Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pompitous news!

Great news from over at Mystery Fanfare:  more Bryant and May in the pipeline!  Read about it here or even better, in Christopher Fowler's own blog here

One is yet to be published in the US, then there is a graphic novel (not sure how I feel about that - do I really want someone else's images to replace those in my mind's eye?  Still, my son might enjoy it.), and then two more novels.  I wasn't crazy about the last one, but am optimistic that more arcane absurdities await.  They're not dead yet!


Sunday, November 18, 2012

It's Sunday morning and blissfully, no one else is up

In today's New York Times, my mentor (she doesn't know about this) Marilyn Stasio gives a strong endorsement of The Black House.  So, I guess I'll just have to try that again.  Somehow the newly positive me is not quite so interested in the depressed Hebrides, but if Marilyn likes it . . . .

I'm soldiering, not entirely unhappily, on with Harry Tate/Pearce.  I've just decided that in my minds' eye he IS Peter Firth.  Something is going to go down in Georgia, and I'm pretty sure that our Harry will save the day.

Finally, The Rap Sheet sent me to an interesting Huffpost article about the essential differences, and evolution thereof, between British and American crime fiction.  You should read it if you read this genre; I think you'll agree. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Back to Grimsville

I was due for a letdown after my South Pacific idyll, I know.  But Peter May's The Black House was simply too abrupt a transition.  Twenty pages in, there has been a depressing attempt at teen sex in a dirty old shed in a deeply conservative town where nothing else happens, a horrifically, um, disturbed corpse, and our apparent hero trying to get his life back together after his child has apparently been killed. 

Yeah, I've tossed that the for the relatively bloodless world of a good old British spook, Harry Tate, in Adrian Magson's Red Station, "A Harry Tate Thriller."  Now, normally the word thriller would be enough to turn me off before even getting started (see Child 44).  And indeed, I had a false start here too, abandoning the already abandoned-by-his-agency Tate for Ben Kella and Sister Conchita.  The Solomons totally have it going on over the Essex marshes. 

But you know I love love love the British telly series MI5, and I THOUGHT it was connected here, that's why I bought this bloody book in the first place!  Known in the UK as Spooks, THAT MI5 team was led by Harry Pearce, who can always be counted on to make the right decision, especially when it means defying his superiors at Whitehall.  But you know what?  That was Harry Pearce and this is Harry Tate.  Now where did I ever get them confused?  In my own mind, apparently. 

So now I'm stuck in bleak Georgia, with a bunch of disgraced British spooks, and the Russians are coming.  Tate seems like a good man though, so I guess I'll stick around and see what happens. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012


You may find yourself reaching for your Michener or your Mailer after reading Graeme Kent's debut novel, Devil-Devil (SohoCrime, 2011).  Because, you might, like I did, find your taste for this part of the world rather whetted by Kent's congenial tale of a combo police sargeant/spiritual peacekeeper and a nosy nun in the Solomon Islands.  Maybe it was just the hugely refreshing change from grim old Europe, and the Vastly Important Struggles Between the Forces of Light and Dark that consume WW2 and Cold War detective fiction.  Maybe it's just that the sun shines (when it is not raining) and the men run about in shorts or less.  The women, too.  I've a feeling we're not in Cambridge anymore.

Our Hero in Devil-Devil is Ben Kella, favorite if complicated son of the Solomon Islands, brilliant mission-educated student, courageous fighter of the Japanese, police sargeant, and aofia, which is a hereditary spiritual peacekeeper of the Lau people who live on Malaita.  In other words, Ben has a foot in both the British colonial community and the native world, and as a result is really not entirely trusted by either.  It's that usual theme of the outsider solving the crime, but in this case, Ben has to draw on his ultimate insider status of aofia to find out what exactly is going on in the high bush country.  There's been a death of an old saltwater man, an old corpse has been unearthed and discovered to have also been murdered, the first dead guy's grandson is soon killed, an American anthropologist has disapeared and then when they start shooting at Sister Conchita, well, you know its going to get complicated.  Did I mention that Kella is under a bones tabu, placed on him by the old, feared and revered headman, Pazabosi? 
"Kella was suddenly aware that they were not alone.  Thirty yards away at a bend in the track stood a tall elderly islander with a helmet of grey hair.  It had been years since they had last met but Kella recognized him at once.  For a moment the two men stood with their eyes locked.  Slowly, almost reluctantly, the old man lifted a short carved bone onto which he had impaled a bladder of a bonito fish glowing with phosphorous.  The islander pointed the stick at Kella.  At the same time, with his other hand, he lifted a bag made with a pandanus leaf and rattled the contents viciously.  Abruptly he turned and was lost to sight among the trees.
  Peter Oro looked at Kella.  All traces of the youth's truculence had vanished.  Suddenly he was just another frightened village boy brought against his will into contact with the ghosts.
  'That magic man has cursed you, Sargeant Kella,' he said, his voice shaded by misery and despair.  'Now surely you will die!'"  (18)
Spooky.  In a good way.

A great strength of this book is Kent's effective portrayal of the culturally complex island communities with myriad dialects, customs, and lifestyles.  The scenes in the capital city of Honiara, on Guadalcanal, particularly reveal this, with a bustling Chinatown, various different groups of islanders, British expats, and of course, the missionaries, all going about their business.  We learn pretty early on that the Solomons expect to become indepdenent from Great Britain (they are in 1960 a protectorate), and that awareness lends a certain energy to everyone, since everyone's going to want a piece of the new country, presumably.  (In fact, independence doesn't come until the mid-1970s, and then it is really only self-rule, QEII remains the head of state.)  And the setting is terrific - there really are palm-fringed beaches, and coconut trees, and waterfalls going over cliffs.  Kent doesn't overdo the tropical paradise bit, but places you deep in the islands with an economy of words. 

But back to those missionaries, because they are central.  Our Other Hero, Sister Conchita, is a nun from Boston with a habit (sorry) of causing trouble from getting overly involved in local situations.  Here she's in it up to her neck in the beginning of the tale, being involved in the unearthing of that old corpse, but then she pretty quickly removes to Honiara, where she operates a little behind the scenes, but mostly sits out the exciting parts of the story back on the island of Malaita.  The back-of-book description is a little misleading in this respect, since it implies that Kella and Sister C. will be working together to solve the crime, which they are not really.  The final scene is a set-up for future books in the series, so apparently that's where the team bit will come.  Still, the mission aspect is in some ways the most interesting because it is a long-settled white presence in the islands.  In some ways it is tolerated much better than the British government, and of course in other ways it is completely disdained by the islanders, who have their own belief systems and while polite, aren't really ever going to take on the Praying Mary's. The best missionaries, in the sense of being the most successful at integrating with the local communities, are the ones who go a little native - who actually make an effort to understand how the locals live, with some respect and less interference.  In that way, they are just one more group working and living on the islands, trying to get along.  Kent's churchy crowd are diverse and mostly sympathetic characters, even if he does play that old trope, the crafty old nun (Sound of Music anyone?) for laughs. 

I did not like the relative lack of Sister Conchita (more nuns fixing the old jeeps please!), and the almost complete absence of native women - except as set decoration or enthusiastic sex partners.  Given that Kent is an older white guy, the happy natives enticing the men with sex just jarrs. One could almost say that what we've really got here is a madonna-whore complex, although I think that might be an extreme interpretation.  You cannot argue that Kent does not know his subject:  according to the book's bio, he spent years in the Solomons working in education and broadcasting.  The setting and multi-culti aspects ring true.  He is actually a long-published author and sounds like an interesting guy, you can read an interview with him here.  So, I'll reserve judgement and hope that the ladies show up, smartly, next time.  I'll certainly check out Kent's next offering in the series, One Blood. 

As an interesting postscript, I learned from wikipedia that the Solomon Islands went through a civil war in the late 1990s-early 2000s, and are today considered to be a failed state.  Or perhaps stillborn.  It is interesting to think about that against the backdrop of this book, which looks forward so hopefully toward independence from whitey. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


You may recall that I rather raved about the first J. Robert Janes novel that I read, Mayhem, featuring an unlikely pair of detectives from the Sûreté, Jean-Louis St-Cyr, and the Gestapo, Herman Kohler, set in Occupied France.  I love the conceit of crime carrying on during the occupation, the developing relationships and respect between St-Cyr and Kohler as they find common ground against their enemies (sometimes from within their own systems), the damp and dank and depressingly realistic images of the City of Light in Nazi darkness. 

Nevertheless, about, oh, I don't know, maybe 20 pages into the sequel, Carousel (1993, SohoCrime edition 1999), I found myself thinking, yes, but this one is worse than the first!  Let me put it another way, for about 50% of this book, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IS GOING ON.  Well, that's not fair, I do know that there were three (perhaps four) murders, a few more related deaths, a couple of possible rapes, a healthy dose of familial deceit, not to mention black market dealings, looting of luxury goods, Gestapo rafles (roundups) of hostages, and any number of people - French, German, others - looking out for themselves first and their country or cause second.  I do know that our heroes are in it up to their necks, since no one trusts them after they turned up a murderous Gestapo colonel in the first book (at least . . . I think this is what they did).  And I do know that Paris is dark, and damp, and hungry, god is it hungry, and the only people with enough to eat are the Germans. 

Maybe I am getting old or slow or am just plain too stupid to have survived the labyrinth of loyalties that marks this world of German dominance and French collaboration.  I cannot keep all the Germans and their departments straight, nor the various French factions (most of whom work for the Germans, in this story anyway).  Janes' habit of referring to people and organizations obliquely, by the street name or the branch of service that they represent, for example, is a challenge if you can't remember that this group at this address follows that service, and so on.  And I just find the idea of calling St-Cyr "the Sûreté" all the time, a bit contrived.

But I did have an ephiphany while reading a scene in which St-Cyr and Kohler are in with Kohler's boss at the Gestapo, Walter Boemelberg.  I found myself thinking, if I could see what was happening, watch this scene play out, I'd know instantly what was happening.  I'd have visual cues galore of uniforms, props, faces.  Without that, it all jumbles together.  So maybe Janes is a closet scriptwriter.

The fragmentation of plot works against a clear trajectory, but as was the case with Mayhem, there are beautifully written scenes that pop up now and again.  As in that first book, St-Cyr visits his lady friends Chantal and Muriel, an elegantly aging couple who run a very high-end parfumerie and lingerie shop on the place Vendôme.  They take him in for a few hours, feed him, bathe him, provide a new suit of clothes, offer any number of nubile young lingerie models should he wish for that kind of diversion, and provide valuable clues in the form of perfume identification and professional knowledge about the state of German-controlled silk supply chain.  St-Cyr and Muriel spar over a sample.
"'Lemon grass' breathed the Sûreté [see what I mean?] with excitment.  'Rosemary and coumarin.'
'Yes, yes, don't trouble me,' she scolded.
The nose was flattish, the cheeks still strong - indeed all of Muriel's features exuded strength.  But in perfumes and their concocting she had perhaps her only sign of weakness, apart from her friend and lifelong companion.  The voice was one of gravel and incongruous in a perfumer.  'There is musk and civet in this and it has the anger, Jean-Louis, of a woman who knows her own mind and body.  What we used to call a "fast" woman.'
'Sex . . . sex with many men,' whispered Chantal with great modesty.
'The civet is subtle, the musk has been used mainly to accent its sharpness.  There is some Balsam of Peru, some sandalwood - she wanted those elements of mystery - the wildness of thyme as well.  A woman of much abandon, Jean-Louis.  One who teases, or did so, since she can longer be so young and foolish.'
'The cloves of Bourbon and a touch of sweet fennel?' he said, watching her every expression wiht all too evident admiration.
So loyal!  Ah, Mon Dieu, it was at once tragic and elevating to see Monsieur Louis and Muriel exchange views like this.  A sensitive man, an unmarried man now, a widower.  Childless too.  Another tragedy but for the best.  Ah yes.
'The lime is for the acid with which she would turn each of her love affairs into bile.'
'Are you certain?' he asked.  One could have heard a pin drop.
Muriel took a last breath of the scent.  'It was called Revenge, Jean-Louis, and it was made by a German in the rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré.  Gerald Kahn.  He died in an automobile accident in Cannes in 1926.'"  (193-194)
Fantastique, eh?  I love the tension, and again, this is a scene I can totally see playing out on screen.  Would that they were all this contained and clear.

I don't know if I'll rush out for the next in this series right away.  I need to recover from the hopelessly complicated final scene, which involves all the possible killers of all the dead people, and a few others as well.  But I wouldn't mind smelling Revenge!