Friday, December 26, 2014

"to allow those people an existence, a life" -- Escape, by Dominique Manotti

Arcadia Books,  2014
originally published as L'evasion, 2013
translated by Amanda Hopkinson & Ros Schwartz
161 pp


"If I want to try and salvage our past, there's only one thing left for me to do. Write novels."

In the little bio blurb at the front of this novel it says that Dominique Manotti's
 "gritty Euro noir novels tell the story of France's modern social evolution, for better and worse..." 
and personally, I think it's most excellent that crime fiction provides the means by which she can do this.  I was speaking to someone just the other day about how crime novels, when done well,  serve as the perfect vehicle for illuminating  a country's social, economic and political issues.  Here, in Escape, the author looks back to Italy's "Years of Lead," and to a contemporary (late 1980s) community of political refugees, now emigres in France, and one woman in particular who is prompted by the publication of a novel to seek out the truth.   There are really two major points in this novel: truth and perception,  both sides of the same coin, if you just think about this for a moment. It is an excellent book, one that will keep you fascinated as you work your way through the maze of different realities within.

In Escape, Filippo is a young prisoner in Italy whose cellmate and "only friend", Carlo, has spent hours and hours talking to him about his past as a member of the Red Brigades. Filippo is on scene doing his job in the bin room (that's garbage cans for American readers) when Carlo makes his escape. Thinking it's probably better to escape with him than to risk more time for aiding and abetting, he joins his friend in a dumpster that's being hauled out and finds himself free.  The escape has been well planned -- a car is waiting, a man and a woman are there to take Carlo away. Instead of allowing Filippo to join them, Carlo eventually hands him a bag and an address in Paris and tells him they're parting company and that Filippo should find Carlo's Paris friend, Lisa Biaggi, and tell her what happened.  Filippo feels "orphaned," and that Carlo's ditched him, but decides to go to Milan via mountain paths, through the "godforsaken landscape,"  finally reaching the city of Bologna. There, while sitting at a cafe, he reads that Carlo has been shot and killed during a bank robbery in Milan, and he also finds an earlier paper that states that Filippo, "common prisoner" was a "key accomplice in a meticulously planned jailbreak," and that he could possibly be held accountable for the two deaths that occurred during the bank robbery.  Off he goes to Paris, where Carlo's friend Lisa gets him a job and a place to live, but then wants nothing more to do with him. After a while, the tedium of being a night watchman starts getting to him, and he starts thinking: first about Lisa, who blames him for Carlo's death, and then about her friend and his landlady, Cristina, who doesn't know he exists:
"For those two women, Carlo's a prince and I'm a piece of shit. They helped me because Carlo asked them to. Fair enough. But Carlo doesn't belong to them. They don't know him. The closeness of being in jail, the breakout, the dangers, the ordeal we went through together, that's our story, Carlo's and mine, not theirs. 
Filling in Lisa's face into one of  his doodles, he thinks
 "Before Carlo died, as he set off for his final battle, he said to me, "Tell Lisa."  I've got to tell it. How? Put my trust in Carlo, listen to my memories, let his words come out. And when I have my whole story nice and tight...Those two will come to understand that Carlo is mine, not theirs, and that he never did belong to them. A story of men."
Night after night Filippo works on that story until it becomes not only a novel, but a bestselling one that exceeds the publishers' expectations. It's a novel that embellishes Filippo's own role vis à vis his friend Carlo and creates a "Carlo faithful to himself, more real, a Carlo he could legitimately love."  It also transforms  Filippo into a hugely public persona, a larger-than-life figure who as time goes on, will draw the attention of opposing factions, leading to some startling consequences.

This novel is very much about the nature of truth, controlling the narratives of truth, and about perception. The history behind the Years of Lead are still highly controversial, and throughout the novel the author examines how political maneuvering and collusion among different right-wing groups, the secret service and others led to terrorist acts that were blamed on  left-wing groups like the communists, the idea being that if there's enough violence and death in the streets, people will have had enough and call for more conservative elements to maintain order. Great for conservative politicians and for economic "progress," but the real facts are kept under tight control and history is rewritten, while the truth is buried.

At some point, though, the reality needs to be "salvaged." And how better than in a novel? It's a brilliant idea on Manotti's part, and I have to say that while Escape is not a conventional crime novel in any stretch of the imagination (a huge selling point for me), it's an excellent story that fuses past with present, reality with lies, politics and the personal.  It also makes me want to go read everything Manotti has written in the crime arena. Super book, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Monday, December 22, 2014

obscure darkness brought to light: A Dark Corner, by Celia Dale

Faber and Faber (Faber Finds), 2008
originally published 1971
155 pp


The best way to describe this book: stomach churning.  A Dark Corner is #4 in my ongoing project of finding and reading obscure women writers, and it is easily available in paperback from Faber, it has been reproduced as as part of the publisher's excellent Faber Finds series.  And so far, it's been the darkest and most edgy novel of the four.  Actually, I had no idea at that I was going to be so completely devastated by this novel when I first picked it up. Oh my god -- to say that this book is dark is an understatement.  I like dark as a rule, but I'd just read Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Stephen Gregory's The Cormorant, both of which are beyond disturbing, so it's been darkness on darkness on darkness, which even for me is too much all at once.

Arthur and Nelly Didcot  live in a small but respectable house on London's Wardlow Road.  On a dark rainy evening,  Nelly is summoned to the door where she discovers a young man named Errol with a terrible cough. He's got an ad for a room in his hand, but he has mistakenly come to the wrong street, looking for Wardlow Crescent.  Nelly, though, takes pity on him and brings him in for a cup of tea and a warm up by the fire. Errol has a fever and Nelly just can't bring herself to send him on his way.  When Arthur comes home and Nelly tells them they have a house guest, Arthur's not too happy, but allows Errol to stay. Soon the temporary arrangement becomes more permanent, and Nelly's happy -- she's a shut in, she'd lost her son when he was a teen, and her affection for Errol begins to grow. Arthur also seems to get used to the arrangement, taking Errol around with him on his Sunday walks and showing him the "project" he's been working on for years in the privacy of his den that no one, not even Nelly has ever seen.  Errol returns Nelly's affection, but how he feels toward Arthur eventually becomes an entirely different story.  The dynamic between the two literally pushes Errol into the titular "dark corner" from which there may be no possible escape.

The darkness in this book, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the number of dead bodies that are literally piling up, but with what actually goes on behind closed doors in that house on Wardlow Road. A Dark Corner is a story that reveals the secrets that hide behind the facade of respectability; it also asks the question of  how a seemingly normal person who prides himself on his high moral and ethical standards can turn out to be a monster who is free to roam the city streets.  As a warning to potential readers,  this book contains a lot of racist content, but it is not done maliciously, instead reflecting a psychotic sickness lodged in the mind of a truly evil and demented person.

What happens in this novel literally made me squirm on several levels and actually left me unable to sleep after finishing it. However, the worst part of the entire novel is the message that literally  anyone might turn out to be the human monster of this book and we may not even have a clue.

definitely NOT for the faint hearted.

Monday, December 15, 2014

out today -- The Devil in Montmartre: A Mystery in fin de siècle Paris, by Gary Inbinder

Pegasus, 2014
256 pp

arc -- my grateful thanks to the author and to the publisher for my copy

The truth of the matter is that books like The Devil in Montmartre used to be my go-to favorites for a very long time -- historical crime fiction, set in a specific time period in a specific place. I  read so many novels in that subgenre that I burned myself out after a while and had to move on to something else entirely -- in fact, I can't even remember the last time that I made an active decision to read a period crime novel.  Now after reading this one, I remember why I used to enjoy them so much.  Plus, any book with Toulouse-Lautrec as a character definitely has my vote.  Even though it's very much lighter than my normal fare, it's still quite good. 

The year is 1889, and it's only two weeks before the closing ceremonies of that year's Expedition Universelle. A year earlier, London had been in the grip of fear because of the horrific acts perpetrated by Jack the Ripper.  So when a female torso is discovered in a city sewer, the police want to catch the murderer as quickly as possible to stifle any rumors that the Ripper has crossed the channel and set up shop in Paris. The chief inspector of the Sûreté Paul Feraud, knows that he needs his best man for the job -- and that just happens to be Inspector Achille Lefebvre.  Only thirty, Lefebvre is "a new breed of detective," one who believes wholeheartedly in applying modern investigative techniques in his work. And he's going to have his work cut out for him.  But he gets lucky:  the autopsy report reveals a startling clue that points Lefebvre in a particular direction even though someone is doing his level best to put the frame on someone else, and the report of a missing woman gives him a potential lead on who the victim might be.  He has to work quickly, though -- while he's working hard to make sure he gets everything right, his rival in the police department has his own ideas about how to bring a quick end to the case, one that could definitely incite mob violence in a city where the divisions caused by the Dreyfus affair are still fresh and are still on everyone's mind.  

The Devil in Montmartre is set in the Paris of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, where the whirling skirts of can-can dancers mesmerize the customers of the Moulin Rouge, where the small boîtes serve as meeting places for professionals and street people alike, a place where art and artists flourish. The author easily captures this atmosphere and the beautiful parks with their gardens visited by tourists from America and England; in contrast to the beauty and excitement of the city, he also takes his readers into dirty back streets and alleys and out into areas controlled by the city's criminals, places that most visitors to the city never see. It's also very obvious that the author put in a LOT of time on research, especially in the area of police work and contemporary investigative methods.  Putting that together with his character construction,  it's impossible to believe that this is his first mystery novel. And anyone who's ever read what I write here knows that I'm not averse to saying exactly what I think, so that's high praise.  Trust me -- I've read enough first novels to feel qualified to judge. On the other hand, and this is probably more on my end rather than his since it isn't all that obvious, I figured out the who quite early into the story. I wasn't overly keen on the romantic parts either, but that's a personal thing and an area where I tend to find myself in the minority.   However, I will say that the book made for fun reading. 

Hopefully there will be a sequel some day, but in the meantime, The Devil in Montmartre should especially appeal to fans of historical crime fiction or historical fiction in general. It's lighter than my normal crime preferences, but there is definitely  a good central mystery to be solved, and even though a headless torso may make some people maybe want to think twice about picking up the book, the violence is not anywhere near graphic nor is it overused or used gratuitously in any way. That in itself is commendable these days.  I think Mr. Inbinder has done a fine job here with his first book. I hope it's the first of many. 

another one from the vault: They Rang Up the Police, by Joanna Cannan

Rue Morgue Press, 1999
154 pp
originally published 1939


"The bother about detective stories is that they're not the least like life."

They Rang Up the Police is Book #3 in my ongoing quest to read books by obscure women crime writers -- both novels and authors that have been either forgotten or never heard of in the first place.  In the case of all of three, it's been the latter for me. So far I've been batting a thousand in my choices: first with Dorothy Bowers and more recently, Marjorie Alan, and now with They Rang Up the Police, which is a most unusual mystery novel published in 1939.

Marley Grange in rural Oxfordshire is the home of the Cathcarts. Unlike the older families living nearby, the Cathcarts do not have roots in the area, but rather had  "made their money," a fact that sets them apart in the local class scheme.  Living at Marley Grange are Mrs. Grace Cathcart and her daughters,  Nancy, Sheila and Delia.  There was a Mr. Cathcart at one time, but old Humphrey is "at rest now," a situation that Mrs. Cathcart prefers, since there is
"... no stamping in the dressing room, no snores, no clearing of a smoker's throat, no arguments about the number of blankets, no sounds, no movement, no will but her own."
The sisters are all homely spinsters, the youngest 38, and Delia, the eldest at 43 is "the most worldly of the Cathcarts, and is referred to as "the man of the family."  Sheila is "the highbrow," while Nancy is lovingly known as "our home bird," the sort of woman who would rather stay home and sew.  It is a harmonious household,  so it seems, and Grace has worked hard to bring up her daughters "to be as courteous and considerate to each other as they were to strangers."  The sisters address each other as "darling," and Delia carefully watches over her siblings and runs the household capably, taking care of every problem down to dealing with the servants.  She also hunts and breaks in horses.

As the heat ratchets up in the summer, Delia has taken to sleeping outside in a secluded area of the yard next to the house in a small camp bed.  One night she goes to her "mannish" bedroom, puts on her "serviceable striped silk pajamas and a woolen dressing gown," and heads on outside for a good night's rest.  The next morning, Delia has disappeared. The rest of the family is in a dither, and after Nancy drives around the country lanes to look for her, they decide to call around to see if anyone's seen her. When that proves to be futile, "they rang up the police." Then they make a strange discovery: Delia's suitcase is missing, along with a blue-flowered dress, her hat, and a pair of shoes.  The police, represented at first by local Superintendent Dawes, sees a love affair in the disappearance; the rest of the women quickly shut that idea down.  After Dawes, described as "common," and  an "ordinary policeman" by Nancy, bids them goodbye, Mrs. Cathcart decides they'll just have to find Delia themselves. In calling around to Delia's acquaintances, they discover that another local resident is missing --  a Captain Willoughby of Lane End Farm, a horse-riding friend of Delia's.  Could there be a connection?  Grace has had enough -- and she pulls some family strings and gets the attention of someone at Scotland Yard.  Inspector Guy Northeast, whose career literally hinges on solving this case, is called in to get to the bottom of Delia's disappearance.

While my description of the story in  They Rang Up the Police may make this book sound like yet another novel in the English country murder mystery tradition, it is really anything but. Yes, there's a grand house with servants, stables, and a tennis court, and yes, there are a number of clever red herrings built into the story to keep the reader guessing.  However, the hedges that keep Marley Grange out of public view off of the main road also hide something else that is more sinister (okay, I know this word is way overused, but it fits) than what's normally found in the standard, garden-variety, traditional-genre tropes.  Unfortunately, the gut punch comes at the very end of the book, so I can't really go there.

Aside from the cringeworthy, nails-scraping-a-chalkboard Cathcarts, Cannan has populated her novel with some very bizarre characters one doesn't normally find in a book like this one. My favorite is Gerda Willoughby, a would-be artist, philosopher, self-proclaimed member of the intelligentsia whom the Inspector refers to as "Yet another Ancient Mariner," and "quite tiresome enough to drive a man from home without the incentive of an affair with another woman." In modern parlance, she's a total flake, and her antics are laughworthy but also sad because of how they reflect her sense of alienation among the people in this society. There's a socialist chauffeur, his boss who is a grumpy old curmudgeon, a drunken veterinarian who hides secrets of his own, and the list of suspects goes on.  Cannan also has a winner in her Inspector Guy Northeast, a farm boy who did not want to be a farmer, but who instead had dreams of being a Mountie in the RCMP.   After leaving home, he finds a supporter in an aunt who encourages him to follow his dream of being a policeman. After some minor successes, he finds himself on the promotion track and achieves the rank of inspector at Scotland Yard.  However, he bungles an otherwise open-and-shut case so he's on the receiving end of all of the cases that his superiors at the Yard find too dull to take on themselves, and his career is definitely at risk by the time he takes up the case at Marley Grange. At times in this case he displays a definite nostalgia for farming, mostly because as a farmer no one is around to tell him what to do. He has to deal with the likes of the local policemen who can't fathom that anyone of the upper crust might possibly be involved, that the answer to the strangeness of any of the female characters is due to "sex repression," and that more likely than not, it's going to be a member of one of the working classes who is guilty.  Once again, class difference is a major theme that runs throughout the entire book.

Without giving anything away, it is ultimately the psychology behind the crime which, along with the unusual character makeup,  makes this book extremely readworthy and sets it apart from the work of Ms. Cannan's more well-known and more popular contemporaries.  When all is said and done, all of the zaniness leading up to the ending fades away into a heartbreaking sense of sadness that left me feeling sympathetic rather than antagonistic toward the offender, something that rarely happens, but in this case just feels right.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Holmes is dead and darkness falls" -- Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz

Harper, 2014
304 pp

arc from the publisher - thank you!

The first word that came to my mind after finishing Moriarty was this: "clever." 

If you've read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, then you know from Watson's account  "The Final Problem" that  Holmes and his arch-rival Professor James Moriarty toppled over into the falls, marking the end of the world's greatest detective and the world's most sinister criminal.  You also know that it was just a clever ploy on the part of Holmes so that he could flush out Moriarty's remaining network of evildoers.  Back in London, though, the bad guys didn't know that part of the story, so you'd think they would be having a field day.  But they're not. Moriarty's death left a big vacuum just begging to be filled, and sadly for the criminals in town, the new crime boss is  even more ruthless than Moriarty ever was. The criminals in this book are far nastier than any Conan-Doyle has ever dreamed up; there is a no-holds-barred attitude in this story when portraying just how evil and downright sadistic this new criminal contingent actually can be. Sadism, murder, and torture are just a few of their erstwhile talents, and their reputation has already spread quickly through the streets of  London and the criminal underworld as well. 

Our narrator offers his name right away. He is Frederick Chase, a senior investigator with the Pinkerton Detective Agency out of New York. Chase was actually at Reichenbach five days after things went down.  After taking the reader quickly through the main events of the story, he then says that the story that he "must" tell begins on the fifth day after the deaths of Holmes and Moriarty.  It is on that day that a man has been fished out of  Reichenbach Brook, and the day that Chase first meets Scotland Yard Inspector Athelney Jones. Jones is a major devotee of Sherlock Holmes and has been since he helped the great detective with events in the story that came to be known as "The Sign of Four," and before Chase could say anything, Jones offers a brief demonstration of the deductive powers he's learned by studying Holmes' methods.  He deduces that Chase is a Pinkerton's agent and that only one week earlier, he'd "set off for England in the hope of tracking down Professor James Moriarty."  Needless to say, this demonstration and the fact that Chase needs British police assistance in his task is the start of a friendship as well as a cooperative effort -- with no Holmes to safeguard the streets of London, the two find themselves up against a group of criminals now under the aegis of their new and cruel  master. 

The character of Jones, who had been portrayed by Watson as rather incompetent in "The Sign of Four," and again as a"laughing stock" in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," is by far the most interesting of them all here.  While recuperating from a case of rickets after his work in that case, he had "dedicated the year of his hiatus to the betterment of his career as a detective." He had been "beaten" by Holmes twice, and so vowed to "make himself the equal of the world's most famous consulting detective." His home office is more like a shrine, where he's "read everything that Mr. Holmes has written," and has "studied his methods and replicated his experiments,"  making "Sherlock Holmes the very paradigm of his own life."  According to Jones' wife, who doesn't have the same feelings for Holmes, Jones actually believes that he is Holmes' "equal."  So obviously, he has something to prove here, and it made me wonder if perhaps he's gone a little off the rails mentally. He literally becomes a walking pastiche of the great detective, a trait that ultimately will do him little in the way of favors. 

 Given that the man wants to be Holmes, it's no surprise whatsoever that  there are a number of Holmesian tropes in play here, and it's also not surprising that the author has fun with them.   There's one particular scene that I quite liked and thought worked very well.  All of the detectives who had ever worked with Holmes come together in one room for a meeting, some praising Holmes while lamenting his demise; others who are ready to "embrace his going as an opportunity" for the detectives to "achieve results" on their "own two feet." What all agree on, though, is that at least they won't find themselves "caricatured" by Watson any more.  

As good as those scenes are, and surprising as some parts may be, it takes a while for this story to get off the ground actionwise since the reader is being introduced to the main players and we get a replay of Reichenbach Falls.  Then there are some moments of tedious description here and there (do we really need to know what was in the stew?) and sometimes the story just sort of plods along with exposition.   However, if you're not a Holmes purist looking for any sort of Conan-Doyle style of perfection,  Moriarty turns out to be a fun - not great - just fun read with a surprising scene toward the end leading to a finish that I won't divulge. I've seen some reviews that say it was contrived -- and maybe there's something to that, but hey - it was still a fun book. 

I read this book through the generosity of the publisher and through TLC book tours, and you can follow what others have to say as it makes its way through several readers by clicking here.