Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Entanglement, by Zygmunt Miloszewski

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010
originally published as Uwiklanie, 2007
translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
336 pp
(UK ed.; softcover)

 - "It's impossible not to be entangled -- so says Hellinger."
 -  "It's possible to be free, and so say I."

 I can honestly say that this book is one of the best crime novels I've ever read -- not just this year, but in a seriously long time. The next book by Miloszewski is sitting here waiting to be picked up and I have to say that  I'm so wowed by Entanglement, the first novel in this series,  I can only look forward to something as great in his A Grain of Truth.   My collection of Bitter Lemon Press novels is also growing and kudos to these people for constantly bringing new and for the most part, outstandingly fine crime fiction to readers of  this genre. I don't know how they manage to bring out winners each time, but keep up the good work.

In Warsaw, a very weary  public prosecutor Teodor Szacki is finding life rather tiresome when on a Sunday home with his wife and little daughter he receives a call that he has to come in to work. Szacki, in his mid-30s, "an underpaid civil servant" whose wife is also a lawyer and similarly underpaid, is not in the best of moods to begin with, he's sent to what used to be a monastery, now a "red brick chimera, a cross between a church, a monastery and Gargamel's palace," where aside from the church in the building, there are also sublet spaces and rooms available for rent by various organizations.  One such set of rooms has been rented by a psychotherapist for himself and four of his patients, where over the weekend, they are engaged in Family Constellation Therapy, founded originally by German psychologist and philosopher Bert Hellinger. They are there hoping to resolve some of their personal issues; one of the attendees, businessman Henryk Talek, endures a particularly grueling session and afterward ends up dead with a meat skewer in his eye.  Very much overworked, Szacki is hating the idea of having to add this case to his current list; to him it's either a badly-botched burglary or a case of  “one body, four suspects–all sober and well-to-do,” as the detective working for Szacki puts it.  Yet  the more Szacki  investigates, the more he comes up with things that just don't fit right and which create more questions than answers:
"Why was this happening to him right now? Why could there not be one single ordinary element in this inquiry? A decent corpse, suspects from the underworld, normal witnesses who come to be interviewed by the prosecutor with fear in their hearts. Why this zoo?"
Meanwhile, in the process of trying to fill in the holes, what he doesn't know is that there is someone taking stock of his every move. 

Szacki is one of most realistic characters I've come across.  He's extremely believable as a person, with flaws like every human being. Although he loves his wife Weronika, he starts focusing on things like her double chin and the growing fat around her middle, the way she wears the same t-shirt to bed every night, washed only once a week and some other shortcomings that lead him to wonder if this is his future.  His thoughts about his career are much the same.  He is an ardent believer in truth and justice, yet he is often torn between his "human conscience" and his "civil servant conscience," both of which frequently clash. But he's also capable of some very poor choices, including a flirtation with a reporter that goes a little further each time they're together.  And while Szacki is the main character, the other characters are just as credible, all free standing and real, described both in terms of their physical selves as well as their own quirky behaviors. Take, for example, Kuzniecow,  the cop working for Szacki who has sex on the brain pretty much 24/7; the obnoxious psychobabbling psychotherapist Cezary Rudski, the head of the group at the session the night Telak died; the strange pathologists who make odd quips while they're performing an autopsy; a retired police captain living in a roach-infested apartment with no electricity; a dying historian whose short career has been devoted to studying Poland's secret police; and also Szacki's boss, Janina Chorko, a very ugly and lonely woman who "gave the lie to the theory that there aren't any ugly women." She is actually  "the last person on earth he'd want to flirt with," making him tense as he prays he never gets an invitation to join her in a glass of wine and a chat. Chorko
"consciously made herself sour, malicious and painfully businesslike, which was in perfect harmony with her appearance, turning her into the archetypal boss from hell. The new prosecutors were afraid of her, and the trainees hid in the toilet whenever she came down the corridor."
The punch and pizazz he invests in his characters to make them believable also follow suit in the overall writing throughout the book; they keep the action moving, and there are places where you can't help but smirk at Miloszewski's insertion of wry humor.  But there is nothing at all funny about this story, where the tension grows not only in terms of Szacki's personal life, but in the murder investigation as it moves toward an incredible ending, as it dawns on you that even in a free society, being free and unfettered may just be a mirage.  

Super book, one I definitely and most highly recommend.  I don't believe I've read anything like it before.  If you want a crime read well above the norm, something utterly sophisticated, this is the one.

Friday, November 16, 2012

*From Blood, by Edward Wright

Vantage Point Books, 2012
407 pp
originally published in the UK by Orion

(copy from publisher; thank you!)

"She was responding to a call, and not from logic or reason. It came from a primal place, from bone and muscle, from childhood sorrows, from lost voices in dreams.

It came, she realized from her very blood."

When I received an email about reviewing this novel, what caught my attention was the following blurb:

When her academic parents are brutally murdered, Shannon discovers that they were part of the radical anti-war movement of the 60s and begins to suspect that their killer’s motive may lie in their past…She soon finds that they were friends of Diana Burke and John Paul West, two of America’s most wanted fugitives, anti-war militants who went underground after a fatal bombing in 1968 and never resurfaced.  

As I'm smack in the middle of Seth Rosenfeld's book Subversives, which deals with student radicals, the blurb for this book whetted my appetite and I decided I had to read it. From Blood is a good combination of thriller and suspense that takes its readers on a wild ride from present to past and present again and takes a look back at a time when domestic protest was torn between two fronts -- those opposed to violence and those who felt that violence was a necessary means to producing real change.

As the novel opens, it's 1968 and Danny Kerner is doing his job as a night watchman at LaValle University's Crowe Institute. By day he's a graduate student in philosophy, a new dad and he's on his way to divinity school.  Just before 2 a.m. he hears a noise but can't make out exactly where it's come from; he's tired and drowsy and still has another 45 minutes before his next set of rounds begins.  As he's settling in to read Nietzsche and thinking about his wife and new baby girl, an explosion "tears through the quiet night," and an explosion rips through the building, burying Danny under tons of rubble.  Sadly, Danny's wife had the flu so he had brought his baby daughter with him to work that night.  A group calling itself The Red Fist claims responsibility; one of the group was captured while others went underground.  Fast forward to the present and Shannon Fairchild, living in the California university town of San Malo.  Shannon was a PhD student in history before she gave it all up and started a business cleaning houses.  One night while she was sleeping the phone rings and her sister is on the other end telling her that her parents' home had been torched.  As Shannon arrives on the scene, she finds her father dead and her mother Mora barely surviving.  At the hospital, when Mora's able to talk, she gives Shannon one final, cryptic message:

"You have to find them and...Warn. Them...God, he's so full of hate. We should have guessed...We're giving back the treasure...You're..."

After Mora dies,  the police begin their investigation, and in a discussion about what to do with the property their parents left behind,   Beth and Shannon decide that they need to go through the less-destroyed garage & take out anything of value they might wish to keep.  Shortly afterward, the FBI visits Shannon, and inform her that there may be some kind of connection between the deaths of her parents and a case they're working on. They ask her lots of questions about her parents' student days; she has very little to tell them.  But going through the garage and then her father's locker at the university where he works, she stumbles across photos and other things that may shed some light not only on her parents' murders, but also on why the FBI is so keen on questioning her.  As she's trying to make sense of it all, a woman Shannon had first met at the memorial service for her parents shows up and demands to know the whereabouts of Nadja and Ernesto, and threatens Shannon with bodily harm if she doesn't give up the information.  Obviously, the FBI isn't the only one interested in the Fairchilds' past; as Shannon delves deeper, she embarks on a journey that will send her back to that fateful night in 1968.  But, as she soon realizes, she's not alone in her quest.

While thriller/suspense novels normally aren't my cup of tea, From Blood got to me right away and kept me prisoner because I just couldn't put it down.  I am fascinated with anything focused on the turbulence on the home front during the Vietnam War, and it's very obvious that the author did quite a bit of research before putting this book together.  I'm also very much interested in the lives of people who had to drop off the map and go underground, and the author is very skilled at creating lives for his characters who underwent that experience in his book.  He also has this way of building tension that just doesn't stop so that putting the novel down just doesn't seem to be an option once you've started it.  Let me also point out that I was just positive I'd figured out the "who" and was totally wrong on that score, so that's a definite plus.

On the flip side, even though I really liked this book, it's one that requires you to set your suspension-of-disbelief factor to high, a move that seems to be prerequisite to reading any kind of thriller/suspense-type novel.  This isn't the case in every scene, but there's one character, Diana, who's just too over the top to be credible. The ultimate question of the "who" seems perfectly logical to me, along with motive,  but credibility went way down in terms of the final, climatic scenes set in Seattle with a deus ex-machina  experience that while kind of exciting, made me actually groan inside.  And then there's that final chapter, which, unlike the tone the author set in the rest of the novel, came out sort of sappy and out of place.

Considering that I don't normally choose this genre of books as my routine reading fare, I have to say that this one kept me on my toes as the action progressed and that  overall, I really found it a fun and exciting read.  If you're looking for something different in terms of thriller and suspense, you'll find it here, especially if you're also interested in America of the 1960s. I'd be very willing to give this author another go when I feel the need for a fast-paced thriller.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Collini Case, by Ferdinand von Schirach

Michael Joseph/Penguin, 2012
originally published as Der Fall Collini, 2011
translated by Anthea Bell
191 pp

"You are who you are."

The Collini Case is, much like Pia Juul's The Murder of Halland, a novel based on the commission of a crime yet really isn't crime fiction per se. There is a murder, but the focus of this novel is more on what lies beneath the decision of a retired Mercedes-Benz toolmaker to walk into a man's hotel room, shoot him, and then brutally kick him -- breaking all of the bones in his head while grinding his shoe into the man's face.  Unlike many crime novels, this book is not meant to be entertaining; on the contrary, it is a story designed with a specific purpose in mind. If you're looking for the typical whodunit kind of read, pass on this one; it's not a staggering legal thriller, nor is it meant to be. However, since The Collini Case was listed on Eurocrime's list of novels possibly eligible for the International Dagger award for 2013, I'll post about it here.  

In an interview at BBC Radio 4, Von Schirach notes that when he writes about crime, the whodunit is not important to him, but rather it is the motive behind criminal acts that he finds interesting.  This is certainly the case in his novel, where Fabrizio Collini, a long-time worker at Mercedes Benz,  makes an appointment with a wealthy industrialist at his hotel in Berlin. Posing as a journalist, Collini is welcomed into the man's room, where he promptly proceeds to put four bullets into the man's head, and repeatedly grind his shoe into the dead man's face. When the act is finished, he goes downstairs, asks the woman at the front desk to inform the police that the man in room 400 is dead, then quietly waits to be arrested.  It isn't long before he is taken into custody, but when his lawyer, Caspar Leinen, arrives, Collini provides only minimal answers. Yet he will not answer the crucial question as to why he killed the man.  Leinen, a new defense attorney, knows he's going to have his work cut out for him; but little does he understand the ramifications of taking on Collini's defense.  

The Collini Case is difficult to summarize without ruining it for prospective readers, but even in its spare, understated tone, this slow-paced story is powerful and gets to the thematic issue of guilt as determined by a person's circumstances. Also present throughout the story is the idea of justice in the present world where the past still has a strong foothold within a system that may have very well failed at its own mission.  While these themes are writ large, there's also a side trip into the reflections of one's own life in the light of revelations of  family secrets.  You may think as you read that you know what's coming down the pike, but trust me, that's not really the case.

Ferdinand von Schirach is himself a criminal attorney with a past not unlike that of some of the characters in The Collini Case.  While some readers found it "predictable," "pedestrian," and found that the core issue may have been better served in a pamphlet or magazine article, I have to disagree.  It is an all-too human story about the consequences that evolve out of fundamental wrongs within the system that somehow everyone overlooked, with devastating results all around.  I think people started into the book with expectations of a legal thriller and the fact that it came out to be something entirely different may have proved disappointing,  but that's certainly not the fault of the author.

While true blue mystery/crime fiction fans may not find what they're looking for in this book, to me it was an eye-opening story with a punch.  Perhaps a crime-fiction audience isn't the best market for this novel, but it's quite an engaging read that I finished in one sitting.  Now I'm going to pull out my copies of his other books Crime and Guilt which have been collecting dust on my shelves; I can't wait to read what else this man has written.  Definitely recommended. 

--number 6 of my books labeled as eligible for the 2013 international dagger awards. 

 fiction from Germany

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Dark Winter, by David Mark

Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2012
originally published by Quercus, 2012 (UK)
292 pp

The more crime fiction I read the more I think I'm starting to see it all, but that's not at all the case in The Dark Winter, by David Mark.  Sure, you'll find some of the same character tropes in this novel as you might in any other, but the original premise of this book,  the main character and the setting are the things  I found most appealing here. Without giving away the show,  I definitely haven't seen this plotline around before, and it's a good one. I think this author definitely has a future in writing.

The action of this novel takes place largely in and around Hull, West Yorkshire, where Aector McAvoy is a detective sergeant with Humberside CID. McAvoy is a cop with a troubled past. Because of him, a senior officer was relieved of his duties and other crooked cops were "scattered the four winds," but what actually took place is kept under wraps within the department. The officer's dismissal and McAvoy's involvement have made Aector the target of some of the other officers' derision; refusing to take a transfer that would remove him from all of this only made things worse for him. Now on the Serious and Organized Crime Unit, he now serves in a more administrative, ambassadorial kind of role, and his inner mantra runs something like "be the gentle soul...Keep your head down. Get on with your job. Earn a wage. Love your wife."

 It's just coming up on Christmas and McAvoy is out with his little son Fin while his wife Roisin does some shopping. They're sitting at a cafe and McAvoy is captivated by the sound of a choir in nearby Holy Trinity church. While he's listening, lost in thought, from the church comes screaming, the sound of "terror unleashed." He reaches the church just in time to watch a figure emerge from the doors carrying a knife -- which is promptly raised against him. As the man flees, someone yells "He's killed her. She's dead. She's dead!" The victim is a young girl dressed in a white choir cassock, half of which is saturated with blood, killed in front of everyone during the service. However, the case is going to be handled by acting Detective Superintendent Trish Pharaoh, while Aector is sent out on a mission to break the news of a man's death to his sister, the wife of the vice chair of the Police Authority. But when McAvoy's visit to the vice chair's wife leads him to suspect that something is not at all right with the manner of her brother's death, he can't help but to get involved.  As more people begin to turn up dead, he slowly begins to discern a connection among these seemingly-random killings, and his own advice about  laying low is laid by the wayside.  Trouble is, can he convince the others, some of whom have already made up their minds who the killer might be?

I came into this novel after much time away from UK crime fiction, and I started it hoping that there would be something setting it apart from many of the other hundreds of novels in this category.  Mark's fresh premise and storyline kept me guessing the entire time, as did his evocation of the economic decline of local industry, his take on the negative sides of journalism and the publishing industry, and especially the character of McAvoy. But as much as I liked this book, and as much as I offer kudos to the author's manipulation skills, there are a few things that made this novel less than perfect for me. First, the obligatory sex scene that has absolutely zero to do with the plot or with character development; second, the clue that cracks this case wide open and leads McAvoy to the killer is based more on coincidence than on detection; finally, the epilogue -- had the author ended the book prior to that short section, even with the coincidental link to the killer it would have finished on a much more realistic note.

In the acknowledgments section, Mr. Mark thanks someone from Blue Rider in part for "believing that American readers would give a damn" about reading his book.  If I'm any kind of judge, they definitely will.  And if this first taste of his writing is any hint of what's to come, they'll be interested in the rest of the series as well.  Super first effort.

crime fiction from the UK