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.