Monday, January 30, 2012

The Potter's Field

What a delight it is during a gray New England January, to join Salvatore Montalbano on his veranda overlooking the beach at Marinella.  There might be a cold bottle of white wine, perhaps a bowl of olives, certainly some tumasso or caciocavallo, and maybe we are anticipating some purpiteddro a strascinasali or some other delicacy left by Adelina, for later.  Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series may be uneven, but Salvo is one of the great eaters of the crime fiction genre.  I can't actually think of any other detective who derives such elemental pleasure from a meal, or who will stop everything in an investigation because it is lunch time.  It is as if he is a plant in need of watering, once fed (well) our hero can get on with solving the crime at hand. 

The Potter's Field (2008, trans. version 2011) is the latest in this marvelous series, and a return to the classic bones after a strange detour with The Track of SandMontalbano and his supporting cast of characters at the Vigata station - Cattarella, Fazio, Augello - are only surface buffoons, in fact they are the wise fools of an otherwise mostly idiotic Sicilian system of justice.  As in all the books, Montalbano's patience is tried one million ways by the public, the prosecutors, the media, the Mafia, at least one gorgeous dame, and of course several exquisite meals.  He is a grump with a heart of, well, not quite gold, but perhaps a very good cheese (about as valuable in Salvo's and my world), perpetually misunderstood by but simultaneously enraging his long-term gal-pal Livia, who lives in the north.  This is the thirteenth book in the series, and it is worth reading them in order, to truly understand the relationships that exist and to become completely in tune with Salvo's views on things.  To reach this point is to understand instantly why he and Livia end most phone calls in a rage, why a call to the prosecutor's office is so disheartening, and why we care at all if Mimi is in a bad mood. This novel starts with a dismembered body, moves on to a missing husband, and then here comes the Mafia.  I expect that upon finishing it, I'll be left with a fractured recollection of the sun, sea, nasty crimes, beautiful women, and pasta with sea urchins, which is pretty much what I remember from all of them. 

Camilleri's style is what I imagine the Sicilian landscape to be like, a bit arid, brilliantly lit, nothing wasted (the necessity born of poverty?) and occasionally hiding some valuable bit of information.  Little time is wasted setting a scene, the action moves along with rapid dialogue, but there are never those dreadful cliffhangers, it is just that the characters mostly engage with each other or the situation, rather than letting the writer sit around ruminating about it.  One feels completely absorbed in whatever is happening as if one were riding along, sitting in on the interrogation, or invited for dinner (I wish).  I'll have the nunnatu fritters, please.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

When do you read?

I love to read - certain things - but finding the time to do so uninterrupted is a challenge.  Right now in my life, reading is limited to the sacred space of my bathtub before bed, then in bed, although that is usually (hopefully) eventually interrupted by sleep.  If I remember to bring the book, and I don't have a lot of work, I can get some reading time while waiting for my daughter at her various dance classes.  But this is the one way in which I envy those with a nice train commute, all that time to just read.  I crave more reading time but it is hard to find.

I found my way to crime fiction as an escape.  As lapsed historian, non-fiction (books) still sends shivers down my spine.  The need to ENGAGE is too compelling, and it ruins the experience.  As a lapsed romantic, or maybe just a grown-up, I just don't find anything with a dominant love theme to be that interesting. Sci-fi and fantasy just feels too weird, although I did adore Harry Potter and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (read with my son).  The former is fun, and of course if you are an anglophile is bound to please.  The latter is so beautifully written as to remind you what schlock so much children's literature is.  My son (11) reads voraciously, fiction, non-fiction, science, fantasy, math, you name it (girl books excepted).  Picking up something like Pullman's books, or The Lord of the Rings, is to be reminded of what a really splendid writer, with a fine command of English, and sense of how words can elevate the story, can do.

So that left me with historical fiction (mostly blech, see need to engage above), and crime fiction.  One notable exception to the former:  the seafaring novels of the late great Patrick O'Brian.  Aubrey and Maturin are the Bryant and May of their genre, yet so much greater in their presence and actions.  They remind us that for all of our spectacular advances in the 21st c., the past may well have been a more heroic time to live.

This is a Challenge

First, I'm not sure that anyone is interested in anything I have to say about these books.  Second, my writing is feeling a little forced these days.  I think that one is supposed to be concise, sharp, and usually witty in a blog.  At the same time, I need to follow my own instructions and avoid I-liked-it/I-did-not-like-it reviewing.  It is also hard to know the conventions:  should I hyperlink things in posts, just use labels or tags, or what?  It may be time to get over myself and see what else I can find.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Totalitarians

From Kerr, a short and searingly precise list on Amazon "policing crime under a dictatorship" led me to some great titles.  These tend to have the same trope of man (always a man!  Do no women have brains?  In these novels, they end up as tragic figures or sidekicks.  geez.  ) who is tolerated, sometimes even celebrated by the regime, and who uses that position to solve crimes that might embarass or topple the govt.

Here I rediscovered Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels (Gorky Park through Three Stations), found Olen Steinhauer's series set in an unnamed Eastern European country that is obviously Romania, and almost completely obtuse, and fell madly in love with Colin Cotteril's Dr. Siri Paiboun series (which also introduced me to the Soho Crime press).  (Note:  Cotteril's website is one of the most interesting that I've seen produced by an author so far.  It is obviously produced by him, and not by an intern at the publishing house.  Worth checking out.)  Here also I was introduced to enigmatic Inspector O, who operates almost incomprehensibly in North Korea.  The author, James Church, apparently was a CIA officer in North Korea at some point, and so presumably knows what he is talking about.  I did hear him interviewed on NPR after the death of Kim Jong-Il, and he was about as inscrutable as these stories.  Check out that link to his Macmillan author page, and you'll see what I mean.  Possibly the shortest wikipedia entry ever.  Yet, even though you really have no idea what is going on, Church manages to make the country that we see as black on those night maps of the world, appear beautiful, and in its own weird way worth solving crimes for. 

Since I first read this list, I see that Steinhauer has been dropped, and someone named Tom Rob Smith has been added, with a book called Child 44.  Stalin is the dictator of choice here, I'll have to check it out.

The Nazis

My descent into crime fiction started with Philip Kerr's Berlin Noir trilogy.  That got me back into reading about WW2 Europe, an old friend in a way, long neglected for the American Civil War (who proved a fickle and ultimately faithless mistress.  Or perhaps it was I who was unfaithful.  In any case, I am totally off the ACW as far as reading goes.). 

I lost track of Kerr, and his weary survivor Bernie Gunther after A Quiet Flame, which was set in Argentina, and a little too fantastically dark for me.  But I see now that there are more and I might pick him up again since I quite enjoyed Bernie's tight-rope walk of solving crimes for the bad guys.
Of course, Berlin during the war has a weird fascination.  I tried David Downing's Zoo Station, but the idea of a British journalist somehow solving crimes in the heart of Nazi Berlin didn't spark much although I see that he's written more with the same fellow, each involving a different station.  There seems to be a niche for the Nazi-era-investigator-who-is-acceptable-to-the-bad-guys-but-harbors-resistence-in-his-heart.  It worked with Gunther, perhaps because his timeline goes well beyond the war.  Maybe Downing's fellow works too, but I haven't stuck around to find out.  I'm not sure that the line between collaborator and resister is all that fine, and after a while it just becomes hard to believe.

I also read several of Alan Furst's novels, which are quite well written, and take place all over war-time Europe with lots of intrigue and moral dilemma and much darkness.  I fell off of that bandwagon because his protagonists all seemed vaguely too good to be true - mostly single, male, a bit world-weary and of course cynical, but ultimately doing the right thing, staying just this side of romantic.  I'm lumping wildly here, and it's been several years since I read any of these.  (Note: but I might have to check him out again, having just found his website with all these terrific period pictures right at the intro.  Still, it's loaded with cookies or something that my computer is balking about.)  But after a while, WW2 just gets completely wrapped in its cliches, and one wonders if anyone can write anything really original set in this era. 

Kerr's novels go well beyond the war, and of course Joseph Kanon's The Good German is all about immediate post-war Berlin.  But it features yet another uencumbered-except-by-Allied-good-sense protagonist, and while the setting is compelling - how did anyone pick up the pieces after that? - I find myself not really caring that much anymore.  It is pretty telling that I have little recollection of most of these fellows.  The Arms-Maker of Berlin, by Dan Fesperman, pretty much ended my affair with this era, since it committed the unpardonable sin of not only trafficking in pretty much every WW2/Nazi-era Berlin cliche possible, but also of adding a layer of modern academia in the form of the rumpled, unencumbered, present-day history professor protagonist.  That just cut a little too close to home.

Culinarily, there is absolutely no inspiration from the Nazis.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley

You know you are in the presence of a serious writer when you look at the picture of P.D. James on the back of Death Comes to Pemberley and realize that this sweet grandmotherly-looking gal has in her apparent dotage chosen not to rest on her considerable crime-fiction-laurels but to challenge herself by adopting the literary persona of Jane Austen for her latest novel.  I haven't read any Austen in years and years, and confess that my familiarity with Pride and Prejudice stems largely from its place in the plot of the second Bridget Jones novel, The Edge of Reason.  So, I see a lot of Mark Darcy a.k.a. Colin Firth in James' Darcy, and it is entirely not her fault.  Emma Roberts also plays Elizabeth in my minds' eye, even though she starred in a film version of Sense and Sensibility, not P and P.  Details, details.  They all speak marvelously well. 

But I digress.  Death Comes to Pemberley is a splendid diversion in all the best ways.  James' latest investigator, Adam Dalgliesh, had become a touch too flatly serious for my taste, at least, he left little impression last time which says much, so I am not sad to not be with him here.  In DCTP, James/Austen picks up on P and P six years later, writing in the style of Austen.  Most of the Bennet girls are married, more or less happily, and Elizabeth and Darcy in particular live in wedded bliss at the elegant manor of Pemberley.  Death arrives at night, in a carriage, and genteel unrest ensues.  James does not perhaps get quite as much to the humor as Austen might (this is a murder mystery after all), and the pace of the plot is much slower than modern crime fiction generally delivers.  But the elegantly dense Austen-like prose is worth taking one's time with and the delights of Pemberley and its neighbors are deliciously savory.  Much like those tarts the cook is always putting up in baskets to be taken to the less fortunate on the estate. 

Despite the muslin, and Lydia's hysterics, and all the strictures on women of the very early 19th c., there is something bracing about Elizabeth's approach to life, a sort-of chin-up-and-get-on-with-it, albeit most graciously.  The murder of the title upends her emotional world as much as it does her social one, and yet she soldiers quietly on writing notes, taking care of the estate and all of its minions, and accommodating the many ridiculous and demanding characters to whom she is related by blood and by marriage.

I've not yet finished this novel, but am already torn between ekeing it out and racing to the end.  It's that much fun.  Janeites might protest at this usurpation of their heroine's voice.  But as with Scarlett, you know they are all reading it!

UPDATE.  Have now finished this, it kept me up late last night.  The epilogue takes the read back to Pride and Prejudice, and if one hasn't read that in several decades, one might not quite admire the ending so much.  It feels rather tacked on, as if the author felt she had to circle back to the original inspiration.  Also, Elizabeth, in my opinion the most interesting female character, rather fades toward the end of the story as Darcy comes to the fore.  Perhaps that why we had to sit through a re-hash of P and P.  All in all, however, this is a fine read, one might even say a tour de force that shows that the old gal (James, that is, not Austen) still has a literary trick or two up her proper sleeve. 

On a culinary note, there is an extraordinary amount of cold meat proffered and consumed in this book.  It is 19th c. literary affection I think, but the reader must understand that we are not talking about a deli platter here.  Unlike most brit crime fiction, I did not find myself compelled to down cups and cups of tea while reading this.  Wine, wine, wine, that is the beverage of choice at Pemberley, with the exception of the ill-fated Wickham (who is a whiskey man) everyone drinks it constantly.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Christine Falls

When it comes to crime fiction, "atmospheric" is a tricky compliment.  Barbara Hambly's Benjamin January series is atmospheric, but chokingly so, as are many novels and series set during World War II.  Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko novels (maybe more on them later) could use more atmosphere at times, although since Renko operates first in deepest darkest Soviet Russia, then in the brittle and harsh new Russia, it is hard to say what constitutes atmosphere there, unease and depression appearing to be the major chords.  Renko is no Dr. Zhivago, after all.  In any case, atmosphere is an elusive quality, one that I particularly adore but it is hard to get right.  So when the review blurbs Benjamin Black's Christine Falls (Picador, 2006) tout the novel's "masterful atmospherics" and "evocative settings," one might proceed with caution. 

That would be a mistake, however, since Christine Falls is a great read.  Set in Dublin and Boston in the 1950s, the plot is just a little bit ripped from the headlines, being a dark (as in horrible) and dank(as in it is always raining or snowing or misting or somehow precipitating) tale of orphaned babies, the Catholic Church, and people whose faith came to be in their God game, rather than their god.  The sad story of Irish orphanages was first exposed by journalist Mary Raferty in the late 1990s, and her death this past week brought a reminder that the world Black creates really did exist, and that the scheme that his flawed characters developed could easily have been real.

One might also think that this would be a mean, low story, given the first sentence on the back of the book:  "The hero of Christine Falls, Quirke, is a surly pathologist living in 1950s Dublin."  The word surly may be off here - depressed, yes, making poor choices, yes, but surly implies nasty which Quirke is not.  What he is through the entire story is more or less drunk, depending on the hour of the day.  And while it is kind of pleasant to read a story in which people smoke with abandon, by the end one feels a bit like Quirke's ashtray, deeply in need of a bath.  Anyway, he finds out about something bad, or at least finds some parts of something he thinks is something bad, and can't quite stop himself from doing something about it.  I don't know that surly folk tend to do the right thing in the end.  The other mild surprise is that for all the basement pathology scenes and cabbage-and-laundry smelling orphanages, Quirke actually moves in the higher levels of Dublin society, being family to a famous judge, a renowned obstetrician, and in love with his brother's wife, who was the sister of his own late wife, who are daughters of a wealthy Boston, Mass. businessman originally transplanted from Ireland (and of course, best buds with the aforementioned Judge - ultimately these close bonds suggest the claustrophobia of that life). 

In fact, this novel really is all about the atmospherics.  I've not read anything else by the author, who is actually a respected novelist named John Banville, but he is a terrific writer.  (You can read an interesting interview with himfrom a few years ago in the Paris Review.)  Black/Banville uses light to set his scenes, but it's not theatrical or artificial.  The "greenish air of evening" (21) is the backdrop for the introduction of young Phoebe; there is a "spark of tawny light" (49) at the bottom of a glass of whiskey (there are a lot of glasses of whiskey; it is Banville's talent that puts that spark at the bottom of only one); the sky is "heavy with the seamless weight of putty-colored clouds" (182); and the scene of Quirke's meeting with Punch and Judy involves a "streetlamp's rain-pocked reflection in a puddle" and ends in "wet, glistening darkness." (197)  There is a lot more of this, and it really is masterful, comes on just strong enough to support the mood of the scene, but doesn't overwhelm. 

You can kind of figure out where the story is going, but it remains compelling to the end, largely due to the fine writing.  One might enjoy sitting down with a whiskey after this, but while I am often inspired by books to take my cooking in a particular direction, I can say this one did not suggest anything tasty.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men?

Hello, and welcome to Crime Pays, a blog about crime fiction.  And possibly also what I'm cooking at the moment.

For years, I had a hard time figuring out what exactly to call the kinds of stories that I like to read.  Mystery?  Well, yes, there is always a mystery involved, but Caspar the friendly ghost would be classified as mystery, and that's really not my bag.  Suspense?  Suspense usually plays a role too, but I can't stand books like The DaVinci Code, where every chapter ends in a breathless cliffhanger, ugh.  Why bother ending the chapter?  Just carry on and reach some temporary resolution, for chrissakes, so I can get some sleep tonight.  Thrillers?  Certainly not.  That sounds like horror fiction to me, or at a minimum conjures up images of Michael Jackson zombies (and here I date myself).  Detective novels might work, since there is usually a detective-sort involved.  Although the detector is less and less frequently actually a detective, these days, and more often the right person in the wrong place or time.  And besides, this makes it sound like I read Sherlock Holmes, which surprisingly, I don't so much. 

Anyway, I started to realize that it's called crime fiction.  This is thanks mostly to Marilyn Stasio, who write the occasional column on Crime in the New York Times Book review, and who is a great source of new reads for me.  Rarely does a Stasio column go by without my making a note of something to check out.  I am also inspired by the very fine Soho Crime press, which publishes some terrific examples of the genre, in just the format I like most of all - foreign settings, and series.  More on them later. 

I look forward to sharing some opinions about crime fiction in this blog, and perhaps getting some suggestions for new reads as well.  The cooking bit?  Well, that's something else that I do, with a for-this-day-and-age almost anachronistic regularity.  So if I really get going on this, you might just find out what's for dinner, too.