Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Rising Man

I thought I was through with early 20th c. British detectives in India, given Joe Sandilands' downward spiral.  But along comes Sam Wyndham, and his adventures in Bengal, arriving by way of Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, a summer selection from the Mysterious Bookshop's British Crime Club.[1]  I'm happy to report that the sun has not quite yet set on this slender subgenre of crime fiction.

Sam is quite in the mold of Ian Rutledge, with just a dash of Joe S, set in the time, if not the locale of Indian Summers.  He’s a Scotland Yard (Special Branch) and WW1 vet, whose new and beloved wife died of influenza while he was recovering from wounds incurred at the Second Marne.  Sam’s war demons don’t haunt him as obviously as Rutledge’s, and he seems to function better in the world than that weary hero.  Perhaps this is because they are harnessed by his opium addiction, a habit that accompanies him from England. 

In A Rising Man, Sam has arrived in Bengal to take up a job with the police force, at the request of his mentor and former officer in Military Intelligence, Lord Taggart, now Commissioner of the Calcutta Police.  A white man has been murdered, and it looks to be the work of Bengali nationalists, or terrorists, as they are called.  The term is used almost quaintly here – how can the death of one or two individuals be deemed terror, when viewed from the perspective of the 21st c. where terror-sponsored deaths in the dozens are hundreds are our daily new – but of course the threat to British rule.  He has two underlings:  Digby, a what-what-old-boy Englishman who was passed over for Wyndham’s job and carries that chip openly, in addition to his long experience in Calcutta; and Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a young Bengali sergeant who sees the Imperial police force as a path to leadership in his own country.  These three are tasked with solving the murder toot-sweet, and of course have adventures along the way, tying in other, seemingly-unrelated crimes and events, and uncovering surprises about the victim and his acquaintances and various suspects along the way. 

Is there anything really new here, the splendidly-constructed setting of colonial Calcutta excepted?  Not particularly.  The characters feel a bit stock, if you’ve seen Indian Summers, and the damaged WW1 vet, while rich in plot-opportunities (plotportunities?), is someone we’ve seen before, in crime fiction and beyond.  Digby really does say old boy about a hundred times too many, most of the British (Sam excepted, of course) are colonial twats, Surrender-Not is smarter than everyone else, and fans creak slowly in a losing battle against the oppressive heat.  And there is that deeply annoying editorial tic of italicizing anything that is a foreign word being used by English speakers.  “I sat up on the charpoy, my shirt drenched with perspiration.”  (60)  “Hardly a native in site, other than the durwans, of course . . . . “ (245)  “She says they were speaking in the language of the firangi.” (290)  And of course there are endless sahibs.  I should note that this practices not as widespread – and therefore not as annoying – as in Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.  

Sam, of course, has a more enlightened view of the natives than the whites who’ve been out there forever, grounded, unsurprisingly in his personal decency and sharpened by his experience in the war.  Well, we wouldn’t want too-grim a Hero, would we?  So, he drinks whiskey instead of the expected gin, dates an Anglo-Indian girl, and thrillingly thwarts some nasty British intelligence types.  If the note on the cover “Introducing Captain Sam Wyndham” hadn’t clued us in that this would be the first in a series, there are plenty of indications that we’ll be seeing more of some of these folks.

And that would not be a bad thing.  The tale here is well-crafted, and the writing strong.  The story ends satisfyingly, and with some surprises.  The real star here is Mukherjee’s deeply detailed portrait of the city of Calcutta, now known, of course, as Kolkata.  Did you know that it was a city built by the British, starting as an East India Company trading post?  I didn’t.  In fact, it was the British capital of India until just a few years before this story is set.  Mukherjee offers a map at the beginning of the book, which is an excellent resource to support his detailed descriptions of the buildings, and streets, and neighborhoods of colonial Calcutta.  He also has a good eye for the details that stand out and mark a foreign setting.

  “I awoke to what’s euphemistically called birdsong.  It was more of a bloody racket, nine parts screeching to one part singing.  In England the dawn chorus is genteel and melodious and inspires poets to wax lyrical about sparrows and larks ascending.  It’s blessedly short too.  The poor creatures, so demoralized by the damp and cold, sing a few bars to prove they’re still alive then pack it in and get on with the day.  Things are different in Calcutta.  There are no larks here, just big fat greasy crows that start squawking at first light and go one for hours without a break.  Nobody will ever write poetry about them.”  (208)

Mukherjee effectively notes how India and Calcutta in particular, is a place where ordinary Brits can become extraordinarily wealthy.  The city’s economy grew on jute and textiles and shipping, built by enterprising Brits and Scots who came out to India with little and ended up living lives of unparalleled luxury – unattainable to them back home.  The character of James Buchan exemplifies this trajectory.   “Mr. Buchan is one of our beloved merchant princes, one of the richest men in Calcutta.  He’s a jute baron, and a Scot like McAuley [the victim].  His family have been jute and rubber traders for over a century, since the days of the East India Company.”  (45)  In case you missed it, the title of the story comes from a Rudyard Kipling quote at the very start:  “Calcutta seems full of ‘rising men.’”  Sam is obviously one, Buchan, the victim, and indeed most of the characters also, one way or another. 

Alongside the British merchant imperative was a deeply grounded sense of  “moral superiority.”  Look at the good we’ve brought you in the form of Christianity, European lifestyles, civil government, the rule of law.  Therefore we must be in charge because we’ve not only harnessed the resources and created vast wealth, but also because we are the only ones who can manage it sensibly, as evidenced by our amassing it in the first place!  Bit of circular reasoning, that, but it follows easily that the British would do whatever was necessary to protect this source of wealth, particularly from those natives who might want to govern themselves. 

By 1919, Calcutta is a soundly Imperial behemoth, grounded in Victorian values, and featuring miles of solid British buildings, but starting to be undermined by the forces of Bengali and Indian independence.  Something called the Rowlett Acts has just been passed, which basically means that the British can imprison anyone they suspect of anything, and try political cases without juries.  Everyone is a bit on edge, and Mukherjee does a nice job of situating the story within this increasingly tense atmosphere.  The Massacre of Amristar, for example, while peripheral to the plot, is an actual historical event that exposes the increasingly violent British reaction to Indian ideas about dignity and self-rule. 

I’m not going to attempt to write a history of the British in India here.  Many billions of trees have been sacrificed to the topic, so I’m sure you can find something suitable to read about it if you are interested.  The point is that the backdrop here is precisely calculated – the story only takes place over a few days – and works well to enhance both the dramatic tension and the overall atmosphere of the story. 

Mukherjee is British, but clearly of South Asian descent.  Bengali?  I can’t say.  Per the brief bio on the back flap, he “worked in finance for twenty years” prior to diving into crime fiction, and he lives in Scotland.  Regardless of whether he’s spent significant time in Kolkata or just researched it (because, being British, the colonial records are bound to be excellent sources), he’s done a bang-up job.  The verdict?  Read it! 

[1] The MB’s BCC has been a little erratic – I’ve got one I didn’t even start (a violent crime thriller - and after reading this review, I'm not sure I even want it next to the tub!) and another for which I had great hopes (spy) but about 10 pages in found unoriginal.  Still, this is also the group that sent me the latest Mick Herron, so I’ll give them a go for a little longer. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

lol my blog

Wow, I have really dropped the ball here.  The stack of read-books, waiting to be blogged, stands unmoving next to my computer, growing steadily as I read, pile, and then procrastinate.

But NO LONGER!  I'm going to bust through this pile in a new format, inspired by the extremely funny (I guess, if you're, like, in academia, or a college senior) tumblr lol my thesis.  As you can read on the About page, lolmythesis was started as a procrastinatory measure in 2013, by a Harvard College student who was looking for ways to avoid working on her senior thesis.  Submissions consist of one sentence (more or less) descriptions that succinctly and sometimes hilariously describe capstone projects.  For example:

When you ride your bike a lot of stuff happens to your blood.   But probably not this stuff because all the subjects were hungover.  (Kinesiology, James Madison University)

We drugged the hell out of some crayfish and then poked them to see if they would move.  They didn't.  (Biology, Mount Holyoke College)

You haven't heard of this 16th c. Flemish playwright named Cornelis Everaert, but you totally should have.  (Medieval Studies, Cornell University)

You get the idea.  Let's see how I do.

Ashenden, or The British Agent (1927, this edition, Doubleday, 1941) by W. Somerset Maugham
British spy gets up to weirdly bloodless (until the very end) derring-do in Switzerland and France and Russia during The Great War.  But what is his first name?
Read it if you are a student of the genre like moi.

Absolution by Murder (1994, this edition, Signet, 1997) by Peter Tremayne
Unsurprisingly red-headed seventh-century Celtic nun investigates a murder in the abbey while the future of Christianity is debated by a lot of very learned religious people.  Is that a future love interest?  Nope, 'cause he's a monk!
Read it!

The Blood Royal (2011, this edition Soho Crime, 2012) by Barbara Cleverly
Why am I still reading this?  Joe Sandilands, you should have stayed in India.
Skip it!

Real Tigers (2016, John Murray) by Mick Herron
Another win for the Slow Horses, another loss for British integrity.  On to Brexit!
Read it first!  A selection from the British Crime Club at the Mysterious Bookshop.

Bring Up the Bodies (2012, this edition Picador, 2015) by Hilary Mantel
Thomas Cromwell does Henry VIII a solid by getting rid of wife no. 2.  Hello Jane Seymour!
Read it!  Even though you know how it ends.  And even though it is not crime fiction.

Beloved Poison (2016, Constable) by E. S. Thompson
Egotistical doctors clash with a gender-bending apothecary in gross Victorian hospitals, prisons and brothels.  Try to keep your limbs about you.  
Read it!  A selection from the British Crime Club at the Mysterious Bookshop.

The Lady from Zagreb (2015, G. P. Putnam Sons) by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther zooms through time again, this time bedding a hot Croatian actress in 1943.  But Goebbels likes her too so watch out, Bernie!
Read it if you're into Nazi-crime, or if you've read every other Bernie Gunther book so you might as well read this one too.

Friday, April 1, 2016

That (true) Crime Lady

I've already mentioned that I think one of the smartest crime blogs out there is Sarah Weinman's The Crime Lady.  It is actually a newsletter, arriving every week or two, with thoughtful commentary about crime-related fiction (because straight-up mystery, while appreciated, isn't the focus of this), new fiction, popular culture related to fiction, and most interesting of all, true crime.  Weinman has a deep and darkish interest in true crime, reading and thinking and writing about it herself.  In this week's letter, you can learn about Howard Unruh, who killed twelve people in Camden, New Jersey in 1949, occasionally cited as the first mass shooting in America.  If you want to read how these kinds of events were reported 60+ years ago, Weinman directs you to this extraordinary piece of journalism written immediately after that event.  You can't stop reading it.  They don't do that anymore - why, can we not handle the syllables?

Of course, this is not the first mass shooting in America, by any count.  For an earlier example, just read Weinman's own BuzzFeed long piece about Glbert Twigg, who killed nine people and wounded many others in a shooting spree in Winfield Kansas, in 1903.  More great writing and storytelling.  This longform journalism business is the BOMB.

Well, you know that the point is that our world of fear and mass shootings isn't anything new.  Mental illness has always had a lot to do with it, and social alienation, and lack of opportunity, and all the stuff we talk about now.  Why do we have more now?  Maybe we talk about it too much, maybe we are lazy, maybe there are more of us, maybe there are more guns, maybe we are immune.  I just know that I don't want to have that feeling again that I had at school pickup on 12/14/12.  I don't think The Crime Lady will solve this but you should read her stuff anyway.  Knowledge is power!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Centurions

The Centurions (this edition 1962, E.P. Dutton, originally published in French as Les Centurions, 1960, Presses de la Cité) is the last in my impromptu trilogy of books-about-irregular-warfare.  But the best!  Despite some structural issues (plot deviations and narrative oddities that could simply be a result of translation), this novel was transporting and thought-provoking and ultimately fascinating.  Not unlike the French wars in Indochina and Algeria, it was unwieldy and disturbing and a long slog but I couldn't put it down.

Once you read the wikipedia entry on author Jean Lartéguy, The Centurions makes so much more sense.  Lartéguy was a soldier and war correspondent, which of course informs his work of fiction about soldiers who are part of the end of French engagement in Indochina and the beginning of the end of French Algeria.  He basically says this in his Author's Note at the beginning, but if you don't know much about the Algerian War, it won't make a big impact on you.  In any case, this isn't really a novel about geopolitics (although some would argue that it is that before anything else) but a story of soldiers at the tail-end of the modern imperial era, their relationship to the mother country, and the profound changes in warfare wrought by the ideological conflicts of the second half of the 20th c. The Centurions is about how soldiers engage with these issues, especially the last one.

In addition to the Author's Note, Lartéguy prefaces his story with a quote from Marcus Flavinius, a Centurion in the 2nd Cohort of the Augusta Legion.  Flavinius is depressed to learn that the citizens of Rome may no longer support those fighting to protect the far reaches of the Roman Empire.  He warns the cousin to whom is writing that "if it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the Legions!"  You don't need a sheepskin from Harvard to see where Lartéguy is going with this.

The novel is divided into three parts:  Camp One (Indochina), The Colonel from Indochina (France), and Rue de la Bombe (Algieria).  The story opens with French soldiers having just surrendered to the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  You follow a loose group of soldiers that has a band-of-brothers sensibility to it:  there is the aristrocrat (de Glatigny), the risen-through-the-ranks colonel (Raspéguy), the intellectual (Esclavier), the mercenary/intelligence agent (Boisfeuras) - I'm essentializing terribly here, but that's kind of how war novels go.  All of them are veterans of the war against Germany - some in the Resistance, some in the Regular forces, but all had participated, and bravely.  There are also some peripheral characters in the prison camp, who stay part of the story as it moves forward.  It took me a while to sort out who was who, and I'm not sure if this is because Lartéguy didn't draw his characters sharply enough, or if I'm displaying some kind of microaggression (all French names sound the same!).  At any rate, it really took me almost until the second section to gain a deeper understanding of all of them.

The prisoners endure terrible conditions, of course, and some die (many, actually, in the real thing), but the point of this section is to a) show how enduring extreme hardship bonds these men closer than family and b) what it means to fight an ideological war.  The more thoughtful of the soldiers, while they decry the absolute power that Communism requires in order to achieve its goals, understand and even in some way admire the dedication and sacrifice that the Vietminh are making.  They return to a France that considers them kind-of heroes (they fought bravely) but also kind of wants to forget them (France lost because of them).  No one wants to hear what they have to say about this new kind of enemy for which national honor is meaningless unless it comes with an absolute power dynamic that turns every resource toward the goal of victory.  Soldiers who speak of the former enemy in this manner are tagged Communists.  Basically, the survivors return, nobody understands them, and they find that they can only be understood by their former brothers-in-arms.

Does this sound familiar?  Yes, we did not learn from the French, perhaps foolishly assuming that they were just shedding the last remnants of a has-been empire while we were defeating an evil one.  You know, just because it is recent history doesn't mean you can't learn from it.

But I digress from the plot.  After returning, Colonel Raspéguy, who doesn't care much what anyone in charge thinks, and has so many medals from displaying so much crazy courage in the far east that he basically tells the French command that he's going to start his own regiment, with hand-picked officers (guess who) and a bunch of rag-tag, mutineering recruits, and they'll go to Algeria and show those rebels there what for.  And they do, the recruits are transformed by his tough leaders into soldiers who fight first for each other, then to win, then to punish whomever they are supposed to punish, and only then maybe for some vague ideal of France.  In short, they are a kind of mercenary band, under French command.  They battle the Algerian nationalists brutally, are pulled out to deal with the Suez crisis, are pissed that they can't just take Cairo, then are brought back to forcibly suppress nationalist activity in Algiers.  They must use questionable tactics to accomplish this, and claim to be unhappy about it (they are soldiers, they say, not policemen), and end up back in the Algerian mountains, patrolling the perimeter of the French empire, like Marcus Flavinius above.  The end is rather obvious, but, I gather, based in reality, so Lartéguy's overlay of ancient history isn't entirely off-base.

Distractingly, there are some love interests toward the end of the book, including the almost-laughable one where the French paratrooper thaws the beautiful-but-frigid French Algerian woman, or the colonel beds a teenager much to the delight of her family.  Oh wait, and how about the officer and prisoner who fall on each other passionately as soon as the other interrogator is out of the room?  I found these unnecessary but suppose they are part of what happens when soldiers hang around long enough.  Still, there is a sense that if only the rest of the population had fallen at their feet like the ladies did, none of that Algerian messiness would have happened.

This is, of course, a terribly brief and not very good synopsis of this almost 500-page novel.  The narrative is more or less clear, but there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and if you don't buy into the basic premise of our-army-knows-better-than-your-government you will not want to stick with it.  And I'm not quoting as I usually do because I didn't have enough bookmarks to save all the places I wanted to save, and couldn't turn the corners of the pages down else Bill would get mad at me for defacing library books.  But I do want to make it clear that if you are interested in soldiers, modern warfare, 20th c. world history, the West's engagement with Communism and Islam (for that, not the former, is the issue in Algeria - more prescience from Lartéguy!), or even just France (because it isn't all croissants and the Tour Eiffel), you should read this book as an artifact, or primary source, if nothing else.*  I've encountered the notion of combat bonds before, and if you read about soldiers at all you know about this, but the scope of the story - from Vietnam to France to Algeria - and the clearly-developed agenda is what sets this apart.  Were there really soldiers who drew so inward, who used the military to advance their own aims, who learned in Vietnam what they thought they needed to do in Algeria?  Did France really just not know what to do with herself?  If you are a follower of wikipedia threads as I am, you will learn that this is all more or less true.  Per the entry on Lartéguy, some of his characters are pretty clearly based on real-life figures.  And they weren't nice people.  They may have thought they were doing the right thing but there is a whole means-and-ends question surrounding that war.  And as for Algeria, it is important to remember (or to learn because who in America actually knows anything about the Algerian War?) that this was a terribly nasty modern war, where French actions offer yet another recent-history lesson in counterinsurgency.

Hoo boy, I am rambling here.  I've read a series of books, just happening to go in order from idolizing our Communist comrades during the Second World War to being beaten by them afterwards.  By The Centurions the ideology has receded, replaced by force for force' sake.  It is hard to condense this compelling tale, and I suppose many of you won't read it unless you have to for school or something.  There is apparently a movie, "Lost Command," and a sequel - The Praetorians.  I don't know if I need more justification of French brutality in Algeria, but the movie, well, et tu, Netflix?

*And there are the the larger questions of nationalism, colonization, ideology, and self-determination.  We think it is awesome that we threw off the British yoke (with French help!), so why demonize the Algerians, as the French generally did, when they tried to do the same?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Game, Set, Match, Life

Why is she making a tennis reference, you are asking yourself.

If you've been reading Crime Pays for a while, you know that more than anything, I value good writing.  And the late Bud Collins was one of the best.  Who didn't enjoy perusing his sizzling columns, full of onomatopoeia and what my daughter's third-grade teacher would call spicy words, brimming with energy and enthusiasm and just plain life?  Even those completely ignorant of tennis could come away with an appreciation of the sport and the personalities therein.  I'll miss the pants, but I miss the columns even more.

There's been a lot written about Bud since his passing last week, absolutely all of it laudatory - was there ever an individual more beloved in his or her field?  But I liked today's letters to the editor in the Boston Globe the best.  They haven't put them on the regular website, but if you go here you can read them.  The Latin teacher who started every class with Bud's column?  Now that's a tribute.