Friday, March 16, 2012

For the small set

Who remembers the Famous Five?  The Secret Seven?  And apparently there are about a billion more Enid Blyton books.  I rediscovered the FF with my kids, and while we've not read many, we've enjoyed the inimitably British tone and great adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George, and of course, Timmy-the-dog.  And the mom in me thrills at the complete independence of those kids - they don't have helicopter parents, heck, they barely have any parents!  If the thought of these delightful stories makes you say "rawther!" and generates a desire for sweeties, you might enjoy this affectionate tribute

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Zut alors, I have meesed one

(points if you get that reference in the title)

The Oddballs did not include Ann Cleeves' Shetland Islands series, Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, and Blue Lightning.  I've read the first three, and have to say that the setting is really the star in these.  They are your standard crime-in-a-rural/idiosynchratic-setting thrillers, with a local cop,the expectedly single, male, appealing fellow named Jimmy Perez.  Yes, that's a Spanish surname in the very far north of the UK, adding a jarring little twist, but apparently not anachronistic, thanks to Spanish seamen who wrecked in the area centuries ago.  Over the course of the books, Perez becomes enamored of, and in a relationship with a local artist named Fran. She is an outsider, while he is considered a native. Fran and her daughter are key characters in the first book, but not integral to the crimes themselves in the later ones (that I've read). 

There is of course a core of Britishness, even though the Islanders would be the last to say they are at all affiliated with their southern cousins. There is a vast quantity of tea and almost as much coffee drunk in these stories.  The crimes are appropriately heinous for proper British village mysteries, and the villians always good and local.  Much of the tension in these stories comes from the meshing of Island natives with outsiders who've moved there for various reasons - they love the landscape, or the solitude, or the sweaters - yes, Virginia, there really is a Fair Isle, and they knit like crazy up there.  But it is not hard to see why people love it there, since Cleeves' descriptions of the light, the sea, the barren landscape, and the shingle are hypnotic.  They jarr, nicely, against the spot-on discussions of the local fishing economy, role of tourism, and challenges of an encroaching modern world on a place with deeply traditional social, political, and economic roots.  This tension is best demonstrated in Red Bones where the wealth that came with fishing and the glory that came with assisting the Norwegian underground in WW2 is beginning to stagnate, causing all kinds of problems, that are in turn presented against the backdrop of an archeological dig, of course revealing that these are age-old challenges. 

I found the plots almost secondary here, now that I think about it.  Particularly with Raven Black, the ending seemed to come from nowhere, and I hate that - feels like the author just needed to tie it up and said oh I know, I'll have HIM/HER do it.  (Don't want to give it away!)  I know I've said I don't want to figure it out in Chapter Three, but neither do I want it tied up too quickly at the end.  One wants to work to solve the mystery, but then to be able to look back and see the signs adding up. So I liked the bit of historico-social overlay, but do I remember who did what to whom in the modern story?  Alas, no.  

Now, I've been kind of holding off on reading the final installment, Blue Lightning, because I made the mistake of reading some reviews on Amazon, and people are REALLY divided on this last story.  Apparently something shocking will happen at the end that really pissed off devotees of the series.  I'm guessing that Jimmy or Fran are either killed, or revealed as the villain in whatever the drama will be.  But I've been feeling at loose ends with it, so I'll get Blue Lightning at the next opportunity.  And perhaps a sweater. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

If The Dead Rise Not

My latest Bernie Gunther novel arrived a couple of weeks ago, and I am enjoying getting reacquainted with the hard-boiled hero of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy and The One From the Other and A Quiet Flame.  In If The Dead Rise Not, we find Bernie as house detective at the glamorous Adlon Hotel in 1934 Berlin, on the eve of the Nazi Olympics in Germany.  At some point the plot will apparently leap forward twenty years to 1954 Havana, and goings-on there will be somehow connected to goings-on in pre-war Berlin.  It’s a little hard to say because Kerr is taking his sweet time getting to the dramatic point, although it is clear that it will involve dead Jews whom nobody cares about, the Olympics, the Amis (that’s us) and the usual bag of assorted nasty Nazis and classy dames.  The latter category is represented here by Mrs. Noreen Charambalides (isn’t that fun to say?  Char-am-ba-LEED-es), a gorgeous American journalist who is paling around with Hedda Adlon, the equally glamorous and sharp young wife of the hotel’s owner.  Noreen is conveniently sort-of separated from her husband at the moment, and needs Bernie to help her get some dirt on the German Olympic Committee so she can push the US government to boycott the Games.  Bernie and Noreen have already gotten themselves in some touchy situations with various shady characters, as well as some bumsen, natch.

Kerr clearly loves the noir formula, and what I like about his writing is that it flirts with caricature of the genre, but never quite embraces is completely.  So, you get marvelous bits like this: 

“Herr Rubusch was still in bed.  I hoped he’d wake up and shout at us to get out and let him get some sleep, but he didn’t.  I put my fingers on the big vein on his neck, but there was so much fat on him that I soon gave up and, having opened his pajama jacket, pressed my ear to his cold ham of a chest.

‘Shall I call Dr. Küttner?’ asked Pieck.

‘Yes.  But tell him not to hurry.  He’s dead.’


I shrugged.  ‘Staying in a hotel is a bit like life.  At some stage you have to check out.’

‘Oh, dear me, are you sure?’

‘Baron Frankenstein couldn’t make this character move.’” (57)

One of the main things that makes Bernie so palatable is that he is no Nazi, in fact, he rather despises the new party in power, but is pragmatic enough about his own survival to visit a vaguely criminal type who will “erase” his one jewish grandmother from his record, making him effectively untouchable – as long as he keeps his mouth shut.  Still, one can’t help but find him just a little too prescient as in this exchange with Gypsy Trollman, a former boxing star now turned dive-club bouncer thanks to his Romany heritage”

“’[Trollman] shrugged.  Roma people.  Jewish people.  Homos and commies.  The Nazis need someone to hate, that’s all.’

‘I guess you’re right,’ I said.   ‘But it makes me worry if there’s another war.  I worry what will happen to all these poor bastards the Nazis don’t like.’”  (128)

True, there were those who had a sense of what was coming, but Bernie doesn’t come across as that introspective so it rings a little false even from this Weimar Republic-loving WW1 veteran. 

If The Dead Rise Not is clearly filling in some of the story between the tales in the Berlin Noir trilogy, and then will take us forward after that last odd story that was set in Argentina and if I recall seemed to involve baby selling and toxic mining or something really far-fetched like that.  So far, so good!  Because you’ve got to enjoy a guy who claims that the good looking gal on his arm “commanded attention like a nudist playing the trombone.”  (159)  Just think about that one for a moment.    

Sunday, March 4, 2012

China: The Next Frontier

Just saw "Wild Swans" at the ART last night.  This is the theatrical adaptation of Jung Chan's memoir of growing up in China, and it is absolutely terrific.  I'm thinking there need to be more Asian, specifically more Chinese stories in my reading.  I wonder what SOHO Crime has for China?

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Oddballs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Italians

Talk about inspiring dinner.  Italian detectives are the best-fed on the planet. Here's another catch-up post.
I've discussed my fave, Andrea Camilleri, in another post here on CP.  I never really cottoned to Donna Leon's series set in Venice, although I know many adore her just as much as I do Cammilleri.  I tried a couple, and they felt a bit complicated, dare I say, too Venetian, for my taste.  But I've got a whole bunch on my bookcase, so if you want to borrow any, stop by. 

Italian crime seems strongly defined by place.  There is also a series set in Florence, by a British writer named Magdalen Nabb.  Our hero, such as he is, is known as Marshal Guarnaccia, who must deal with tourists and the carabinieri alike, and it is not entirely clear which irritates him more.  He is closer in spirit to Montalbano (he is, in fact, also Sicilian, which makes him something of an anomaly in fab Firenze) than anyone else I've come across, and the stories are similarly dry in their telling.  They aren't particularly complicated but I always feel vaguely lost, which I've come to think is actually the sign of a good crime novel.  Who wants to figure it all out in the third chapter?
I also read a couple of Grace Brophy's Commissario Alessandro Cenni series, set in Assisi.  They weren't bad but I was deeply into Camilleri and Nabb at the time, and these didn't stand out, so on to the shelf they went.  I seem to recall that Cenni really liked tramezzini, which are a kind of thin Italian sandwich, just a bit twee when put up against Salvo's housekeeper Adelina's caponata.

I've got an Aurelio Zen (Michael Dibdin) next to the tub, that I've been meaning to get to, having sort of enjoyed the television adaptation of a year or so ago.  The TV version was not ideal because some of the actors were British, and some were Italian, so that was distracting.  But you know, anything set in Rome offers some distraction, and with its good-looking cast and Mad Men-cool music, this was no exception.

I guess maybe I haven't read that many Italians after all, but perhaps they are as my friend Dan says of pizza and other pleasures, even when bad, they have their redeeming qualities.

Where do you buy your books?

I hyperlink to because it is easy.  And I'm sure there are folks who like reading books on the Kindle, and that seems to be where you can get that format.  But like many readers, I have mixed feelings about it.  We have a great neighborhood bookstore near where I live, Porter Square Books, and I try to patronize them as much as possible.  Most of the books here in Crime Pays are available there, and not too terribly expensive, either.  (Cookbooks, however, are wicked pricey, so to Amazon with my points I go for them.)  PSB in turn works hard with events, readings, a cafe, and a terrific kids' reading program called Fresh Ink.  I'm not sure they are missing my cookbook business.

The Spies

The Spies overlaps most of the over categories, esp. The Nazis.  The best of this lot is John Le Carre, no question, and not much more really to say.  Even at his worst, Absolute Friends for example, he's a good read, and his best - Smiley, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Perfect Spy - are mesmerizing.  He's considered by many to be the intellectual heir of Eric Ambler, and it is not hard to see why, although Ambler likes to deal more regularly in the theme of the unknowing person caught up in dark events beyond his (always) control.  Didn't like that new Olen Steinhauer, The Tourist, much at all (unrelentingly depressing and hard to understand why), so I haven't pursued those, which is too bad because his earlier series was great. 

I think I read fewer spy works these days, having moved along more to crime itself. 

The Dark Vineyard

Before getting to The Dark Vineyard, I can report that I finished Bamboo and Blood while on vacation, and am no more clear on what actually happened in the story than before I started reading it.  But it did provide a frisson of faux-insider knowledge this week, when North Korea announced that it was suspending its nuclear development, and that the US was providing a food package in return.

Martin Walker's Inspector Bruno series are most decidedly NOT obscure, but they are like a lovely nap for my brain in the middle of a dull New England winter.  Sure, there is a crime to solve in the picturesque hamlet of Saint-Denis, and sometimes it is a pretty nasty one.  And this being France, there are strong emotions, and maybe even some political extremists (skinheads!  ecolos!)involved.  But that doesn't get in the way of one's enjoyment of this idyllic sun-drenched, fine-feasted, fully francaise setting, which wraps the reader in a glorious post-prandial langour even if all you had for dinner was spicy snow-pea and tofu stirfry.  Solving the crime, and keeping the paix and the patriotisme will all happen in good time, perhaps even while we are enjoying all that the Dordogne has to offer - local wine and cheeses made by les caractères français rurales, not to mention foie gras, fresh game, and vin de noix whatever that even is. 

The Dark Vineyard is the second in Walker's series, featuring Benoit "Bruno" Courreges, local policier (not to be confused with the gendarmerie; like most European countries there are multiple levels of policing).  Bruno knows everyone in the town, partly due to his work, but also because he has thrown himself into his community:  he builds his own house with help from local suppliers, is a devoted member of the local hunting club, plays and coaches rugby, teaches tennis, and as policeman, is responsible for general security of the town although he generally plays good cop to any outside security agency's bad cop.  The character profiles are nicely drawn - Walker's description of the old but proud WWII veterans, partisans all but partisan today (one a Gaulliste, one a Communist, never shall they see eye-to-eye even if they have march side-by-side in every parade the town has) is charming.  Everyone has a somewhat proscribed role to play, from Pamela the Mad Englishwoman to Monsieur le Maire.  Here's Bruno arriving at the market:

"For Bruno, it was a gathering of friends.  Stephane was there with his milk and cheeses and yogurts with Dominique to help out at the stall, alongside.  Raoul the wine merchant and Yves with his fruit and vegetables.  The fishmonger and charcutier were squabbling over which of them got the prime location at the corner of the bridge.  Marie with her ducks and eggs and magrets was in her usual place under the arches and close to the cafe, the dubiously legal fat goose livers tucked discreetly out of sight in a cool box.  Jeanne, plumper than ever and with her leather cash bag dangling from her shoulder, passed through the stalls exchanging kisses and gossip as she took the modest fees the town charged the merchants.
The air was fresh and the sun warm but not oppressive.  Fauquet had not bothered to open the sun umbrellas over his outdoor tables, where people were lingering over their croissants and newspapers.  Light glinted on the ripples where the river shallows danced over the pebbles on the near shore.  Far downstream, a group of pony-trekkers waited patiently as their steeds drank their fill while a flotilla of ducks paddled by.  The golden stone of the old bridge and the local buildings glowed warmly in the mid-morning light.  The clock on the mairie read 10 a.m., and the bells of the church in the rue de Paris began to strike."  (Walker, The Dark Vineyard, p. 102)

Aaaaah. It is pretty clear that Walker is living la vie Peter Mayle.

This particular story involves winemaking local and industrial, as a global wine conglomerate is interested in buying up much of the valley to get a foothold in the European wine world.  They'll bring jobs to the economically eroding area, but they'll also bring plonk, and that's unacceptable to some.  Throw in a hot young Quebecois wine student, a heavy-drinking scion of a wine family, some loyal hunting dogs, and a truffled omelette, and you've got a deeply satisfying read.

(Apologies for the formatting - if anyone knows how to get accents in this editor, please let me know!)