Saturday, June 29, 2013

*The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe

Pegasus Crime, 2013
originally published as Het Vierkant van de Wraak, 1995
translated by Brian Doyle


Ahhh, the joy of finding an entirely new crime fiction series to read is unmistakeable, especially as it's summer. The Square of Revenge, by Pieter Aspe, is the first in a series of novels to feature Inspector Pieter Van In of Bruges and it's the first book of the series to be published in English.  The next book, The Midas Murders, is slated (according to Amazon) to be released December of this year in the US -- and I've already preordered it.  Considering it's the first in a series, it's pretty darn good.

What appears to be a robbery at an upscale jewelry store has police puzzled. Everything has been cleaned out, giving the crime the earmarks of an ordinary burglary, but there are no signs of forced entry. The security company has a taped record of the store owner's son saying he will be switching off the burglar alarm, but he was away all weekend and left no such instructions. The safe had been opened, quietly and professionally.  Finally, it turns out that all of the jewelry had been put into a bath of an acid solution called aqua regis, which pretty much destroyed everything.  On top of everything else, when Pieter Van In's superior calls him about investigating the crime and then later decides that the case should be shelved because of  politics and the owner's (Ludovic Degroof) disdain of publicity, in Van In's mind, something doesn't add up.  All Van In is supposed to do is to supply a police report, and the case is technically to be over.  The deputy prosecutor, Hannelore Martens, however, thinks otherwise, and insists that a public radio appeal be made to elicit any help from potential witnesses.  She hands Van In an envelope with her contact details, and he notices that it is addressed "for you, bastard," and contains a 5-word square of Latin words, setting him on an investigatory track toward a motive based on revenge.  His idea is reinforced when later, Degroof's grandson is kidnapped and held for an even more bizarre ransom, but trying to get the strange and eccentric Degroof family to talk or to level with Van In is like pulling teeth, even though one of their own may be in danger.  He is also hampered by the politics surrounding various players in the investigation and those at a higher level.

The summary on the top of the front dustjacket blurb calls this novel "heart-pounding," and while it's good, I probably wouldn't have described it that way.  While there's a good story here with more than one puzzle for the reader to work out, it's really the characters that drive this book -- especially the lead, Van In.  He's beyond good at what he does, is well respected by his coterie of police friends who know him well,  and has worked his way up the ladder to assistant commissioner and head of the Special Investigations Unit.  He's hates "small-minded intrigue," and is a bit tired of the kinds of cases that normally land on his desk, since "spectacular crimes and real tension were a rarity." Divorced, in debt, and a heavy smoker, he is often sidelined by his boss's son-in-law, whom his boss tends to put on the more sensational cases, only to be bailed out by Van In when there's a problem.  He also has no problems breaking or bending the rules when the need arises.  He can be snarky, which is a good thing, and though he has some measure of personal angst, it's not's worn on the sleeve like so many other protagonists in other crime novels.

Not to give away the show, but  the message left behind at the jewelry store hints at the Knights Templar, and I do have to say that when I saw this, my first thought was "Oh no, please don't go down that alley."  Fortunately Aspe didn't. I just wanted to get this out there so no one balks when they get to that part and to let readers know that there's no trace of  The DaVinci Code revisited here.  My only issue with this book is that as the story headed toward the big finish, things started happening at a lightning-quick pace that seemed downright implausible.  While generally I set my brain mode to "suspend disbelief" when I read most crime novels, events buzzed by so fast (on the part of the police) that the action became downright implausible. I get that the time frame is a bit narrow here but still. Otherwise, I was pretty happy with this first entry into a new series, and can't wait to start the next one. 

Readers of lighter crime fare will probably enjoy this book, although as I said earlier, much of the subject matter is not what I'd recommend for those who like cozy mysteries.  On the other hand, if you're looking for something gritty and edgy, you won't really find that either -- The Square of Revenge lands somewhere in between and makes for a good intro into a new series and a new set of characters to watch.   

crime fiction from Belgium

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

*21:37, by Mariusz Czubaj

Stork Press, 2013
300 p
translated by Anna Hyde

paper, UK
available in US on Kindle

Don't ask me how I found out about this book because I don't remember, but it's a good one. I traded my hard-earned American currency into British pounds (on the credit card statement at least) and bought a copy from the UK.  Well worth the cost of currency exchange, 21:37 is one of those crime novels I love -- dark, mysterious, with absolutely zero hint of cutesy to get in the way of getting into the crime and starting the journey toward its solution.  The author, Mariusz Czubaj, has (according to Stork's website ) co-written two novels with one of my favorite Polish authors, Marek Krajewski -- books I would pretty much kill to have in English; he's also written three books featuring his own crime-solving creation, profiler Rudolf Heinz.  21:37 is the first of the Rudolf Heinz series, followed by Lullaby for a Murderer and Before I Kill Again, neither of which has yet been translated into English.  That's a shame, because although I wasn't so fond of how the book ended, I was beyond happy with 21:37. It kept me entertained, glued and -- the best sign of a good mystery for me -- I was constantly trying to guess who might be the killer and never figured it out.

Moving between Katowice and Warsaw,  the main character in this novel is Rudolf Heinz, "Hippie" to his band friends, a profiler, and at 44, is "the best in the country." He's viewed as a "weirdo" among police regulars, a "specialist in out-of-this world, imagined theories," but he's good at what he does. His family life is less than spectacular, and he's got darkness in his personal past, a case that "ruined his career and his health." He's happiest when playing classic rock music with his band.  But playing with the band at their latest gig has just been cancelled as the novel opens -- he's needed elsewhere.  Two young students from a theological school in Warsaw, in their 20s,  have been discovered near the Olympic Center in Warsaw.  Both had plastic bags over their heads on which pink-lipstick triangles had been drawn at their mouths. A special team has been created to look into this crime, and Heinz's help has been requested, because of his expertise in cases "with religious subtext."   Although he doesn't want to go, because he's currently working on an important case, he has little choice.  When he arrives and is being briefed on the case, he learns something that makes him realize why he has been called in  -- each of the young seminarists was gay, and each had numbers written on their bodies: 21 and 37.  As one of the special team members informs him, when "our" pope died, the time was 21:37, a detail they'd kept quiet, and one that set off alarm bells among the Ministry.  Considering the staging, Heinz realizes that he's got a major challenge ahead of him. 

21:37 is dark, and some of the issues are perhaps even a little controversial, especially those involving homosexuality and the Catholic church.  I really, really like this author's writing style -- it's realistic, relatable due to many cultural references he uses throughout the book, and edgy on the verge of downright gritty. Nothing cutesy about this writer or his subject matter at all.  While much of this novel is naturally taken up with trying to flesh out the main protagonist Heinz, there is a good story here as well as an intelligent,  excellent mystery at its core.  The characters (for the most part) had a lot of credibility, especially Heinz. He's tough on the outside, but his past experiences and the fact that people view him as an outsider and a weirdo have left him with a sort of vulnerability that helps define who he is. There's also a very well-evoked sense of place in this novel so you end up with a lot of local feel in terms of location and people. The translation wasn't an issue, either -- nothing here to interrupt the reading flow, no awkwardness in wording.  What wasn't so perfect was its ending -- I had to go back and reread several last chapters before I understood what was going on here, and I didn't find it that impressive but rather aloof, making it confusing and a bit off-putting.   On the other hand, I read this book in one intense sitting, unable to stop turning pages.

I hope Stork continues to publish more of Czubaj's works.  If 21:37 is any hint of what his other books are like, I'll be buying them all.  Definitely recommended to readers of darker crime fiction.

crime fiction from Poland

Monday, June 24, 2013

Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi, by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Melville House, 2011 
204 pp

Nairobi Heat is the first novel to feature Ishmael Fofona,  a detective working in Madison, Wisconsin.  The book moves from the US to Kenya and back again,  while the next book in the series, Black Star Nairobi, reverses the journey in a roundabout sort of way. While the author has developed some pretty intricate plots, both books focus largely on Ishmael and the world around him as seen through his eyes, both as an African-American in the US and in Kenya.  The books  explore complicated issues of identity, morality, and justice, especially those defined vis-a-vis geography and ethnicity.  They are fast reads that will keep you turning pages, and although they are both filled with fast-paced action and political intrigue,  for me the inward focus on the characters was much more rewarding.  

Melville House, 2013
267 pp

 If there was a yearly award honoring most violent fiction, Nairobi Heat would have certainly been on the longlist, and two years later  the author would have been on his way to the podium to give his acceptance speech for the even more incredible amount of bloodshed he writes into Black Star Nairobi.  To be fair, while I don't particularly enjoy these sorts of  violent crime/conspiracy thrillers, there's something in these books that kept me reading -- and for me it comes down to the main character and the issues the author explores through his writing, and interestingly enough, violence is one of them.  Personally, I'm more of a motive person -- what I look for when I read crime is an examination of what brings someone to the point of doing what he/she does --  and from that perspective (for the most part),  the author's exploration of character are more than satisfying in both novels.

Madison, Wisconsin is the starting point for Nairobi Heat.  A young white woman is found dead at the doorstep of an African man -- an act which Detective Ishmael predicts will be  "the story of the year."  In the wee hours of the morning, Ishmael is called to the scene in Maple Bluff, a "little tax haven" which has its own police and fire departments but no detectives.  Inside the house is Joshua Hakizimana, a Rwandan who currently teaches "Genocide and also Testimony" at the university.  Hakizimana is lauded as a national hero who'd turned his school,  "An island of sanity in a sea of blood,"  into a sanctuary during the Rwandan genocide, and who helped numbers of people escape over the border to safety.  Now there's a dead girl on his doorstep, and Hakizimana denies any knowledge of her or how she came to be there.  There's nothing about Joshua to initially arouse any suspicions; the police officers outside find a needle half full of heroin that had evidently gone into the dead girl's arm, so it looks like a straightforward case.  Yet the more Ishmael thinks about it, the more he begins to feel that something doesn't add up -- that there must be some connection between the dead girl and Joshua. As he notes, "He may be a hero somewhere in Africa, but he's mixed up in this shit somehow."  At home after work, Ishmael receives an anonymous call where he learns that if he wants to the truth, he needs to come to Nairobi, where he would find that "the truth is in the past." His chief gives him the okay after two weeks of pleading, and off he goes to Kenya, where he meets the man who will eventually become a good friend and colleague, David Odhiambo, known as "O," as well as a beautiful woman called Muddy, and they begin navigating the alleys, streets, bars and the wealthiest enclaves of Nairobi to get to the very ugly truth behind the young, unknown woman's death.

Black Star Nairobi picks up Fofona and O about three years later.  Ishmael has relocated to Kenya, where he's fallen in love with Muddy and he and  O have formed an investigative partnership called the Black Star Agency.  They've taken on "some of the strangest cases," but they're not doing so well at making a living. When they are given a case to work on involving a dead man in the Ngong forest, they take it, needing the money.  Ishmael will later come to regret it, especially after a powerful explosion rocks Nairobi's Norfolk Hotel, and they realize their dead guy may have been somehow involved when some American  CIA agents become interested, believing the bombing may have been a terrorist act.   When O remarks that "this shit is way over our heads," Ishmael agrees, but they both realize that they need the money, and they will just work their original case. Everything else would have to remain "background music, no matter how loud it got."  The Norfolk explosion, however,  sets off an incredible series of events, leading to personal tragedy and a no-holds barred, personal search for the perpetrators, while in the background, shady presidential politics triggers a "vortex of violence" pitting ethnicity against ethnicity in wholesale slaughter. 

Once you start to get under the surface of these plots in both novels,  you discover that these books are not your average political thrillers. Nairobi Heat has a much better, more tightly-plotted and credible  core mystery that takes the reader into the world of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath; Black Star Nairobi focuses on the hunt for a shadowy group of men for whom the lives of innocent people mean nothing and who are powerful enough  behind the scenes to manipulate world politics and individuals.  While Black Star Nairobi has a much different feel than its predecessor, the main action moving more along a political thriller line, it also offers the reader a peek at the effects of hatred that creates cultural gaps that keep a nation divided.  It's like in coming to Africa, Ishmael finds some of the same issues he thought he'd left behind in America, but defined  in Kenyan terms on Kenyan turf.

In both books, it's the characters that take center stage; in  Black Star Nairobi, the characters from Nairobi Heat are much more developed and the reader sees them coming to terms with just what they're capable of and how they try to maintain their individual senses of humanity when faced with situations that would try a saint.  Ishmael, the narrator in both novels,  provides insight not only into the people in his immediate circle, but into himself as well.   For example, before he was a cop, he understood that  "being black, poor, and urban meant you were the scapegoat that no one cared about;" after joining the force and working in Madison where he stood out in a "sea of whiteness," he notes that the "stink of racist policing rubbed off on me and some family members called me a sell-out to my face." He also admits to having done some things "in order to stay alive," but that when it came down to it, he had no "innocent blood" on his hands:

"For me it was always in self-defense or in the defense of someone else. I had come to know that I was good with violence the same way a boxer realizes he is good with his hands -- in and outside the ring I was aware of the rules, and whenever possible I followed them."
Ishmael admits he "hadn't felt American for a long time," and that in reality, he hadn't wanted to.  As far as his friend O, he's a guy who realizes that sometimes to get justice, it is necessary to try to understand and play within the rules of the "fucked-up moral code" of the bad guys.  There is a duality at work in O, one where "evil and good were compartmentalized in him," where he
"worked in the world of nine-to-five; he was happily married and always came home at the earlierst possible moment. However, when we entered the world of thieves and murderers, he fit right in and he followed their rules as often as he made and broke them."
Ishmael wonders what will happen if O ever becomes "unhinged" and that well-cultivated compartmentalization completely breaks down.

All of  the  main characters are excellently portrayed, and there's plenty of the "what-makes-them-tick" thing going on that for me elevates these novels beyond the average thriller. The author's ability to sustain an ongoing and vibrant sense of place is amazing, especially as viewed through the lenses of Ishmael's experienes and his examination of people  than through the normal details that some authors stick in their stories hoping to convey certain nuances that don't always come off well.   The books are very well written, and there is much improvement from Nairobi Heat to Black Star Nairobi. I preferred the core mystery of Nairobi Heat much more than the who's-behind-the-bomb plot of the second book, because it seemed much more realistic and credible; it's a shame that the author had to come up with that whole twisty, conspiracy plot to showcase his excellent characters. However, readers who are into that sort of thing will probably find more of what  they like in Black Star Nairobi.  

Other readers of Nairobi Heat  have noted that the whole idea of a Madison cop traveling to Africa to solve a case is farfetched -- well, ok, maybe, I might agree there. I particularly didn't care for blanket race generalizations, but that's a personal thing.   However, from a casual reader standpoint, I can recommend both books, but they are definitely not novels  for the cozy crowd or for people who like upbeat endings or stories -- that's simply not the case here.  They are both thought provoking and what the author has to say will stick with you for quite a while.  I'm still thinking about these books, and I finished them both over a week ago. Now I'm hoping that I'll see more of Ishmael, O and Muddy very shortly.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

*Evil and the Mask, by Fuminori Nakamura

Soho Press, 2013
356 pp
originally published as Aku To Kamen No Ruuru, 2010
translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates

arc: my most grateful thanks to Soho Press for offering me a copy of this book.

 "When human consciousness stops fooling itself and looks at the situation straight on, it can't cope. "

If you haven't read Fuminori Nakamura's first translated novel The Thief, it is a most excellent novel that zooms in on philosophical/existential issues centering around a master pickpocket in Japan. I really loved that book, but his newly-translated novel (the second of three he's written) is even better. The author delves  below the surface to examine whether heredity, environment or a combination of both is responsible for determining human behavior --or the  possibility that a person's future might just be predetermined and unalterable. 

The main character of this novel is Fumihiro Kuki, who the reader first meets at the age of eleven. His elderly father clues him in on a secret -- Fumihiro was born for the special purpose of becoming a "cancer," "a personification of evil" who will "make the world miserable ... make everyone wish they had never been born ... and "make everyone think that the light of virtue does not shine in this world."   The family has its own line of cancers, born to "spread a stain over the light of the world," a tradition that Kuki's father has revived. Fumihiro never knew his mother; he lives alone in the big Kuki mansion with a housekeeper, his father (who is often away for business) and Kaori, a young girl his father adopted from an orphanage. Fumihiro detests his father, and suffers from serious depression, which he covers with a "mask of cheerfulness."  His situation is untenable, but Kaori is the shining light in his life. It is Kaori he sees in his dreams about his future, having kids, making her happy and living in a house by the sea, and he falls for her hard.  With Kaori, he's able to "squeeze his darkness into a tiny piece buried deep inside him," and all of his "pent-up energy," which was "trapped" by his depression goes into caring for her.  He has been told by his father that when he turns 14, he will show him hell.  As Fumihiro moves into his thirteenth year, he and Kaori have become very close, but when Fumihiro realizes that his father has been using her to satisfy some perverted desire, it becomes clear to him that  the hell he promises Fumihiro for his fourteenth birthday has to do with Kaori.  It also becomes clear that the only way he can prevent his father from going ahead with his vile plan is to get rid of him.

Looking back from adult life, Fumihiro tells of being plagued by several questions about acting on what he knows he must do and what society would say about his actions. He wonders whether or not it is a crime to

"kill someone who was absolutely determined to harm you and the person closest to you? Was this just our selfishness? Weren't we being forced to break the rules to protect ourselves from this powerful madman?" 
 After weighing what he knows the outside world would tell him against  his need to protect Kaori, he is more determined than ever. They might think he was "the evil one," but Fumihiro doesn't care.  As he sets his plan in motion, his father tells him that he's "got what it takes to be a cancer," and that he has "all the makings of a real monster."  Was his father right? By killing his father would he be stepping into his predestined role? Is he truly his father's son?  The aftermath of that act haunts Fumihiro, leading him to some pretty drastic measures, one of which is to have his face reconstructed in his 20s, along with other crimes (including murder) all as a way of preventing worse things from happening.  The story is narrated by the adult Fumihiro, plagued by ambiguity, looking back over his past and relating his present, all the while trying to get a grip on understanding himself and the effects of his "rule-breaking" acts in the bigger, wider world around him.   Is his rational examination of his life and deeds a means of confronting the truth or a way to avoid facing it?

Evil and the Mask is an outstanding novel, extremely well written, and I haven't read it in Japanese but the narrative is never halting or awkward so I'd imagine that as a translation it's quite good. There is a lot to this novel and I've pretty much just skimmed the surface here, but from my own casual reader perspective,  it's an amazing book that throws out conundrum after conundrum to Fumihiro and to Nakamura's readers as well.  I don't know that I'd classify it as a crime fiction novel per se -- while there are certainly some smoky, seedy bars and private investigators that conjure up visions of the darkest noir, and although there are a number of crimes committed during the course of this book,  it's the philosophical that ultimately takes center stage.  It's very dark in nature, so if you're looking to this novel as a beach read over the summer -- forget about it.

Super book, and I loved every second of it. Most highly recommended. I hope Soho plans to bring out Nakamura's third book as well.

 fiction from Japan

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Asylum, by Johan Theorin

Doubleday/Transworld , 2012
411 pp
 originally published as Sankta Psyko,
 translated by Marlene Delargy

paper; UK edition
(read in May)

"...who amongst us can say that we are always healthy?"

Sheesh -- I've been away a long time from crime while trying to catch up on lots of other things both book related (a veritable outpouring of amazing literary fiction) and home related.  Next month I'll definitely be more productive, as I'll be catching up on the gigantor stack of crime novels I've been amassing here in the last 6 months.  Anyway, I read The Asylum while vacationing in Hawaii, during a rain storm that lasted an entire day -- the perfect setting for reading this highly atmospheric novel that takes place largely within the confines of a psychiatric hospital in Valla, Sweden.

As the novel opens, Jan Hauger has applied for job as a classroom assistant at the Dell preschool located in a building at St. Patricia's Hospital, lovingly referred to as "St. Psycho's" by the locals. St. Patricia's is home to patients of all sorts, but it houses some people who "have destructive impulses, antisocial men and women who have done what you might call bad things," and the preschool allows some children to visit their parents who are patients. One of its most famous inmates is Ivan Rössel, a serial killer who has left many bodies in his wake. Jan has a history working with preschool children but he believes that this job will actually get him closer to someone he knew in the past, Alice Rami, who he is convinced is a patient there. We get the impression that Jan has something to hide nearly immediately, when the doctor conducting the job interview calls a preschool where he's worked before and Jan is mentally hoping that there is no one there who remembers him.  But all goes well, and Jan gets the position. As he begins his duties, he becomes obsessed with the idea of somehow getting himself into the hospital; it is connected to the preschool building via an underground tunnel and an elevator that is always met by someone.  The preschool staff, including Jan,  is not allowed there, but finding a way in becomes a regular  obsession with him. As the story progresses, the novel is split into three interwoven parts all very much connected to each other --  the present where Jan, a loner,  tries to make connections with some of the staff, the past connected to his time at the Lynx preschool, and earlier in his troubled boyhood. Although it's not quite apparent at first why, all of these episodes will meld into one huge tragedy, all connected with St. Patricia's Hospital. 

I have read and thoroughly loved each and every one of Johan Theorin's crime-fiction novels, mainly because this writer is truly a master of atmosphere.  His crimes are tightly plotted, his characters credible,and his sense of place is perfectly executed.  In his newest novel, The Asylum, that lovely gothic, creepy atmosphere is there -- but to be quite honest, I'd have to say that it's my  least favorite work by this author. It starts out with all the right elements: a mental hospital that also houses the criminally insane as well as an experimental preschool for children whose family members are patients there, a young man looking to reconnect with a piece of his past, and a sense of dread that fills the reader with instant tension that rarely lets up. Each character has a role to play and most of them are very well developed.   But by the time I finished, I was actually disappointed because the story became predictable and frankly, highly implausible toward the end and without even having to read it I knew exactly what was going to happen.  I did finish, but it only confirmed what I'd guessed. Arrgh!  One of my favorite authors tries something new,  call it an atmospheric thriller if you will, and it just didn't work for me.  However, the getting there was the best part -- my stomach was tied in knots for much of the reading time from the suspense, especially Jan's attempts to get into the hospital  -- up until the last few chapters which were a complete letdown -- too pat, not realistic and frankly, not befitting the quality of this author's other work.  

I wish I could be more upbeat about this book, but I always call things the way I see them. However, to be very fair, there are several good reviews of this novel  with high star ratings, so it's my pickiness at work here I'm sure.  I'd still definitely recommend it, especially to readers who enjoy awesome Gothic settings and the feeling of dread running through their veins while reading.  
crime fiction from Sweden