Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Not So Perfect Crime, by Teresa Solana

Bitter Lemon Press, 2008
286 pp
originally published as Un crim imperfecte, 2006
translated by Peter Bush


A Not So Perfect Crime is the first of three in a series of novels featuring twin brothers Eduard Martínez Estivill and Jose Martínez Estivill, the latter known as Borja Masdéu-Canals Sáez de Astorga to everyone but his brother, who knows him as Pep. Eduard hasn't even told his wife about the true identity of his brother, and the two of them constitute Frau Consultants, a private "detective" agency with false office doors and a secretary who's always away when their clients come to see them at the office.  They cater to the social elite of Barcelona, people with problems and a lot of money that insures that their problems are handled discreetly.  This series opener finds the two working for an MP who wants to know if the man who painted his wife's portrait is also having an affair with her.  While the book brought occasional smiles to my face because of the many crazy situations in which the two find themselves, the entire crime and its solution could have been achieved in half the space, as  there is much more emphasis on developing the characters, setting the social-class scene and keeping the gags going throughout the novel.  This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- the characters are fun and well established by the end of the story; I can sense this series is going to be interesting as time goes by.

MP Lluis Font calls in the brothers to find out whether or not his wife his having an affair with the man who painted her portrait.  While investigating the artist, they discover that there are a few things that Font hasn't told them -- namely, that he's having an affair of his own, one that literally crashes down onto them.  But when la Seňora Font turns up dead, Eduard begins to realize that perhaps this case is more than he and Borja are prepared to handle. 

A Not So Perfect Crime is a good mix of a mystery to be solved, well-developed main characters and a look at Barcelona society.   As the story begins to wind down, there is a decent solution to the crime, one that fits with clues gathered throughout the book. There are plenty of suspects to keep things lively and interesting and when the action is focused on the brothers' investigation, the story moves at a good pace.   The brothers are funny -- they're so different from each other that it keeps things interesting.  Borja is being kept in luxury by his mistress while Eduard often wonders how he and his wife are going to pay the bills. Montse, Eduard's wife, is also a well-drawn character, putting up with Eduard when his problems usually stem from the antics of his brother.   The scrapes that the two get themselves into (generally of Borja's making) are entertaining as is watching them escape their collective predicament.  The focus on Barcelona's higher-class levels of society are also is a world where money can buy pretty much anything, where gossip or idle talk can kill careers or make things uncomfortable, where moral scruples are difficult to find, and where only the best will do.  This is, of course, contrasted to the world of the regular people -- where bills pile up and people have to make a living.  The author does a very good job of putting the two side by side so that the reader gets a feel for how the rich and powerful spend their days and how they're often able to manipulate others behind the scenes.

My issue with this book is that there is a lot of stuff in here that could easily have been left out, making for a tighter, less wordy and even at times rambling story.  I didn't care about Borja's adventures with Eduard's sister-in-law, for example; nor did it matter to me about Eduard's previous love affair in Paris. There's more of this kind of thing here, but lots of little things that are meant to go into character development sometimes divert attention away from the crime and its solution, making skimming seem like a good idea in some parts.  I will hopefully expect that when I get to Ms. Solana's next book, Shortcut to Paradise, that less backstory will be necessary and that more focus is placed on the brothers' escapades while solving whatever crime in which they become embroiled.

Overall, A Not So Perfect Crime turned out to be an entertaining novel, and a fine first foray into what I hope will turn out to be a very good crime-fiction series.  Definitely recommended!

crime fiction from Spain

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Burn Palace, by Stephen Dobyns

Blue Rider press, 2013
480 pp

arc -- my thanks to the publisher for my copy, along with apologies for being so abominably late to post about it

The Burn Palace has all the trappings of the paranormal about it, but once you cut through the supernatural red herrings found throughout this novel, what you have left is a story about crime. (There is one exception, which I'll get to later.) The plot winds through the book at a slow pace, but as you read, you realize that rather than focusing on the mystery at the heart of the story, the author is taking his time to examine life in a small town.  This is one of those novels you'll appreciate for the writing rather than the unraveling of the mystery and its solution, which is pretty obvious after only a short while.

The story is set in Brewster, Rhode Island, once flourishing with a cannery, fishing industry, farms, a quarry, a mill and a thriving downtown in its heyday;  now it's a another little town, a place where two-thirds of the people living there were born, attended school, have work and will probably die. The summer visitors pay the taxes that keep the town going; there's also a popular "holistic health alternative" called "The You Within You," shortened to "You-You," by most of the townspeople, and a casino 30 minutes or so away keeps many of the people employed.  It's not too far from Providence, making it easy for rent boys to come and ply their trade; hookers  find their way here from the big city as well. In this small town one night, a nurse who should have been on duty in the maternity ward of Morgan Memorial hospital was actually having a brief tryst with the chief resident in cardiology.  While she's busy having her fun, someone has taken the Summers baby, less than 24 hours old, and left a snake in its place. This act, combined with more bizarre occurrences than a town this size should experience, leads detective Woody Potter and his partner Bobby Anderson down some strange paths before they find out what exactly what's going on -- but not before a few people are killed in the meantime.

While the solution to the mystery itself was pretty obvious, there are many supernatural/paranormal red herrings in the way to solving it.  The main detective in this story knows that if he can just cut through the smokescreen that there's a perfectly logical explanation for  what's going on, that there must be a "single theory" to bring everything together.  As I said earlier, the mystery is not what makes this book -- it's the way Dobyns creates ambiance and lets his readers peek behind the closed doors of small-town America.  Mistrust of the unknown leads to violence,  a boy watches his stepfather spiral out of control and become a real-life monster because he refuses to take his meds, young girls are terrorized, and the town is saturated in an atmosphere of mass paranoia and mistrust.   What I didn't care for (the exception noted above) was that while the paranormal and supernatural elements are just a thin veneer to cover up the real crimes, Dobyns leaves in a 10 year-old boy who has a talent for telekinesis -- wrong.  This whole thing could have been left out and no one would ever have noticed.  No, No, NO!!!!

Overall, The Burn Palace turned out to be (for me) a kind of a mixed bag -- I liked the writing, I liked the way Dobyns gets into small-town life and the secrets people keep, and I liked the way the detectives shun the paranormal because they know that earthly terrors are behind the town's sudden venture into insanity.   On the other hand, the mystery is super easy to figure out, and presenting a telekinetic boy as a character in a book where there's really nothing paranormal going on was just kind of, well, ridiculous.  It reads quickly, so I'd say give it a try, and if you can, ignore the boy with the weird powers.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Dance of the Seagull, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin, 2013
277 p
originally published as La danza del gabbiano, 2009
translated by Stephen Sartarelli


And we're back in Sicily again with The Dance of the Seagull, #15 in Andrea Camilleri's excellent series of novels featuring Inspector Salvo Montalbano.  Having faithfully followed the series in order over the years, I've come to realize that picking up the newest, latest installment is like checking in on an old friend.  Unlike most crime fiction novels I read, in this series of books, plot has come to take a back seat to character, a big exception in my case. Now at age 57, Montalbano's self-doubt resurfaces, to be followed by a chaser of melancholy.  Luckily, at least in the short run, it's nothing that can't be handled by a plate of  Adelina's marvelous caponata.   

One of Livia's increasingly rare visits is interrupted when Montalbano is made aware that Fazio is missing, apparently going out alone on an investigation the Inspector knew nothing about.  On a tip, he searches in an area filled with dry wells (where once the land was green and arable until a cancelled highway project made a desert of it once more), and while there's no sign of the missing policeman, two bodies are found.  After Fazio reappears and is hospitalized, Montalbano has his hands full protecting his friend, trying to figure out the identities of the bodies, and acting on information given to him by Fazio, trying to get some answers.

As always, even in the middle of serious crime solving, there are some very funny moments in this book. For example, in trying to evade having to report to the Commissioner, Montalbano comes up with a whale of an excuse (a fake procedure that made me wince while reading about it) and then has to hole up in a room at Enzo's because the Commissioner is eating in the next;  Camilleri gives us a little meta moment as Montalbano tries to talk Livia into a different mini-vacation destination so as to avoid running into Luca Zingaretti who plays him on TV,  and recurring scenes with a nurse whom Montalbano refers to as "the Sing-Sing prison guard." But the series has been trending lately to focus much more on the Inspector himself and his doubts about his career -- and that path continues in this novel as well, sparked by the death of a seagull and Montalbano's growing awareness that he's become tired of all of the violence.  If you read these novels only for plot, you're missing out on one of the best-developed group of characters ever created by a crime-fiction novelist, and offering Montalbano an ongoing chance to voice his worries and anxieties makes him more genuine.  Unlike many crime novelists, Camilleri doesn't cripple his character by having him express himself in this way, leaving plenty of room for the humor that is so prevalent in this series. And unlike a few other crime novelists, the author is also able to give his readers his opinions on ongoing problems in his country without being preachy or in your face about it.

While it may not have been my favorite book of the series so far, it's still a winner. Do not let this be your first experience with Montalbano and the other members of his squad.  Even if you could care less about the ongoing changes in Montalbano, these are books you want to be in on at their start.

crime fiction from Italy

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Golden Calf, by Helene Tursten

Soho Crime, 2013
340 pp
originally published as Guldkalven, 2033
translated by Laura A. Wideburg


I've been a huge fan of Helene Tursten's Irene Huss novels since I picked up the first book in the series.  My favorite of the series is her third book, The Torso, an excellent novel that not only satisfies in terms of the crime and its twisted solution, but also because it is extremely well written.  Now here we are at book six (fifth to be translated), and I have to say I'm a wee bit disappointed, most decidedly because of the ending.  Up to that point, she had me hanging on to the story's every word and then out of nowhere comes this ending that did not at all fit.

Together with friend and partner Tommy Persson, Detective Inspector Irene Huss is on the scene of a particularly brutal murder in a magnificent home overlooking the bay.  The dead man is Kjell Bengtsson Ceder, a restauranteur who is also in the hotel business. Shot at point-blank range, he leaves behind a beautiful young wife, Sanna, and a baby.  Kjell's name has come up with the police before in connection with a tragic boating accident which led to the death of his first wife. There is enough to link the killing of Ceder with a double homicide under investigation as well as to another unsolved missing persons case the police have already worked on. When the detectives put their heads together, the common denominator of all of these incidents turns out to be Sanna, via an earlier  IT business that crashed when the bubble burst. The problem is that Sanna is not being exactly up front with the police, and nothing the detectives do can persuade her to tell all she knows.   Hopefully, the police will be able to convince her before someone else is found dead.

Aside from the already-known crew of detectives and Huss' family, Tursten has done an especially fine job in building the key player Sanna.  She comes across as a spoiled,  pampered, newly-rich but clueless person, and her character remains consistent throughout the book.  Another quality I admired in this novel was the pacing.  It was plotted carefully so as to continue to add layer upon layer of suspense, so that the reader is very much drawn into the story and can't wait to find out all of the answers and get to the big reveal.  At that point is where I started having problems.  Here I am, majorly invested in this story, and it all goes a bit sideways with the rather (imho) flimsy ending that I thought sort of came out of left field.  The ride was both fun and kept me completely involved while it lasted, but really, I think she could have done much better in bringing  the mysteries to a close.

The book is being well received by many readers, with many 4 and 5 star ratings, and had the ending been stronger, I probably would have rated it up there as well.  As happy as I am that Soho Crime is publishing Tursten's previously-untranslated novels,  Helene Tursten's work is so much better than this book might acknowledge.  I would love to see her get back to that same level of  intensity that gave me so much pleasure in the first three translated novels   -- Detective Inspector Huss, The Torso, and The Glass Devil.

 crime fiction from Sweden