Monday, September 26, 2016

another seriously good novel, this time from Russia: The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin

Glagoslav Publications, 2015
originally published 2012
translated by Melanie Moore
336 pp


"Irredeemable guilt, you either forgive or forget without forgiveness. But living with it is impossible." 

This book is yet another example of why I'm a huge advocate for smaller presses, who tend to put out some of the best and sadly unknown work, making for some of the most intelligent writing and through them I've been introduced to authors whose writing I would read again and again.  Let's take this book, for example, The Investigator, by Margarita Khemlin.  I had never heard of either Khemlin or this particular title before Ksenia at Glagoslav got in touch (and I thank you very, very much for the books you sent) re Slavic books in translation.  I actually turned her down at first because of my majorly-sagging tbr shelves through November,  but she assured me that there are no time pressures so I agreed. Imagine my surprise when I looked at the back cover and discovered that it was shortlisted for the 2013 Russian Booker Prize.  I knew I had something special here and as it turns out, I was absolutely correct.  

What lies at the very heart of the story in The Investigator is something I never expected, remaining a mystery throughout the entire novel and I aim to keep it that way here, because any hint will wreck what lies beneath.   Set in the Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s, in the town of Chernigov, the story is narrated by police captain Mikhail (Misha) Ivanovich Tsupkoy, who was previously a military intelligence officer  until he was demobbed and became an police investigator.  The novel is, as he notes, his reminiscence of "a single incident from my long and extensive career," the death of one Lilia Vorobeichik in 1952.   A suspect in her murder comes to light very quickly, an actor named Roman Nikolayevich Moiseenko, who eventually confesses to the crime, and then saves himself a court trial by hanging himself in his cell.  Case closed? Well, we're only at page eight, so obviously not. As it happens, two events spark Mikhail to continue digging -- his best friend's suicide, and the interference of a certain neighbor of the dead woman who somehow manages to come up with the heretofore undiscovered murder weapon.  This woman, dressmaker Polina Lvovna (Laevskaya), turns out to be the proverbial thorn in Misha's side, sowing doubt on his integrity as an investigator to whoever might listen to her, which turns out to be troublesome for our investigator. Secrets acting as smokescreens abound in this book, making Misha's job all the more difficult as he tries to unravel them to get to truth. But as the reader moves closer and closer to the why of things, it seems that everyone involved here has something to hide and that they have their own reasons for holding their secrets and their stories close. 

Now, when a novel starts out with a murder, it's easy to understand why it might be labeled as crime fiction, but The Investigator turns out to move well beyond the standard crime tropes to become a serious piece of historical fiction taking the reader beyond the novel's present into its past and back again.   It can come across as murky or even a bit silly at times, as Tsupkoy travels hither and thither between Ukrainian towns interacting with a complex set of characters over and over again; however, among other things, what seems to come out of this (for me, anyway), is that the people who live here are very much connected to their past histories, to each other, and most especially to the very troubled history of this area, and that it is impossible to separate any one of these elements from the other.  I won't say why, but this point becomes very, very clear by the end of the book.  There is a LOT of ambiguity here to be examined, and the stories that are eventually revealed are beyond satisfying as far as my own interest as to what drives people to do the things they do.  I'll also say that there are some very big surprises to be had that I wasn't at all expecting.  Sorry to be so vague, but I don't want to give away a single thing. 

Looking at it solely from the perspective of a crime fiction reader, the story of the investigation itself  is a good one and as noted earlier, the surprising solution is kept at bay until close to the ending, as is the secret that underpins everything.   At the same time, also noted earlier, this book goes well beyond the realm of a simple crime novel, and becomes a lovely yet disturbing piece of historical writing done very, very well. If The Investigator is an example of what Glagoslav has to offer, they will be seeing their books talked about here a lot.  Highly, highly recommended for serious readers who are always looking for something new and different.  Frankly,  I've read some seriously excellent books this year, and this one just got added to that list.  

Thanks again, Ksenia. I loved it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book!!! His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

Contraband, 2015
280 pp


There is no doubt that when I go back to look over what I've read this year (hence this reading journal),  this book will probably be at the top of my favorite books of all categories for 2016.   I loved this book. Hear me? I said LOVED. I don't often express my LOVE for a book in all caps, but this one just blew me away.  His Bloody Project was nominated for this year's Man Booker Prize, and made it through to the shortlist, so evidently the judges thought it was great too.  It was so good, in fact,  that although I'd decided to read the entire longlist this year, after finishing this one I knew I'd found my winner.  How the official  judging plays out may be a completely different story, but this would be my hands-down choice for sure, so no point in reading further down the list for me. 

The time is 1869, and a young (17) Roddy Macrae of the small remote village of Culduie, Scotland has just killed three members of one family.   His family and the other villagers are crofters, ekeing out a harsh, miserable existence, and are always at the mercy of their benefactor "the factor," and his representative in the village, the Constable. Roddy confesses right away, and there is absolutely no doubt whatsoever that he is guilty.  But the major question in this novel is "why?" and the story surrounding the murders  is revealed slowly via different sources in this book: Roddy's memoir, written "at the behest of  [his] advocate," witness statements, police statements, psychological assessments, and other voices that join in to tell the story.  However, there's a big catch: from page one on, it becomes very clear that truth and perception are in the eyes of the beholders, and that both may just be slippery and elusive.  

I'm really not going to say more than that little bit about the plot, because really, it's a book that should absolutely be experienced on one's own.  It's a stunningly superb novel, and aside from offering readers the challenge of  trying to piece together what may have actually happened and why,   the author has done an excellent job here in bringing us into life  in the small, rather claustrophic village of Culduie, mid 19-th century.   I'll just note that aside from the mystery of the why, the social, political, religious and class explorations in this novel elevate it to something well beyond anything else I've read this year.  

Reading this novel at a slower pace pays dividends, and it is definitely a book to be savored.  I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I will say that anyone thinking about it would be wise to avoid any reviews or reader posts that give away much more than what's on the back-cover blurb or what I've said here.   I'll also say that it is a story that demands active reader participation --  it's a thinking person's novel that really demands close attention, but also one that highly satisfies in the end.  Sheesh! It seriously just does not get better than this!!!!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Off to Italy this time with The Disappearance of Signora Giulia, by Piero Chiara

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as I giovedi della signora giulia, 1970
translated by Jill Foulston
122 pp


Set in 1955, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is one of the most truly baffling mysteries I've read in quite some time.  By the time I finished this book, I was totally perplexed.  And trust me -- after having read thousands of mystery novels in my time,  "baffling" is not a term I throw about willy nilly, but I'm certainly not going to spill my guts as to why I found it so.  

 Commissario Corrado Sciancalepre returns from a conference with the Chief Constable in the "small town of M_____" in Northern Lombardy and gets a big surprise.  Waiting in his office is Esengrini, the area's "most agile and authoritative criminal lawyer" who is there with an "incredibly serious matter," which, as he puts it, will likely turn his entire life "upside down."  It seems that his wife, the titular "Signora Giulia," has left home, and Esengrini needs Sciancalepre's help in trying to find her.  La Signora was supposed to have caught a train that day for Milan, which she does every Thursday, to see their daughter Emilia at her boarding school, to make the rounds of various places in the city, and to do things for her friends while she's there, catching the two p.m. train and coming home by 7:30 in the evening.  On this particular Thursday though,  it seems that Signora Giulia never caught the train.  When Sciancalepre returns with Esengrini to his home, he discovers that perhaps she'd been planning to stay longer than her usual few hours this time -- her bedroom is "a complete mess," a lot of clothing has gone with her and so has her jewelry.  Her husband had also heard her "moving around continually, opening drawers, shifting chairs" the night before, and according to him, she was "agitated."  But wait. It's here that the first of a number of secrets pervading this novel comes tumbling out, as Esengrini confesses to the Commissario that he'd known for some time she'd been seeing other men on those Thursdays, using the visits to her daughter as a cover.  He'd even had her followed four months earlier because Giulia, 38, had started turning cold toward her 60 year-old spouse in the last year, and Esengrini had wanted to know why.  Sciancalepre offers to try to find her, but this is 1955, and he needs Esengrini to bring a charge against her so he can do so.  Esengrini decides it's going to be a case of "abandoning the marital home," which is enough for our Commissario to begin his search.  But this is definitely NOT going to be an easy or simple case of finding a runaway wife, and Sciancalepre doesn't realize at the time that this case is will be years in the solving, and even then ....

Despite some minor lulls here and there in the telling, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is beyond compelling and it's certainly one of the most unconventional crime stories I've ever read. It is a true whodunit in every sense of the term, with a big, no make that huge,  twist I never saw coming.  When I finished it, the first words coming out of my mouth were "that's just brilliant," and if anyone reading this post decides to read it, you'll see why.  I pondered over that ending for some time and when a book makes me do that, well, I call it a good one.

Very much recommended, especially for readers of older crime novels, for readers of international crime, and for readers of crime fiction who enjoy something completely different.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

another winner from Pushkin Vertigo: I Was Jack Mortimer, by Alexander Lernet-Holenia

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Ich war Jack Mortimer, 1933
translated by Ignat Avsey
186 pp


"This man had messed up everything with his death." 

Ferdinand Sponer is a taxi driver in Vienna, "about thirty," whose only mistake was to pick up the wrong passenger.  Waiting in the taxi rank at the Westbahnhof, his turn comes up, and his passenger directs him to the Hotel Bristol.  After some time, he realizes that there are two Hotel Bristols, so he opens up the partition between front and back seat, and asks his passenger which one.  Receiving no answer, he asks again, and is met only with silence.  Sponer turns on the light inside the cab, looks at the man in the back seat, and realizes that "the man was dead." To his further surprise, since he hadn't heard anything at all, he discovers that the guy had been shot right there in his seat.  Sponer tries to tell the police, but panics -- after reporting a fake accident and unable to think straight,  he goes through what I can only describe as a serious lack of judgment, and then makes a fateful decision that will make his life a living hell over the course of the next couple of days.  Believing that if his passenger fails to show up at the hotel that the game would be up and he would be blamed, he decides Jack Mortimer will keep his reservation at the Hotel Bristol, just for one night.  Afterwards, Sponer figures, he can get on with his old life without anyone ever finding out what had happened. But, as we all know, the best laid plans and all that ...

I've seen this labeled as a thriller, and I suppose there are a number of thriller-type elements, but I got more of a noir sort of flavor from it -- the hapless Joe who's in the wrong place at the wrong time, looking for a way out of his predicament only to discover that he just may be trapped by his own choices.  The suspense picks up once Sponer decides that he will become Jack Mortimer, and as we discover exactly who Jack Mortimer actually was,  all manner of things happen that send Ferdinand's life spiraling out of control.  But, as we're told,
"One doesn't step into anyone's life, not even a dead man's, without having to live it to the end,"
and with our poor taxi driver, that just might be the case as he finds himself smack in the middle of a collision course between the past and the present.

from Quixotando
I watched the film (1935, German with English subtitles) this morning, and while not as suspenseful as the book, the movie itself is pretty good.  It starts pretty slowly, introducing the main players, and instead of letting the tension build in discovering the past history of Jack Mortimer we get that whole shebang near the beginning. It takes the actual discovery of the dead man in the back seat of the taxi to get things rolling, but from then on, it's one of those movies where you don't want to miss a second.  A few noticeably surreal scenes at times make it stand out, as does the main character spiraling into panic mode when he realizes that absolutely no one is going to believe that he has nothing to do with his passenger's death.

Both book and movie are definite yesses.  Alongside the main story in the novel, by virtue of Sponer's job as taxi driver, we are privy to the sights, sounds and smells of interwar Vienna as he travels through the city; class distinctions are also nicely detailed here.  As a character study, it also works quite nicely -- again, my focus in reading is on people, looking for what drives them to do what they do, and I was not at all disappointed.  Evidently, though, my high opinion of this novel isn't shared by a lot of readers, who in general give it an average overall rating mainly because of the plot.  Well, this book is a prime example of what you miss when plot and "story arc" are the only things you care about.  Trust me, there's nothing average about this book at all -- it's another fine example of an old book that has been largely forgotten, and thanks to Pushkin Vertigo, it's now widely available.  Once again I'll say that I do understand that crime from 1930s may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I seem to be encountering a lot of these old novels that are really, really good and which definitely ought to be part of every serious crime fiction reader's repertoire.

Recommended to all crime readers, but most especially to readers who love these old books as much as I do.