse into Argentinian attitudes toward their neighbors, into  remnants of Argentina's junta-ruled past and the problems with America's ongoing battle in the war on drugs.  This book just screams noir, with its dark, atmospheric undertones, and while it may be a bit confusing with its multiple subplots and characters, overall it is a great read, a bit challenging but one that is unforgettable. 

In a brief look at this complex book, the novel opens with the execution of the former right-hand man of Alberto Cozumel Banegas, dubbed "Councillor Pox." Banegas

 "rules with an iron fist his twenty blocks in the south of Matanza, an open sewer inhabited by the rejects of the system, zombies who steal and kill for food, ragged foot-soldiers in an army whose only discipline in the certainty that if they disobey orders they will starve to death."
The man who's about to die is Zamorano, who allowed himself to be convinced by Ana Torrente, a former Miss Bolivia with "the face of a cherub floating on a cloud" to double cross his boss.   Ana, running scared, turns to lawyer Verónica Berutti for help and some protection; until Berutti can arrange it, she allows Ana to stay in her apartment. But Ana flees, taking along with her Verónica's old pistol.  In the meantime, the Queen of Storms, a cruise ship filled with very wealthy passengers, runs aground in the Río de la Plata estuary.  The passengers are taken off the ship and hoteliers are vying to put them up in their establishments.  On board is also a young man, Pacogoya, who has made himself useful by selling drugs to the foreigners (among other things).  Pacogoya meets his dealer who tells him he can only get him half, but gives him an address where he can get the rest.  When he arrives he finds a decapitated body, the first of many throughout this book.  Eventually Pacogoya is compelled into delivering up a list of names of the most wealthy passengers on the ship, who are eventually kidnapped and held for ransom.  One of those couples turns out be extremely important: a Colombian drugs-mafia boss and his girlfriend.  Veronica, friends with Pacogoya and still looking for Ana,  finds that her life is in danger and is assigned a bodyguard; she also seeks help from  Deputy Inspector Walter Carozza of the serious crime squad in the Federal Police.   As events progress, Carozza realizes that something huge is going on; that it's not enough to get the small fry behind the operation but to find out just who is running the show.   In a police effort  to retrieve the passengers he is teamed with Oso Berlusconi, a cop with a penchant for sadistic violence who got into the police partially to finance living the good life.   And as the action moves along, looming in the background is a growing number of dead bodies, all with no heads.

Holy City is really one of those books you must read yourself -- a mere description is  not enough, and to say more would really wreck it for anyone potentially interested.  It's probably one of this year's darker reads, but at the same time it's an eye opener.  The story is highly credible and clear cut, often moving in memories between past and present as a way of getting into the lives of the main characters. The best thing about this novel is that as you read it, you get a real sense that Orsi has the ability to get underneath the surface and into the reality of life on multiple levels -- that here's someone who really gets it and not only understands how things work but is also able to convey that reality  to his readers.  The atmosphere surrounding the stories within the novel is always dark and bleak; the neighborhoods of the city are realistically described so that you feel yourself there.  At the same time,  the book gets a bit confusing toward the end when all is revealed; although ultimately satisfying, you may have to go back and reread the last few pages before the story really gels.

Definitely a good book, but also not for everyone, Holy City will satisfy anyone's need for a good  jolt of  serious noir.  I'm attracted to the darkness of this book, but it's also a challenging read, not one to rush through.   Definitely not for cozy readers or for those who are into lighthearted and redeeming fare; all other serious crime junkies will probably like it. 

crime fiction from Argentina