Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Fatal Grace

Louise Penny's second Inspector Armande Gamache-not-ganache, A Fatal Grace, is an approporate read for the holidays, taking place as it does over Christmas in the hopelessly picturesque Quebec village of Three Pines.  It's cold in Quebec in December, skin-burning, oxygen-depriving, life-threatening cold.  But the snow is charming, the bistro cozy, and the tea and hot toddys steam merrily.  And the murder is fiendish!

While there is a slowly-revealed backstory involving some deeply controversial case on which Gamache did the right thing to the dismay of his colleagues, most of A Fatal Grace focuses on the ingenious murder-by-electrocution of CC de Poitiers, a self-centered, cold, and almost universally loathed self-styled lifestyle guru.  CC is killed in the middle of a crowd at the annual Boxing Day curling match, but no one seems to know anything about what happened other than that this was no accident.  There is no shortage of suspects, including a new set of Three Pines denizens known as the Three Graces, three doyennes of the town who are universally respected and adored.  There is also a sullen lover, a weak husband, and an emotionally abused daughter.  Could be any of them, right?  And did I mention the missing mother? 

Penny does like to get her little crowd of Three Pines citizens together - Peter and Clara, Gabri and Olivier, Myrna, and Ruth - and have them chat wittily over cozy dinners.  You may find that a bit cloying.  Can there really be a such a cohesive group of slightly eccentric but charming, intelligent, warm individuals in any town?  What happens in summer when there are no fires to crackle cozily as backdrop?  But despite this nod to small-town perfection, the mystery here is compelling and there is enough uncertainty about the new folks in the story, and the other threads that Gamache is trying to keep together, to keep you quite engaged. 

And if the story doesn't do it, Gamache himself is so darn likable that you keep reading to see how he'll resolve whatever new tangle is revealed.  Smart, thoughtful, and eminently positive about the future of the human race in spite of the horrors he sees regularly as a homicide detective, Gamache infuses his scenes with grace and intelligence.  How can you not like a man who thinks that two of the greatest inventions of the late 20th c. are the remote starter and heated seats for cars? 

I guess that this is it for 2012.  I got lots of books for Christmas, not all mysteries (most not, actually), so more reading head.  Happy new year!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Death on the Marais

I really wanted to like Adrian Magson's Death on the Marais (Allison & Busby, 2010).  Takes place in France, in a time not too far (but far enough) removed from our own.  Written by that Magson chap whose Harry Tate series (well, the first one anyway) I found entertaining.  Lauded by mystery bloggers here and there. 

But it just didn't happen for me.  It's not a bad story - two threads, one fairly obvious, the other the murder bit.  In the first, Our Hero, Lucas Rocco has been more or less rusticated , sent away from Paris in an administrative shakeup, to Picardie (a map would help).  It's not a punitive move, but he apparently regularly pisses off his superiors with his tough guy approach to policing so it is convenient.  We're told this multiple times, esp. via the irritating little chapter sub-headers that appear for the first half of the book. 
"Lucas Rocco?  Insubordinate bastard.  And insolent.  A good cop, though.  Capt Michel Santer - Clichy-Nanterre district." (10)
"Sgt. Rocco?  Solid  . . . professional.  Pity he hates officers.  But hey, who doesn't?  Capt Antoine Caspard - Gang Task Force - Paris Central."  (79)
"Rocco?  A gentleman.  A cop, too, unfortunately, but he always treated us like ladies.  Mme Viviane Bernard - escort services provider - Etoile"  (141)
These subheaders mysteriously disappear after Chapter 18.  But by then we get the point, good cop, rough around the edges.  Do I even need to mention he's divorced, no kids?  And saw combat in Indochina, suffering from a mild case of PTSD with respect to his experience at Dien Bien Phu?  Rocco also suffers from some very mild PTSD in his case caused by his experience at Dien Bien Phu.  This means flashbacks in the swamp, and while I don't mean to belittle the experience of PTSD or the humiliating French denouement in Vietnam, in Rocco's case it just feels a little shallowly written.  Why did he join the army in the first place?  There's an interesting side story with his then and now commanding officer in the new region, involving their shared past in Indochina. 

 I should also note that as with Harry Tate, Magson employs that most irritating of thriller fiction methods, the cliff-hanger chapter.
"'Because whatever took his hand off wasn't just a dodgy grenade. It was part of a detonator. The kind used with plastic explosives.'" (168, Ch. 21 ends)
(169, Ch. 22 begins) "Claude stared at him. 'He was using plastique? That's madness.'"
Irritating, too.
Anyway, surprise!, a body is found in a wartime cemetery, a young woman dressed in a rented Gestapo costume.  She turns out to be someone of substance, financial anyway, and how she ended up in a WW2 cemetery is the story. 

Despite the Indochina references, and the close connections to WW2 resistance, the story did not feel as deeply set in the mid-1960s as I'd have liked.  Other than references to old models of Citroën, and the relative paucity of telephone lines (land lines, natch), it just didn't transport me temporally.  Maybe I'm spoiled by Benjamin Black's extreme attention to period detail that drops you into the 1950s before you turn the first page.  Even the wartime promises, heroics, and betrayals that form the heart of the story just felt like they could have been 50 years ago instead of 20.  Consider this stock-ly sterile scene: 
"There were few other people about and no traffic.  A paper bag blew across in front of him, cathcing on a telegraph pole and fluttering in the breeze.  It felt like a scene from a western movie, where the white hat walks towards certain death and dubious glory against the black hats at the other end of town.
Cue a cowboy's lament."  (227-228)
Or a reader's.  There must be a better way to embed the sense of menace in a rural French town, than dipping into American film stereotypes? 

The one thing that does give a bit of a shiver is the omnipresence of UXBs from both of the wars fought in France.  WW1 artillery makes a wood a deathtrap, and WW2 shells open the first scene.  You are reminded of how profound was the impact of these wars on this civilian population. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Elegy for April

The "crime" in Benjamin Black's Elegy for April (Picador, 2010) is not particularly heinous, although its precipitating events, which we only learn about at the end, are hard to read.  In fact, we really don't know that there has been any sort of criminal activity at all for most of the book.  We know only that Phoebe Griffin's friend April Latimer, has gone missing.  Phoebe turns to her father, the recently dried-out one-named Quirke, for help.  And in his big old way, Quirke rather bulldozes his way to a conclusion. 

Quirke's and Phoebe's relationship is the center of the story here.  Since Christine Falls, we've learned how strained, how close, and how constantly tested it is.  I'll simply say that it's not entirely clear that things are improving here, despite everyone's half-hearted efforts.  Quirke can't stay dry, and Phoebe can't get past her past (not surprisingly, given the events in Christine Falls and The Silver Swan).   But Black's gorgeous prose and elegant atmospherics will keep us coming back for more.  What a master at setting up a depressing scene.  The story here takes place in winter, so Dublin is apparently permanently shrouded in fog and mist (until the end of the story, when things CLEAR UP).  But for much of the story, we get scenes like this:  "The sun somewhere was trying to shine, its weak glow making a sallow, urinous stain on the fog."  (38)  Others might just say that the sun was trying to break through the fog, but not Black - his sun is urinous.  This sums up Black's Quirke novels.  Life is just not that great, and sometimes downright awful.  But it is what we have, and like democracy, beats the alternative.

And of course, Black employs his (to me) almost-trademark of setting the scene by smell.  Consider:
"She went out to the kitchen.  Night smells, she had often noticed, were different from day ones, were mustier, fainter, more insidious.  She drew open the lapels of her silk gown and put her face into the hollow there and sniffed.  Yes, her smell too was different, a babyish, secret staleness."  (150)  There's an eroticism, a sense of menace, and a truth, all here.  Later, "The house had a stuffy, morning smell of bedclothes and bath soap and milky tea and bread that had been toasted under a gas flame."  (264)  Of course there is.  You know just what he's talking about.

There are two more Quirke novels, but I have to spread them out.  They really are kind of depressing to read, but so rich and compelling that they satisfy in spite of themselves.  Despite Quirke's efforts to obliterate his mind through drink, he keeps on keeping on, and you do too.

Red Station

You might feel a little guilty reading Adrian Magson's Red Station (Severn House, 2010) the first in his Harry Tate series.  There's no fine writing here, a la Benjamin Black.  What atmosphere there is, is oppressive and uninviting.  And Our Hero, Harry, is pretty straight-up:  no hidden psychological backstory for him.  Sure, Harry is angry that he's been relegated to a remote, off-the-grid posting in Georgia (as in Back in the USSR not peaches).  He oversaw a drug bust that went bad, not his fault, but he's in charge, so he takes the fall.  And that fall is to be sent to this unknown little remote post, staffed by a few others who misbehaved somewhere along the line.  It feels like a dead-end, career-wise, except no one told Harry that no one actually returns to active service from Red Station.  And now that the Russians are coming (really!), there is a bit of a problem for the UK to what to do with all these apparently misguided operatives who are directly in the line of fire.  It's not the fire that worries them, rather that even bad agents know more than we want the Russkies to find out.  So, who is after them, who knows about them, and how do they get out. 

I can't figure out why I enjoyed this so much.  The prose is serviceable, but poorly edited (do we need the word tits twice in one paragraph?).  And Magson employs one of my most-disliked mechanisms, the cliff-hanger chapter end.  I've never understood the point of ending a chapter in mid-conversation.  I'm not going to stop reading just because someone has put in some sort of artificial break like a chapter number.  The story even has that set-piece of spy thrillers, the desperate trip to the airport.  Finally, what is the point of the cover photo of snow-covered roofs?  We're not in Siberia for chrissakes.

But Red Station is a good yarn, moves fast, and like what I THOUGHT it was, MI-5 the telly series, is totally believeable in a cheerfully paranoid sort of way.  Harry's lack of psychological baggage is a refreshing change from so many of Our Heroes (up next:  Quirke, the master baggage handler, who offers quite a contrast).  We know that Government is behind all sort of nefarious schemes.  And, great to see the Russians as the bad guys still.  So I think I'll pick up another Harry Tate tale.  As it happens, I have another book next to the tub by the same author, this a completely different series, featuring a French detective in the 1960s.  I've given it a couple of starts, and see that Magson's inability to vary his prose strikes again. But the tale seems to involve some of la Resistance, so WW2, here we come!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pompitous news!

Great news from over at Mystery Fanfare:  more Bryant and May in the pipeline!  Read about it here or even better, in Christopher Fowler's own blog here

One is yet to be published in the US, then there is a graphic novel (not sure how I feel about that - do I really want someone else's images to replace those in my mind's eye?  Still, my son might enjoy it.), and then two more novels.  I wasn't crazy about the last one, but am optimistic that more arcane absurdities await.  They're not dead yet!


Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Sunday morning and blissfully, no one else is up

In today's New York Times, my mentor (she doesn't know about this) Marilyn Stasio gives a strong endorsement of The Black House.  So, I guess I'll just have to try that again.  Somehow the newly positive me is not quite so interested in the depressed Hebrides, but if Marilyn likes it . . . .

I'm soldiering, not entirely unhappily, on with Harry Tate/Pearce.  I've just decided that in my minds' eye he IS Peter Firth.  Something is going to go down in Georgia, and I'm pretty sure that our Harry will save the day.

Finally, The Rap Sheet sent me to an interesting Huffpost article about the essential differences, and evolution thereof, between British and American crime fiction.  You should read it if you read this genre; I think you'll agree. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back to Grimsville

I was due for a letdown after my South Pacific idyll, I know.  But Peter May's The Black House was simply too abrupt a transition.  Twenty pages in, there has been a depressing attempt at teen sex in a dirty old shed in a deeply conservative town where nothing else happens, a horrifically, um, disturbed corpse, and our apparent hero trying to get his life back together after his child has apparently been killed. 

Yeah, I've tossed that the for the relatively bloodless world of a good old British spook, Harry Tate, in Adrian Magson's Red Station, "A Harry Tate Thriller."  Now, normally the word thriller would be enough to turn me off before even getting started (see Child 44).  And indeed, I had a false start here too, abandoning the already abandoned-by-his-agency Tate for Ben Kella and Sister Conchita.  The Solomons totally have it going on over the Essex marshes. 

But you know I love love love the British telly series MI5, and I THOUGHT it was connected here, that's why I bought this bloody book in the first place!  Known in the UK as Spooks, THAT MI5 team was led by Harry Pearce, who can always be counted on to make the right decision, especially when it means defying his superiors at Whitehall.  But you know what?  That was Harry Pearce and this is Harry Tate.  Now where did I ever get them confused?  In my own mind, apparently. 

So now I'm stuck in bleak Georgia, with a bunch of disgraced British spooks, and the Russians are coming.  Tate seems like a good man though, so I guess I'll stick around and see what happens. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012


You may find yourself reaching for your Michener or your Mailer after reading Graeme Kent's debut novel, Devil-Devil (SohoCrime, 2011).  Because, you might, like I did, find your taste for this part of the world rather whetted by Kent's congenial tale of a combo police sargeant/spiritual peacekeeper and a nosy nun in the Solomon Islands.  Maybe it was just the hugely refreshing change from grim old Europe, and the Vastly Important Struggles Between the Forces of Light and Dark that consume WW2 and Cold War detective fiction.  Maybe it's just that the sun shines (when it is not raining) and the men run about in shorts or less.  The women, too.  I've a feeling we're not in Cambridge anymore.

Our Hero in Devil-Devil is Ben Kella, favorite if complicated son of the Solomon Islands, brilliant mission-educated student, courageous fighter of the Japanese, police sargeant, and aofia, which is a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper of the Lau people who live on Malaita.  In other words, Ben has a foot in both the British colonial community and the native world, and as a result is really not entirely trusted by either.  It's that usual theme of the outsider solving the crime, but in this case, Ben has to draw on his ultimate insider status of aofia to find out what exactly is going on in the high bush country.  There's been a death of an old saltwater man, an old corpse has been unearthed and discovered to have also been murdered, the first dead guy's grandson is soon killed, an American anthropologist has disapeared and then when they start shooting at Sister Conchita, well, you know its going to get complicated.  Did I mention that Kella is under a bones tabu, placed on him by the old, feared and revered headman, Pazabosi? 
"Kella was suddenly aware that they were not alone.  Thirty yards away at a bend in the track stood a tall elderly islander with a helmet of grey hair.  It had been years since they had last met but Kella recognized him at once.  For a moment the two men stood with their eyes locked.  Slowly, almost reluctantly, the old man lifted a short carved bone onto which he had impaled a bladder of a bonito fish glowing with phosphorous.  The islander pointed the stick at Kella.  At the same time, with his other hand, he lifted a bag made with a pandanus leaf and rattled the contents viciously.  Abruptly he turned and was lost to sight among the trees.
  Peter Oro looked at Kella.  All traces of the youth's truculence had vanished.  Suddenly he was just another frightened village boy brought against his will into contact with the ghosts.
  'That magic man has cursed you, Sargeant Kella,' he said, his voice shaded by misery and despair.  'Now surely you will die!'"  (18)
Spooky.  In a good way.

A great strength of this book is Kent's effective portrayal of the culturally complex island communities with myriad dialects, customs, and lifestyles.  The scenes in the capital city of Honiara, on Guadalcanal, particularly reveal this, with a bustling Chinatown, various different groups of islanders, British expats, and of course, the missionaries, all going about their business.  We learn pretty early on that the Solomons expect to become indepdenent from Great Britain (they are in 1960 a protectorate), and that awareness lends a certain energy to everyone, since everyone's going to want a piece of the new country, presumably.  (In fact, independence doesn't come until the mid-1970s, and then it is really only self-rule, QEII remains the head of state.)  And the setting is terrific - there really are palm-fringed beaches, and coconut trees, and waterfalls going over cliffs.  Kent doesn't overdo the tropical paradise bit, but places you deep in the islands with an economy of words. 

But back to those missionaries, because they are central.  Our Other Hero, Sister Conchita, is a nun from Boston with a habit (sorry) of causing trouble from getting overly involved in local situations.  Here she's in it up to her neck in the beginning of the tale, being involved in the unearthing of that old corpse, but then she pretty quickly removes to Honiara, where she operates a little behind the scenes, but mostly sits out the exciting parts of the story back on the island of Malaita.  The back-of-book description is a little misleading in this respect, since it implies that Kella and Sister C. will be working together to solve the crime, which they are not really.  The final scene is a set-up for future books in the series, so apparently that's where the team bit will come.  Still, the mission aspect is in some ways the most interesting because it is a long-settled white presence in the islands.  In some ways it is tolerated much better than the British government, and of course in other ways it is completely disdained by the islanders, who have their own belief systems and while polite, aren't really ever going to take on the Praying Mary's. The best missionaries, in the sense of being the most successful at integrating with the local communities, are the ones who go a little native - who actually make an effort to understand how the locals live, with some respect and less interference.  In that way, they are just one more group working and living on the islands, trying to get along.  Kent's churchy crowd are diverse and mostly sympathetic characters, even if he does play that old trope, the crafty old nun (Sound of Music anyone?) for laughs. 

I did not like the relative lack of Sister Conchita (more nuns fixing the old jeeps please!), and the almost complete absence of native women - except as set decoration or enthusiastic sex partners.  Given that Kent is an older white guy, the happy natives enticing the men with sex just jarrs. One could almost say that what we've really got here is a madonna-whore complex, although I think that might be an extreme interpretation.  You cannot argue that Kent does not know his subject:  according to the book's bio, he spent years in the Solomons working in education and broadcasting.  The setting and multi-culti aspects ring true.  He is actually a long-published author and sounds like an interesting guy, you can read an interview with him here.  So, I'll reserve judgement and hope that the ladies show up, smartly, next time.  I'll certainly check out Kent's next offering in the series, One Blood. 

As an interesting postscript, I learned from wikipedia that the Solomon Islands went through a civil war in the late 1990s-early 2000s, and are today considered to be a failed state.  Or perhaps stillborn.  It is interesting to think about that against the backdrop of this book, which looks forward so hopefully toward independence from whitey. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


You may recall that I rather raved about the first J. Robert Janes novel that I read, Mayhem, featuring an unlikely pair of detectives from the Sûreté, Jean-Louis St-Cyr, and the Gestapo, Herman Kohler, set in Occupied France.  I love the conceit of crime carrying on during the occupation, the developing relationships and respect between St-Cyr and Kohler as they find common ground against their enemies (sometimes from within their own systems), the damp and dank and depressingly realistic images of the City of Light in Nazi darkness. 

Nevertheless, about, oh, I don't know, maybe 20 pages into the sequel, Carousel (1993, SohoCrime edition 1999), I found myself thinking, yes, but this one is worse than the first!  Let me put it another way, for about 50% of this book, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING ON.  Well, that's not fair, I do know that there were three (perhaps four) murders, a few more related deaths, a couple of possible rapes, a healthy dose of familial deceit, not to mention black market dealings, looting of luxury goods, Gestapo rafles (roundups) of hostages, and any number of people - French, German, others - looking out for themselves first and their country or cause second.  I do know that our heroes are in it up to their necks, since no one trusts them after they turned up a murderous Gestapo colonel in the first book (at least . . . I think this is what they did).  And I do know that Paris is dark, and damp, and hungry, god is it hungry, and the only people with enough to eat are the Germans. 

Maybe I am getting old or slow or am just plain too stupid to have survived the labyrinth of loyalties that marks this world of German dominance and French collaboration.  I cannot keep all the Germans and their departments straight, nor the various French factions (most of whom work for the Germans, in this story anyway).  Janes' habit of referring to people and organizations obliquely, by the street name or the branch of service that they represent, for example, is a challenge if you can't remember that this group at this address follows that service, and so on.  And I just find the idea of calling St-Cyr "the Sûreté" all the time, a bit contrived.

But I did have an ephiphany while reading a scene in which St-Cyr and Kohler are in with Kohler's boss at the Gestapo, Walter Boemelberg.  I found myself thinking, if I could see what was happening, watch this scene play out, I'd know instantly what was happening.  I'd have visual cues galore of uniforms, props, faces.  Without that, it all jumbles together.  So maybe Janes is a closet scriptwriter.

The fragmentation of plot works against a clear trajectory, but as was the case with Mayhem, there are beautifully written scenes that pop up now and again.  As in that first book, St-Cyr visits his lady friends Chantal and Muriel, an elegantly aging couple who run a very high-end parfumerie and lingerie shop on the place Vendôme.  They take him in for a few hours, feed him, bathe him, provide a new suit of clothes, offer any number of nubile young lingerie models should he wish for that kind of diversion, and provide valuable clues in the form of perfume identification and professional knowledge about the state of German-controlled silk supply chain.  St-Cyr and Muriel spar over a sample.
"'Lemon grass' breathed the Sûreté [see what I mean?] with excitment.  'Rosemary and coumarin.'
'Yes, yes, don't trouble me,' she scolded.
The nose was flattish, the cheeks still strong - indeed all of Muriel's features exuded strength.  But in perfumes and their concocting she had perhaps her only sign of weakness, apart from her friend and lifelong companion.  The voice was one of gravel and incongruous in a perfumer.  'There is musk and civet in this and it has the anger, Jean-Louis, of a woman who knows her own mind and body.  What we used to call a "fast" woman.'
'Sex . . . sex with many men,' whispered Chantal with great modesty.
'The civet is subtle, the musk has been used mainly to accent its sharpness.  There is some Balsam of Peru, some sandalwood - she wanted those elements of mystery - the wildness of thyme as well.  A woman of much abandon, Jean-Louis.  One who teases, or did so, since she can longer be so young and foolish.'
'The cloves of Bourbon and a touch of sweet fennel?' he said, watching her every expression wiht all too evident admiration.
So loyal!  Ah, Mon Dieu, it was at once tragic and elevating to see Monsieur Louis and Muriel exchange views like this.  A sensitive man, an unmarried man now, a widower.  Childless too.  Another tragedy but for the best.  Ah yes.
'The lime is for the acid with which she would turn each of her love affairs into bile.'
'Are you certain?' he asked.  One could have heard a pin drop.
Muriel took a last breath of the scent.  'It was called Revenge, Jean-Louis, and it was made by a German in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.  Gerald Kahn.  He died in an automobile accident in Cannes in 1926.'"  (193-194)
Fantastique, eh?  I love the tension, and again, this is a scene I can totally see playing out on screen.  Would that they were all this contained and clear.

I don't know if I'll rush out for the next in this series right away.  I need to recover from the hopelessly complicated final scene, which involves all the possible killers of all the dead people, and a few others as well.  But I wouldn't mind smelling Revenge!

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Ministry of Fear

One wants to do a book like Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear (1943, this ed. Penguin, 2005) some justice with a serious review - this is not an I-liked-it-so-you-should-read-it kind of book.  Rather, it is a slow burn of sorts, hanging around in the back of your mind until, finally engrossed, you find yourself sitting alone at 6:30 on a Monday morning madly reading while eating your oatmeal, because you have to finish it otherwise it will torment you all day. 

I've read a bit of Greene, but wouldn't have known to have picked up this one had I not happened upon it mentioned on The Rap Sheet as one of those books One Must Read.  Greene, as it happens, wrote a fair amount about crime, and as Alan Furst's informative introduction will tell you, actually worked for British SIS in Africa during WW2.  So it is not so surprising that this experience gets turned into a very dark, very quiet tale of mysterious doings in London during the Blitz.  In one sense (well, in the only sense I know, actually) it's classic Graham Greene - a lone wolf of sorts gets caught up in a moral dilemma far larger than his puny existence, and has to struggle to decide whether to involve himself at all, or to walk away and continue his humdrum, if depressed, existence.  There are chasms on every side of the path that the characters walk - real danger lurks here, existential terror there.  No choice offers a partcularly positive outcome, so what does it  matter what Rowe (I can't refer to him in my usual sense of Our Hero - he is, but he is so not) chooses to do, since there is no clear way forward.

And that's what is ultimately so compelling about this tale, its absolute grounding in the uncertain, gray, amoral world at war. Published in 1943, The Ministry of Fear is suffused with a bleakness that is a sharp rebuke to so many stories written by authors who know the ultimate outcome of that conflict.  Reading this, you almost forget how it turned out, but you never ever lose sight of the absolute disruption of the present.  Greene's description of an air raid is brilliant in its mundane devastation.
"They hadn't heard the plane this time; destruction had come drifting quietly down on green silk cords:  the walls suddenly caved in.  They were not even aware of the noise.
    Blast is an odd thing; it is just as likely to have the effect of an embarrassing dream as of man's serious vengeance on man, landing you naked in the street or exposing you in your bed or on your lavatory seat to the neighbor's gaze."  (19)

This isn't to say that Greene's Britain during the war is hopeless, far from it.  Consider this description of driving back into London early in the morning after a raid. 
"They came into London with the early workers; along the industrial roads men and women were emerging from underground; neat elderly men carrying attache-cases and rolled umbrellas appeared from public shelters.  In Gower Street they were sweeping up glass, and a building smoked into the new day like a candle which some late reveller has forgotten to snuff.  It was od to think that the usual battle had been going on while they stood on the island in the pond and heard only the scrape of the spade.  A notice turned them from their course, and on a rope strung across the road already flapped a few hand-written labels.  'Barclay's Bank.  Please inquire at . . .'  'The Cornwallis Dairy.  New Address . . .'  'Marquis's Fish Saloon . . .'  On a long, quiet, empty expanse of pavement a policeman and a warden strolled in lazy proprietary conversation like gamekeepers on their estate - a notice read, 'Unexploded Bomb.'  This was the same route they had taken last night but it had been elaborately and trivially changed.  What a lot of activity, Rowe thought, there had been in a few hours - the sticking up of notices, the altering of traffic, the getting to know a slightly different London.  He noticed the briskness, the cheerfulness on the faces; you got the impression that this was an early hour of a national holiday.  It was simply, he supposed, the effect of finding oneself alive."  (170)
Keep calm and carry on, indeed.

The thing about Greene is, no matter what he is writing about, or where it takes place, he writes utter truths that sometimes shake you to your core.  When Rowe is at his bleakest moment, he thinks back to his childhood, worrying at the signs of his moral decay like you might wiggle a loose tooth.  Greene pushes harder. 
"In childhood we live under the brightness of immortality - heaven is as near and actual as the seaside.  Behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities:  God is good, the grown-up man or woman knows the answer to every question, there is such a thing as truth, and justice is as measured and faultless as a clock.  Our heroes are simple:  they are brave, they tell the truth, they are good swordsmen and they are never in the long run really defeated.  That is why no later books satisfy us like those which were read to us in childhood - for those promised a world of great simplicity of which we knew the rules, but the later books are complicated and contradictory with experience; they are formed out of our own disappointing memories - of the V.C. in the police-court dock, of the faked income tax return, the sins in corners, and the hollow voice of the man we despised talking to us of courage and purity.  The Little Duke is dead and betrayed and forgotten; we cannot recognize the villain and we suspect the hero and the world is a small cramped place.  The two great popular statements of faith are 'What a small place the world is' and 'I'm a stranger here myself.'"  (75-76)
Have you ever read a more devastating declaration of the casualty of growing up? 

So, yes, you should probably read this book.  Greene was a contemporary of Eric Ambler's, and if you hadn't already figure it out, Furst will remind you, a spiritual ancestor to John Le Carre, as well.  These guys of course have the lock on the good-guy-in-a-bad-situation genre, but Greene's are so nuanced that they stand unnervingly apart.  I had a little trouble getting into The Ministry of Fear - the first third is bewildering, and you might wonder if it is worth sticking around for more.  It is. 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

If you like noir . . .

then apparently you must read True Confessions by John Gregory Dunne.  I don't delve into those dark depths so much, but this discussion over at The Rap Sheet made me want to via this novel.  Now that's what I call a good review. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Series-ly dull?

Reviewing my reading since I started this effort in January, I find that I've deepened my narrow little rut even further by reading series, mostly, instead of stand-alone books.  It's fair to do so - once you find a hero you like, you want to see what other adventures he (as noted a few posts ago, rarely she) may get up to.  Perhaps the setting is one that is particularly resonant for you, or offers the best escape from your humdrum life, or the food - or promise thereof - is always particularly good.  By the third book or so, the writing falls away as a motive for continuing to read that author.  You know the books are well- or at least, interestingly-written, so it does not come as the welcome surprise it might in a brand new story. 

But wow, I bet it is dull for anyone reading Crime Pays!  With the very recent exception of the downhill alert on Ian Rankin (who of course has written about twenty books since then so this is entirely personal and not at all a commentary on his overall ouevre), a review of a book in a series to which I'm already positively inclined is likely going to be positive.  And everyone knows that there is not much more dull than a positive book review. 

So, here's saying that I'll try and mix it up a bit.  Except that I've got another Benjamin Black and a Robert Janes on the pile next to the tub, so we'll need to work through those first.  Not exactly hardship duty.

I'm also noticing that I never really did say what was for dinner.  You'll have to friend me on Facebook to find that out. 

10/22 UPDATE.  I received an update from the Euro Crime blog, noting the new reviews that they've posted lately.  Check it out:  They are almost ALL of books in series!  Fifth in a series, first in a series, third in a series, and so forth.  I don't know what to make of this.  The comfort-factor of reading through a series of familiar characters cannot be denied, but there is at the same time a sense of mass-production here, and a question about originality.   I've read none of these reviewed on Euro Crime, but my own reading so far would suggest that Cotterill and Camilleri are far out ahead of their compatriots in terms of originality of series.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Hey, that was 50!

Tooth and Nail was my 50th post on Crime Pays.  Not bad for someone with no followers.

I should have mentioned that I've been delving into Graham Greene's The Ministry of Fear, but confess to having a hard time getting going with it.  I know that there are such disaffected individuals in the world, and that their alienation from society is just heightened during wartime, but man, I just cannot connect with Arthur Rowe.  I'll keep at it, however, because one feels a certain obligation to just buck up when reading stories set during the Blitz. 

Tooth and Nail

I was maybe half-way through Ian Rankin's Tooth and Nail (St. Martin's Minotaur 1992), the third in the Inspector Rebus series, when I started to wonder why I had stayed with Rebus into the third book.  He's not particularly appealing, or smart, or even interesting as far as I can tell.  And in this story Rebus doesn't contribute a whole heck of a lot to the plot development, other than a few startling insights and hunches, which, I get it, are sometimes the stuff of brilliant deduction.  But here they just feel like an effort to get to the next stage of the investigation. 

Rebus has been seconded to London to help with an investigation into a grisly series of murders by a perp who seems to operate according to no particular pattern other than to really do nasty things to his victims, and leave a characteristic bite mark on their bellies.  Since he's in London, the perpetually depressed and work-obsessed Rebus takes the opportunity to visit with his former wife and their daughter, and that goes about as well as one might expect, which is to say kind of dismally.  He has a massive inferiority complex about being from the sticks (Edinburgh, hardly, but according to Rebus everyone looks down on Jocks).  He meets a predictably gorgeous, predictably mysterious woman with whom he predictably sleeps early on.  She is predictably involved in the resolution of the story.  Rebus and his English counterpart, George Flight, have predictable conflicts, and predictable resolutions.

Our hero presents himself - to be fair, this is his own assessment - as old (he's what, in his forties?  hardly!) and overweight.  Despite references to books and religion "Where was the religion for man who believed in God but not in God's religion?" 241, while trying to get a taxi, for chrissake), he comes across not particularly smart - an unnecessary foray into the British Museum where he learns about the Rosetta Stone seems a heavy-handed way to make a point about the attention to detail required in good police work.  And he's a stubborn cuss, perpetually on the brink of losing his job over his inability to follow orders.  Of course, like all coppers, he drinks too much, sleeps too little, and operates on the brink of exhaustion.  But there is no forgiving this:
"Rebus put down the telephone and felt an immense weariness take control of him, weighting his legs and arms and head.  He took several deep breaths and rose to his feet, then walked to the sink and splashed water on his fce, rubbing a wet hand around his neck and throat.  He looked up, hardly recognizing himself in the wall-mounted mirror, signed and spread his hands either side of his face, the way he'd seen Roy Scheider do once in a film.
'It's showtime.'" (135)
I've seen All That Jazz, and John Rebus, you are no Bob Fosse.  I don't mind a flawed hero, but please make it interesting!

I will say that there are some terrific red herrings in this story.  These involve some situations and characters that are introduced just subtly enough to inject a frisson of uncertainty into the proceedings.  So, the climax is not predictable, but it is ludicrous.  One wonders if the author couldn't decide quite who the killer should be, and drew a name out of a hat as he was writing the last couple of chapters.

Time to give Rebus a rest for a bit.

Friday, October 5, 2012


After my third Aurelio Zen mystery, by the late Michael Dibdin, I've decided that I really don't like our hero much.  In Cabal (First Vintage Crime, 2000; originally pub. 1992) Zen presents as insecure, self-absorbed, and occasionally clueless (a particularly stinging rebuke when considering a police detective, but he is!  Even I could see that switcheroo with the Milanese politician a mile away.)  Zen completely misreads his girlfriend, the fabulous Tania Biacis (perfectly played by the gorgeous Caterina Moreti in the otherwise less-than-stellar PBS version).  He agrees wholeheartedly to whatever the powerful Vatican types ask.  He tries to be corrupt, and isn't even particularly good at that.  I'm having a hard time understanding what Tania sees in him. 

But I'm coming to the conclusion that for me, the Zen stories are not really about Zen.  The writing is occasionally beyond good, into extraordinary. Consider this excerpt from the opening scene in St. Peter's basilica:
     "At first the noise sounded like electronic feedback transmitted via the loudspeakers, then the screech of a low-flying aircraft. One or two departing tourists glanced up toward the looming obscurity of the done, as the man with the suede jacket and gold chain and the woman in the tweed coat and white scarf had been doing all along. That certainly seemed to be the source of the eerie sound, somewhere between a whine and a growl, that billowed down to fill the basilica like colored dye in a tank of water. Then someone caught sight of the apparition high above, and screamed. The priest faltered, and even the congregation twisted around to see what was happening. In utter silence all watched the black shape tumbling through the dim expanses toward them.
     The sight was an inkblot test for everyone's secret fears and fantasies. An arthritic seamstress who lived alone in an automobile body shop in the Borgo Pio saw the long-desired angel swooping down to release her from her torments of the flesh. A retired chemist from Potenza, on the other hand, visiting the capital for only the second time in his life, recalled the earthquake that had recently devastated his own city and saw a chunk of the dome plummeting down, first token of a general collapse. Others thought confusedly of spiders or bats, superhero stunts or circus turns. Only one observer knew precisely what was happening, having seen it all before. Giovanni Grimaldi let go of the nun's bouquet of flowers, which scattered on the marble floor, and reached for his two-way radio.
     Subsequent calculations demonstrated that the period of time elapsing between the initial sighting and terminal impact cannot have exceeded four seconds, but to those watching in disbelief and growing horror it was a period without duration, time free. The figure might have been falling through a medium infinitely more viscous than air, so slowly did it appear to descend, revolving languidly about its own axis, the long sustained keening wrapped around it like winding robes, the limbs and trunk executing a leisurely saraband that ended as the body smashed headfirst into the marble paving at something approaching seventy miles per hour." (5-6)

Great, huh? So, Zen is brought in for a discreet investigation to confirm that this is nothing more than another jumper in the basilica, an unfortunately not uncommon occurrence in the heart of the Catholic Church. Of COURSE this is no suicide. There will be a few more deaths and some connections to decaying Italian nobility, not to mention reference to the Knights of Malta and a side-trip into high fashion, before we get it all sorted out. And the revelations at the end, while not expected, are surprisingly satisfying.

Of course what really draws me to the Zen stories are their setting - Rome mostly, but other parts of Italy too.  Dibdin sets the scene with convincing authority, and his discussions of the rampant corruption - serious and not so much - and general incomprehensibility of Italian bureaucracy add an edginess that tempers the otherwise too-picturesque stage.  Here he is on public transportation:
     "In Piazza della Republica [we are in Milan right now] Zen boarded a two-coach orange tram marked 'Porta Vittoria.'  A notice above the large wooden-framed windows set out in considerable detail the conditions governing the transport of live fish and fowl.  Goldfish and chicks, Zen learned, would be conveyed (up to a maximum of two per passenger) providing the containers, which might under no circumstances be larger than 'a normal parcel or a shoebox,' were neither rough nor splintery, dirty nor foul-smelling, nor yet of such a form as to cause injury to other passengers.  The remainder of the text, which laid down the penalities for flauting [sic] these regulations, was too small to read with the naked eye, but the implication was that any anarchistic hothead who took it upon himself to carry goldfish or chicks on trams without due regard for the provisions heretofore mentioned would be prosecuted with the full rigor of the law."  (211)

You have to think that Dibdin came up on just such a notice while riding a tram in Milan one day and said to himself "I have GOT to use that."  Zen, recalling a recent conflict with some Japanese tourists regarding a taxi, suggests that "If they really want to understand Italy, they could do worse than give up taxis, take to public transport, and ponder the mysteries of a system that legislated for circumstances verging on the surreal while yet unable to ensure that the majority of its users even bought a ticket."  (211) 

I don't think I've read a better summary of Italy than this. 

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Love Songs, postcript

I've not mentioned that Madame Daeng owns a highly acclaimed noodle shop.  mmmm noodles.  Need I say more?

Love Songs From a Shallow Grave

If you've read some of Colin Cotterill's excellent Dr. Siri Paiboun series, set in post-revolutionary Laos in the late 1970s, you have a sense of what life is like in a totalitarian state.  But man, you don't know doodly until you read his latest, Love Songs From a Shallow Grave (Soho Press, 2010) and follow Siri to the killing fields of Democratic Kampuchea.  The trip to Kampuchea is not the main investigative plot of this story, but it is what remains seared into your memory long after the mystery of the three epées is resolved. 

The whole gang is back here - Siri, Madame Daeng, Phosy and Dtui, Mr. Geung, and Civilai of course.  And there are threads of love and loss and obsession - with an individual, with an idea, with a political ideology - that tie the plots together in a subtle way.  The big story is the straight-up investigation of three separate murders that all involve an expertly deployed epée, but that otherwise have very little in common.  As is usually the case, Siri's sprit friends don't have much to say about the investigation itself, despite his efforts to get someone to give him some help.

What the spirits do have something to say about, however, is his impending diplomatic trip to Cambodia (he doesn't yet get that it is officially Kampuchea now).  And shockingly (for Siri) his spirit-mother actually speaks, warning him not to go.  Siri and Civilai head out, transiting through Beijing, and come to discover that the Cambodia Siri visted in his youth, with his first wife, has disappeared, replaced by a menacingly quiet, deserted, and destroyed place.  What happens after that, well, you can probably guess if you know anything about what happened in Cambodia in the mid-1970s.  It makes Laos look positively congenial, and definitely bush-league when it comes to totalitarian regumes.  What happens specifically to Siri does indeed involve his spirit friends, and if it has nothing really to do with the epée murders, is nevertheless completely gripping.  Siri is taken the edge of existence in a far more compelling way than I recall in any of the other books in this series

What makes Cotterill's series so great?  Where to start.  The characters are beautifully drawn - complex and individual, but not to the point kookiness, they are eminently believable, and all likeable.  Sense of place - the atmosphere is carefully described, with the rain and the mud and the river, and everyone's once-comfortable now shabby and threadbare lifestyle.  Still, there is a underlay of positivity in this restricted world, which Siri attributes to an essential Lao lightheartedness, and I can only thing that Cotteril believes in it, too.  It is in jeopardy at the beginning of Love Songs, but there is nothing like a trip to Democratic Kampuchea - and coming back - to make you look on the bright side of life. 

One back blurb described the book's humor as "very subtle, very British," and while I wouldn't say it is subtle, it is definitely not of the madcap Braynt and May variety, it's definitely at a continuous chuckle level.  The story opens with Siri being considered for Hero status, by the Department of Hero Creation, part of the propoganda section of the Ministry of Information.  Here's how that whole world is explained:
"Following a Politburo decree, the words Minister and Ministry had been liberated from the dungeon of antisocialist political rhetoric and new ministries had mushroomed.  There was infighting within each ministy as each department and section vied for its own ministerial status.  Everyone wanted to be a minister.  The secretarial pool at the new Ministry of Justice had put in an application to become the Ministry of Typing and head clerk Manivone had put her name down to become the Minister of Changing Ink Ribbons.  Dr. Siri had helped her with the paperwork, and it had taken several bottles of rice whisky to get it right.  Of course, they hadn't submitted the form. The system didn't have a sense of humor."  (7)
Unlike Siri and co.

Cotterill's blog suggests that this may be the last in the Siri series.  It makes sense, this story is darker and more profound, and you can't keep doing that stuff indefinitely at Siri's age.  But while he does resign from his post as national coroner at the very end, I hope it is telling that Siri's re-hashing of the epée case with Phosy starts by noting "Police work?  That was a different matter.  That was fun.  That wasn't messing with the dead.  It was, in many respects, striving for the rights of the living.  They couldn't keep a good closet detective down."  (311)  Gosh, I sure hope not!

Is there some sexism happening here?

It has just occured to me - in a blinding flash of the obvious, dawn breaks over Marblehead - that in crime fiction, the MEN write about MEN and the WOMEN write about WOMEN.  And they almost never ever cross that bright line.  Furthermore, there are a lot fewer books with female protagonists, at least in the collections that I've read. 

Now, there are some exceptions.  Magdalen Nabb's man in Florence was Guarnaccia, and there are Louise Penny, Ann Cleeves, Grace Brophy, and Donna Leon writing about men.  (Many about Italian men.  Is it the men, or Italy, or the food?)  But other than Michael Genelin (Jana Matinova), have I come across many male writers have female protagonists?  (Charles Todd is sui generis, being a mother and son who write together under a pseudonym about a man.)  There are some men who write excellent supporting female characters:  Christopher Fowler's Janice Longbright and Phoebe and Sarah and really all the messed-up gals in Benjamin's Black's works are compelling characters in their own right, essential participants if not the driver of the plot. Maybe I'm not looking hard enough. 

Women write about women.  Rebecca Cantrell gave us the interesting Hannah Vogel, negotiating Nazi Berlin, and Cara Black's Aimee Leduc charges around Paris.  And Charles Todd has that nurse, Bess whatshername Crawford doing good in WW1 England.  (They are equal opportunity that way.)

It has also just occured to me that generally speaking, I don't find the female protagonists that appealing.  Do I judge them more harshly?  Do they not meet my preconceived notions of what a crime-solver should be?  Do I just not want to deal with girl problems?  I liked Hannah Vogel, am on the fence about Jana Matinova, and couldn't stand Aimee Leduc.  Have I just been conditioned in some nefarious social manner to prefer male protagonists? 

I don't actually think there is much sexism happening here, but I like phrase, from Caitlin Moran's How To Be a Woman, "is some sexism happening to you?"  Her litmus test for sexism is, is this polite or not?  I believe I am being perfectly polite in my interpretations of these characters.  But am I viewing them all through some social goggles that I didn't realize I was wearing?  Am I aiding and abbeting some sexism without knowing it? 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Spanish Salvo?

The Rap Sheet has really been on fire this past couple of weeks, sending good reading ideas into my inbox on a regular basis.  The "flamenco-loving, brandy-tippling"description of Chief Inspector Max Cámara, of the Spanish Policia Nacional, along with the apparently complex web of nefarious activity he's investigating, makes me wonder if he could be the Spanish Salvo Montalbano?  I can't imagine that anyone could dethrone Salvo, but it may be worth leaving Italy to find out.  Apparently Jason Webster's second book in this series, A Death in Valencia, also involves the murder of a prominent paella chef named Pepe.   That's alloteration!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Trace of Smoke

Even if it does employ that old trope of the kinky-crime genre, the Nazis, Rebecca Cantrell’s ATrace of Smoke still delivers an engrossing tale of crime in pre-World War II Berlin.  I’ve finally figured out that crime fiction set in the Nazi era works best when our heroes are part of the system, even if they rebel (quietly or not) against it.  Like Bernie Gunther, Cantrell’s protagonist Hannah Vogel lives and works in Berlin, and has to figure out how to do that without completely pissing off the emerging Nazi power structure.  It is 1931, so they are not quite officially in charge yet, but the party and it’s thug-arm of the Sturmabteilung (SA) are making their menacing presence felt by beating up Jews, boycotting businesses, and enforcing laws against perverted behavior (despite the fact that half of them engage in this behavior with great enthusiasm).  These stories are more interesting, more nuanced, and ultimately more believable when it is a member of that society trying to work it out, trying to not to believe that his/her country is going down this ghastly road, rather than an outsider like a British journalist, for example, who can be more easily outraged and simply horrified at it all.  The insider perspective gives a little window into that old question:  how did the Germans let this happen? 

Hannah is a crime journalist, so is all too familiar with the seedy underside of Berlin, which in 1931 is pretty seedy indeedy.  She knows what the Nazis are capable of, but also is all too aware of the dreadful crimes regular folk commit, and still thinks Germans will come to their sense over this brownshirt terror business.  Her brother is a singer in a gay nightclub, and the story opens as she discovers he has been murdered.  Hannah’s path in this tale is pretty straightforward, she wants to find out what happened, but along the way she meets all kinds of characters, Nazi and otherwise, who are a lot more complicated than their brown shirt or future pink triangle might indicate.  Throw in a lost child, some rare jewels, and a hot banker, and you’ve got a pretty good story. 

Cantrell writes with confidence about pre-war Berlin, not surprising given that she lived and studied there for years.  The settings are carefully researched, and there are some surprisingly tasty meals!  (Wurst, plum cake, sauerbraten, Berliner weisse, anyone?)  There is an excellent overlay of Depression-era poverty, demonstrating that a lot of Germans are just struggling to get by, and this grounds this story more realistically than one finds in many tales of Nazi excess.  The bit about shopping at Wertheim, and leaving the store, is terrific in a sad and chilling way.

A Trace of Smoke is the first in a series of four books, so far, featuring Hannah.  I was slightly put off by the action-packed intro to the second one, The Night of Long Knives which is included in the back of this book.  Too much derring-do doesn’t do it for me.  But I’m sure I’ll read it.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

That Dreamy Wallander

Masterpiece Mystery starts a new series of Wallander tonight.  Kenneth Brannagh might just get me back to reading Henning Mankell.  He really rocks stubble.

Black Diamond

Martin Walker gets his journalism wonk on in this latest installment of the delicieux Bruno Courrèges series, Black Diamond (Knopf, 2011). What exactly do Perigord truffles have to do with the demise of France’s empire in the middle of the 20th c.?  Not a heck of a lot, except that gatherings at meetings and meals and funerals provide an opportunity for lots of expository dialogue about the dark underside of covert ops during Algerian War, the demise of French empire in Indochina, illegal immigrant trafficking, Green politics, and whatever else is on Walker’s mind.   It is a pretty complicated mix, and while Bruno is as satisfying as always, the setting is spectacular as usual (hunting season in November!), and this installment provides the best meal yet, the overall affect is unnecessarily kaleidoscopic.

It is November in Perigord, and that means hunting season – of the animal and plant variety.  Bruno has been learning the lore of the truffle trade from his old and respected Hercule Vendrot.  There is also social unrest in St. Denis, as a tough old businessman is shutting down a sawmill after newly-passed environmental regulations make it impossible for him to stay in business.  So, there is an unhappy proletariat, and more jubilant Greens (we seem them in all of the Bruno stories, they are clearly a group who have Walker’s attention).  And while there are some new unsavory characters – local business types and would-be politicians – Bruno is as always supported by his fabulous coterie of pals:  the Baron, Pamela (formerly known as The Mad Englishwoman), Fabiola and the Mayor all from St. Denis; JJ, the Brigadier, and even Isabelle from various security operations.  There may be some underhanded doings at the local truffle market, and there is clearly something very complicated and Oedipal going on in the mayoral race, where are father and son are running against each other, threatening the good work of Bruno’s friend the mayor.  There’s a gruesome murder, and I haven’t even gotten to the Asian turf wars yet between the established Vietnamese community in France and the emerging and largely illegal Chinese population. 
So, yeah, there is a lot going on.  But we need a lot of background to prepare us for the action that actually moves the plot forward, and so we must endure long conversations that include exchanges like this between Bruno, Hercule, and the baron.
“’One thing I wanted to ask you,’ Bruno said quickly.  ‘That place you mentioned – Bab el-Oued.  What was it?’
‘It’s a suburb of Algiers, where the pieds-noirs used to live before we lost the war and they fled back to France.  They were French settlers, the poorer ones, but the wanted Algeria to stay French.  When de Gaulle decided to pull out, Bab el-Oued became the heart of the OAS,  But that phone was taken before then, when they still loved us, before de Gaulle decided that there was no choice but to grant Algeria its independence.’
‘Like the rest of the army, I found some very welcoming girlfriends there,’ said the baron.  He was staring into the fire.  He looked up.  ‘You were already married, Hercule.’
‘This was all before I was born,’ Bruno said, who read enough history to know the broad outlines of the Algerian War.  ‘Still, every time I ride in the baron’s Citroën, he tells me how the car saved de Gaulle’s life when the OAS tried to assassinate him.’ 
‘Organisation de l’Armée Secrète.  Not only did they come close to killing de Gaulle, they came damn close to staging a military coup back in sixty-one, with half the army on their side.  They took over Algiers and people were panicking about parachute drops in Paris.  De Gaulle ordered the air force to patrol the Mediterranean coast with orders to shoot down any transport planes headed north.  The baron was one of the few in his unit who did not join the OAS.’
‘Would you still be friends if he had?’
‘Absolutely not,’ said Hercule.  ‘I’d probably have shot him.’”  (29-30)
If Bruno read enough history to understand the broad outlines of the Algerian war, and has heard about how the baron’s Citroën saved de Gaulle, he probably doesn’t need it spelled out for him.  But we do, whether it ultimately has anything to do with the plot of this story or not.  It is all interesting background, but you feel a little bit lectured. 

Still, even with all of these history lessons, Walker’s writing about life in Perigord still bewitches.  It is autumn, and there are cold walks and frosty ridges and crackling leaves.  There are lots and lots of fires, and it is often dark when Bruno gets up to walk Gigi.  But best of all, as always, is the food.  It’s France!  How can it be otherwise?  The murder victim is a hunter, and apparently the tradition in hunting circles is to wake a deceased comrade with vast banquet that includes meat the hunter procured.  Over the course of chapters 12-14, Walker intersperses various bits of action and exposition with absolutely drool-worthy descriptions of Bruno preparing a venison casserole, a crème brûlée with truffles, and a truffle soup.  The venison, and wild boar bones used for the soup stock came from the deceased hunter.  To this, other hunters add a pâté that the deceased had helped to make, roast pigeon, a salade, pommes de terre sarladaises (which is potatoes cooked in duck fat), and a cabbage and bacon and red wine dish.  There is champagne, and wine of course, and it goes on all night, causing massive hangovers the next morning that are remedied by the baron’s private recipe of raw egg, orange juice, and harissa.  The whole event is just an evening, but it takes three chapters to do justice to the tradition’s execution and consumption.  “Bruno never ceased to be amazed at how these cooking tasks almost automatically, the legacy of dozens of hunters’ dinners such as this and feasts for family and neighbors after the annual slaughter of a pig.”  (164)  Me too. 

When did source become a verb?

I can barely keep up with the output of the authors I like already, so getting to new writers is a real challenge.  The Rap Sheet has pointed me toward another useful source of information however:  Euro Crime.  Today they have a huge list of euro and Brit crime that is to be published over the next few months.  Good lord, how is a gal supposed to keep up with this.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Age of Doubt

I like to read in situ, when possible, which means that if I am travelling to, say, England, I like to read books set there. So, being on an island for vacation, I brought along the latest Andrea Camilleri, The Age of Doubt (Penguin, 2012) because of course it takes place in Sicily, which is, yes, an island. But the other, far more in-situ book on my bedtable, Geraldine Brooks' Caleb's Crossing (Viking, 2011) called, since it takes place on the actual island that I am on, Martha's Vineyard (not to mention my hometown of Cambridge, MA). Actually, I started Caleb first but tossed it aside as too introspective for my mood - if I am not introspective, why would I waste my leisure-reading time on people who are? - which was a mistake because then, guilt-ridden, Camilleri didn't satisfy either. I'm glad I returned to Caleb, because that is a lovely novel that New Englanders, Vineyarders, Cantabrigians, and really anyone interested in 17th c. lives should read.

And as always, I am glad that I returned then to Camilleri's perpetually exasperated and hungry masterpiece of Salvo Montalbano. Our hero is aging, however, and we find him here contemplating death, doubting his abilities, hornswoggled a bit by younger women, and possibly newly in love (the long-time girlfriend Livia notwithstanding, she makes only a cameo appearance on the phone here, although she is forever in his thoughts since one of the principal bad guys is a sexual predator named Livia).  Like The Potter's Field, this is a return to the better Camilleri.  The actual crime - well, other than the unidentified corpse in the dinghy - is not revealed until pretty late in the tale, but we know something fishy is going on, and we're happy to join Salvo as he tries to figure it out.

There are certain set pieces in Montalbano novels, that please readers of series like me. It wouldn't be the same, if, say, Catarella didn't talk like he was straight out of a dumb side of Brooklyn, or Salvo didn't visit Enzo for a delicious meal, or take a contemplative walk on the jetty afterward, or a hot shower in his enticingly attractive seaside home in Marinella.  Where would he be without housekeeper Adelina to cook for him, devoted underling Fazio to figure everything out, wayward underling Augello to test his manhood by boasting of his own exploits? 

Another thing that I like about Camilleri's writing is how he reveals the plot in little vignettes, and doesn't spend a lot of time setting the scene or describing any backstory to us.  Salvo has to figure it out, and so we do along with him.  The comparatively ornate settings of, say, a Louise Penny or Charles Finch (part of the cozy mystery crowd) just don't happen here, we see the police station and Enzo's and the harbor just in outline.  And while Salvo engages in a continual internal dialogue (what detective does not?), it is not as explicative as that in say, a Martin Walker novel, where the dialogue between characters is a major tool for providing key backstory details. 

I thought at first that the translated aspect of these novels was what underpinned their spare literary style, since it is somewhat reminiscent of Henning Mankel, for example, another author we read in translation.  But of course, the translators (in this case, Stephen Sartarelli, who has done almost all of Camilleri's novels) are translating what was written by the author, they aren't adding or subtracting text, I don't think. 

The Age of Doubt has a more shocking ending than most of Salvo's adventures.  It really took my breath away here on this island, and I wonder, how will he recover from this one?  The way he always does:  spending time at home, eating at Enzo's (eventually) and perhaps a visit from Livia.  We'll just have to see because this is clearly not the end of Salvo Montalbano. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Still Life

I disliked Louise Penny's Still Life so much at first that I put it away after about 10 pages, convinced that it was too cute a village mystery for me. 

But a couple of weeks ago, I found myself craving the cozy rythyms of a village mystery, where eveyrone knows everyone, warts and all, and spends a certain amount of time thawing out from chill winds in front of crackling fires, possibly with some fresh-baked bread at hand.  So I picked up Still Life again, and am pleased to report that it a) provided cold rains and crackling fires in abundance, and b) offered a well-crafted murder mystery that ended with a satisfying revelation of a murderer whom we didn't quite see coming despite the clues that in retrospect were obvious. 

Still Life is the first Inspector Armand Gamache (that's with a m, not a n, no he is not a creamy chocolate filling) novel, and Gamache himself is a terrifically appealing character.  First, he's a francophone Canadian, which of course lends a certain je ne sais quoi to all that he does.  Second, he's smart, happily married, and succesfull at his work as a Chief Inspector for the Sûreté du Québec.   He appreciates a good meal, but isn't above throwing his authority around to get answers.  Gamache enjoys mentoring young people, and they (mostly) respond well to his attentions.  He's a listener, and doesn't appear to let pride get in his way.  Like many a fictional inspector before him (I'm thinking of P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish, Charles Todd's Ian Rutledge, and I think even Salvo Montalbano knows his Italian, or at least his Sicilian literature) he quotes poetry with ease, something that always mystifies and impresses me since about the only poems I can remember is "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" and the end of that ultra-depressing Wilfred Owen one about WW1, "Dulce et Decorum Est."  Are there poetry-spouting homicide investigators in real life?  There is not a lot of poetry on Law and Order, for example. 

The action takes place in Three Pines, a charming wee village in southern Quebec, near the US border.  A much beloved elderly lady is killed by an arrow, and while most assume this to be a tragic hunting accident, Gamache and his team are not so sure.  As with any solid village mystery, the locals reveal themselves to be a mixed and mixed-up bunch, with plenty of skeletons in their charming antique closets and motives fly like the arrows.  Obviously it is NOT an accident for that would make for a supremely unsatisfying denouement, and who would ever read that book?  The tale wends through the area in a rather satisfying manner among the locals, and everyone is touched by suspicion sooner or later. 

The atmosphere in Three Pines is one of rural affluence, although several of the characters are revealed to be living on the edge of poverty.   Still, it has to be that New England preppy world of silvery pageboys (check out the pics of author Penny on her webpage and you'll see what I mean) and well-worn hunting clothes, steaming mugs sipped in definingly picturesque settings, and if not cocktails then regular gatherings for any event large or small, replete with wine and in-joke hilarity. It is kind of the lumberjack version of Martha's Vineyard.

In retrospect, there are some threads that I'm not sure were tied up - whatever happened to the physical evidence linking the Crofts to the murder, and the oddly antagonistic Agent Nichol, did she ever get on that bus back to Montreal?  I may have been reading too fast, anxious to get back to the fire, and missed a bit of this. 

But this story did NOT introduce some random character at the end to be revealed as the killer.  Nor did Inspector Gamache have a quiet word with anyone and then arrange the trap.  We might have figured it out if we'd been paying attention, although there were a few character traits revealed at the end, on which I'd have like a bit more foreshadowing.  Still, it is surprisingly satisfying to read this kind of mystery and still have an a-ha moment that doesn't cause an eye roll.

I didn't realize until reading Penny's webpage that pretty much ALL of these stories, or at least a lot of the first ones, continue to take place in Three Pines.  When I did learn this I was skeptical that it would work.  How much plaid flannel can one series take?  But I think I will return.  At the time I picked this book up again, I needed to imagine that there was such a place where you could live an involved life, develop deep friendships, retain some sophistication, but still take a walk in the woods or burrow deep under the bedclothes if you needed to. 

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Another Good Mama

I think I've noted before that I actually only follow about three of these crime fiction blogs, and there are about a billion of them out there.  Still, the two to which I do subscribe offered up the following tasty bits this week.

The Rap Sheet's daily digest alerted me to the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which competitors vie to write the worst-ever opening line to a novel.  B-L having been the scribbler who penned the immortal words "It was a dark and stormy night."  If you want a chuckle, check it out.  Almost as giggly funny as that Irish guy talking about sailing.

Looking for a lakefront getaway?  Mystery Fanfare offers a likely place, site of the longest shootout in FBI history, and the demise of the infamous (according to some) Ma Barker.  We were thrilled to discover the connection with our California trip, as Ma Barker was in tangentially in ca-hoots with Creepy Karpiss, denizen of Alcatraz.  Ma Barker:  good mom or criminal mastermind?  You be the judge.

You learn all sorts of odd things when you use the Google.  Who knew that there was an Alcatraz Alumni Association

Siren of the Waters

Life in a Soviet satellite nation just sucked, no matter how you lived it.  It was especially tricky if you were an honest cop, just trying to do your job and maybe get ahead.  Michael Genelin's Siren of the Waters (Soho Press, 2008) is reminiscent of Olen Steinhauer's unnamed-Easter-bloc series in how it so effectively displays this totalitarian bleakness.  Our hero in in Siren, the tough Commander (anyone with the rank of Commander has to be tough) Jana Matinova, has had any shred of hope or empathy crushed out of her by the last nasty throes of the Communist regime in then-Czechoslovakia.  Genelin's description of what the system did to her relationships is disturbingly believable in its intimacy and inevitability.  While I generally am not a fan of a lot of background story in my crime fiction, in this instance, this was one of the better plotlines in the book.  Given the author's background - describes himself as a "writer, lawyer, and international consultant in government reform" - one has the sense that he knows from what he speaks. 
Jana is called in to investigate a car crash that may be a murder, and may be connected to some really bad guys who traffick in humans around Europe.  To do this, she has to go to Ukraine, and France, and work with a couple of nice Eastern cops and some other EU types who may or may not be bad guys.  That plot line is not outrageously original, and even in France, with a really fine meal (in the Alsace, bien sur!) the whiff of autocracy accompanies Jana. 

And she is the quintessential post-Communist tough cookie.  Early on, questioning a dispirited street performer, Jana decides that the conversation isn't getting anywhere. 
"Jana held up the passport she had taken from Seges, opening it to the photograph of the dead man, holding it up in front the clown's face.
'Who is this man?'
He looked at the photograph, trying to decide what to disclose.  'Are you putting me in danger if I tell you?'
'Clown, your daughter is dead.  Who is the man?'" (12)

It is good to have more girls in the lead roles in crime fiction, but I wonder if it is hard to write them well.  Jana's hard shell is the predictable result of her brutal State-engineered personal experiences, and we learn this as her backstory is woven throughout most of the novel.   Jana is deeply ambitious, pretty much humorless, and adept at distancing everyone, intentionally or not.  You think it is hard balancing motherhood and a career here!  Yet I'm not particularly drawn to her. 

The backstory thread plays a tangential role to the main plot, by introducing characters who are the bridge between the two stories.  I dislike the back-and-forth style of incorporating the backstory, it is distracting.  And there was a certain jumpiness to this plot - now we're with Jana (in the present or the past), now with the bad guy(s), that made for a more thriller-like read than I generally like.  That said, the opening scene, Jana arriving to investigate a terrible car crash on a bitterly cold, snowy night, is terrific - a cold and clinical crime scene grabber. 

Ultimately, Jana's story a bit like a prelude, as if we must know all of this to really understand Jana, and now that we are acquainted, we can get back to letting her solve crimes.  But having read the pilot, will we be back for the next installment?  Yes, I think so. Soho Crime almost always delivers. 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Memory of Blood, finis

Yeah, yeah, I'll get to the book in a sec, but in the meantime, if you watch any sailing during the Olympics, you might enjoy this parody.

I stand by my earlier assessment of The Memory of Blood (Bantam Books, 2011), the latest installment in the Bryant and May series.  It is the weakest one in an otherwise strongly entertaining oeuvre.  The play's the thing again, as it was in the very first novel, Full Dark House.  There the theme mesmerized with dark arcana, but here it is just a half-baked plot scaffold.  I think this is because in addition to the classic locked-door-murder-at-a-party-full-of-kooky-theater-people, there is the subplot of what happens to Arthur's memoir manuscript, which feels completely unrelated to the main theater-murder tale.  In fact, it is!  This second plot is the vague continuation of a thread involving the fiendish Oskar Kasavian, which will apparently be revisited in the next, maybe final? episode.  It almost feels as if this bit was edited out of the next book because it made the whole thing too long and complex. 

The characters even feel like shadows of themselves.  We barely see any boiled sweeties on Arthur's part, John's interest in a fair maiden is quickly (and sensibly) diverted, Longbright's fashion sense barely registers (except for coral lipstick ca. 1970), and our secondary players - Giles, Colin, Meera, Jack, Dan, Raymondo - argue about the same thing that they do in earlier books, except that they all seem kind of tired of the same old.  The story is lacking in the quirky details that are usually employed to reveal some new facet of these supporting characters' existence. 

That said, we do have an all-too-brief visit to one of my favorite fringe characters in the series, Maggie Armitage, Grand Order Grade IV White Witch of the Coven of St. James the Elder, Kentish Town.  Visits to Maggie are always comic interludes, but nevertheless advance the plot with some wacky insight.  When Bryant stops by in this story, she's dealing with an infestation of sprites.  Mice?  asks Bryant, thinking he's not hearing correctly.

"No, these are white and made of discarded ectoplasm, but they have little legs and can really shift.  They appeared after a seance and now we can't get rid of them.  I can't see them but Daphne swears she can [is Daphne a roommate?  A spectre?  who knows, we never see her but Maggie serves her faithfully], ever since her accident.  She says they moved into the back of the television, but something has repelled them.  The poor quality of the programmes, I imagine.  Perhaps they don't like Simon Cowell.  It's nice to see you, give me a kiss."  (262)

Bryant needs to be hypnotized by Maggie, in order to try and recall what in his memoir manuscript may be of interest to nefarious types.  She obliges of course, preparing her client. 

"'Take a couple of these first.  They'll help you to relax'.
'What are they?' Bryant peeked under a tea towel.
'Custard creams.  They always work for me.'" (264)

It's this mix of weird and silly and actually quite deep erudition on the topics of London and theater and spiritualist? history that makes the books work. 

"May peered around the door of his partner's office and watched Bryant knocking the contents of his pipe into the brainpan of the Tibetan skull on his desk.  Half of the bookcase had been emptied, and two immense stacks towered on either side of the desk, framing the old man with playscripts, manuals, comics, art books, histories, encylopedias, miscellanies, and a number of surprisingly sleazy pulp thrillers. 
'I knew it,' May said with a sigh.  'You've been thinking again.'" (113)

Bryant and May are old - they can't last forever, no matter how much we might wish they did.  But keep thinking, gents.  I for one am willing to wait for what I hope will be a spectacularly idiosyncratic and enormously entertaining finale, if indeed that is what is coming.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


Still distracted - gloriously so - by the Olympics. 

Isn't it nice to take a cool break from this rhetorically  and climatologically overheated summer by watching (mostly) pure competition that is for no other reward than to be the first, or the fastest, or the farthest?  How refreshing to stop caring - or pretending to care - about whether Mitt Romney will release his tax returns or if Barack Obama really tried hard enough.  How much nicer to be captivated by the exuberantly competitive Misty and Kerry, the Italian fencers screaming so fiercely in victory, those gorgeous (male and female) sprinters, or the dentally-challenged Andy Murray finally vanquishing his Centre Court nemesis. 

This year we've been subjected to an increasingly insistent drumbeat of despair about the Dire State of Our Nation, and lectured by what The American People Want, or Need, or Deserve.  I know we're supposed to take it seriously but the apocalyptic rhetoric is just exhausting.  Wouldn't it be nice if it all mattered as much - or really, as little - as the outcome of this great Japan-USA women's soccer match?  Sure I want the USA to win, but what I really like is watching them run their guts out and leave it all on the field for nothing more than a medal and some glory. In one sense, it doesn't matter who wins, as long as the effort and the match are worth it. 

I have to stop and watch this match now.