Thursday, January 30, 2014

Gold, Frankincense and Dust, by Valerio Varesi

MacLehose Press, 2013
originally published as Oro, Incenso e Polvere, 2007
translated by Joseph Farrell

paperback (UK)

"Precariousness is the human condition."

Gold, Frankincense and Dust is the third book in the Commissario Soneri series after River of Shadows and The Dark Valley. River of Shadows was okay, and I loved The Dark Valleywith its rich atmosphere and excellent characterizations, and I realized after reading that novel that Varesi was an author I'd watch in the future. So when I saw that this book had been published, I bought it and well, frankly, it wasn't all I'd hoped it would be. On one level, there's a really good mystery here and some well-outlined and important social issues; on another, though, it was overshadowed by way too much of Soneri's personal life to the point that it detracted my reading from the punch that the core mystery might have delivered without it.  Then again, it's a personal preference of mine to prefer edgy crime over a main character's inner angst, so it's one you absolutely have to read and decide about for yourself

Gold, Frankincense and Dust has a great opening -- Soneri is called to the scene of "one hell of a pile-up" on the autostrada, even though it's really a case for the flying squad. His expert knowledge of the Lower Po Valley is why he must go, especially because there's a heck of a fog that's settled in.  Once he arrives, there's chaos within a somewhat surreal atmosphere -- bulls are roaming around with a cow and a herd of a pigs, causing his partner, Juvara, to pose the question of whether or not they've landed in Animal Farm.  Disco music is blaring in the background at a fairground. Smoke is everywhere, adding to the fog's confusion.  As the police and firefighters arrive and start looking around, they discover a body which has been badly burned.  Soneri, despite opinions that the body must have been thrown from the car during the accident, believes that this was not the case -- that the body had been burned somewhere else and then brought to where it was found.  Through a stroke of good luck, there is a clue as to the body's identity, and it is identified as being that of a young Romanian girl named Nina Iliescu.  It doesn't take long for Soneri and his colleagues to realize that this is no ordinary woman, and that her life is filled to overflowing with secrets. Add to this  the old man who got on a bus with twenty euros and two photos and never made it to his destination alive -- and our Commissario has his hands full.  But keeping himself focused is tough for Soneri -- his personal situation with Angela has become a bit iffy, making him fearful that "loneliness lay in wait" if  she decides that he's not really the man she wants in her life. 

As in his other works, Varesi's finest talent lies in his ability to evoke atmosphere and maintain it throughout the novel.  The first scene in the fog sets the tone for the rest of the novel, as his investigations uncover a host of things that lay hidden, and not just in the life of the dead girl.   Being able to navigate in the mist in the Po Valley is one thing; trying to navigate his way through a murky personal life where he can't see the outcome is another.  He's also good at writing characters, and the mystery of the dead girl brings out people from many very different walks of life.  And then there's Soneri himself -- whom

"in every victim, ...  found the frustrations of all human affairs, and for this reason he always felt close to them."
In this book, one of the main themes running throughout the story is that of "precariousness," as revealed through Soneri's personal life and his interactions with those who live on the edge of poverty and on the margins of society.  Varesi carries this theme throughout the book and he does it well.  Unfortunately, considering everything this book has going for it, Soneri's constant worries about being a middle-aged man teetering on the brink of loneliness because of Angela's tendency to wiffle back and forth about her future  took away a lot of the fun of the crime solving.  By the time it got to the end, I really wanted this book to be over.  On a personal level, that's  tough for me to say, because I normally enjoy reading this author's work.

But then again, as I noted above, my preference leans toward edgy without much inner angst within the characters (unless it's noir, then bring it on) so my complaint about all the personal stuff interfering with the crime solving may not be something that bothers other readers.  It's a little involved for cozy readers,  and doesn't have the edge loved by readers of noir, so I'd place it within the police procedural bracket with an added middle-age crisis sideline.  And finally, although this book didn't really do it for me, I will be waiting somewhat impatiently for Varesi's next book to be published.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

from France: The Dark Angel, by Dominique Sylvain

MacLehose Press, 2014
276 pp

originally published as Passage du Désir, 2004
translated by Nick Caistor


Well, here's something new and different!  There's something to be said for a crime novel where one of the lead characters is a kind of crusty, overweight middle-aged woman who smokes and wears a hideous bathrobe when she's hanging out at home.  The Dark Angel is the introduction to a series (I think/hope) featuring retired Commissaire of the Paris police department Lola Jost and her very worldly, beautiful and American masseuse crime-solving partner. Ingrid Diesel.  While the mystery is pretty good, these two characters, most especially Lola, steal the show in this book.  If for no other reason, you should read this book on the basis of Lola's character alone.  Whenever she wasn't in the picture, I was eagerly awaiting her return.

Set in Paris, two roommates come home one day to discover the third girl dead. Not only has she been murdered, but her feet have been chopped off and someone has left behind a Bratz doll, the kind with the feet that come completely off the doll's body.  Any hope of forensic evidence is gone -- the vacuum cleaner, which may have contained evidence, is soaking in the bathtub. Police soon come to suspect that Maxime, the local ladies' man and restauranteur along the Passage du Désir, may have had something to do with the young woman's murder.  Enter our dynamic duo, Lola and Ingrid, who want more than anything to keep their good friend Maxime from going to jail -- so with the help of one of Lola's favorite policemen,  they do everything they can to prove his innocence. Not such an easy task: everyone, it seems, is hiding something, so getting to the truth behind the murder will be a definite challenge.

The Dark Angel is on the lighter side of crime -- not that murder's not serious, but the novel has a very uncomplicated feel to it compared to a lot of other, more intense translated crime fiction.   There are also more than a few moments of wry humor to be encountered -- especially through the character of Lola.  She steals the show in this novel -- something in her past led her to leave the force, but she is still totally on the ball when it comes to investigating.  Her policeman friend who helps the two women in their investigation is in awe of her talents and wishes she'd never retired, because she left him with an inept bumbler as a superior.  Ingrid, while full of surprises, is less big on the page, not as well rounded as Lola with her constant flow of caustic wit; however, it is perhaps the wide range of differences that allow  them to work so well together. Considering that they probably wouldn't have met otherwise, the way they take to each other makes for fun reading.   They even view Paris quite differently from each other -- understandable since Lola is French and Ingrid is viewing the city from an entirely different set of cultural lenses -- but in the long run, it's a plus because their different visions of what the streets have to offer filter through to the reader,  making the sense of place a little more 3-D than usual.

While Lola's character is off and running, I'm sure that Ingrid's character will develop more as the series proceeds; in this installment, I think the goal was just to get the two together as a sort of ad hoc investigating team.  Otherwise, the mystery itself is okay, complete with lots of red herrings and more than enough suspects to keep the reader guessing.  There are a few social issues brought out here and there is even a brief look at the plight of  Romanian children who were put into orphanages during the reign of Nicolae Ceaușescu  -- and people who think nothing of exploiting these kids. Nothing too heavy, but this topic plays a small role in the story. 

I love the combination of the two characters and their quirks; watching these two very different women working together was just plain fun.  And while I do prefer much edgier crime fiction, sometimes it's more than enough when it's all about the characters -- and that is definitely the case here. Very much recommended; a wonderful start to what I hope will be a great series. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

a most enterprising new crime author from Scotland: The Cabinetmaker, by Alan Jones

Ailsa Publishing, 2013
292 pp

Kindle version

Last month before the holidays I received an email from a writer in Scotland who wanted to know if I'd read/review his new book, The Cabinetmaker.  I bought a copy, but things got pretty hectic here as usual at Christmas, I went to California after the New Year, and then came home and proceeded to get a serious case of the flu until this week. It took me a month to get to it, so I owe the author, Alan Jones, a huge apology for taking so long. 

Before launching into the novel, though, I have to share  an article written in November that illustrates exactly how enterprising Mr. Jones really is in  getting the word out about his book.  It seems that rather than pop a few corks to celebrate, the author, along with a few others, set up a few tool benches and started making cabinets on Perth Road in Dundee.  He and his friends handed out flyers about his new book, did a little music making and dancing, and a great time was had by all.  Seriously -- if I ever get the notion to write a novel, I'd be much happier celebrating its publication the way this guy did -- no foo-foo flutes of champagne, no little trays of canapés being taken around by waitstaff -- I'm impressed.  I also love his attitude.  As quoted in the article I linked, the author says
"I'm an optimist but I've got my feet on the ground. If something comes of it then it's a bonus but it’s the satisfaction of writing it that compelled me to do it."
And now - The Cabinetmaker.

In 1978, Francis Hare lost his son Patrick when a gang of street toughs beat him severely and then left him for dead on the street.  John McDaid, "the most junior member" of the CID team at Partick Police Station, met Francis when he'd come in to check out how the investigation was going.  He was actually embarrassed when another cop gave him a cup of tea and about a paragraph's worth of explanation before sending him on his way.  McDaid felt badly about how Francis had been treated, but he's the newbie so he can't really say anything.  As time passes, though, McDaid strikes up a friendship with Francis -- both share a love of soccer and McDaid becomes fascinated with Francis' occupation: he builds beautiful, handcrafted furniture. The police have been pretty worthless when it comes to trying to pin Patrick's  murder on the street gang; but between McDaid and another cop with a heart and soul, Andy, they try to keep Francis informed.  Suddenly, though, things go very wrong for the police after they start to get "confessions" and the case goes down the toilet, leaving a father without any sort of justice for his son.  The case just sort of folds into obscurity, but suddenly picks up again in a big way  after a couple of decades go by -- and that's when things begin to get very interesting.

Considering it's a first novel, The Cabinetmaker kept me turning pages without finding a lot of the usual mistakes fledgling writers often make.  Let's do away with the niggles first, shall we? While I can appreciate a) that the author wants us to view McDaid as person outside of being a cop, and b) his own personal love of his craft (go back to the link where he's building cabinets on the streets of Dundee) the many pages featuring soccer and cabinetmaking often (imho) went on too long, sort of detracting from the tension.   At the same time, he's in fine company here -- I felt exactly the same way about the ongoing furniture-building scenes in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.  On to what I really liked about this book: the twists.  Just when you think you know everything, something happens that causes you to change gears midstream and rewire your brain to try to refigure it all, until another twist or two or three hits and well, I can't really say  more or I'll give it away.  Suffice it to say that armchair detectives like myself will find the book's plot and its unraveling  intriguing.

While this book's main focus is on justice, it is also a good police procedural where  things change in the police departments over time, from  the  late 70s and  the same sort of cops you'd find in David Peace's The Red Riding Quartet, on into the 21st century where things have become much different. It's a book well worth reading, and I do hope people will take notice and this book will do well so I can look forward to reading something more by Alan Jones. And it's less than four dollars on Amazon right now! I've become even more picky in my crime reads than normal lately, hence the long hiatus between posts -- but I wouldn't hesitate to read anything this author might write.  Definitely recommended.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

another indie -- and it's a good one: Pilgrim Soul, by Gordon Ferris

Corvus/Atlantic Books, 2013
383 pp

paper -- my sincere thanks to Shannon for my copy

First - an apology to Shannon who sent me this book a while back.  I had my nose stuck in Eleanor Catton's delightful but very long The Luminaries and had to put Pilgrim Soul on the back burner for the duration.

Reading indie crime fiction can be iffy at times, but this one I really liked.  It's book number three in a series, and it also overlaps with another series the author wrote that features one of the characters, a friend of the main character.  Pilgrim Soul is set in Glasgow in 1947, during an incredibly cold winter; it was so bad that a train was robbed of its cargo of coal and people were using church pews for firewood.  The lead protagonist is Douglas Brodie, former cop, not so long out of the army and now a crime reporter for a newspaper.  The action starts when Brodie is visited by a group of four men, all Jewish, who report that homes in their community are being broken into.  Brodie decides that the way to track down the culprit is to "follow the loot," and what he discovers sets off a chain reaction of deaths and launches Brodie back to a place he'd rather not be, as the crimes seem to be related to the concentration camps.  Brodie, as it turns out, had witnessed firsthand some of the horrors of the Holocaust, serving as an interrogator of war criminals in Germany, and has since spent a great deal of time trying to forget.  Now his past returns with a vengeance, and it just may be that he's gotten in way over his head.

While plotting, core mystery and the unraveling of it all are done very well, what I really enjoyed about this book was how the author locates his novel perfectly in time and place. Two years into the postwar period, the Holocaust has left a lot of Jewish people wanting to go to what will eventually become Israel a year later, and in the meantime, certain groups exists who believe the only way to get what they want is through terror. The Holocaust has also left its mark on non-Jews like Brodie, who suffers from what we now call PTSD after the horrors he witnessed in the camps and the testimonies he'd heard as an interrogator.  And while the Nazi war crime trials are still going on, behind the scenes some of the intelligence services are working on preparing for the emerging new enemy, Stalin and the Soviets.  And one more thing -- I'm always on guard against frivolous use of the Holocaust as a backdrop in a novel; here I needn't have worried.

This series sounds like one I'd like to start from the beginning, but this one is easily read as a standalone.  Perhaps it's a bit too much for cozy readers; police procedural people would probably like it, fans of UK crime fiction will like it, as will people who enjoy historical fiction.  It's not noirish but at the same time time, the novel does have a bit of an edge, which I always look for when I read crime. In short - I really liked this one.