Monday, February 29, 2016

Betty Boo, by Claudia Piňeiro

Bitter Lemon Press, 2016
originally published as Betibú, 2011
translated by Miranda France
313 pp


I'll start here by saying that I loved this book.  It's only February, and it's already my favorite crime novel of the year. Let's just say that in terms of current crime fiction, something absolutely spectacular is going to have to come along to move it down the list from number one.

Claudia Piňeiro is also at the top of my list of contemporary crime writers, and with good reason. In all of her books, she has this uncanny knack of being able to put her characters into some pretty extreme situations and then we watch as they exercise their consciences (or not) and act accordingly.  The results are always beyond amazing, supporting my idea that the best crime fiction doesn't necessarily have to be plot driven -- what people do and why, what they discover about themselves, and in some cases about the society in which they live, is why I read crime.  People who have not read Claudia Piňeiro's work are missing out on some of the best crime writing of our time.

As was the case in her Thursday Night Widows, the author takes us back into that bastion of elite privilege, the gated community in Buenos Aires.  This time we are at the Maravillosa Country Club, where after going through the regular rigorous security measures to get in to clean the home of Pedro Chazarreta, Gladys Varela gets to the house, starts her routine, and sees Chazaretta sleeping in a green velvet, highback chair.  Deciding to clean up a bit of whisky that's spilled on the floor from an overturned glass, she discovers that Chazaretta is not sleeping at all, but dead, throat slit and holding a bloody knife in his right hand. Despite its tightness of security,  Maravillosa had been the site of another, earlier murder, that of Chazaretta's wife Gloria. He had been the prime suspect in her death, but "on the grounds of lack of evidence," the case was dismissed.  Her murder had been committed in exactly the same way, and privately, people are saying that the way in which Chazaretta was killed is what he deserved, since most people still believe that he was Gloria's killer.

Chazaretta's death and the coverage of events marks the beginning of a partnership between the three main characters in this novel. First there is Jaime Brena, an over-sixty former crime writer for the newspaper El Tribuno,who has been demoted and  is now dealing with society news such as writing pieces about surveys about sleeping face up or face down, the occasional preschool opening, and other such mundane or ridiculous assignments. The crime beat was given to  the "Crime Boy," who is the new kid on the newspaper staff, and who, as Brena sees it, is "Very soft. Generation Google: no legwork, just keyboard and screen, everything off the Internet."  He has zero clue how to do his crime reporting job, and Brena actually feels sorry for him, and decides it can't hurt to take the kid under his wing.  The third leg of this triangle is Nurit Iscar, the titular Betty Boo, who until she decided to change direction and write a romance novel, was known as "the Dark Lady of Argentine literature," for her mystery/crime books.  However, a bad review of her romance novel took her out of the world of fiction writing altogether (except for jobs as a ghostwriter)  but she has been tasked by the editor of El Tribuno (who used to be a lover of hers) to provide write-ups about the Chazaretta murder from a home the paper is using in Maravillosa.  When the three put their heads together, this trio of loners discover that something horrific is going on, and that the deaths at Maravillosa are just the tip of the iceberg.

However great the crime plot sounds, Betty Boo moves well out of the ordinary realm of the norm in terms of just another book with just another murder investigation.  When all is said and done, the biggest focus of this book is in examining  the state of modern journalism. Brena refers to Rodolfo Walsh more than once in this novel,  an Argentinian journalist who, in 1977 in the middle of the Dirty War, wrote an open letter to the military junta and was killed the day after.  Walsh wrote that
"Millions want to be informed. Terror is based on lack of communication. Break the isolation. Feel again the moral satisfaction of an act of freedom. Defeat the terror. Circulate this information."
Brena notes that today's journalists have "turned bourgeois," and that
"Today the high priests of journalism, or 'intellectuals" in inverted commas, are happy to sound off from the safety of their studies or their holiday homes. And they think they're important because they're 'opinion-formers.' ... Many of them will offer up as an irrefutable truth something that's nothing more than their own opinion. Or the opinion of the people they work for."
Piňeiro also reveals the implications of a "news agenda that leaves out certain stories," often allowing perpetrators of major crimes to walk free. It is these "unpunished crimes," Pineiro notes, that "always conceal something more terrible than the crime itself."  For my money, she's hit the nail on the head.
 Considering that this is a novel from Argentina, this topic carries a lot of historical meaning and a lot of historical weight, but I could feasibly make the same argument about journalism and the media in this country, or for that matter, any other country where powerful people have the means to control the truth. As Nurit Iscar also notes, novelists have a responsibility as well -- to present "another reality, an even truer one," in the guise of fiction, since they "don't have to answer to any one."

Of course, there's so much more in this novel, and  it is one you could read solely for the murder plot. However, the truth is that  Betty Boo has a richness and a depth that is rarely found in crime writing these days, and it is that kind of something so out of the ordinary that I look for when I pick up a crime novel.  This book  is another one that left me stunned because of how very perceptive it is -- and I can't speak highly enough about it.  

Friday, February 19, 2016

Murder in the First-Class Carriage: The First Victorian Railway Killing, by Kate Colquhoun

Overlook Press, 2013
339 pp


The very first thing I noticed about this book (which in the UK was published as Mr. Briggs' Hat)  is that the blurb from the New York Times on the front cover pretty much gives away the show here, to the point where I almost chucked the book thinking "okay, so I really don't need to read it now."  To me, putting that tiny bit of review there was a bad decision. I don't want to know the meat and bones of a true-crime case right away and then sit waiting for things to materialize -- I'd much rather discover things in the book as they are discovered in the actual case being written about.  Boo hiss. That was definitely not cool.  

The crime under study here begins with a train stop at the "midway point on the line" between Fenchurch Street and Chalk Farm. As a train guard is fretting over being behind schedule while the train is stopped at Hackney Station, he hears a "commotion" at the front of the train. Two bank employees had just stepped into a first-class carriage, only to discover that it was filled with blood, still wet, spattered everywhere. Then he heard complaints from some women who had just exited the compartment next door, whose "dresses and capes had been stained by drops" that had come through their open carriage window while the train was still en route.  Blood is everywhere, but where is the victim? All that remains in the compartment is a "black hat, squashed nearly flat," with the maker's name inside, along with a "thick cane topped with a heavy ivory knob" also containing "a few red spots" and a black bag. No one in the adjoining compartment had heard anything.   The guard instructs the stationmaster to wire the railway superintendent at the end of the line; he then locks the compartment door and the train starts its journey.  When the train reaches its final destination, it is met by the station superintendent who checks out the compartment and calls for the police; the hunt begins for whoever may have done this horrific thing.

What happened to Mr. Thomas Briggs as he sat in his first-class carriage was an "unprecedented" crime; it was "the first time since the invention of the railway" that someone was murdered on a British train. What was more unsettling, it seems, is that it had happened in a first-class carriage and that Mr. Briggs was a "respectable" person.  As the author notes,
"The murder of Thomas Briggs in a first-class railway carriage so close to the centre of the metropolis, with its attendant air of impenetrable mystery, was supra-sensational.. It suggested an implicit threat to the day-to-day safety as a society as a whole, as if the plot of a novel were spilling over into reality."
His murder also was cause for alarm since there seemed to be no suspects and since whoever did this horrible thing was still at large, free to do this again.  It was as the author states,
"a reality that unsettled every member of the public who travelled by train, shattering confidence in the security of their established routines."
The book details the search for the killer by a very determined police investigator, as well as the arrest, trial and sentencing of a person believed to have done it.  Whether or not the person was actually guilty is something the reader can debate -- the author has set things up so that rather than coming to a decisive conclusion, she offers evidence pointing both to and away from the person's guilt.

from The Daily Mail. Do NOT click on this link if you don't want to know the murderer's identity! 
A couple of more points of interest and I'm out of here. First, the author weaves in several literary references into her narrative, noting the popularity of sensation fiction (Braddon, Collins, etc.) and how these took the reader out of the "urban criminal underworld favoured by Dickens" into "the apparently safe domesticity of rural country houses." The murders or crimes in these books, she notes, all ended with "the restoration of order" while in real life, the Briggs case was much more horrific since it took some time for police to come up with a tangible suspect.   Second, not only does this case underscore how very limited options were for defendants in the courts at the time, but it also goes into an examination of executions as spectacle, a topic of great interest to me.

Overall, it's a good book and of particular interest to anyone interested in the Victorian period. There's a lot of cultural detail here around the crime that is quite interesting. On the other hand, it gets a bit boggy in the reading, with a lot of unnecessary repetition and to me some uninteresting bits about how this crime was a diversion from the American civil war, since the Inspector's pursuit of the suspect brought him to our shores.   I am happy to have read it though, since I'm a huge fan of historical true crime.  I'd recommend it to others who are interested as well.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Five, by Ursula Archer

Macmillan/Minotaur, 2014
originally published as Funf, 2012
translated by Jamie Lee Searle
336 p

advanced reader copy 

My thanks and my apologies to the publisher who sent me this a long time ago.  I must say, there's nothing like taking over a year to read an advance reader copy -- I'm so embarrassed I could crawl under my desk right now.  I shelved it, forgot about it, and well, there it is. 

I was intrigued by the premise of this novel, which is that the discovery of a woman's body at the bottom of a rock face turns into a bizarre case involving geocaching, one that keeps the detectives of the Salzburg State Office of Criminal Investigation on the move while trying to decipher strange clues at different gps locations.  The dead woman provides the first clue; she has what turns out to be gps coordinates tattooed on the bottoms of her feet.  When the police arrive at the specified location, they make a gruesome find -- inside of a food container they discover a hand that looks to have been cut off of its owner with a saw.  Also in the container is a cryptic message about the next potential victim -- first name only, description, and a numerical puzzle they must solve to figure out the next coordinates.  It's like a macabre sort of treasure hunt where the only possible reward is finding the connection between the victims which will hopefully lead to the killer's capture, but of course in crime fiction, it's never that simple.  

The geocaching element of this novel  I liked, something I appreciated in terms of making this book a bit different than a lot of other serial killer novels.  When all is said and done, using gps coordinates to lead the detectives on their hunt is a pretty good idea, and there's also a nice twist involved in the resolution of the story that I failed to see coming, which I also appreciate.  The novel also focuses on the "what-ifs" in different characters' lives, more than one of which has a huge bearing on the outcome of the story.   

So, I knew that this was what I call a "gimmicky serial killer" book when I started reading it, and I picked it up just to have something that I didn't need to put much work into. It was sort of a sandwich filling kind of entertainment read for me, coming between some pretty hefty novels where I needed to pay serious attention to what was going on, and I grabbed it needing a brain break.  What I didn't know going into it is that it's also another angsty cop novel -- the lead detective, Beatrice Kaspary is mom to two kids, divorced, and has to offload her kids quite often because of the huge amounts of time she spends as a dedicated detective.   She is also at odds with her ex-husband, who never wanted a divorce and calls constantly around the clock  to complain about how her job interferes with taking care of their children and other things.  My psychic powers sense much domestic drama in coming installments.  What's really missing for me here is setting -- seriously, if I didn't know this book came from Austria, it could have been situated anywhere, and that was sort of disappointing.  Sigh.

All in all, adding the geocaching element was a good, original touch, one that kept me reading.  Aside from that, however, in the long run, I feel like I ended up with yet another serial killer/domestic drama sort of thriller that sadly (imo) seems  to be defining much of the genre these days.  I suppose it's what sells and it's what a lot of people want to read these days, so it is what it is.  For my own relax purposes, it sufficed. There are some gruesome descriptions, but thankfully, they're sort of after the fact and the author doesn't feel the need to dwell on the horrific details of exactly how things happened. That's a plus in my book, as is the  actual core mystery behind the killer's motivations,  which I thought was a pretty good one, although I wasn't a huge fan of the actual ending.   Readers who are much more into thrillers than I am will probably enjoy it; it's dark but not too dark, and I would say it comes closer to the police procedural end of crime than any other subgenre.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

*Phantom Lady, by Cornell Woolrich

iBooks/Simon and Schuster, 2001
originally published 1942
(written as William Irish)
291 pp


"What is there to say, when they tell you you have committed a crime, and you and you alone know you haven't? Who is there to hear you, and who is there to believe you?" 

Cornell Woolrich wastes absolutely no time in throwing out a conundrum and starting this novel on the right foot: the first chapter heading states "The Hundred and Fiftieth Day Before the Execution," and in doing so sets up the first question. Who are we talking about here, and why is he/she on his/her way to the chair? By chapter five and the Ninety-First day before the execution (and we're still not too far into the novel),  it becomes very obvious that what we are looking at here is a virtual race against time -- only some few pages earlier, we were still reading about the "One Hundred and Forty-ninth Day Before the Execution."  The tension is set -- time moves faster as the story moves forward, although for the players, things are moving excruciatingly slowly.

 On a May night, at "the get-together hour," a young man is walking the city streets with no destination in mind, "striding along with that chip-on-your-shoulder look." A flash of a neon sign decides the place for him and he ends up at a bar called Anselmo's. It's there he meets the woman with the unusual hat, "a flaming orange, so vivid it almost hurt the eyes." He doesn't know it at the time, but this woman will ultimately become his only alibi when he is accused of his wife's murder.  Unfortunately for Scott Henderson, the woman vanishes, and everyone with whom the two had come into contact on their evening out to dinner and then to the theater swears that Henderson was on his own -- that there was no woman with him at all. She has become to everyone but Henderson a veritable phantom.    As things go from bad to worse, Henderson is arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced for his wife's murder, and ends up in prison awaiting his execution. As the clock tick tick ticks away toward the execution date, ironically, Burgess, the cop who arrested him,  reveals to Henderson that he believes in his innocence. Two others join with Burgess in believing Scott -- a girl named Carol that he'd been seeing and Henderson's best friend, Jack Lombard, who  arrives in town only eighteen days before the execution and offers his help. Together, the three set out to prove Henderson's innocence; the question is, will they be able to find this phantom lady before it's too late?

Phantom Lady is an interesting and very good read from start to finish. It's much more than the usual "wrong man" scenario -- what really sticks out here are the dangling but slowly-diminishing hopes of not only the main character, but of those involved in trying to save him.   Every time there seems to be a breakthough, things go terribly wrong until Henderson is at "the last of anything," trying to convince the prison chaplain that he's not afraid.  It is definitely a book where the reader can't help but to get caught up in the ongoing tension; it is a novel where anguish is split between what's happening in the novel and what's happening in the reader's head. And trust me,  it doesn't stop until the very end.

So now briefly to the film, which frankly, I didn't enjoy nearly as much as the novel, and which I didn't enjoy as much I have many other noir films. To be fair, the movie did convey that sense of being alone  that runs throughout the novel, and it did have its moments of greatness:  the use of light/shadow play that screams noir, the scenes with Ella Raines as Carol alone with the bartender of Anselmo's and then tailing him, working on his mind until the pressure becomes unbearable; the show-stealing drummer played by Elisha Cook Jr. ("do you like jive?") who relays a kind of ecstasy on steroids with only hopped-up body language and freakoutworthy eyes.  That phrase "the whole is better than the sum of its parts" seems appropriate here in describing how I feel about this movie -- that was pretty much it for what I saw as its best points.  I seriously found the actor who played Scott Henderson to be sort of blah -- one would think that in portraying a guy who is about to be executed, he'd give the role so much more, but in my opinion, he was just sort of flat.

Not a huge fan of the adaptation either; say what you will, but to me this is a case where book beats movie by a landslide. The movie, to me, didn't have that same sort of  tied-up-in-knots, watching-hope-fade-slowly effect as the book. However, the worst, absolute worst thing here is that  someone decided to reveal the book's big secret way before Woolrich did in the novel -- oh, what a major, crushing disappointment -- I wanted to stop the movie and walk away right then and there.  Yeah, I know...go to any movie review site and this film gets top ratings.  Well, I'm accustomed to swimming upstream.

The movie is beside the point here in a reading journal though, and Phantom Lady is a novel I would certainly recommend.  A lot of people have called it Woolrich's best work, but I can't speak to that since I haven't read much of his stuff; all I know is that I really, really enjoyed this book.

Friday, February 5, 2016

*an evil genius at work: Fantômas, by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain

Wildside Press, 2009
originally published 1911
246 pp


"What did you say?"
"I said: Fantômas."
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing ...Everything!"
"But what is it?" 
"Nobody...And yet, yes, it is somebody!"
"And what does the somebody do?" 
"Spreads terror!" 

Fantômas is book two in this year's focus on crime fiction/mysteries that were made into movies.  Although I had planned on watching the movie today, I found enough time to take a look at it yesterday. To my surprise, the movie version isn't just one film but several serialized silents, so it didn't take as long as I thought it would since I only watched the film corresponding to this book. 
And oh, what a book it is!! Not only is it fun, but it ends in a complete cliffhanger so I had to buy book two,  The Exploits of Juve (Juve contre Fantômas), just to see what happens. I have this feeling that I'll end up with the entire set of  Fantômas novels if the ending of book one is any indicator.

The story begins in the Dordogne chateau of Beaulieu, the home of the Marquise de Langrune, at one of her regular Wednesday dinner parties.   Conversation comes around to the mysterious disappearance of Lord Beltham,  now being investigated by the celebrated  M. Juve of the Criminal Investigation Department. This conversation is our introduction to the mysterious Fantômas; it seems that the word is out that Juve believes this evil criminal is somehow responsible for Lord Beltham's disappearance and that Juve has "sworn that he will take him, and he is after him body and soul."   The very next day the body of the Marquise de Langrune is found in her room, her throat cut so deeply that it seemed almost as if "her head was severed from the trunk."  It seems that robbery was not the motive, and it also seems as though only someone in the house could have done this horrific deed.  Signs point to young Charles Rambert, a young man staying there as a guest (and who soon disappears)  but Juve, who is investigating, isn't quite sure.

The murder of the Marquise de Langrune is the first of a series of strange crimes and murders that take place at various locations;   Juve is convinced that they are all the work of a single person: Fantômas. Trying to catch him, though, is going to be tough. Some people even have doubts as to whether or not there is a Fantômas; one magistrate tells Juve that
"Fantômas is the too obvious subterfuge, the cheapest device for investing a case with mock honours. Between you and me, you know perfectly well that Fantômas is merely a legal fiction -- a lawyers' joke. Fantômas has no existence in fact!"
But Juve thinks he knows better -- he is obsessed with finding this elusive figure and has been after him for years.  The story begins to really heat up with the discovery of a body in a trunk at No. 147 rue Lévert, the rooms of a man named Gurn; even then, although Juve notes that "Everything points to Gurn," and while wondering if his imagination is getting the better of him, he can't help but think that
"about this murder, committed in the very middle of Paris, in a crowded house where yet nobody heard or suspected anything, there is an audacity, a certainty of impunity, an above all a multiplicity of precautions, that are typical of the Fantômas manner!"
As the crimes start to stack up, Juve employs all manner of disguises, subterfuge, and even applies the latest scientific methods of Bertillon  to try to rein in this mysterious evil genius.  Toward the end of the book it looks like things may just be going his way, but in this twisted tale, nothing is ever quite as it seems.

René Navarre as Fantômas
The movie version I watched is the old, silent version, starring Rene Navarre as Fantômas (1913).  It is a joy to watch, although since it's a part of a string of serials, it doesn't quite pick up a lot of what's in the book, nor does it really pick up the essence of this novel.  There are also some changes in character (I can't say who or I'd be giving one of the secrets of the novel away), and it starts with a crime that comes later in the novel, skipping the murder of the Marquise, for example. However, what it does reflect very, very well is Juve's obsession with trying to catch Fantômas.  Edmund Breon, who portrays the erstwhile Inspector, does such an excellent job in the role that it's not hard at all to see him not as the actor but as Juve himself.

Edmund Breon as Inspector Juve

The book was so much fun that I didn't even mind the cliffhanger ending, and now I'm caught up in Juve's ongoing quest to bring this mysterious evildoer to justice, so I know I'm  going to have many hours of entertainment ahead of me as I make my way through the books.  I'll most definitely recommend the book to people who are into classics, or into fun sort of pulpy mysteries or to those who want something very much off the beaten path.  This book (if you'll forgive the trite phrase) held me spellbound the entire time I was reading it -- and I can't think of a better recommendation for a couple of days' worth of sheer reading enjoyment.