Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Oddballs

Last of the catch-up posts. We could also call this the random historicals.

Fin de siecle Vienna is a great setting for a novel, particularly when written by someone who has obviously done his research. When reading the Reinhardt/Liebermann series, you have the sense that author Frank Tallis spent hours wandering around the city with vintage maps, making sure that every location in his stories makes sense and is reachable by the route he describes. The authenticity extends to the mmm-inspiring descriptions of cafe culture, where each person's particular kaffee und kuchen are tailored to the character, the location, the time of day, and so on. That's some research I'd like to have been along on. Tallis' main characters are Oskar Reinhardt, a police detective with an idiot boss, and his pal Max Lieberman, a psychologist who follows that newly fashionable and slightly suspect fellow Freud. The scenes with Freud himself always feel a bit much to me, but Tallis is in fact a clinical psychologist so who am I to judge? Reinhardt and Lieberman work on really creepy crimes, that always seem to involve a lot of blood, some anti-semitism, a healthy dose of sexual or other kind of obsession (that's where Freud comes in), and a great deal of excellent music (Reinhardt sings and Lieberman plays the piano, both rather expertly) all washed down with some cigars, kaffee, and a whole lot of schlag. They are actually darker than I am painting them, but I find those cafe scenes so deliciously distracting. I've read four so far, Vienna Blood, Fatal Lies, Vienna Secrets, and Vienna Twilight, but there are a couple more (bear in mind that they, like many crime novels, are published under different titles in the UK). I think that atmospherically-speaking, they are best taken in the winter.

What is it about crime solving and good eating, that seem to go hand-in-hand in so many of these books? A series that I loved at first, and left only reluctantly, was Jason Goodwin's Investigator Yashim. This one is really sui generis, in that our hero is a eunuch formerly in the service of the Turkish sultan in 1836. Having served in the court, although now he is sort of retired from that work, he is occasionally called on to discreetly investigate crimes that could apparently topple the Ottoman empire. Yashim is aided in this work by a nutty Polish diplomat who lives in shabby splendor in a crumbling mansion, and who offers a foretaste of Poland's complete political irrelevance to the modern world. If you like complicated stories where you have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA OF WHAT IS GOING ON, these are for you. As I surely would in some dark quarter of Istanbul, I got completely lost while trying to figure these stories out. Why did I read three of them, then? Well, Goodwin's descriptions of Istanbul are absolutely mesmerizing, for one thing. Like Tallis, this is a man who has spent a great deal of effort ensuring that his settings are accurate down to the tiniest detail, not that I would know from 19th c. Istanbul of course, but consider the start of chapter 5 of Goodwin's first novel, The Janissary Tree:

"It had been a difficult morning. Yashim went to the baths, was soaped and pummeled, and lay for a long time in the hot room before returning home in his freshly laundered clothes. Finally, having explored the matter in his mind in every way he could think of in an effort to draw a lead, he turned to what he always considered the next best thing.
How do you find three men in a decaying, medieval, mist-benighted city of two million people?
You don't even try.
You cook."
(Goodwin, The Janissary Tree, p. 15)

So, yeah, he had me at "went to the baths" but it gets even better. This is a short chapter, just two pages, but it contains one of the best descriptions of an individual cooking for his own enjoyment that I've ever read. It actually inspired me to buy not one but two Turkish cookbooks, and while I'm no expert, I've thoroughly enjoyed cooking from them, particularly Classical Turkish Cooking by Ayla Algar.

I don't think that the follow-up novels in this series ever quite lived up to this moment in the first one. After The Bellini Card, which was the third, and most ridiculous, I gave up. But you know, re-reading that chapter above may make me give Goodwin another chance. It's certainly going to make me look up Acem Yahnisi, which Yasim made by taking "a chicken, jointed it, crushed walnuts on the flat of the cleaver and prepared . . . with pomegranate juice." (16)

Not really historical, but European and not fitting anywhere else (since I've not actually read any other Scandinanvian crime novels, yes, it is true I didn't read those ones about The Girl), is Henning Mankell's Wallander series.  I read several of these after watching a terrific television adaptation of the first few, starring the dreamy Kenneth Branagh as Kurt Wallander.  But after about six, I thought to myself, why am I punishing myself this way?  This fellow is so goddamned depressed that he is depressing me.  And it is all in translation which is pretty stilted (although maybe that is just Mankel) more so even than Camilleri, who is also in translation but Sicily makes up for it.  Once you get past visions of Danish modern furnished police stations, you are left with nothing but bleakness and depressed people killing each other, or trying to find out why they are killing each other, in tons and tons of snow.  Of course, that is not entirely true, they don't all take place in the winter, and there are evocative seaside settings.  But there is no good food, and while I hate lazy phrases like this, it applies here:  life is too short.

Last of the oddballs, and briefly, is Barbara Cleverly's The Last Kashmiri Rose.  This takes place in the days of the British empire in India, and while it has marvelous settings and a certain amount of romance, I kept confusing Cleverly with Cleary and the Ramona books for kids.  Tea, buckets of it, and snakes I think.  No good food, natch. 

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