Sunday, July 29, 2012

Citius Altius Fortius

Former complaints about the latest PCU novel aside, it is a rather perfect accompaniment the London Olympics. 

Please pardon the occasional interruption.  One finds oneself completely engrossed in such matters as Star-class sailing preliminary competitions, or archery semi-finals, or women's foil medal rounds, and it is really quite hard to concentrate on any thing else. 

And now back to our regularly-scheduled programme.  In search of Olympic-themed mystery reads, the always-informative-if-sometimes-overhwelming blog The Rap Sheet has directed me to another fine-looking mystery fiction blog called Mystery Fanfare.  Janet Rudolph, writer/editor/teacher of mystery fiction, offers this list of mysteries that may or may not be faster, higher, stronger.  Note that Rudolph also blogs about chocolate

In any case, I can report that I've read and reported on Philip Kerr's If The Dead Rise Not, and I've got the first Rebecca Kantrell next to the tub.  I'm not sure I'll dig far into Rudolph's list, but it is clear that the 1936 games provide a particularly fertile ground for mystery fiction.  1972 - not so much.  Hard to fictionalize something so tragic without trivializing it, I should think. 

The Memory of Blood (Bryant and May)

Anglophiles and mystery-ophiles rejoice when Christopher Fowler produces another novel in his Peculiar Crimes Unit series, featuring the highly idiosyncratic detective due of Arthur Bryant and John May.  Since I count myself among both of those groups - I believe there is a large overlap - I do too.  But I have to say that I am not quite feeling the irrepresible joy with The Memory of Blood so far.  Somehow it seems duller, less funny, and while Bryant is, as usual, off chasing some seemingly completely unrelated tangent, less charmingly oddball.  The tangent seems pretty obvious to me, why shouldn't a member of the unit track it down, and Bryant is of course the man for the job, being the one steeped in the arcana of both The Theatre, and London.  Still, I'm halfway through, and I don't think he's called anyone old sausage yet!  More to come.

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Was it worth the hype?  Yes, but it took a little longer than I expected to get there. 

J. Robert Janes' Mayhem (Soho Press, 1992) is the first in a series featuring the unlikely combination of a Gestapo agent and a member of the French Sûreté, in occupied Paris, 1942.  Why must they work together?  Well, as Kohler (Gestapo) points out in his interview with the haughty countess (yes, a cliché, but well, it wouldn't feel right without them!), "Crime doesn't stop just because there's a war."  (120)  In other words, the Nazis are not stupid, mon ami.  They know that they must retain elements of the French security apparati, if they want to maintain any sort of calm in the land they know rule.  Most of the men (for they are really all men of course) who work for the Sûreté are all too happy to collaborate, being already anti-semites, power-mad, or just plain jerks.  St-Cyr, one of Our Heroes (Kohler being the other) is not one of these.  He tries to walk a very fine line between doing the job he's been trained for, and obviously loves - being a detective - and collaborating with the enemy who have deprived him of decent meals, good tobacco for his pipe, and his wife's affections.  At one point he is targeted by the Resistance, and his German colleagues must help extricate him from a death sentence - which they do with their usual casual brutality.

So you see, it goes back and forth, back and forth.  One minute you can comfortably hate the all Germans, but the next, one of them shows a surprising sensititivity to the terrible jurt they've caused to all of France.  For every stereotypical screaming scarred SS General in his gleaming boots with his perfect Aryan henchmen, there's a Gestapo chief who worked with St-Cyr in Austria before the war, and who obviously saved him from certain arrest as the Germans entered the City of Light.  The Germans, although the victors (so far), are also riven by their own divisions- the Wehrmacht was in charge of security in France, but was then replaced by the Gestapo, and what exactly the SS get up to, nobody really wants to know too much.  So the Wehrmacht hate the Gestaop and the Gestapo don't trust the SS and everyone fears Berlin.  This is their weakness, and its exploitation is a central element to the plot. 

To emphasize this sense of never quite knowing who you can trust or even really what is going on (I had to read the bit on the different meetings with Sûreté, Gestapo, and Wehrmacht chiefs three times before I confirmed who was who), Janes employs a tricky narrative device of switching perspective constantly during any scene.  At the start of the book, it is downright confusing if you are not paying close attention.  Here's a short example, just at the start, when the first body is found on a road in Fontainebleau Forest:

"The Bavarian nudged the corpse with the toe of his right show but didn't look up.  'So, what about it, Louis?'
The accent  was harsh, gutteral, the French quite passable because Hermann, being Hermann and stubborn, had seen to it that he spoke the language.  One found out so much more that way.  It facilitated things - all things.  Gestapo things.  Especially girls. [okay, this is obviously Kohler thinking]
St-Cyr chose not to answer immediately.  ["chose" to me indicates that this is St-Cyr]  A last leaf fell through the hush to crash into some boulders with its load of frost and scrape its way to patient rest.
Hermann took no interest in the leaf, in the beauty of its death, the curled edges, the ring of encrusting frost, not even the fact that the leaf was from a plane tree and that such trees were a rarity in this part of the Fontainebleau Forest. 
Always it was blitzkrieg, blitzkrieg.  December, 1942, the Occupation.  Now the whole of France, as of last month. [I like Kohler for this, he's a little tired of the gung-ho Nazis, pleasures of Paris notwithstanding]
'We shall have to see won't we' he said at last.  [you may think that is Kohler, because we've been listening to his inner dialogue briefly here, but it is St-Cyr!]
Accustomed to such delays [Kohler again], the Bavarian sucked on a tooth and snorted, 'It's one less Frenchman for us to worry about.'
Must he be so blatant? [St-Cyr again!] 'We've no evidence he was involved with the Resistance, Inspector.  Perhaps . . . " (9-10)

So, you get a little sense.  This kind of perspective shifting happens throughout the story, and delays one's settling in.  Yet while confusing, I think it achieves a nicely unsettling tone that captures the essence of the time.  We all know the Germans are in charge right now, and disobedience can exact a disastrous price. But the French, collaborators aside, are determined to undermine that dominance in ways large and small. 

And I have to point out that being French, they are not immune to a good meal or glass of wine. 

"'A family business,' said St-Cyr dreamily.  'The salt pork with lentils to your liking?'
'Too much,' sighed the Bavarian.  'That sausage and red cabbage . . . '
'And the paté, the bread, the green salad, and the leek-and-potato soup.  If one strained credulity, Hermann, it's almost as it was before the war.'
The coq-au-vin had been superb."  (100-104)

This meal also includes a Pouilly-Fumé of "truly remarkable vintage that [St-Cyr] had always found to his taste, a gunflint wine, though not of a gun or flints . . . " (100-104).  Hermann can barely stay awake for his dessert of "Chantilly cream with baked pears and chocolate sauce with almonds." (104)  Almost as it was before the war, bien sur. 

Janes' writing has a few annoying tics - references to Kohler as The Bavarian feel forced after about one (is he a dessert?), and the French characters' constant use of the pronoun me, as in "me, I think," grates.  This last may be done to make it all sound more French, (eh, moi, je pense que les Nazis . . . ).  Mais alors, as St-Cyr is often saying to split the hair . . . the fine atmospherics, intricate plotting that really didn't give anything away, and intriguing joint protagonists, well, me, I can put up with the tics for another book in this series, I think. 

The food-crime connection

I'm not alone.  Linda Fairstein's new novel, described here, may make me break my rule of no modern, no US crime fiction.  For a Manhattan a sex-crimes prosectur turned crime novelist, she sure seems to know her way around a restaurant.  But what exactly is it about the connection between food and crime?  I'm not particularlyimpressed by the other argument mentioned in the article, that food provides comfort to the reader in an otherwise grim story.  Me, I think it rounds out the characters more, esp. Our Hero, when s/he has a side-interest in making sure there is at least one good meal once in a while.  Such sensory exploration suggests that there is more to life than just getting the bad guy.  What do you think?

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Seasonal Reading

Is crime fiction a dish better served in the fall and winter?  Looking over some past posts I find that most of our heroes of late have been depressed and depressing (Rebus, Zen, Quirke).  I'm just starting J. Robert Janes' Mayhem, much beloved in historical crime circles, and I see no letup from this theme in one of his protagonists, St-Cyr.  I'm just getting to know Kohler, St-Cyr's reluctant partner in Occupied France criminal investigations, so hard to know if he is depressed or just dense, like a fox.  It's hard to wallow pleasurably in their darkness when it is so darn nice outside, and you are grilling some dinner in anticipation of eating on your lovely deck in the middle of your surprisingly-lush-for-the-almost-city neighborood.  Somehow one just doesn't have the patience for crime that winter brings. 

There is also a new Andrea Camilleri out, that is winning a lot of awards.  Given that it is pretty much always hot in Sicily, it may be time to check that out.  And, I've got the last of Colin Cotteril's great Siri Paiboun series, which, being set in Laos or southeast Asia more generally, may provide more climat-suitable crim reading for the summer.

The Silver Swan

If you think Irish people are just jolly joking drinkers with charming accents, you need to read Benjamin Black's The Silver Swan (Picador, 2009).  The characters here, several returning from his first crime novel Christine Falls, are positively Swedish in their bleak outlook on life.  The protagonist Quirke, and his glum satellites Phoebe and Mal (not to mention the deceased-but-present Sarah and Delia) seem to be just passing time on this earth, waiting for the release that death might bring.  I'm not making this up, one wonders if any of them ever laugh (any way but mirthlessly).  They live in a world of physical and economic comfort, but not one of them cannot get over the "sins" of his or her past.  These transgressions consist mostly of loving the wrong person, or maybe just not loving enough.  The Silver Swan is most decidedly not a romance, but relationships are at he heart of the slowly-unfolding tragedies. 

In this second installment of Black's series about his Dublin-based pathologist, Quirke is asked by an old school acquaintance to overlook certain aspects of his wife's recent death, when doing her post-mortem. But our tormented soul just can't stop when the evidence doesn't support the request, and gets tied up in a tense knot of relationships that soon come to include his daughter, Phoebe, the dead gal, and her increasingly creepy lover.  I think there is a bit of madonna/whore going on here.  The female characters are deeply flawed, or dead, or both, and one picks up an almost wistful sense of why-can't-women-just-be-at-ease? 

It's hot in Dublin this summer, but that doesn't make the story steamy, it just adds a vaguely menacing sense of lethargy and fate. Most of the characters seem compelled by some force other than their own free will to act the way they do. Deirdre Hunt knows she shouldn't go see the mysterious Dr. Kreutz, but she does. Phoebe knows perfectly well that she shouldn't get involved with the smooth but slightly seedy Leslie White, but she does. Rose decides to stay in Dublin, but I can't figure out why, no one seems to want here there!   Even Quirke's major lifestyle change - he is off the gargle, as the colorfuly corrupt Maisie Haddon puts it in my favorite phrase of the whole book - seems somehow imposed upon him despite his ferocious efforts to stay that course. Tomato juice anyone?

You know from the start that this will not end well, probably for anybody.  In my last set of notes about a Black novel, I commented on the author's use of light for atmospherics. In The Silver Swan, it is all about smells as the sensation that backstops a moment with dread.  You are barely in to the story before he gets to it, describing Billy Hunt as having "that smell, hot and raw and salty, that Quirke recognized at once, the smell of the recently bereaved."  (6)  Billy's late wife grew up in conditions rather less elegant than Quirke's crowd currently enjoys.  "Worst of all, thought, worse even than the cold in the low rooms and the plumbing that was always breaking down and the dirt everywhere, was the smell that hung on the stairs an din the corridors, summer and winter, the brownish, tired, hopeless stink of peed-on mattresses and stewed tea and blocked-up lavatories - the smell, the very smell, of what it was to be poor, which she never got used to, never."  (13)  A river is noted by its "usual greenish stench," (66), a summer evening is noted for its "clear, iodine-scented air."  (171)  They're never lovely, these smells, but they are essential to their place or person.  "At times the policeman gave off a whiff of something - it was as tangible as a smell, chalky and gray - that hinted of institutions.  Was there perhaps a Carricklea in his far past, too?  Were they both borstal boys?  Quirke did not care to ask."  (67)
This all sounds a bit grim, and it is - with about the bleakest ending I've read in crime fiction to date.  Nonetheless, it is gripping, largely because of Black's leisurely unfolding of the plot and spectacular control of language.