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.