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

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

does anyone in the US want a free copy of Jussi Adler-Olson's new book?

Never buy books at 4:30 in the morning.  I guess I was still asleep because this morning I bought a copy of Jussi Adler-Olsen's novel  The Absent One and forgot that I already had the same book under the title of Disgrace. 

  I only realized my error 10 minutes ago when I was deciding what crime fiction novel I'd pull off my shelf to read today and saw Disgrace sitting there.  The following conversation went through my head:

Uh-oh. How did I miss reading this one in the series? He's got a third book out and I've only read one. How is that even possible? Oh crap. Wait a minute. What if this book is the UK title and I just bought the same book with a different title? I'd better go check. [gets online, realizes yes indeedy that's exactly what I did].  Sh*t. It's too late to cancel the order.
 Once again, my idiocy is someone's gain...just be the first to make a comment saying you want it. It should be here in 2 days & I'll mail it next week.

Monday, August 13, 2012

aha! There's a name for it!

any one else suffer from this incurable malady???  Someone has finally put a name to it other than "book addiction.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


Fun and games with an amazon seller ... I thought I'd post a link to my latest adventures over on the literary side of my online reading journal blog today because I'd like to feel that I am not the only one who's ever felt like this.  You can find it here under "bangs head on table."

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Goat Song: Murder and Mayhem in Montmartre, by Chantal Pelletier

Bitter Lemon Press, 2004
originally published as Le Chant du Bouc, 2000
translated by Ian Monk
176 pp

One of the reasons I love Bitter Lemon Press is that this group of publishers focuses on international  works from authors I might not otherwise have heard of, and they generally turn out to be among my favorite books in the crime fiction world.   One of these authors is Chantal Pelletier, whose Inspector Maurice Laice features in three novels (I believe), only one of which has been translated into English. Pity, because he's such a complex character -- a really sad Joe kind of loner whose work is pretty much all he has in his life.  I found myself immediately drawn to this guy because of his sadness.

The last time anyone saw Elsa Suppini alive she had just entered Montmartre's legendary landmark, The Moulin Rouge, where she wasted no time in grabbing a job as dresser to the two lead dancers after the current dresser announced that she was leaving.  Not only is the job a step up for Elsa, who works in the sewing room, but she fantasizes about dressing and seducing Manfred Godalier, the lead male dancer.   The next time someone sees her, she's definitely with Manfred, but in what could have a been a "still life" called "Storm of Blood in a Bijou Residence." At least, that's what Inspector Maurice Laice (known as Momo to his friends, and More-is-less to his boss) thinks, as he begins his investigation into their murders.  It's a very bad day for Maurice -- he's just returned from his father's funeral, where his dad's passing has made him feel like his own death is just around the corner, that he "was now to be the head of the queue at the door separating him from the next world."   But this was definitely not the case with young Elsa and Manfred -- someone had deliberately gone out of his or her way to savagely slaughter the two to the point that their bodies were "glued together with coagulated blood." But which of the two was the intended victim? Or were they both targets? This is just the first step in Maurice's arduous journey toward solving this horrific crime; the next begins with the death of a crack smoker in a building where the neighbors are used to hearing screams and watching people shoot up in the stairwell on a regular basis.

Maurice's  melancholy certainly doesn't help him, and neither does his boss, Aline Lefevre, who seems to delight in tormenting him by constantly keeping him apprised of her sex life.  He's also very depressed about being in his 40s with no wife or mistress, an "old goat whose violent stench no longer got the nannies going."  He did have a fiancée once, who died in a freak accident when an old water heater malfunctioned and she was asphyxiated; he was in the shower with her at the time and still hasn't gotten over his survival.  Then there's his home -- Montmartre, which is slowly but steadily being transformed into what Maurice sees as a shopping mall:
"Nowadays, the Butte Montmartre was being picked over by a load of culture vultures. Indian dance and modern plays sold better than pig's trotters or snouts in vinaigrette," ... Momo wondered how far the transformation of his neighborhood would go. If it got any more "in," it would implode. Everyone round there was now in the media, was an architect or hack, one of those fucking awful trades that feed off looks like others feed off steak and chips. The cheese shops, tripe shops and butchers were all closing down, to be replaced by ranks of rag shops and hair dressers."
As the investigation proceeds, Maurice moves from Montmartre to Corsica and even into the world of his boss's old obsessions.  But when all is revealed, this veteran, well-seasoned cop will come to realize that there are some things for which he can never be prepared. 

The centerpiece of this novel is tragedy itself -- in Greek, "trag-oedia," which also translates to "goat song."  This theme carries throughout the novel in terms of the crimes, but also in other ways, including the new face of beautiful and historic Montmartre, those left behind in the wake of deaths, and in the lives of some of  Pelletier's other characters as well.  Even super-confident Aline,  with her brash off-color jokes and her teasing of Maurice, has experienced tragedy in her life, providing powerful motivation behind  her work as a cop. 

The conclusion of this novel is simply haunting; getting there is sometimes a tough journey as you are constantly faced with the "tragicomedy of existence" that runs throughout the novel.  It is not a novel for people whose thing is crime light, nor is it a book for readers who cringe at sex or sexual references.  To her credit, Pelletier does not throw in random, meaningless or gratuitous sex -- what there is is totally appropriate in terms of the characters' lives.  I'm not so bothered by sex in novels -- what I hate is when it's obviously there to titillate and conceal the lack of an author's narrative skills.  That's not the case here.   Goat Song is a very good read, a study of not only a city that's moving in a downward spiral but its reflection in the lives of the people who live there and love it.   I liked it, but then again, I'm drawn toward edgy, dark and tragic, all of which totally fit as a description of this novel.

No Sale, by Patrick Conrad

Bitter Lemon Press, 2012 (UK)
originally published as Starr, 2007
translated by Jonathan Lynn
270 pp

Patrick Conrad is a new author for me, although he has a long history of writing under his belt encompassing essays, poems, romans noir, novels and screenplays.  He also adds painting, and directing movies for television and the big screen to his list of talents.  His writing in No Sale won him the Diamanten Kogel/Diamond Bullet Award in 2007, honoring the best writing in Dutch crime fiction.   It ranks up there with one of the strangest novels I've ever read (in a good kind of way), taking a metafictional approach incorporating the dark world of film noir into a police investigation of a  bizarre set of murders to create a rather surreal reading experience. 

At the very core of this novel is the enigmatic Victor Cox, a man in his 60s who teaches History of Cinema at Antwerp's Institute of Film and Theatre Studies.  Cox also owns an impressive collection of "cinema props  and curiosities," and is teetering at the edge of retirement as the story opens.  He is married to Shelley, who has disappeared.  Shortly after Cox reports her as a missing person to the police, a body is discovered jammed underneath a jetty between two yachts in the water off the Bonaparte Dock.  Once the dead woman is identified as Shelley Cox, the detectives, Lannoy and Fons Luyckx (nicknamed "The Sponge") get to work.  The first person on their list is her husband Victor, who as Lannoy so aptly notes, is

"an absent-minded professor living for years alongside his wife but who doesn't quite understand what is happening to him in the real world."

Shelley, however, had a "split personality," one side of which she lived out in the seamier side of town, the Docklands, where she became Dixie, so the detectives realize that her husband may have had nothing to do with her death.  Eventually he is cleared of being involved, but Cox is soon back in the detectives' collective sights when a chance remark gives The Sponge cause to connect Shelley's death with the earlier murders of two other women. As years go by, and a number of women also meet rather bizarre ends, the detectives begin to realize that Cox has some sort of connection with each one of them, but evidence collected at each scene fails to yield any tangible association leading back to Victor as their killer.  But Victor isn't so sure -- his growing attachment to one of his young film students with a strong resemblance to Clara Bow (or Louise Brooks)  has left him treading the thin line between reality, dreams and the plotlines of his favorite classic noir films, which serve as a distorted lens through which Victor views his world.  After he retires, he finds himself "increasingly at home in a fantasy world that evoked the bygone charms of the Twenties and Thirties."

While several noir films are necessarily explored in some detail here in keeping with the plot, Conrad also employs the same contrasts of light and dark in his descriptions of Antwerp and the people who live there.   At Shelley/Dixie's funeral, for example, he writes:
"On the left, the world of night: the inhabitants of Docklands, the pub and cafe owners, the faded revellers, the knights errant of darkness, the ghosts and shades that rarely brave daylight and who had accompanied Dixie to the bitter end of her insoluble quest. On the right, the world of light: Victor Cox, pale and overcome by emotion, surrounded by his students and the complete faculty...And then what was left of Shelley's family...Also a few senior officers, including Aimé Butterfly in civilian dress, who fits in everywhere -- and therefore nowhere -- and does not know which side he should choose."
and later, when Victor is out taking a stroll before ending up in the red-light district called the Vervesrui,
"The night is bright and the sea breeze blowing out the purple north over the bay of the Scheldt smells of iodine. The coloured lights of the bars and restaurants opposite are reflected like thousands of trembling serpents in the inky waters of the Bonaparte Dock. Cox strolls along terraces that are still packed full at this late hour and looks almost tenderly at the festive crowds...On the Nassau Bridge he stops and stares at the motionless water, at the tar-smeared jetties along the gangway where Shelley's corpse drifted among dead rats, empty plastic bottles and rotting vegetation. "
No Sale is not only related via a dual-narrative format (Victor's story and that of the two detectives) that eventually come together,  but also, like any good noir novel, addresses the dual natures that exist within some of the main characters and the drama that  is played out in terms of their own respective views of reality.  Even the city is afforded its dark and light shadows and tones.  Reading this book gave me the same uneasy feeling as when I'm sitting in the dark watching a suspenseful film and wondering how things can get any worse, and the layering of film noir into a murder mystery heightens the effect. Then again, there are some comedic moments (especially involving Clint Eastwood and Dirty Harry) to provide relief.

As a crime novel, the plot is intriguing, and while it's not too terribly difficult to figure out what's going on after Victor has his moments of epiphany, it was often a bit of a stretch of credibility in terms of the contrivance of the murders to fit within their given frames.  But then again, this isn't so much a novel you'd read for the solution to the crimes but rather one to be enjoyed as a more intense focus on human nature.  It's also a cool way to explore film noir -- even if you know absolutely nothing about it.  

Definitely recommended -- it's not your average crime novel but something even better.

 crime fiction from Belgium

#2 read - 2013 International Dagger eligible