Saturday, November 23, 2013

Peeler

  "'Never took you for the soft-hearted kind, Connoly,' O'keefe said.
  'All the best coppers are, Se├án.  It's what makes us different from our friends across the water - no offence, Constable Finch. The Irish are unafraid to sentimentalise the hopeless cases, the lost causes, the young dead whores of the world.  The English save their tears for the King.  And their dogs.'"  (422)

And that's the nut of Kevin McCarthy's Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010) - the Irish are different from the English, but that sentimentalizing can get you into trouble.  Gosh I liked this story a lot more than I expected.  Regular readers will know of my inability to get going with the much-heralded Irish crime genre.  These books win awards and get a lot of airtime in the blogosphere.  But so far, I've found them just depressing or violent or cliched or some combination thereof.  And I readily confess that a couple of chapters into Peeler, I was ready to give up again - more violence and sadness.  I'm not sure why I kept going, but I'm glad I did.

Now, Irish history is complicated, even if it is mostly a story of one failed attempt at independence or at least assertion of nationalism after another.  It gets particularly tricky in the 20th c., when independence from Great Britain is won by much of the isle, but then a civil war breaks out, and of course you know how things go in Northern Ireland until pretty darn recently.  Peeler takes place around 1920, so not long after World War I, and pre-Independence, but deep into the War for Independence.  Our Survivor (this is one story where the protagonist is indeed a good guy, but doesn't feel so much like a hero as someone who is just trying to stay alive), Sean O'Keefe, is a veteran (saw service in the Dardanelles, wounded) and a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which is the local police force and as such seen as an agent of the hated British crown.  Hated by most that is, but not by all, especially not by those who have done well under British rule.  The RIC, colloquially known as Peelers (the modern police force created under Sir Robert Peel, 19th c. British Home Secretary and PM) are actually Irish, and really only responsible for maintaining local law and order but their reluctant connection to Auxiliaries and Black and Tans (both paramilitary or just thuggish British forces sent to Ireland purely to subdue rebels) makes them targets of the IRA anyway.  The premise of this story is straightforward:  a woman is found brutally murdered and mutilated, and tarred as a traitor.  Looks like standard operating procedure for the IRA, but while this is a time when informers are punished by torture or worse, the Republicans aren't usually know to target women, and there are details to the case that are, well, unusual for the IRA MO.  O'Keefe has to investigate the crime, and is under pressure to identify an IRA killer, even if the evidence does not point that way.  At the same time, the IRA launch their own investigation, since they don't want to be saddled with it, either.  More violence ensues - predictably, but somehow hauntingly as well.

Descriptions of Peeler suggest that the parallel investigations are more important to the story than they presented to me.  While there are some interesting scenes detailing the inner workings of the IRA, this story really gained depth when it sought to navigate the delicate balance O'Keefe has to maintain between his job as a cop, his nationalist sentiments as an Irishman, his loathing of violence but willingness to deploy it when necessary, and his general disgust at the behavior of the pro-British factions.  The IRA thread of the investigation really only gains traction when it bumps up against, and must reluctantly involve, O'Keefe.  Even in this most black-and-white of conflicts, there are grey areas.  The nuanced exploration of moral ambiguities is what really makes this story stand out.

The characters are not shockingly original, but they are written with an eye to individualism and the ones you should like, you do, because they are warm, or smart, or just nice like Irish people.  I didn't quite suss out the perp until it was practically announced - partly because it was just the teeniest stretch, but more because there are some excellent diversions as the investigation unfolds.

There's a lot of rain - this is Ireland - and tea and whiskey - ditto.

The action of Peeler unfolds over the course of a week in late November, early December, 1920.  This is significant because Cork city center was burned just a few days later by Black and Tans, in reprisal for, well, you know.  I assume the author picked the dates for this reason, but I wouldn't have known had I not been digging around for a bit of background on the armed conflict in this area.  Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed in this conflagration, but except for one heart attack, the only deaths were combatants.  That's kind of amazing, but not surprising, in a time and place where pretty much everyone was a combatant.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Prague Fatale

Philip Kerr, will you ever not deliver?  How do I love your Bernie Gunther novels, let me count the ways.

Prague Fatale is a great read for several reasons, but let's start with language.  Kerr has a deft touch with noir-speak, and he pours on the lingo - bulls and polenta for cops and police, cauliflower for the officers, etc. - but Our Hero Bernie Gunther is not entirely hard-boiled.  His weakness, if you want to call it that, in the world of the Nazis is that he is no Nazi, and he has nothing good to say about them.  An earlier novel in the series mentioned Gunther's elation when Germany conquered France, hoping for a return to the Germany he cared about, full of national pride in strong deeds.  But his transfer to the Eastern Front in 1941, and terrible duties with Einsatzgruppen quickly erase any Teutonic pride, leaving him in a suicide-contemplating funk that drifts into this story.  Gunther is a survivor, despite himself, and perhaps it is his story-telling talent (because that is always the format of these stories, Gunther telling - us, the Americans, the gal on the next bar stool - his story) and dark humor that keep him alive.  Consider this example.  Gunther is just meeting Kurt Kahlo, who will be his no. 2 in Prague.
"The man who spoke had a head as big as a stonemason's bucket, but the face carved on the front of it was small, like a child's.  The eyes were cold and hard, even a little sad, but the mouth was a vicious tear."  (164)  Despite Gunther's unfavorable first impression, he and Kahlo find much common ground in their investigative styles, and develop a strong respect for one another.  My favorite example of noir-speak from the whole book describes Kahlo during a good-cop/bad-cop routine.
"Kahlo folded his arms, and looked sad, as if disappointed that he couldn't obey the order.  I didn't doubt that he was more than equal to the task of dealing with Kluckholm if the third adjutant decided to try and get tough with him.  Khalo looked tougher. Khalo would have looked tough in a bath full of Turkish wrestlers."  (303)

I find myself reaching for reference materials when I read Kerr's stories, just to get the full picture about all the characters.  I think that's why these stick in my brain for a few days after reading them.  Kerr manages that rare feat of placing fictional characters and stories in historical settings without the whole thing feeling contrived.  This must be due to very careful research, and while I'm generally suspicious of those who immerse themselves in details of uniform and rank (esp. of the Nazi regime) here it just works draw the reader in.  In Prague Fatale, Gunther has been summoned to the Czech residence of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security (including the Gestapo) and Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (meaning the man in charge in Czechoslovakia).   Heydrich is convinced there is an assassination plot being formulated against him, by one of his inner circle. And while he knows that Gunther's politics are not exactly up to Nazi standard, he likes the cop's investigative streetsmarts, and recognizes that they are the only way to get under the field-gray skins of the sycophants around him.  When another murder happens at the house, well of course it is convenient that Gunther is there to solve it.  Over the course of that investigation, Gunther learns more than he wants to about the infighting and backstabbing and arrogance and stupidity of most members of this very elite group of Nazi leaders.  I didn't research all of them, but the deeply-layered depiction of Heydrich and the Czech milieu suggest that there is a huge amount of historical legwork backing up this group portrait

I've said before that I thought Kerr's post-Berlin Noir works were a little uneven - I was particularly not wild about the one in Argentina - but he is back in tight World War II form with Prague Fatale.  And that's the final piece that makes this story work so well.  In many ways it is a classic country-house murder mystery, right down to the body-in-a-locked-room conceit and the group of characters, one of whom is . . . a murderer!  Heydrich is even reading Agatha Christie during this story!  But this permits Kerr to display Gunther's impressive investigative skills, as well as his own character writing, through a series of interviews with each of the guests, which, as everyone knows, is what you do when you find a dead body in a locked room in a country house full of weekend guests.  Unlike the chronologically ambitious but challenging plot of Field Gray, we're all pretty much in real time here.  It works to keep the story focused, but you will not escape the larger context of the Nazi's brutal regime in Czechoslovakia, the courage of the resistance, and the omnipresent Kerr/Gunther theme of the price of survival in particularly nasty and brutish world.

I always like a postscript - you know, what happened afterwards to everyone - and Kerr delivers one here that hangs around like a historical earworm.  You think you're kind of immune to Nazi nastiness, but you know, you never really are.