Monday, March 26, 2018

Babylon Berlin, by Volker Kutscher

Picador, 2018
originally published as
  Der Nasse Fisch. Gereon Rath erster Fall, 2007
translated by Niall Seller
423 pp


Read earlier this month.  Actually, Babylon Berlin is a book I didn't even know existed until I watched the Netflix series with this title a few weeks back.  When I saw that it came from a book, I knew I had to read it.  I also have the second one, The Silent Death, sitting here but it will have to wait until I return from vacation.  Speaking of the Netflix series, anyone planning to read this book should know right up front that the book is not the series -- they are two very different entities, so a word of warning:  don't expect the novel to be a mirror to the television show.

If you don't make comparisons in your head as you go along, giving the book a chance to speak for itself,  this first installment of the series featuring Gereon Rath makes for a pretty darn good read.  It is set in 1929 Berlin, during the waning years of the rather decadent Weimar period, and is our introduction to Inspector Gereon Rath, who has come to Berlin from Cologne and has been assigned to the Vice division, thanks to his father pulling the right strings after he suffers a major disgrace in his home town.  While Rath is busy keeping down porn and making his way through the city's underground nightclubs, the Homicide Division is struggling with the case they've nicknamed "Aquarius." It's a case that is driving the division crazy; they have very little to go on aside from the fact that their victim was tortured before he died of a heroin overdose and the car he was in was sent purposefully into a canal.

 In the meantime, a tangle in his lodging-house room one night with a Russian man sets Rath on the trail of the prior tenant, who has dealings with underworld gangs and anti-Stalinist communists.  It's then that he hears the strange story of smuggled Russian gold, but more importantly, his own secret investigation, plus info he gets from Charlotte, a young Homicide department stenographer, gives him what he feels might be the upper hand in the Aquarius case -- a  "nasse fisch," (wet fish) --  now a case "put on ice."   Solving the case on his own is especially important to Rath for his own reasons -- he can't stand the "arrogant homicide detective" running Aquarius, and with his knowledge that he keeps to himself, he "looked forward to the day when he could show him up..."  But he's also carried a lot of baggage from Cologne to Berlin, which has some personal bearing on the importance of solving this case.

 Everything is looking great for this young and ambitious Inspector, right up until the time when things go horribly wrong, putting both his career and his life in serious jeopardy.

Inspector Gideon Rath, from the TV series -- Nordic Drama

Political struggles on the streets, seedy underground nightspots run by rival gangs, rival Communist factions, all pale in comparison to the real story here, which is the corruption that permeates all levels of this city.  For Gideon, who's still getting used to how things work in Berlin, trying to figure out who exactly he can trust also becomes a major issue. He's in an unusual spot of being both insider and outsider; he has no interest in politics, and in a very big way he comes across as being rather naive.

First novels in a series are generally the weakest, but this one is actually quite good.  I mean, the reality is that there is a book two and beyond so we know things are going to work out, but I swear, I was on pins and needles throughout,  wondering how Rath was going to fare.  But there's also the element of the here and now in this city that captured my attention; there are brief mentions of Hitler and of Nazis but this is a very "in this moment" sort of book that doesn't really give any clue as to where Germany will go in the next few years. 

One reader noted that this book reminded her of the novels of Marek Krajewski, but I'm not sure I agree with that assessment -- Krajewski's work gets down into the deepest decadence of this period in ways that this book and author never do.  I've also seen more than one comparison of Babylon Berlin to the work of Philip Kerr, but again, I don't think that's exactly accurate either. And to those readers who found this book "too long" and "tedious," well, there's also a graphic novel available.

If you can divorce yourself  while reading this book from the stunning Netflix series, it turns into a very good read.  Otherwise, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment since aside from people and a couple of plot elements that carry from page to screen, the two are very, very different.  Do not miss the series though; unexpected twists in every episode will keep you glued and wanting to binge.

On to book two.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Neighborhood, by Mario Vargas Llosa

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018
originally published as Cinco Esquinas, 2016
translated by Edith Grossman
244 pp


I'm posting about this book here because the dustjacket blurb says that it's a "crime thriller."  While there is a crime (a murder, as a matter of fact), the book is certainly much more than just mere crime-fiction fodder.   I will say right up front that in terms of the writing,  The Neighborhood is nowhere close to the excellence of his other books (Feast of the Goat and Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter spring to mind immediately); having said that though, I think it is a book worth reading,  most especially because it comes down to the question of journalistic integrity in a country rampant with corruption.

We're in Lima during the 1990s when Peru was under the leadership of Alberto Fujimori. The topics that "obsessed every household in those days" were
"the attacks and kidnappings of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement, the MRTA, the blackouts almost every night because electrical towers had been blown up, leaving entire districts of the city in darkness, and the explosions the terrorists used to awaken Limeños at midnight and at dawn."
 Citizens are under curfew; many business people have fled the country taking their money with them.  Not so Enrique Cardenas -- "Quique to his wife and friends" -- an engineer who has made his fortune in mining.   He is visited one day by the editor of a "yellow" magazine by the name of  Rolando Garro, who tries to blackmail Quique with photos that reveal Quique's participation in a drug-fueled orgy some time back.  Garro had been in journalism for some time before he found his true calling, "to use as he pleased and  help to ruin without pity," and he was popular among a
"public delighted to follow his revelations, accusing singers and musicians of being faggots, his morbid explorations of the private lives of public persons, his 'first fruits' exposing the base and shameful acts that he always exaggerated and at times invented."
Enrique doesn't pay and the photos are splashed all over the front page of Garro's magazine Exposed. The scandal that follows is bad enough for Enrique, but when Garro is found dead close to the neighborhood known as the Five Corners "the navel of Barrios Altos" and "one of the most violent neighborhoods in Lima,"  Enrique becomes a suspect, things quickly get worse.  But the murder also has other  outcomes that will land squarely on the shoulders of Garro's star reporter, Julieta Leguizamón, aka Shorty.

It doesn't take too long before the reader notices that this book is split into two very different worlds. The author begins in that of the Cardenas family and their friends, who live in the lap of luxury,  own properties and go for weekends outside of the country, and who are free to indulge in some rather hedonistic pleasures (including the sex scene that opens the novel which occurred because of the curfew).  The two women in these families seem bored and in need of distraction.   Their money cushions them from the realities of the hardscrabble life of the residents on the streets of Barrios Altos,  the world inhabited by people like Shorty and by Juan Peineta, a former popular, well-known reciter of verses (including those of Neruda) who used to have his own radio show and now waits in line for his single meal of the day at a local convent.   But corruption knows no boundaries in this book -- it permeates through this city at all levels.

Aside from the unnecessarily long, drawn-out sex scenes (which I didn't like at all, but I got the point) and the unnecessary subplot attached to them, The Neighborhood is a good, not great book, which when all is said and done, for me comes down to a question of journalistic integrity and truth amid a climate of corruption.  And although it's set in the 1990s, it is highly relevant at the moment, an even better reason for reading it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

*Prince Zaleski, by M.P. Shiel

Valancourt Books, 2010
originally published 1895
84 pp

With Prince Zaleski, my time in the 1890s and the nineteenth century comes to an end, although I still have tons of books sitting here from that decade which I'll eventually come back to.  And that brings up a good question -- with all of  the books from that time sitting here still unread, why Prince Zaleski? The answer is simple: it combines mystery/detective fiction with  fin-de-siècle Decadence, something I hadn't yet encountered in British detective fiction of the period.

Briefly, Prince Zaleski was published as part of John Lane's Keynotes fiction series of books published between 1893 and 1897. As we learn in the introduction to this edition by Paul Fox, contemporary reviews were mixed.  For example, H.G. Wells panned the book, saying that Lane  "in his short but brilliant career" had never "published anything half so bad before." He calls Zaleski "Sherlock -- demented..." while he goes on to say that "the book is too foolish even to keep one laughing at it," questioning its placement in the Keynotes series.  Oops. At the same time, Vanity Fair gave it a fine review, calling it "a very superior article altogether," a book that was "intended for the delight of a very superior class of readers." (x)   

In Prince Zaleski the strange mysteries that he ponders are brought to him by a character named "Shiel." As the first story, "The Race of Orven," opens, Shiel (who is unnamed at this point) reveals that Prince Zaleski had been a victim of a
 "too importunate, too unfortunate Love, which the fulgor of the throne itself could not abash; exile perforce from his native land, and voluntary exile from the rest of  men!"
He lives in a "place of hermitage," a "brooding-place so desolate for the passage of his days," which Shiel sees as a "vast tomb of Mausolus." It is an old mansion which has definitely seen better days -- in the hall, for example, which was built along the lines of a "Roman atrium" complete with "oblong pool of turgid water," Shiel encounters a "troop of fat and otiose rats."  Dust clouds are everywhere, and Shiel  describes a  "funereal gloom" that permeates the place. He finds Zaleski is at home in a small apartment in "remote tower of the building," the entrance of which is guarded by his manservant Ham.  Evidently the Prince is quite fond of pot -- the air was "heavy" with the "fumes" of cannibis sativa.   There are all manner of Asian curios surrounding Zaleski, none the least of which is a sarcophagus with a rotting mummy within, culminating in an effect of a "bizarrerie of half-weird sheen and gloom."

 After some hash smoking and breakfast the next day, Shiel gets to the point of his visit, which has to do with the mysterious death of a certain Lord Pharanx.   After Zaleski manages to solve that particular enigma, two more cases are presented to him: "The Stone of the Edmundsbury Monks" and "The S.S."  While I'm not going to go into particulars of any of the three cases here,  Zaleski combines his encyclopedic brain and his powers of deduction  to provide answers via the armchair detective method in the first two cases, while taking on a more active role of investigator in the third.

There might be something to the "Sherlock -- demented" comment by H.G. Wells, but it becomes obvious not too long into the book that Prince Zaleski seemed to have been written more with Poe's Auguste Dupin as a model for the detective side of the main character.  Having read Poe's Dupin stories just last year, I can say that Shiel employs the same sort of "ratiocination" technique here as did Poe with his detective.  I have very mixed feelings about Prince Zaleski, precisely because of the style in which the solutions were given (which I didn't care for in the Dupin stories either) in the first two stories,  but I thoroughly enjoyed the sort of arcane and esoteric lore that comes out of Zaleski's head that helps him to solve his cases.  My favorite mystery is "The S.S." which is a horrific case of either mass suicides or murders; this one continues to have relevance to our times, but in my opinion it is the best of three cases here.

Prince Zaleski is the quintessential aesthete, which appeals to me, as does the Decadence tone of the book as a whole.  In his Glorious Perversity, Brian Stableford sets Prince Zaleski in the group of "most intensely lurid products of English Decadence"  between 1893 and 1896 including Studies of Death, by Count Eric Steinbock, The Stone-Dragon and Other Tragic Romances, by R. Murray Gilchrist, Machen's The Great God Pan and the Inmost Light, and Shiel's own Shapes in the Fire. (119).

Bottom line: while it's probably not going to grab the hearts and minds of modern crime/detective fiction readers, it is very much worth reading for others who are more inclined toward the weird, the esoteric and the just-plain strange.  This is not at all an average Victorian detective book, and it takes an extremely brave and patient reader to get through it.  But it is definitely a book I'm very happy to have read.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

*Miss Cayley's Adventures, by Grant Allen

Valancourt Books, 2016
originally serialized in The Strand, 1898-1899
220 pp


"I am an adventuress ... and I am in quest of adventures." 
                                                                 -- 36

Continuing on with my look at crime/mystery/detective novels of yesteryear, Miss Cayley's Adventures presents a bit of a surprise.  To be very honest, I hadn't heard of it until 2016 when it was republished by Valancourt, and even then I bought it and shelved it thinking I'd get to it sooner or later.  As I began to research exactly what books I wanted to read in my little independent survey here, I kept coming across this title, so here we are.

Because I don't really read reviews or too much in the way of plot synopses before I pick up a book, I assumed this book was going to be another Victorian work of the exploits of a  female detective much along the lines of the previous ones I've read and talked about here. But no -- with Miss Lois Cayley I got way more than I bargained for.  She is, like Loveday Brooke, an example of the "New Woman" of fin-de-siècle Victorian literature; at the same time, unlike Loveday Brooke, Miss Cayley does not make detection her specific profession. She is 21, has just finished her studies at Girton College and although (according to her friend Elsie Petheridge) her next logical step would be to teach, Miss Cayley is not at all interested in becoming one of the group of "dear good schoolmistresses."

from Project Gutenberg

Instead, she views herself as "a bit of a rebel," and has devised a plan of
"going out, simply in search of adventure. What adventure may come, I have not at the moment the faintest conception. The fun lies in the search, the uncertainty, the toss-up of it."
She also has only twopence in her pocket, but has made up her mind to "go round the world."  Her first opportunity for adventure arises when she overhears a "Cantankerous Old Lady" complaining loudly about having lost her maid just as she's about to go abroad and head for the waters at Schlagenbad.  Lois offers herself as traveling companion to the woman, Lady Georgina Fawley, to travel with her and to stay for one week, giving Lady Georgina plenty of time to find a replacement maid. After all, as Lois considers,
"The Rhine leads you on to the Danube, the Danube to the Black Sea, the Black Sea to Asia; and so by way of India, China, and Japan, you reach the Pacific and San Francisco; whence one returns quite easily by New York and the White Star Liners... the Cantankerous Old Lady was the thin end of the wedge -- the first rung of the ladder!"
Lady Georgina accepts, and Miss Cawley's journey begins; she proves her worth early on, even before they arrive in Germany, by thwarting the theft of Lady Georgina's jewels by a fellow passenger whom she knows only as "The Count."  This is only the first of many adventures that will befall Miss Cawley as she makes her way to several destinations; along the way she will compete in a cycling competition against German army soldiers, take on a mountain rescue when Lady Georgina's nephew takes a nasty tumble and can't climb back up, unmask  a bogus faith healer, take part in a tiger hunt, and much, much more. Her detection skills serve her best when they are most needed, especially at the end of the book.

"I gripped the rope and let myself down."  from Project Gutenberg

One thing that the author does very carefully here is to discern between connotations of the word  "adventuress."  This is one of the main themes running throughout the book, beginning with Lady Georgina's worries that her nephew Harold (who has fallen for our heroine and wants to marry her) will be tempted by "some fascinating adventuress" who will "try to marry him out of hand," and that she must make sure that he is saved from "the clever clutches of designing creatures." Lois considers herself an "adventuress," but not in the negative term as set forth by Lady Georgina -- but because of what his aunt has said, feels the need to refuse Harold's proposal of marriage. As she says:
"I dare not tell you how much I like him. He is a dear, good, kind fellow. But I cannot rest under the cruel imputation of being moved by his wealth and having tried to capture him." 
To put it briefly into context (and just FYI, I find I get much more out of my reading by doing so, not because I want to be an "authority," but to make myself a more informed reader), according to Joseph A. Kestner in Sherlock's Sisters: The British Female Detective 1864-1913, the author here is offering a repudiation to an essay written by the "virulently anti-feminist" essayist Eliza Linn Lynton, whose "animosity towards....the New Woman" was noted even in her obituary.  She referred to them as "Wild Women" who had about them "an unpleasant suggestion of the adventuress."  While Linton's name appears in the text of Miss Cayley's Adventures, it seems that, as Kestner notes, "many aspects of Lois Cayley's character seem created to challenge the predispositions of opponents of the New Woman." (124)  And once again, as in the case of Loveday Brooke, we find the question referring to the meaning of "ladylike"  come up more than once. 

Miss Cayley's Adventures is a surprisingly fun hybrid of detection, travel narrative and adventure, with a bit of romance thrown in, but it's so much more. The words "plucky heroine" come to mind, but that's really sort of belittling what the author does here with his lead character.  It's a book I could chat about for hours, and is a refreshing and never-dull  take on the Victorian New Woman, but there's much, much more going on here as well.   And the fact that it was written by a man makes it even more interesting, in my opinion.  

While my copy is from Valancourt, it is also available online at Project Gutenberg. Very much recommended, especially to those looking for something different in their reading or for early detective novels featuring an independent woman as a lead character.  It's also a book to just relax and have fun with while looking forward to whatever adventure waits around the corner for our Miss Cayley. Dear reader,  I loved her.