Saturday, August 29, 2015

an Italian crime double feature: Game of Mirrors, by Andrea Camilleri and Black Run, by Antonio Manzini

Two crime novels from Italy which couldn't possibly be any more different from each other are the topic of today's conversation.  For one thing, Game of Mirrors is Camilleri's 18th series entry while Manzini makes his crime debut with Black Run.  For another, the two main characters, Montalbano and Schiavone are like polar opposites of each other.  Montalbano is the good-natured detective we've all come to know and love, while Schiavone, if you'll pardon the bluntness of my expression here, starts out as a complete asshat.  In Schiavone's defense, there are a number of reasons for why things are like this with him (one big one you don't really comprehend until  the last pages of the book), but he is definitely what I'd call a most unlikable kind of guy.  However, I'm not someone who needs to love the characters in books I read, and when all is said and done Black Run is a good series opener. But more later.  First, Game of Mirrors.

Penguin, 2015 
 originally published as Il Gioco degli specchi (2011) 
 translated by Stephen Sartarelli  
 277 pp, paperback

As I said at the outset, Game of Mirrors is the 18th installment in Camilleri's Montalbano series, and from day one I've thoroughly enjoyed each and every book.  That hasn't changed, although it does seem to me that Camilleri has taken a more serious direction this time around.  Salvo is still Salvo though, still eating at Enzo's trattoria, still taking time to meditate on his rock, and still getting in trouble with the ladies while Livia isn't around.  This time it's his new neighbor, the knock-out Signora Liliana Lombardo.  

As usual, Montalbano's strange dream opens the novel, interrupted (thankfully) by a call reporting that a bomb has gone off somewhere.  No one is hurt, thank goodness, but trying to discover who set it off and why is the squad's major challenge.  As the investigation proceeds, Liliana is doing all she can to seduce the Inspector both publicly and privately, leading Salvo to question her motivation.  Not that he's not an attractive man, but still -- even to him she's overdoing it.  While the bombing investigation proceeds, Salvo finds himself under fire from his TV-reporter nemesis Ragonese, but when things start to escalate and dead bodies start turning up, Salvo realizes that someone really has it in for him.  By the time things come to this point, the hunt is on for exactly who this might be, and more specifically, why Salvo himself has become a target.  He is, in short, "faced with a a series of occurrences without any apparent reason behind them." 

Reading this novel, you might notice that this book isn't quite as funny or as critical as the past installments have been and that here the focus seems to be much more on trying to connect the dots between a series of strange crimes.  At the same time, the story has all the same characters, relationships, and dialogue that together with Montalbano's quirkiness have kept me reading through eighteen books.  I think what I enjoy most about this book beyond the usual craziness and the convoluted crimes is Camilleri's flair for catching the people whom one might run into on the streets.  There's a great scene (184,185), for example,  where an old man is sitting in a building's courtyard, smoking a pipe, complaining that he doesn't talk to his daughter because she doesn't want him smoking inside the house.  The old guy is just so perfectly captured here that you can't help but laugh, especially when he punctuates his complaints by spitting "a clot of dense brown material that looked like prune jam."   But please, PLEASE do not let this book be your first introduction to Camilleri's novels -- you will have missed precisely what makes these books so wonderful and so worth the wait for each and every new book.  Getting back to the oddball combination of realistic crazy people in these books is the highlight of each installment.  I will be SO incredibly bummed when this series is over.  

And now, to the new guy, Antonio Manzani and his Black Run.  Frankly, I feel a bit badly about writing 

HarperCollins, 2015
originally published 2013 as Pista nera
translated by Antony Shugaar
255 pp

about the two books in the same space, because reading the two is really like reading apples and oranges, if you'll excuse the borrowing of the cliché.  On the back cover, there's a blurb by Camilleri which reads
"Manzini devotes more space to his characters than to events, and the detective story is a pretext for talking brilliantly about Italian society."
and I would have to agree with him wholeheartedly.  Set in the alpine mountains of Val D'Aosta in Italy, the book starts off with a gruesome scene, beginning with a snocat operator  making his way in the dark down  a mountain ski track heading into the village of Crest at the Champoluc ski resort.  He's singing out loud, "hitting the high notes," while cheerfully listening to Ligabue on the radio.  Suddenly, he realizes that the snocat has hit something.  He gets out, and notices feathers being blown about by the wind.  Still uncomprehending, he walks on, until he runs into an "enormous" red stain, "churned into the white blanket of snow."  The next look he takes has him throwing up -- and this is where we meet Deputy Police Chief Rocco Schiavone, who is awakened during a sound sleep and sent out to have a look.  The discovery of a mangled body puts Schiavone in charge of a case that has any number of potential suspects once the dead person is identified.

Schiavone is not, I repeat NOT, your typical crime-solving Chief Inspector. For one thing, he has this bizarre habit of meeting a person and giving them some sort of animal equivalent in his head, genus, species, order, suborder. He's prone to ridicule those who serve underneath him if he finds them lacking.  He is a definite ladies' man but at the same time, comes off as a misogynist; he is also prone to using violence or threats as a means of putting fear into people.  He scoffs at the people of Val D'Aosta as they seem to be beneath him somehow, and he's crooked.   Everything gets compared to Rome, where he'd previously worked before he was sent seemingly into exile where he is right now.  The story of what happened in Rome has to wait until later in the book, but when it comes out, it does sort of give you an idea of why he became what I called an "asshat" at the beginning of this post.  However, he is very, very good at what he does even if you don't agree with his methods or you don't think that's how cops ought to work, and by the end of the book, I actually felt kind of sorry for the guy.  In coming to understand him, something popped out at me right as the book was about to end, where the author describes him as someone who was 
"...struggling to leave behind the ugliest things he'd lived through. Who was trying to forget the evil committed and the evil received. The blood, the screams, the dead -- who presented themselves behind his eyelids every time he shut his eyes." 
He finds himself in "a swamp," which "was always there," where
"... the boundary between good and evil, between right and wrong, no longer exists. And there are no nuances in the swamp. Either you plunge in headfirst or you stay out. There is no middle ground."
While the mystery itself is kind of run of the mill,  as far as the bigger picture goes as Camilleri says, the focus is all on the characters.  As he also notes, Manzini doesn't hesitate to draw attention to problems in "Italian society," which I'll leave the reader to discover.  The bottom line to me is that  while it is definitely tough to warm up to Schiavone until you see where he's coming from, I'm drawn way more to character than to plot so Black Run is most definitely in my wheelhouse.  Personally, I think that readers who've given low ratings to this novel are looking more for a thriller sort of thing that they didn't get and that perhaps they've sort of misunderstood Manzini's emphasis on his main character.  Oh well.  I thought it was a fine debut series novel and I will definitely be waiting for the next one.

crime fiction from Italy

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Antidote to Venom, by Freeman Wills Crofts -- A British Library Crime Classic

Poisoned Pen Press, 2015
British Library Crime Classics
278  pp
[originally published 1938]

paperback; arc -- thank you!

"It is not a question of choosing right or wrong, but of selecting the lesser of two wrongs." (101)

Antidote to Venom is, as Martin Edwards reveals in the novel's introduction, a "two-fold experiment" on the part of the author.  Beginning in 1934 with his The 12:30 From Croydon, Crofts had "began to vary his approach," and gave his readers an "inverted story" instead of the more traditional detective format.   Antidote to Venom takes the inverted detective story another step beyond and adds in "questions of morality and religious faith," as part of his experiment.  Like other "leading" crime authors of the time, Crofts employed the trending shift "away from the cerebral puzzle," moving toward a "psychological study of character." This experiment certainly  paid off, in my opinion, offering readers a look at a bizarre but innovative crime, but more importantly, exploring the psychological aspects of a murder and its aftermath.

The central character is George Surridge, who is the director of the Birmington Corporation Zoo.  As such, he has "good social position in the city, an adequate salary," and free housing.  George is married to Clarissa, who wonders why George never seems to have money enough for things she wants. As time goes on, George falls out of love with his wife; during their ten years of living in Birmington, their relationship had "slowly deteriorated."  George has another big problem -- his gambling has left him in debt with a "continued drain on his pocket."  He is relying on his old aunt Lucy Pentland to solve all of his money woes, but only after she's dead and his inheritance is safely in the bank.  There's another reason George finds himself in need of cash; he's met and fallen for another woman.  Working as companion to an older woman, Nancy crosses path with George and they begin a relationship that ends up with George settling Nancy into a small cottage he can ill afford, another reason to wait rather impatiently for old Aunt Lucy's demise.  But  when the old lady eventually passes away, George discovers that something has gone dreadfully wrong -- and that banking on his expectations was probably not a good idea -- and now his future lies in ruins. When a plan is presented to him that offers a chance to hopefully set things right, he feels he has no other choice than to go with it.  It leaves him "faced with one of the major decisions of his life," as he is asked for help in committing a murder.  Once the deed is done, George begins to unravel, and as this part of the story progresses, George finds himself burdened with guilt. Through the process of  investigation, inquest and verdict, George keeps telling himself  to stay calm and act normally, and he may just be able to ride out the storm.  He is overcome with relief then, when the inquest proceedings come to a close and the death is ruled an accident.  But wait. A chance remark from someone familiar with the case reaches the ears of Inspector French of Scotland Yard, and after reading the facts of the case, he decides that it's time for him to get involved.  One more thing: if you think I've given away the show here, you're very wrong -- plot twists abound.

The bulk of the story is not, as usually is the case, devoted to the investigation but rather to exploring George's character.  As he comes to realize "the nature of the weight which was pressing him down," he also begins to understand that "he had exchanged financial worry for a moral burden."  It's this "moral burden" that carries throughout the story, and Crofts does an excellent job presenting George as human and pitiable, yet susceptible enough to his own desires to change him into another person entirely.

first edition cover
Hodder and Stoughton, 1938
While the story is excellent, I found the ending to be a bit of a let down. While it reveals the "antidote" to the thematic venom that runs through this book, it left me unconvinced in the long run.  Edwards notes that the "portrayal of a criminal's redemption" is likely to be less successful than Crofts "experiment with structure," and he's spot on in his assessment. I found the ending to be the only weakness in the entire book.  On the other hand, the highlight of this book is in being allowed to be in George's head for most of the story --  where although George's actions may seem reprehensible from the outside, internally they make total sense.

Antidote to Venom is an extremely clever novel and I am just delighted that Poisoned Pen Press has made it easily available.  It is part of Crofts' series of novels featuring Inspector French, who made his debut in 1925 with Inspector French's Greatest Case.  At number 17 in series order, it is easily readable without having read any of the prior Inspector French novels, so that's a plus. Anyone who is a fan of Crofts, or who enjoys vintage British crime will probably find this book to their liking -- and I recommend it very highly.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

coming soon to a bookstore near you: Smaller and Smaller Circles, by F.H. Batacan

Soho Crime, 2015
357 pp

hardcover (thank you, Soho!!)

In the acknowledgements section of this book the author writes
"The first time I wrote this book -- in 1996, when I was in my mid-twenties -- I was angry: angry about my job, about the state of my country, about the callousness, complacency and corruption that had dragged it there.
The second time I wrote this book -- in 2013, in my forties, having moved back home with my infant son -- I found myself even angrier"  about the state of my country, which seemed even worse than it was in 1996, and about the callousness, complacency and corruption that kept it there."

I'm here to tell you that a lot of that anger shows up in this novel.  And that's a good thing. Let's face it...serial killer novels these days are a dime a dozen, so there has to be something to differentiate the good ones from the ho-hum and the same old same old.  Author F.H. Batacan has found the way to do it.  Her  book Smaller and Smaller Circles (out August 18th)  is not your average hunt-for-the-serial-killer story, but rather a look at how politics, corruption, the church, and the desire for power all get in the way of getting to the truth.  It also examines failure on the part of officials to take action because of the view that some lives aren't as valuable as others and just aren't worth doing anything about.  Heck, I got angry reading this book, and I don't even live in the Philippines.

Luckily, in this story, someone actually cares.  It's 1997, and the body of a young boy is discovered in the dump of Payatas, a place which, according to the blurb is  "northeast of Manila's Quezon of the poorest neighborhoods in a city whose laws enforcement is already stretched thin, ... and rife with corruption." The boy has been eviscerated and the face peeled off. As it turns out, the discovery of this boy raises the body count of similar dead boys to six, a fact noted by Father Gus Saenz, a Jesuit priest who is also a leading forensic anthropologist.  Saenz, along with his partner and protégé Father Jerome Lucero, have been asked to help end this series of killings by Director Lastimosa of the National Bureau of Investigations (NBI). The director understands that the police are not very thorough, that "life is cheap in that part of the city," and that  "little police effort ... is expended toward following up" if the victims are not "wealthy or influential."  If the killer is to be stopped, it will have to be done a different way. However, the Director finds himself at times at political odds with the people around him, some of whom had been hoping for a different man for the position and who are antagonistic toward their boss.  Nevertheless, the Director is adamant that if anyone can help, it's Saenz and Lucero, but they too have their problems, including funding to keep their small laboratory going and the fact that those who head up the police departments refuse to believe that there are any serial killers roaming around. But Lastimosa, Saenz and Lucero have no time to waste -- once they've established a profile of their killer and determine a pattern based on death dates, they know that another killing is just on the horizon.   Saenz is also fighting the Church because of its refusal to sideline a child-molesting priest; the Church refuses to give the man over to authorities to face punishment for his crimes.  Smaller and Smaller Circles is the story of the efforts made to catch a killer despite all of the official (and other) obstacles thrown in the paths of the small handful of people who actually care.  

The story is told via third-person narrative, interrupted every so often with the thoughts of the killer,whose identity remains hidden throughout the story.  Truth be told, this is the gimmicky part of this novel, but fortunately, being inside the killer's head only lasts for a short time here and there. Most of the book centers on the ongoing investigation, but the author manages to weave a great deal of social commentary into her story -- the lackadaisical attitudes of the police; the corruption which has been endemic to this country,  the crimes committed by the highest authorities and politicians in the country, the rampant poverty and extremely poor, often deplorable social conditions faced by many who live there, the connection between Church and secular politics, and much more.  In my opinion, Batacan has very deftly used the medium of crime fiction to give us her take on what's kept her angry enough to write this book.   I will say that for me, the discovery of the "who" was sort of an anti-climax, almost as if the author got to the point of having to tie the various storylines together but wasn't quite sure about how to do it.  On the other hand, it really didn't matter because like most novels I really like, it's much more about the getting there than the actual solution of the crime. I'll also say that Ms. Batacan writes very well, lifting this novel well above most serial-killer novels that are on bookstore shelves as we speak.  

Smaller and Smaller Circles is, for serious fans of crime fiction, a book not to be missed.

Friday, August 7, 2015

"a ballet of the wearing of the nerves": Deep Water, by Patricia Highsmith

Norton, 2003
originally published 1957
271 pp


"...I don't waste my time punching people on the nose. If I really don't like somebody, I kill him."

So sayeth Victor (Vic) VanAllen,  the main character in Deep Water, which Highsmith described in her Cahier (via Andrew Wilson's great biography Beautiful Shadow) as  focusing on " 'the sniping, griping ambushing,' that can exist between people who are supposed to love one another, locked together 'in a ballet of the wearing of the nerves.' "  Frankly, that describes this book perfectly, but that "wearing of the nerves" is also a great way to describe how I felt during and after reading this novel. Once again, Highsmith had me feeling sympathetic toward a character not too unlike Tom Ripley; even though eventually I'm supposed to be outraged and shocked at things he does, it's still sort of difficult not to feel something for this guy.   I'm really starting to worry about myself here, and that is not a joke.  If there is one thing at which Highsmith excels -- actually there are many things but for me this one is numero uno -- it is her ability to make a reader to see things from the points of view of the psychopaths who populate her books. To them, what they're doing makes perfectly good sense -- we may not believe in real life that murder is any sort of solution, but somehow it's like you can seriously understand why her  people feel compelled to do the things they do.  I often find myself rooting for these people to succeed -- and then I realize that I'm cheering on a murderer who has not one  iota of conscience. But I can't help it. And that's why I'm a wee bit concerned.

The reason Vic comes across as a sympathetic character is because of his wife, Melinda. Vic runs a small but very successful press that produces only a few books each year, beautifully bound but dreadfully dull. The books that come from his press tend to reflect Vic's character -- on the outside he is well put together, but inside he is dreadfully dull, for example, raising snails as a hobby, also into such pastimes as "bee culture" and "cheesemaking."  Melinda, who doesn't at all share his interests, carries on with a number of men, flaunting them in Vic's face by either bringing them home and having them stay until the wee hours of the morning or not coming home because she's stayed with them; she also cares very little that their neighbors and circle of friends all get what's going on. Vic, whose philosophy is that
"everybody -- therefore a wife -- should be allowed to do as she pleased, provided no one else was hurt and that she fulfilled her main responsibilities, which were to manage a household and to take care of her offspring..."  
realizes that because Melinda has a reputation for playing around,  he's acquired a near-saintlike reputation among their acquaintances, which as Highsmith tells us, "flattered Vic's ego."  However, he also admittedly has "an evil side," that he keeps "well hidden."  For example,  he takes near-joyous pleasure in telling one of Melinda's new boyfriends that he'd actually killed one of her previous lovers (referencing an actual murder that has been in the newspaper), a joke that turns into rumor and circulates through Vic's friends. It's not true, of course, but it sends the boyfriend running yet keeps him wondering.  Vic outwardly turns a blind eye to what's going on with Melinda and her series of lovers, but inwardly he's seething -- and this being a Highsmith novel, that pressure isn't going to stay bottled up for long.  When Melinda's latest boy toy is invited to play the piano during a neighbor's party, somehow he ends up dead in the swimming pool -- and Melinda begins to wonder if Vic may have had a hand in his death.

Deep Water is Highsmith's exploration of  "the diseases produced by sexual repression;" as she notes (again from Beautiful Shadow), 
"From this unnatural abstinence evil things arise, like peculiar vermin in a stagnant well: fantasies and hatreds, and the accursed tendency to attribute evil motivations to charitable and friendly acts" (101)
and once again, she takes her idea and runs with it, this time creating a nearly-perfect study of a marriage that's stagnating and in decline. Vic is almost too perfect -- a great dad, househusband, sympathetic employer, and perfect neighbor -- as opposed to Melinda, whose flaws we see from the outset. It is definitely not hard at all to feel pity for Vic as he puts up with his wife and her multiple affairs, and this is really where Highsmith gets into my head.  I always seem to side with the "bad" guy; she makes it so easy to understand his point of view and actually feel a huge amount of sympathy for him.

Highsmith isn't for everyone, and as I'm discovering, it's becoming sort of necessary to space out reading her novels to maintain a measure of my own sanity. At the end of this one, I put the book down and walked away from it in a funk.  She has this way of burrowing deeply into my skin as she burrows into the minds of others -- and it's not always a comfortable feeling, even though so far, I'm absolutely loving her work.  It's not often an author can have that effect on me, but she manages to do so with every novel, at least so far.

definitely and most highly recommended.   Strangers on a Train or The Talented Mr. Ripley are her most famous books, but this one will definitely have anyone squirming throughout the story.