Sunday, August 20, 2017

Penance, by Kanae Minato: definitely not for the faint hearted

Mullholland, 2017
originally published 2012 as Shokuzai (贖罪)
translated by Philip Gabriel
227 pp


"Otherwise, you'd get revenge."
                                     -- 157

One day five little girls who formed a circle of friends went out to play, but only four returned home.  According to the back-cover blurb, Emily ends up dead at the hands of an unknown assailant after the other girls are "tricked" into leaving her alone with him. Emily's case would go unsolved over the next fifteen years, which, coincidentally, as we learn from the translator's note at the beginning of the book, was the amount of time (before 2010)  allotted for the statute of limitations in the case of murder.  

One might guess from what I've just written that the focus of this book would be on finding the murderer and solving the old case before the fifteen years are up, but that's not quite how this story works.  Three years after Emily was killed, her mother invites the other four girls  -- Sae, Maki, Akiko, and Yuka (all now thirteen) to her home for cake, but it isn't a social occasion: she lets them know unequivocally that it is their fault her daughter is dead, that they are "all murderers," and gives them an ultimatum:

"I will never forgive you, unless you find the murderer before the statute of limitations is up. If you can't do that, then atone for what you've done, in a way I'll accept.  If you don't do either one, I'm telling you here and now -- I will have revenge on each and every one of you. I have far more money and power than your parents, and I'll make you suffer far worse than Emily ever did. I'm her parent, and I'm the only one who has that right." (71)

 Sheesh - it's a terrible enough burden to lay on four young girls, and it's one which has stayed with each of them for fifteen years, affecting each one differently as they grew into women.   The novel is composed of five first-person  accounts from all of the main characters, and examines how the murder and then the "curse" (so-called by the back-cover blurb) put on them by Emily's mother has followed them over the years.   All I will say so as not to ruin the story that unfolds here is that what emerges from each narrative is dark moving to darker as the author delves deep into each person's troubled psyche.

The question to keep in mind (in my opinion) while reading is not exactly one of whodunit, but more to the point, it becomes a matter of who is actually responsible for Emily's death.   In that sense there is a sort of tragic irony underpinning the novel which brings it back full circle to where it begins. I'll let others discover how this is so, but in the meantime, Penance is deeply disturbing on many, many levels so reader beware.

Penance is neither for faint-hearted readers, nor is it a novel for those who prefer happy endings.  It goes well beyond a standard crime novel, moving swiftly into psychological territory, where some readers may not wish to find themselves.   Trust me on that one.

crime fiction from Japan

Saturday, August 19, 2017

diabolical craziness: *The Notting Hill Mystery, by Charles Warren Adams

Poisoned Pen Press, in association with the British Library, 2015
originally serialized 1862-1863; originally published 1865
176 pp


Good grief -- this book might possibly win the award for most convoluted murder mystery I've ever read, but it's definitely fun.

The Notting Hill Mystery was first serialized in 1862 in the magazine Once A Week, with authorship attributed to a Charles Felix.  In the introduction to this edition from Poisoned Pen Press, Mike Ashley reveals that while Charles Felix had written an earlier novel in 1864, it wasn't until 2011 that his true identity was revealed.  As "bibliophile" Paul Collins notes in a New York Times Sunday Book Review article from January 7, 2011, it wasn't an easy job:
"After months of investigating with the dogged tenacity of Ralph Henderson pursuing Baron R**, I was no closer than Symons in discovering the solution. Even an 1868 “Handbook of Fictitious Names” didn’t help: Felix is listed, but next to his pseudonym is nothing but a mockingly empty pair of brackets. More mysteriously, correspondence with the man is entirely missing from the archive of Saunders, Otley & Company, his book publisher."
Collins stuck with his quest and eventually his dogged determination was rewarded when just at the point of giving up, he "...stumbled upon a Literary Gossip column in The Manchester Times for May 14, 1864," where "the sole identification of Charles Felix had lain there for 146 years, hidden" in one sentence:
"It is understood that 'Velvet Lawn,' by Charles Felix, the new novel announced by Messrs. Saunders, Otley & Co., is by Mr. Charles Warren Adams, now the sole representative of that firm."
 The entire story appeared over eight installments into 1863, and was quite popular with readers.  According to Julian Symons in his Bloody Murder, the book was very likely an attempt to "repeat the success of The Woman in White," complete with its own Count Fosco-like villain, but was in "several ways an original work." (51) It is reputedly the first modern English detective novel, and Adams gave it a number of new, innovative twists and ingredients that set it apart from other books featuring detectives that were quite popular at the time.  For one thing, the detective here, Ralph Henderson, has nothing at all to do with the police; instead he is an agent collecting evidence for an insurance company.   For another, the book is filled with elements such as a cryptic fragment of a letter in French, a marriage certificate, statements and depositions from several witnesses, and even a floor plan of a victim's home.  Old hat you may say -- we've certainly seen the likes of those sorts of things in tons of books we've read, but while we take them for granted,  back then these were all new additions to the standard detective stories of the time. There are overlapping layers of narrative that bring with them not only new levels of mystery, but which bring the reader ever closer to the truth of what has actually happened.

The Notting Hill Mystery presents, as I said, a most convoluted murder mystery.  Ralph Henderson is trying to determine the truth behind the death of a woman after her husband had taken out several policies on her life totaling 25,000 pounds.  The novel is his report to the Secretary of the ____ Life Assurance Association, and he lays out two "alternatives" which "present themselves" after careful consideration of the evidence.  He himself, as he says, is unable to decide between the two, so offers his facts "in the form in which they would be laid before counsel."

The murderer's identity here is pretty obvious, as is the method of the main murder  (there are more than one at play here) but that's only a small part of the story given everything else that's going on here.  Mesmerism is a huge element of this story, about which Roger Luckhurst at The British Library website says
"In the 1830s and 1840s, for instance, there was a craze for Mesmerism, in which miraculous medical cures could be affected by manipulating the invisible flows of 'animal magnetism' that passed through and between bodies. The Mesmerist would throw his subject into a trance, allowing the passage of energy into the weaker body of his patient, as if literally recharging their battery."
 But wait, there's more.  This twisted knot of a novel also includes twin sisters who have an abnormal "sympathy" -- an ability to psychically feel the other's pain -- who are separated as small children when one is stolen by Gypsies.  Then there's the Baron R**, the authority on Mesmerism who just happens to be on hand to take care of the remaining and now-married sister in her adult life, as she is rather sickly.  There's also the Baron's wife, a medium who has wide feet from her career as a tightrope walker, and really, so much more is going on here that all contributes to the "convoluted" story that takes place in this short but fun novel.

I could go on but the fun is in uncovering the diabolical craziness at work here. As Symons says, the methodology underlying the murder may seem "preposterous to us," but it "seemed much less ridiculous to the Victorians," a hugely important point to consider while reading this novel.  I actually chuckled a number of  times while reading this book, but at the same time, I was completely engrossed and couldn't wait to see Henderson's conclusions at the end.  It's that kind of book, really -- as silly as it may seem, I just couldn't help myself turning pages while wondering if the murderer would actually be caught and if so, if he could even be prosecuted.

It's also an important milestone in the history of detection novels, written well before Sherlock first made an appearance in print. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of crime writing/crime fiction, and also to anyone who loves discovering something quite off the beaten path.  Even though it might make you groan inwardly here and there or do the inner eyeroll at places, I just loved it.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Pietr the Latvian, by Georges Simenon -- the very first Maigret novel and it's a good one.

Penguin Classics, 2013
first published in serial as Pietr-le-Letton, 1930
translated by David Bellos
162 pp


"Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being."

Due to the nature of his job, my husband travels a lot, and that's the time I watch foreign television.  Normally at my house TV comes on about 7:30 pm and goes off about 10:30, but when the spouse is away, viewing time has been known to start much earlier and sometimes last until the sun comes up the next day.  Over the last few weeks of his intermittently being gone, I've slowly been watching the French-language production of Maigret on MHz, starring Bruno Cremer in the title role; on  arriving at season two, I decided that I really need to read these books.

I'm no stranger to Simenon's work, but the Maigret books have just been sitting here gathering dust for eons. Most of them are the old Penguin versions from way back when, but I'm slowly replacing those with the Penguin Classics editions for my home library.  

Bruno Cremer, who in my opinion is Maigret

Pietr the Latvian is the first of several (and I do mean several) books in this series, written over forty-plus years of Simenon's life.  As the novel opens, the Detective Chief Inspector has learned that an internationally-known, "Extremely clever and dangerous" criminal known as Pietr the Latvian is on his way to Paris on board the Étoile du Nord.  At the station as the passengers begin to depart, Maigret lies eyes on his quarry, whose physical traits he's memorized carefully.  At that moment, there's a flurry of excitement, and it turns out that there's been a body found  in Carriage 5 of the train. To Maigret's surprise, the body turns out to be that of  the man Maigret's been waiting for -- none other than Pietr the Latvian.  Or is it?   This is where the case begins, one that will become even more enigmatic before it is solved.

It's here that we begin to understand Maigret and his methods.  He is relentless to a fault as he dogs his quarry through the streets of Paris in the pouring rain, and he employs all the current tools of the profession.  But there's more to police methodology at play here -- Maigret also uses his head.  He's developed what he calls his "theory of the crack in the wall:"
"Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. In addition, of course, there is an opponent in a game, and it's the player that the police are inclined to see. As a rule, that's what they go after." 
But Maigret has learned to bide his time, because
"...what he sought, what he waited and watched out for, was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent."
In this case, that patience and particular ability will serve him well, but along the way to that "instant" he will undergo a lot of inner turmoil as things get to the point where it becomes, as Maigret says, "between them and me."

While being an armchair detective is fun here because of the puzzler Simenon gives us, more importantly my attention was drawn to the final chapters where all is unraveled.  Even then, it's not so much the solution -- instead I noticed that what comes out of these last few pages is the very stuff of his excellent romans durs, in which, as John Banville noted in the New York Review of Books in 2015:
"... a man who has spent his life in servitude to family, work, society, suddenly lays down his burden -- 'Lord, how tired he was now!' -- and determines to live for the moment, and for himself, in full acceptance of the existential peril his decision will expose him to."
What that "existential peril" is in this book I won't say.  However, while many readers may see Pietr the Latvian, or for that matter any of the Maigret mysteries as yet just another police procedural, it goes well beyond that into examining just what it is underneath someone's exterior self that leads him or her to do what they do. In short -- I get the feeling that as I travel through the Maigret mysteries, I'll find myself in the mind of a policeman  who genuinely understands human nature, and that's a place I want to be.

Once again, anyone considering reading this book should be aware of the times in which this book was written because there is some definite racial/ethnic stereotyping being done here, but I can definitely recommend the novel to crime readers of all sorts.

crime fiction from Belgium

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

thank you, Feedspot!

For some bizarre reason, Feedspot has awarded the crime portion of my reading journal (this thing I'm posting to right now) a slot in their top 50 crime novel blogs for crime readers and authors this year.  I am honored because I'm in the company of bloggers I hold in great awe.

I actually started doing this for my own entertainment, since my husband travels a LOT for work and I needed something to occupy my time, but now I'm addicted to doing it.   Lately I've been picking an overall topic to sort of guide my reading -- this year it's a brief history/survey of crime fiction through World War I.  I like to think people read what I have to say but I don't count on it and I'm not doing this to be noticed, but because I think it's fun.  This year has been an eye opener in terms of the history of crime literature, and not just in terms of the fiction.

So thank you people at Feedspot, and to anyone else who happens to land here.

I may never get here again, but I'll always have the badge:

*Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer, by 'Waters' -- by William Russell

serialized 1849-1853;  this volume originally published in book form, 1859
Ulan Books, 262 pp


Oh I am so bummed! I didn't even notice that I had bought Volume 2 -- in fact, I didn't know there was a volume 1 until just now, when I read the preface where the author mentions "the very flattering reception" of his first book. Oh well -- I'm sure the first is very much like this one, and it's basically a collection of short stories, so I suppose in the long run it doesn't matter.   

Recollections of a Detective Police-Officer belongs in the category of fictional detective memoirs, which were all the rage back in their day.  According to the Cambridge History of Victorian Literature, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 allowed for the creation of a Detective Branch  in 1842, which ultimately became the CID in 1877.   According to a brief article on "The History of Scotland Yard" in Smithsonian Magazine
"When the Yard sent out its first plainclothes police agents in 1842, the public felt uncomfortable with these 'spies' on the streets."
Opponents felt that
" the disguise of plain clothes, police officers would be free to spy, incite and resort to deceitful means and corrupt practices, and in fact to engage in the kind of behaviour expected of continental police forces, particularly in France, Austria and Russia." 
Eventually, though, as the Smithsonian article reveals, the detectives came to be more accepted among the public as a result of the force having solved "several important cases;"  the "charisma of many" of the Yard's detectives also helped "to win the people's trust."  Once these detectives were out in the field,  as Haia Shpayer-Makov notes in this article,
"With the creation of detective departments in the country, and growing media interest in the activities of their agents, particularly working in London, more and more police detective figures entered fiction." 
Waters is one of these fictional detectives and his exploits were serialized "intermittently" from 1849 to 1853 in Chambers [Edinburgh] Journal.  His adventures turned out to be immensely popular,

from The First Hundred Years of Detective Fiction, 1841-1941
and were printed as "yellowbacks,"  which "came about due to a confluence of supply and demand." The supply side came as a result in technological advances in "machine-made books," resulting in lower book prices, making them more available to a much bigger audience.  The demand side, according to the Center for Digital Scholarship at Emory University,
"...came not just from the lower cost of books but also the social changes that occurred during the 19th century.  The industrial revolution saw a concentration of the population in cities like London and Manchester, a growing middle class and higher literacy rates.  The urban population had more leisure time to devote to reading while the invention of the train created a new demand for books to be read while traveling."
These yellowbacks were "the Victorian equivalent of a cheap paperback that you might read on the bus or on a plane."

All righty -- now that we're done with historical part (trust me, I could wax on forever about this stuff so you're lucky) -- on to the book itself.

As I said earlier, it seems as though I've picked up the second volume (my understanding is that there are three), but my guess is that the same sort of thing would be found in the others.  The detective who solves all of these crimes is the fictional "Waters," whose first name starts with a C, as noted in the preface of my edition, which is signed "C.W." Waters here investigates eight crimes including blackmail, forgery, lots of bigamy (mainly due to greedy people who want to get their hands on an inheritance), arson, theft, murder and fraud.  He takes us anywhere from stately British homes to farms to the slums, so there is a wide range of socioeconomic situations portrayed here.  While once in a while we hear the results of the arrests Waters makes, there also seems to be better solutions than just  legal justice in some stories when all is said and done.  In the case of the story "Mark Stretton," for example, the evildoer is arrested but jumps bail and leaves the country, which Waters saw as "the wisest course" for the sake of the woman involved.    This sort of thing happens more than once, and in the case of the bigamists, compromises for settling parts of an inheritance are happily made so that the innocent don't have to suffer.  Waters doesn't mince words about the people in his adventures -- one woman who knowingly committed adultery and seeks to profit from it was called a "limb of Satan;" a wife whom one man felt compelled to marry for her fortune is labeled as a "shrew," and well, let's just say our modern sensibilities about ethnicity aren't respected here (nor should they be, really) as one character gets the moniker of "The Jew," complete with stereotype.  Most of what we learn about detective work is that it's a lot of watching and waiting until Waters is sure he has enough evidence against his quarry to make a case that will stick; he also enlists locals in his efforts as informants as well.  He's no Sherlock Holmes, but the adventures are never dull.

Out of the eight stories here, my favorite has to be "Fire-Raising,"  which is really the best whodunit of the collection.  In most of these tales, we already know who is doing what to whom and it's just a matter of waiting them out, gathering evidence, etc., before Waters makes his move.  Here the situation is a bit different, since the mystery is focused on who is the arsonist doing mayhem in a local farm district in Essex.  The perpetrator is very clever, able to create a fire that won't actually erupt in flames for a matter of hours afterwards. I have to say that he set this one up quite nicely and I didn't figure out the who, for which I am quite grateful.

Overall, it's a fun collection of stories that belongs in the library of anyone interested in the history of crime fiction/mystery, or anyone interested in Victorian crime fiction in general. For those who don't hoard books like I do, there are also a variety of places online for downloads.  This book closes out the 1850s so onward I go.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Kill the Next One, by Federico Axat

Mulholland/Little, Brown and Company 2017
originally published as La última salida, 2016
translated by David Frye
407 pp


"Open the door. It's your only way out."

As soon as I turned the last page of this  novel I had to question (once again) the publisher's decision to a) change the title and b) come up with a dustjacket blurb that hardly matches what goes in in this book.  I'm afraid I don't understand either, since when all is said and done, the original Spanish title is much more reflective of the nature of what happens here and the blurb is sort of misleading re the story as a whole.  I'm not surprised that so many readers were frustrated with this book, since they were expecting one thing and got something completely different.  I bought this one based on the fact that it's a crime novel from Argentina more than for any other reason -- I love translated crime, and I especially like to try out the work from authors who are new to me.

Let's get back to that blurb, referring to the main character of the story, Ted McKay, who as the novel opens, is on the edge of shooting himself in the head to end it all.  He's at home,  locked into his own study; his wife Holly is away on vacation with their two daughters, and he's even been thoughtful enough to leave a note telling Holly where he's left the key to the study and not to let the kids in after she opens the door.  As he works up the courage to shoot himself, a "barrage of shouts and banging" at the door draw his attention, and he knows that "he'd have no choice but to see what it was all about."   He opens it to find a man he doesn't know standing there, but strangely, the man, who gives his name as Justin Lynch, somehow knows Ted's name. Ted slams the door closed once again, but Lynch is persistent and through the door  reveals to Ted that he knows what he's about to do with the gun, and if Ted would open the door, he promises not to try to stop him. After a bit of time, Lynch comes right to the point and
"...makes him a proposition: why not kill two deserving men before dying? The first target is a criminal, and the second is a man with terminal cancer, who, like Ted, wants to die."
The tradeoff for Ted is that
 "after executing these kills, Ted will become someone else's next target, like a kind of suicidal daisy chain." 
It's an idea that Ted doesn't necessarily dismiss and he even goes as far to work out a plan but, of course, things don't exactly work out in the way he (or we) expected, diverging in a very, very big way.  That bit of plot  will come back much later, but in a hugely different fashion that allowed for an "aha" moment by the time I got there.  I can't really go into too much detail here because saying pretty much anything would constitute a major spoiler and ruin the reading experience, but the point is that while we actively start with the blurb's premise in mind, it turns out that that's not really the story at all.

from We Know Your Dreams

Kill the Next One messed with my head for quite a while, because it is one of those stories where things seem to make sense and yet they don't if you are reading carefully; things tend to move and change quickly here making it even more of a head scratcher.  Even as things start to become a little clearer, it's like being in a gradually-lifting fog where you can sort of make out shapes but you know that your vision is still a bit distorted; it isn't until the very end that everything comes into focus.  The enigmatic in any novel appeals to me; this book is like one giant puzzle where pieces are gradually filled in but there is still a lot of space on the table before the full picture emerges.

It's neither a great nor perfect book by any means with character issues that crop up,  lengthy, sometimes over-the-top scenes that could have been pared down quite a bit to give the story more punch, and it seems to me that there were still some things that could have been a bit more fleshed out (especially considering the real story underpinning everything here)  but even with its issues,  it has a sort of eerieness about it that made it a worthwhile, page-flipping, and entertaining read that I had trouble putting down.

 My advice to potential readers: don't look at reviews that give away the show because as you move away from the expected into deeper, darker territory, you really don't want to know beforehand what's coming at you -- it will totally ruin things. While I've seen it referred to as a thriller, it really moves into that territory only toward the end; before that though, it's much more in the psychological category, but even that may be saying too much about it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

*Paul Ferroll, by Caroline Clive

Valancourt Books, 2008
originally published 1855
256 pp


First things first: anyone who loves old mystery/crime novels should check out Valancourt Books -- they are my favorite small indie press and they specialize in obscure or forgotten titles, perfect for die-hard bookworms like me who prefer works published in the past. I'm very sure  that other people don't get as worked up as I do about finding new old authors to read, but it's something that's quite meaningful to me so it's a big deal. So many male writers from this time period have names and work that have never been forgotten or have yet to lapse into obscurity, but that's not the case with a huge number of female writers, especially those whose work crosses into the crime/mystery area. 

Now on with the show -- I discovered Paul Ferroll while reading Kate Watson's Women Writing Crime Fiction 1860-1880.  Watson notes that Paul Ferroll is  "further evidence of women writers challenging convention and contributing to the nascent crime and detective genre." (23)  Caroline Clive (1801-1873) was a British poet as well as novelist; she published her first book, a volume of religious essays in 1827 under the pseudonym of, oddly enough, Paul Ferroll.  Her second book, a collection of poetry, was published in 1840 under the name of V.; Paul Ferroll was her first novel, followed by another (which I'll also talk about here) in 1860. As the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us, accidents in 1860 and 1863 left her confined to a wheelchair before she suffered a stroke in 1865; two days after sustaining injuries from her dress catching on fire in her library, she died in 1873. 

When Paul Ferroll was first published, it was both praised and condemned by critics. According to the introduction in this edition, its earliest reviewers thought it had "power and originality," while at the same time found fault with its "subject matter and lack of moral comment."   Watson reveals that writer Elizabeth Gaskell was an advocate for this novel; another scholar reveals that she had written a letter to Louis Hachette in France recommending it as a "work of fiction of remarkable merit."  She also noted that in Britain, "People here condemn the book as the work of a she-devil," but that they were buying and reading it to the point that within six weeks, another edition had to be published.   According to one scholar who got her information from Desmond Flowers' A Century of Best Sellers, 1830-1930, Clive's novel went on to become "the British Bestseller of 1855," along with Westward Ho!, by Charles Kingsley.  For the most part, largely outside of academic circles, Paul Ferroll  has joined the ranks of other obscure, long-forgotten books that somehow rarely (and sadly) see the light of day any more.  One more thing -- in terms of this novel's placement in terms of early crime writing,  Lucy Sussex says in Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction that 

"Despite Paul Ferroll's success, in writing a detective-less novel Clive was working against the trend. During the 1850s the sleuth would increasingly occupy the centre of the text."

I found the character of Paul Ferroll to be pretty odious -- in modern parlance I thought he was a major jerk; but then again, I'm sure that Clive was leaving it to the reader to decide just what sort of person he is because every so often he has his moments of redemption, most especially toward the end of the novel.   What starts out quite peacefully with a picture of the "calm loveliness" falling over the Ferroll country home of the Tower of Mainwarey is interrupted with  Ferroll being summoned home with the news that "Your lady has been murdered," and indeed, she'd been found with her throat slit.  By whom was never really discovered, since the gardener, Mr. Franks, who'd been accused of her death was acquitted.  Ferroll gives Franks and his wife money to emigrate to Canada, after which Ferroll disappears for a "good while,"  only to return with new wife and "a little toddling child in tow."  As Janet, the Ferroll's daughter, grows into young womanhood, Ferroll remains aloof from his neighbors, ignores his daughter and actually seems to resent her presence in his home; it often sounds like he would have preferred it to have been just he and his wife Elinor living together. Neglecting Janet doesn't necessarily mean that he steps out of her life; he steadfastly refuses to allow her to have a relationship with the one young man who idolizes her, and fails to accompany her to social gatherings. 

Ferroll is considered an upstanding member of the community to the point where even when he is found guilty of murder after shooting and killing one of the ringleaders of a worker's riot, he receives a pardon. Time passes while the family spends time in France, and things are going pretty well for the Ferrolls until Mrs. Franks decides to return from Canada and is found with some of his dead wife's jewelry, at which point things take a rather strange turn.  For me, it turned out to be one of those stories where all you can do is to guess at the motivations behind the main character here, since right up until the last few pages, there is absolutely no clue as to why he does what he does.  It's frustrating, but it pays off. 

The ending of this novel caused no end of consternation, and it was likely because of this reason that Clive felt the necessity to add a "concluding notice" to a later edition of the book.  As Lucy Sussex states,  the book was " ... outrageous for the time." As she notes, 
"It lacked sanctimonious moralizing, then almost compulsory, as authors justified their satisfying of the popular demand for thrilling crime." (65)
Clive, whom Sussex notes as being "sensitive to audience reaction," ended up writing a prequel to this book in 1860 that sets the scene prior to Ferroll's wife's murder.  In doing so, Sussex believes (as do I) that Clive managed to retreat "from the apparent amorality" at the end of Paul Ferroll by offering an excuse as to why the first Mrs. Ferroll may have been killed.  We know from Paul Ferroll that she was an awful person, but after having read the prequel, I can solemnly swear that the woman was a nasty piece of work, pulling out all the possible stops in order to have her way.   I'm leaving the title of that particular book out of this post -- anyone who may be interested can find it through any of the links above, but beware -- all of the names have changed with only one exception -- and considering that Paul Ferroll's name appears in the title of that book, well, one would expect to find a character so named, but even his name has been changed. Don't let it throw you off -- while that book isn't nearly as well done as this one, it's still worth reading.

My advice for anyone who may consider reading Paul Ferroll is not to read anything that gives away the complete plot of this story because really, the fun here is in getting to the end of the book.  It's extremely tame in terms of modern-day crime reading, but once again, it was worthwhile because it was a good story and more importantly, because I've unearthed yet another author I'd never heard of before.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

*ye olde penny dreadful -- The String of Pearls: The Original Sweeney Todd, by Thomas Preskett Prest

Penguin, 2010
originally printed/serialized 1846
378 pp

mass market paperback

Closing out my time in the 1840s I've come to the Penny Dreadful (aka "blood"), which started life in "eight-page, double-column installments," according to The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction.  This book, The String of Pearls, was, according to E.S. Turner in his  Boys Will Be Boys, originally serialized by Edward Lloyd in 1840, but others have placed its origins in 1846,  in Edward Lloyd's  The People's Periodical and Family Library, where it lasted for eighteen installments.  While authorship was attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest, there is some debate to who actually wrote it, which you can read about here in an article by Helen Smith or at the OUP Blog, in a post written by Robert Mack.  Whatever its provenance, this book gave me some of the finest hours of pure reading pleasure.

Penny Dreadfuls were immensely popular among boys, so much so that as author Kate Summerscale notes in her The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, the press had labeled them as "the poison which is threatening to destroy the manhood of democracy."  In her study of Robert Coomes, the young 13 year-old boy who decided to kill his mother one bright sunny day before taking his little brother to a cricket match, the influence of the penny dreadfuls on young minds was cited as one possible reason he may have committed such a dastardly crime.   In fact, once again according to The Longman Companion, in the late 1880s,
"the depraved quality of juvenile reading matter sparked off a middle-class moral panic." 
and in a post by writer Mimi Matthews, she also notes that the suicide of a 14 year-old was also blamed on the penny dreadful, on which he spent "about a shilling a week."

from "Penny Dreadfuls, Juvenile Crime, and Late Victorian Moral Panic," at Mimi Matthews
This all makes for fascinating reading, as does the debate about the true authorship of this book, but it's the novel I need to get on with now.

The String of Pearls is, as I said earlier, just plain fun, if a story about murders, cannibalism, and a demented barber floats your boat.  It certainly did mine, not so much for those elements but more because there is an actual plot here in among the more gruesome parts. Set in London in the 1780s, the novel begins with a certain Captain Thornhill coming into Sweeney Todd's barber shop for a shave and never being seen again.  All that remains is his dog, who refuses to leave the outside of the shop, still waiting for his master. Thornhill had been on his way to tell young Johanna Oakley that Mark Ingestrie, the man she loved, had been lost at sea; his other mission was to hand Johanna the string of pearls entrusted to his care by her now missing lover. One of Thornhill's friends, Colonel Jeffrey, notices the dog there, making him suspicious enough to want to get to the bottom of Thornhill's disappearance. For this he will need help, and it is the faithful, broken-hearted Johanna who steps up to the plate.

However, as that particular plot is working itself out to its end, it's Sweeney Todd and what happens inside his barber shop that really takes center stage here. One particular storyline follows Tobias, his young shop assistant, who figures out what's going on after he gets the chance to search Todd's living quarters one day while his master was out.  He realizes that Todd is up to no good when he discovers and recognizes a number hats and walking sticks belonging to Todd's victims;   he would rat him out to the police except for the fact that Todd holds the threat of blackmail over him having to do with Tobias' mother.  When Todd finally cottons onto the fact that Tobias is a liability, he sends him to an asylum where he'll be shut away for good, or worse.  While all of this is going on and as Todd welcomes more customers to his lethal barber chair,  there is, of course, Mrs. Lovett and her pie shop.

Mrs. Lovett has a large number of "enthusiastic admirers" who find her pies so tasty that they eat them until they're "almost ready to burst."  Her reputation for "delicious pies" had "spread far and wide," and every day at noon "there was such a rush of the legal profession to obtain them."  As we're told,
"...there was about them a flavour never surpassed, and rarely equalled; the paste was of the most delicate construction, and impregnated with the aroma of a delicious gravy that defies description. Then the small portions of meat which they contained were so tender, and the fat and the lean so artistically mixed up, that to eat one of Lovett's pies was such a provocative to eat another..."  (36)
She has very low overhead in terms of the meat for these pies; she also has a cook for whom the phrase "chained to a stove all day" is an understatement.  The reader knows all, but it's going to be a shock for her customers when eventually the truth is made known.  I can just imagine this book playing out in installments, with readers beyond willing to fork out their pence or shillings to find out what could possibly happen next. I would love to have been around when the contents of Mrs. Lovett's pies were finally revealed ...

From the original The String of Pearls, my photo, taken from Penny Dreadfuls and Other Victorian Horrors,by Michael Anglo, p. 48
Here's the thing. I read this book primarily as an example of the penny dreadful, and I have to say that looking for any sort of literary merit here is pretty much a waste of time.  While it's a great example of what the working classes were reading, and while you can catch a lot of negativity among the poor for the upper classes and the use of mechanization throughout the story,  it should probably be read just for fun.  Storylines tend to be dropped as do a few characters here and there, and the major focus is actually on the bad guys in this book.  It's melodrama pure and simple, delightfully gruesome, and as I said, it is a book that gave me hours of pleasure while reading.

Just to be clear: I've seen the play, I've seen the 1936 film based on this book, and I've seen the BBC adaptation (which is also quite gruesome and should not be watched while eating lunch as I discovered), and this, the original,   is as different from all of its adaptations as it can possibly be. So when readers complain that the play is better and the book did nothing for them, well, they're comparing apples and oranges.

This book would be perfect for anyone looking for a good, old-fashioned escape read or a novel to relax with over the summer while at the beach or hanging out poolside.  It goes very quickly despite its hefty length, and it's great fun.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

dark, darker, moving into the territory of bleak: The Executioner Weeps, by Frédéric Dard

Pushkin Vertigo, 2017
originally published as Le Borreau pleure, 1956
translated by David Coward
157 pp


"There's nothing more terrifying for a painter than a blank white canvas. It's like a window that opens onto infinite possibilities. A window from which the most disturbing metamorphoses may emerge." -- 42

I started this book very late last night and actually tried to fight sleep to finish it, but alas, it was not to be and  I had to wait until today to finish it.  It's probably a good thing, since there is a sort of nightmarish aspect to the story as it comes down to the end.  Frédéric Dard has to be one of the darkest writers whose work graces the pages of these reprints by Pushkin Vertigo, putting his novels squarely in my wheelhouse.  I defy anyone who reads this book to not feel the slightest bit of adrenaline pumping through his or her veins while doing so -- by the end my guts were twisted in knots.  Far from being any kind of whodunit, it falls more into the psychological zone; I've seen it described as a thriller, but I'm not sure that fits either.  It's one of those novels where you just have a feeling in your bones that something terrible is coming down the pike so you brace yourself for it, but in my case, I don't think I prepared myself enough.  Holy crap -- this is a good one!

The beginning of the novel finds our narrator, French painter Daniel Mermet, at the Casa Patricio, a "very modest inn" not too far from Barcelona and located directly on the beach.  It was, as he says, "The ideal place for a holiday." But then, driving along the road one night, a woman carrying a violin case "deliberately" throws herself at his car, and he hits her. He puts her in his car and returns to the inn, where a doctor is called; luckily, she wasn't injured too seriously. She didn't come out unscathed, though -- she cannot remember a thing about herself, especially what might have caused her to bolt out in front of his car, much less as to why she's in Spain.   Mermet realizes that she speaks French, but the only clue to her identity is a handkerchief with the letter M on it and the labels in her clothes.  The M, after some time, leads her to think her name is Marianne, and Daniel tries to get help for her, by going to the French consulate but they don't seem too interested in her plight. One doctor he takes her to tells him that the bump on her head probably didn't cause her amnesia, but rather that she was either "already suffering from nervous problems," or "it was the shock of the accident" that may have triggered it.

As the two spend more time together, they grow close and fall in love.  She is something new for Daniel -- a woman completely without a past, which makes the love he feels for her even more special than it may have been in a "normal" situation.  He is happy, she is happy, and he envisions a future with this woman, unable to picture himself without her. She can't envision herself without him now either, and extracts from him a certain promise (which I won't go into here but keep it in mind when you get to it) that lets him know how she feels.  He's so into her that he doesn't really care if he ever finds out about her past -- at least that's what he says.

But there's a problem.  Finding out who she really is becomes paramount when Daniel is invited to go to America to exhibit his work, since he doesn't want to go without her; without any form of ID papers, it's impossible for her to go with him.  As he notes,
"...I'm going to discover your identity because that is what we have to do"
because "officially", she must "become someone."  But first he has to return to France.

That is about all I'll say about this book, except for the fact that it's at this juncture where my pages started getting flipped with a vengeance, and where my house could have burned down while I was sitting on my sofa and I wouldn't have noticed. I'll also say that when Daniel tells us on page 100 that "Even Zola never dreamt up a story more sordid than this," he wasn't joking.

from de Dard et D'Autres
  It's interesting that Dard makes Daniel a painter, and that at the beginning just after he'd brought Marianne back to the Casa Patricio he spends a bit of time talking about the "canvas rectangle" where he rules "like an absolute master."  A bit later he talks about the canvas as a "window from which the most disturbing metamorphoses may emerge," and given what happens in this story,  it's a great metaphor that works nicely throughout the novel.

The Executioner Weeps can be read as a nerve-wracking tale of one man's journey into deepening despair and desperation, and you are there in Daniel's head as things become dark,darker, and move on into the territory of bleak before all is said and done -- making it my kind of read.  Don't blow it off because it was written in the 1950s -- as tragic and dark as it is, this is a great story. 

A Climate of Fear, by Fred Vargas

Penguin, 2017
originally published as Temps glaciaires, 2015
translated by Sian Reynolds
410 pp


I'm actually in between crime reads at the moment, having finished two Victorian crime novels (posts coming shortly), one of which has a prequel that was written five years later.   Waiting for said prequel to arrive in the mail, I rummaged through my shelves for a light, modern read and stopped at this book by Fred Vargas, which is the ninth book to feature Commissaire Adamsberg and his motley crew of colleagues. While I've sort of lost my zeal for keeping up with crime/mystery series novels, there are still a few authors whose work I can't not read, and Vargas is one of those.  I haven't missed a single one of these books; while sometimes I was less than enchanted (to put it mildly) with the turn toward the supernatural in some of her novels,  I can't help myself -- it's the ensemble cast that is the real draw for me in these novels.

It is the investigation of a suicide that starts this ball rolling; oddly enough, it doesn't take place in Adamsberg's patch, but rather that of Commissaire Bourlin in the 15th arrondissement.  The police are ready to close the case, but Bourlin is still concerned about the dead woman's last message, a strange sign drawn by the side of  Alice Gauthier's bathtub.  He knows just the person to call to help him on the matter, Commandant Adrien Danglard of the Serious Crime Squad in the 13th arrondissement. Danglard is one of those people whose knowledge is astounding, so his choice isn't a bad one. Yet, as one of his colleagues reminds him, behind Danglard is Commisssaire Adamsberg, and sure enough it isn't too long before Adamsberg's curiosity gets the better of him.  What starts out as a potential suicide explodes into a full-blown murder investigation when other bodies are discovered along with the same cryptic sign at the crime scene.  And when a witness steps forward to reveal that she had posted a letter that had fallen out of the handbag of the now-dead Alice Gauthier, things take a strange turn, taking Adamsberg and his crew back in time to an ill-begotten and deadly expedition to a small island off the Icelandic coast.

At the risk of sounding like a late-night tv infomercial,

but wait -- there's more.

Maximilien Robespierre, from Guided History, Boston University

Hoping for some clue as to how the now three dead people may be connected, their photos are sent out to the world via social media and the press along with with a plea for information. While still following the Iceland lead, Adamsberg and his colleagues receive a letter from a certain François Chateau, who informs them that he recognizes all three as being members of an association of which he is president.  While one of Adamsberg's men calls it "a tank full of nutty fans of Robespierre and the French Revolution," the organization is actually called The Association for the Study of the Writings of Maximilien Robespierre. Chateau is concerned that a murderer may be "at large" in his association, and as much as possible, wants to help in any way he can.  As the squad becomes more involved in this new development, Adamsberg develops a certain "itch," which leads to all kinds of complications involving his colleagues.

Yes, there is a certain bit o' the supernatural vibe in this book, but luckily it's kept to a minimum here.   While the investigation comes to a standstill, Adamsberg is facing a trial of his own as his colleagues start to become fed up with his sort of out-there methods. He's a man very much living in his head in this novel, and in order to satisfy his nagging "itch," he makes a decision that will set part of his own squad against him. In this sense, and in terms of where Adamsberg is led as he desperately tries to untangle all of the knots in the case to ease his own mind, the original French title is much more on the money.  I won't divulge anything, but the reasons why this is so become evident as the novel comes to a close.

Climate of Fear isn't the best book of the series but it does follow the others nicely, and as I said, it doesn't overdo what I call the "woo-woo" element which I didn't care for in some of  the previous Adamsberg novels.  There are plenty of red herrings, two bizarre plotlines, and of course, the characters in Adamsberg's ensemble (not to mention the woman with the pet boar named Marc), which when combined, make it another book that appeals to my need for offbeat and quirky tales. It's not great literature, nor is it likely to become a classic, but hey ... it IS summer and it's a good light read while trying to escape the sweltering summer heat.

Do not let A Climate of Fear be your introduction to this series of novels -- there are things here that will not be understood (and become the cause of reader complaints because some people did start with this book) unless you've started from the beginning with The Chalk Circle Man.  While I've given away tons of crime novels to make room for more, the Adamsberg series has stayed on the shelves.  Obviously, that says a lot --  there's a reason I keep reading them.

crime fiction from France

Monday, June 19, 2017

the rare true-crime post: Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, by Peter Graham

Skyhorse Publishing, 2013
originally published 2011
341 pp


A long time ago, I watched Peter Jackson's film Heavenly Creatures for the first time and found myself captivated by the murder that inspired the film; since then I've watched it a number of times and just recently discovered the uncut version which I watched during a week when my husband was away on business. I'm not really a major true crime person, but there are some cases, like this one, that stick in the mind.  This case took place in the early 1950s in New Zealand, where, as the author tells us, "murder of any kind was a major event," and that at that time, there were maybe two, three murders a year.  He also says that Women who killed were rarities" and "As for teenage girls, matricide -- it was unheard of."

Lately my interest was reopened after reading Beryl Bainbridge's fictional take on the case, Harriet Said (1972), which changed the story but was most certainly loosely based on the Parker-Hulme case of 1954.  Then, one insomniac night a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on a documentary about the case, which made me want to watch Heavenly Creatures again, which then made me look for a true account of the murder, which led me to this book.  I will say that as long as Graham sticks to the subject at hand, it's a book worth reading; it's when he goes off on tangents of details that I could have cared less about that I found myself tuning out.

Graham starts his story in the hours leading up to the actual murder itself, stopping at the point just before poor Honorah Parker's head is bashed in by a brick at Victoria Park in Christchurch.  Honorah Parker (known as Rieper at the time), her daughter Paulette, and Paulette's friend Juliet Hulme had just finished having tea at a tearoom before venturing off down the "east side bush track"; later the woman who served them, Agnes Ritchie, would say that the girls were polite and that there was "Nothing out of the ordinary." Some 30 or so minutes later, Mrs. Ritchie was shocked to see the girls again, this time
 "breathless, greatly agitated, with bloody hands and clothing. One girl's face with spattered with blood and the other's finely speckled."
She then learned that there'd been some sort of terrible accident and that the woman who'd been with them not too long before was now "covered with blood" somewhere "Down in the bushes -- down the track," according to the girls, having slipped on some rocks.  Mr. Ritchie and his assistant went to find the woman but obviously it was too late when they arrived, since Honorah was dead.  While the girls had called it an accident, Ritchie realized that there were "no rocks anywhere near," and not too far from her head lay a "half-brick with blood and bits of hair on it."  The girls were taken to Juliet's home while police examined the scene; the investigators soon knew that this was no accident, but that "the deceased had been attacked with an animal ferocity seldom seen in the most brutal murders."   What was worse, however,  was that they also realized that  "this savagery was the work of two teenage girls," a "thought too shocking for words."

After this beginning, which, coincidentally, mirrors that of Heavenly Creatures,  Graham goes on to examine the lives of the two girls, both separately and together, in order to come to a conclusion as to why Pauline's mother had to die that day.  While I leave his findings for other readers to discover, using a number of different sources, most pointedly Pauline's own diary,  he paints a chilling picture as to what may have led up to that particular moment; he also goes on to look at the aftermath of the crime and its effects on the girls, the families, on the people in Christchurch, and its interest as the "murder of the century" that would later lead to plays, books, much debate, and a movie.   While he's focusing on all of that, the book is captivating and hard to put down, and there are great photos in this book that help bring it to life.  But I started finding my interest waning here and there as he throws in superfluous details that I could have cared less about (for example, the athletic prowess of the Hulme's attorney at his high school and then Cambridge, or the Hulme's psychiatrist's wife's love of theater etc., etc., and more unnecessary stuff down to what people were eating for lunch),  and it became a major skimathon to get back to the meat of the story.  Another thing: this book could have ended some 50-something pages earlier which would have, I think, made it a stronger piece of writing; my final niggle is that there are no footnotes. Sources are listed in the back but there are several spots where quotations are left unattributed and it drove me nuts. I know -- nerdiferous people such as myself are probably the only people who appreciate footnotes, but to me they're important and should be included in investigative pieces.  

from AZ Quotes

My biggest issue here is that I was not at all impressed with the change of title of this book, and in fact thought it a sort of cheap, exploitative publishers' trick. When originally published in 2011, it was called So Brilliantly Clever: Parker, Hulme and the Murder that Shocked the World;  when it came to the US it became Anne Perry and the Murder of the Century, which sort of bypasses the fact that there were two girls involved. It's also highly misleading: we don't discover the modern-day of Juliet Hulme as Anne Perry until very late in the book, at which point we also discover the post-prison identity (Hilary Nathan) of Pauline Parker. But where's Hilary Nathan in the title? Obviously the title change was done to sell more copies of this book since there are thousands of Anne Perry fans out there; personally speaking, I think it's a cheap tactic. 

Having said all of that, however, while on topic  it is a book I'd recommend for anyone with an interest in the case who wants to know more about it -- Graham has done a pretty thorough job here that will answer pretty much any question someone  might want answered. It's actually one of the most chilling true-crime stories I've read. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

back now to my history of mystery project with *Hargrave, by Frances Milton (Fanny) Trollope.

When I decided to read early crime literature this year, I picked up all kinds of nonfiction books on the topic to help me figure out what exactly to look for.  I came across Hargrave, Or the Adventures of a Man of Fashion in an excellent book by Lucy Sussex called Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre.  

the author, from 
 Frances Milton (1779-1863) was a most prolific author with some 34 novels under her belt and seven works of nonfiction.   She married barrister Thomas Anthony Trollope in 1829, and they had seven children, including Anthony Trollope, who would go on to become "one of the most successful, prolific and respected novelists of the Victorian era."  After the family fortune went from bad to worse, Fanny, son Henry and her two daughters left for America in 1827, returning to England in 1831. Her travels and experiences led her to write her famous Domestic Manners of the Americans," which as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) notes, "launched Fanny's career as writer."  (Just FYI - the link will take you to a subscription-only page, but I will give the reference anyway -- article 27751.)  After her Domestic Manners, she began trying her hand at fiction, publishing her first novel in 1832. The ODNB article notes that she "experimented with several different genres," including Gothic fiction, social themes, including an anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw, which was published in 1836.  Later she would go on to write books with "melodramatic plots," aiming to "hit the somewhat lowbrow taste of the circulating library," seriously right up my alley.   And so now we have Hargrave, published in 1843,  her sixteenth novel. As with so many of the authors I read, her work has mostly been forgotten, but thanks to one of my favorite publishers, Forgotten Books, I was able to pick up Hargrave complete in three volumes.  

Forgotten Books, 312 pp

Anyway, to get down to it, the story focuses on Charles Hargrave and his family, who are living in Paris as the story begins. Hargrave is a widower with one daughter from his marriage, Sabina, and a stepdaughter Adèle de Cordillac.  His dead wife's sister, Madame de Hautrivage,  also lives with the family, along with a number of servants. Hargrave's reputation is such that he is a man with a gigantic fortune, well known for his huge gala balls that run into the wee hours of the morning, his fine taste in clothes, etc., and he is at the top of the social ladder of the city.  It isn't too long though until we discover that it's all a sham and that he's become desperate for money, in debt to several people and having bills he's having trouble meeting.  He keeps his secret from the rest of his family and the rest of society, however, and goes on living the high life.He knows that he must get his daughters married off to wealthy suitors and depend on them to take care of him.    Meanwhile, the police are looking for answers as to who's been robbing high rollers coming out of a local club called Riccardo's.   While Adèle and Sabina are meeting the men of their dreams (the plans of which are thwarted soon enough),  Hargrave has a huge fete (another one of his gala extravaganzas) and has invited a certain Madame Bertrand along with her husband to attend. She is rich and flaunts her wealth by wearing diamonds sewn onto her dresses, but at the end of the party around 4:30 a.m. or so, she turns up missing.  Hargrave's opinion is that the young lady has eloped, gone off with a lover.

Forgotten Books, 311 pp

There's a big problem brewing, though, and that's Adèle, who had heard and seen things both during the fete and afterward from her bedroom window.  She decides to investigate on her own, and discovers certain evidence that leads her to believe that Hargrave is involved, and decides that the family should make a run for it.    However, before all of this plays out, at the same time Mme. Bertrand had gone missing,  Adèle had sent her servant Roger Humphries on a personal mission that will later come back to bite the pair of them, since the police are out in force looking for Mme. Bertrand's abductor; Roger just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The family makes up some rather stupid but credible excuse to feed to the chatty aunt about why they're leaving and establishes a false trail in case anyone comes after them.

Forgotten Books, 325 pp

In Volume three, our fugitives are safely ensconced incognito  in the forest near Baden, and while Charles is missing his once-great life, Adèle has begun to hate him, knowing exactly what kind of man he really is. Things come to a head when she learns that Roger's been imprisoned for the kidnapping and supposed murder of Mme. Bertrand and she realizes that she has the power to save him.  Charles is too caught up in worrying about his own reputation and his own future to let her go and threatens to lock her in to prevent her leaving.  While I won't reveal how things play out , I have to say that Trollope has spun a cracking good yarn with this book, which over the space of its full 900-plus pages gave me hours of sheer, lowbrow pleasure.

 To be fair, this is not strictly one hundred percent a crime novel. Sussex says that it is  "a romance plot yoked to a crime mystery," and it may be that, as  Kate Watson notes in her book Women Writing Crime Fiction, 1860-1880: Fourteen American British and Australian Authors, Trollope

 "simultaneously uses the conventional trappings of sentimental romance in Hargrave; this incorporation suggests the social and literary limitations place upon women writers; they had to conceal both crime in their fiction and the crime of writing about such an unsuitable subject." (20)
 So far in my own explorations, Hargrave seems to be one of the earliest works of crime literature written by a woman, which makes it beyond noteworthy, although Watson makes the point that Catherine Crowe's Adventures of Susan Hopley; or Circumstantial Evidence (which I should have read but  forgot that I actually own until this very second) came out two years earlier in 1841. The real point here, stated so eloquently by Kate Watson, is that even at this early date, 
"...women were writing crime, and it seems that their texts have somehow been repressed or dismissed in favor of the male canon." 
Once again I've picked up a novel that not very many people will want to read, and that's okay. I wouldn't have even known about it before starting this project, but as it turns out it was a fine novel, easy to read, and above all, fun.

Black Water Lilies, by Michel Bussi

Hachette, 2017
originally published as Nymphéas Noirs, 2011
translated by Shaun Whiteside
419 pp


Midway through this book something came up in the reading that made me think about tossing it across the room, but then I decided to give it a chance because I was at the point of being heavily invested. Oh my gosh -- I'm so glad I did! It's  one of the most seriously twisty crime novels I've read in a very long time. Note I said "twisty" rather than "twisted" -- big difference.  Black Water Lilies is another one of those rare books where I was just plain speechless, overwhelmed, stunned, blown away and other words describing my complete surprise by the time I got to the end when I realized exactly what the author's done here.  And while I had some issues with the writing here, on the whole I say well done!!  People -- put this  book on your tbr pile right now.

It's a tough novel to summarize without giving anything away so I won't say too much more than what someone could find on the back cover blurb. The novel is set in the small village of Giverny, France, site of the home and gardens of artist Claude Monet, who had moved there in 1883.  There are three major players in this book -- an "octogenarian" widow through whom we get most of the story,  a beautiful young schoolteacher, and an eleven year-old girl,  Fanette, who is a gifted artist in her own right.

The story spans thirteen days, over which the secrets of this small village slowly come to light.  We don't wait long  at all until the body of opthamologist Jérôme Morval is discovered in a brook that meanders through Monet's gardens  -- he'd been stabbed, hit on the head with a rock and pushed into the water.  All the police have to go on is a postcard of Monet's painting Water Lilies on which was written "Eleven Years Old. Happy Birthday" with a strip of paper glued to the card saying "The Crime of Dreaming, I agree to its creation," which police later discover comes from Louis Aragon's Aurélien.  The police also discover that the married Morval was quite the ladies man, and begin to wonder if somehow his penchant for the ladies was cause enough to kill him.  Inspectors Laurenç Sérénac and Sylvio Bénavides also look into rumors that Monet may have secreted as-yet undiscovered paintings in his former home as a possible motive.  Speaking of Monet, read very carefully as you go through this novel  -- it's  not called Black Water Lilies for nothing.

There are parts of this book that tend to be boggy and I think a lot could have been left out to make it much tighter, but really, it's all about the ending.  When the reveal comes it comes in a big way, and I had to rethink every single thing I'd just read. My first thought was "holy crap -- that's genius!" and that's all I'm going to say about this book's plot. Any more would absolutely ruin things, and one of my online groups will be reading Black Water Lilies this month so I'm keeping shtum. Trust me, this is not your average police procedural, for which I am grateful.  It takes a strong writer to make this much of an impression, and I'm so damn picky about what I consider good crime reads, so that says a lot.

Would I recommend it? Hell yes!

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

from Mexico: Silver Bullets and The Acid Test, by Élmer Mendoza

Two novels from Mexican writer Élmer Mendoza are the topic of this post, and while they are both admittedly quite difficult to get through, hanging in there brings great rewards to the most patient readers.   First up is Silver Bullets

MacLehose Press, 2015
originally published 2008 as Balas de Plata,
translated by Mark Fried
222 pp
which is set in Culiácan, the capital city of Sinaloa,  the "cradle of the biggest traffickers Mexico has ever known."   It is in this book that we first meet Detective Edgar "Lefty" Mendieta, who as the dustjacket blurb notes, 
"has been abandoned by the woman he loves, continues to be demoralized by the his city's (and his nation's) ubiquitous corruption, and is dire need of some psychotherapy."
Very briefly, Mendieta indeed has some psychological issues stemming mainly from childhood;  he's also snarky, sarcastic, likes old music (in chapter one he's listening to Herman's Hermits) that seems somehow appropriate to his situation at any given time,  and he studied  literature, which is often put to use via the sarcastic comments he makes now and then that sometimes had me chuckling.  He says about himself that
"I'm a drunk weighed down by memories, a poor idiot who fell in love with the wrong woman, and to fall in love is to dream, to imagine a future that rarely comes to pass." 
He lives alone in his brother's house in the Col Pop, where he is looked after by his housekeeper Trudis who has her own issues.  He's not someone particularly interested in justice, but he does have integrity;  long-term, deeply-rooted connections, familial and otherwise that are important to him as a person,  and this trait applies not just to people on his side of the law where it's often tough to tell who if anyone is actually in control.  He'll also work like a dog to get a case solved despite his superiors' (and others') ideas to the contrary and often crosses into the underworld to do so.

Silver Bullets revolves around a number of killings that have in common the use of silver bullets in the gun that does the killing. As the bodies start to pile up, Mendieta becomes frustrated trying to make connections between the victims, and he also wonders what motivates the killer to use such a bizarre method of doing away with his victims.  Aside from all of the vampire and werewolf jokes people make, it seems that the local hitmen have nothing to offer in the way of help  -- as one of them notes, it's not their style, since they mainly get  "requests" from the rich who want their "target cut to pieces, drawn and quartered, castrated..."

As Mendieta carries out the investigations, we the readers are taken on a journey through the world that is  Culiácan, through the lives of Mendieta's colleagues (especially his partner Zelda), corrupt cops, politicians, the reigning and not-so reigning narco families, hard-assed mercenaries, and regular citizens, many of whom are fed up "with all this violence," and realize that
"in this country justice is in the hands of criminals and as long as you people from the government whistle and look the other way that's how it's going to remain."
At the same time, no one can deny that along with the bad, drug money has brought a lot to the area in terms of the economy, and also that connections run deep here.

Moving on now to The Acid Test,

MacLehose Press, 2016
originally published as La Prueba del Acido, 2011
translated by Mark Fried
284 pp

in which Mendieta is caught up in a case that nearly sends him over the edge. As the story begins, the president of Mexico has just declared war on the narcos, which not only means that "badges are going to die," but also that the cartels will be gearing up to fight each other as well as the government to come out on top. But that's really the least of Mendieta's worries at the moment, since he caught the case of the murder of Mayra Cabral de Melo, a gorgeous Brazilian dancer/stripper with whom Mendieta had earlier spent some time.  Her murder is extremely personal to him and now he's devastated. As he says, while trying to "understand the abyss into which he had fallen,"
"What's wrong with me? I wasn't even in love with her, I didn't see her for more than a few days; neither did she make love any differently. But she was the one who brought me back from the brink."
Not only was she murdered, but she had also been mutilated, marring her perfect body in death. He wants to know who killed her and why,. and he will go to any lengths to find out, including tapping his connections in the criminal realm to gain information. As part of his investigation, Mendieta has to question not only criminal suspects, but politicians, high-level cops, Americans and others, and he is told that he needs to drop the case.  Around his search to find Mayra's killer,  the cartels go at it with each other and with the DEA, but even there, trust is only a matter of opinion.

As I said earlier, Mendoza's work is very difficult to read because of his writing style, for which "challenging" as a description is an understatement.  At the same time, because it was such tough going, I found myself having to read at snail's pace and it paid off. As it turns out, these books are not simply just two more books about drug cartels filled with lots of violence -- of those there are plenty, a dime a dozen these days.  Instead, they're much more about living and functioning in a place where drugs (and the resulting violence) aren't going away any time soon, since they  mean big money for the economy.   The books also shine a spotlight on the very human character of Mendieta, who kind of does his own thing less as a member of the police force than as an individual who wants answers and who knows how to find them. 

I genuinely loved these books once I figured out that I needed to move through them uber-slowly, and I seem to be swimming upstream from many readers who were stuck on style.  Yes, they're difficult, and yes, it's not easy getting through them, but in the long run, they are so worth it for readers up to a major challenge.


One more thing -- the blurb on the front cover of Élmer Mendoza's  The Acid Test says that the author is "the godfather of narco-lit."  At the bottom of the cover, author Arturo Perez-Reverte writes that Mendoza is "One of the biggest names in Mexican literature ... A true novelist" without invoking the term "narco-lit." In fact, the term itself is causing no small bit of controversy.  Feel free to read more about this controversy 

here: in a short piece in PEN Atlas by author Juan Pablo Villalobos, 
here: in an article in the Latin American Review of Books  

and about "narcoliterature" in general here at The Conversation

crime fiction from Mexico