Monday, December 30, 2013

The Twelfth Department

William Ryan's series set in Stalin's Russia is thoroughly enjoyable but the second entry, The Twelfth Department (2013, Minotaur) strained credulity in one key aspect. I'll put it to you, Gentle Reader:  if you are a parent, would you really put the demands of the state, even this terrible, horrible, no-good state, ahead of the welfare of your young son?    

You shouldn't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes, and lord knows good shoes were hard to come by in the USSR of the 1930s unless you knew someone or were someone.  So I suppose, who am I to say that the kindly Korolev, Our Hero in the classic good-guy-trying-to-make-a-go-of-it-in-a-dangerous-totalitarian-state mold, isn't making the best decisions he can, given the circumstances?  In The Twelfth Department, we find Korolev looking forward to spending some quality time with his son Yuri, sent on a visit from his divorced wife.  This time, instead of being cold in Moscow, it's hot, August-in-Central-Europe-hot, which means that the normally bundle-up Muscovites are out and about enjoying the city's parks and open spaces searching for coolness.  You can see it coming:  Korolev stops in to the precinct to tidy up some paperwork in anticipation of a little holiday and before you can say Bob's-your-uncle, he's caught up in a murder case.  Of course, then he's told to butt out because it is a matter for State Security, the dreaded NKVD a.k.a. the Chekists.  Except that thanks to some internal nastiness there, Korolev is pulled back in by one department (the 5th) and then learns that another (the 12th) wants a piece of the action too - but at the expense of the 5th!  Why all the interest from State Security?  Because the murdered men (now two of them) were working on top secret projects that had to do with MIND CONTROL and how it might be used to influence enemies of the state.  It is all very sinister and a little bit James Bond, but given what we know now about the Soviet Union under Comrade Stalin, it is just plausible.  

What is harder to swallow is that when Korolev's young son disappears, and he himself is brought in for questioning by one of the aforementioned departments, he responds by agreeing to work with the State Security to "solve" the murders.  A colleague back at the precinct is set on the task of finding the boy, and other friends help out too.  Now, Korolev is given little actual choice in the matter, being caught, as noted above, between rival departments of the NKVD.  And, it becomes clear later that his son's security may in fact depend on his working with the Chekists, and in figuring out which of the rivals will actually help him.  Still, before that knot becomes apparent, I'd have liked to have read a scene in which Korolev perhaps wrestled with the dilemma a little more.  

The tension between the security departments, and the tightrope Korolev must walk to preserve his and his son's lives acts as a sort of rope tow, keeping the story moving forward and eventually becoming the central element.  While Ryan's prose rarely gives me the delicious pause that some other writers' do, every once in a while he hits his mark solidly.  Consider this:
  "It was strange to spend a night with another human being so close by, and periodically Korolev found himself waking, just about, and listening- though for what, he couldn't quite remember at first.  A dark silence surrounded him.  then, his ears attuning, he might here a car's engine a few streets away, or perhaps some mysterious metallic grinding from down near the river, or a late-night walker's footsteps.  Nothing unusual, in other words.  It was like that, Moscow - it moved around in its sleep."  (11)
(Another night description!)  What I love about this paragraph is the way it lays the night so carefully around Our Hero, and it is a place in which he is comfortable.  Yet the idea of the city moving around in its sleep is unsettling, suggesting the constant watching and listening, and the vigilance necessary to self-preservation that is the backdrop to any story set in this place and time.  

The good-guy-in-a-bad-world theme is common in most of the crime and espionage literature that I read.  I like Ryan's work for the stories, but more so for the research-informed setting and plot scaffolding.  He offers a little "Historical Note" at the end, discussing his inspiration for this story, and research.  In particular, the attention he pays to physical setting - what was where in the city, and when (337-338) - is what makes these books compelling reads.  For some visuals that spectacularly reinforce the story, check out Ryan's website.  We may live in a world where the idea of the collective good is a joke for many, but lord knows it beats the opposite extreme.  For some.  

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Merry Christmas to me!

I've not been shy about professing my admiration for the Soho Crime imprint.  Lots of my faves come in those colorful little paperbacks - Dr. Siri, Sueno and Bascom, Inspector Chen, and so on.  So, I just subscribed to the Soho Crime International Crime Club.  I'll get a book a month (yes, I do have to pay for it, but it's cheaper than list) and big discounts off of their backlist and other titles.  You can sign up here.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Dead Lions

The hapless gang from Slough House are back, in all their decidedly non-glory in Mick Herron's second book in the Slough House trilogy, Dead Lions (2013, Soho Press).  Jackson Lamb is farting around (literally) with plots that may or may not have anything to do with anything.  (But rest assured that if Jackson Lamb is involved, it probably has to do with something, and particularly something that may stick it to his masters.)  Louisa and Min are testing their relationship, River is brooding over his "failures" and seeking advice from his famous grandfather, and Catherine is actually pulling the strings.  Formulaic?  Perhaps.  But enjoyable as well.

Minus the (now dead) cute girl and with a few new additions, most of the slow horses once again find themselves in the middle of an op that no stand-up Regents Park agent wants anything to do with.  Russians are involved as both old-school and very modern bad guys, so you know it's going to be good.
  "'Little chat about old, times, Nicky.'
  "There are no old times.  Don't you keep up?  Memory Lane's been paved over.  They built a shopping mall on it.'
  'You can take the man out of Russia,' Lamb observed, 'but he'll still reckon he's some kind of tragic fucking poet.'"  (107)
Are there any spy novels where it ISN'T good when the Russians are involved?  Speaking of Russians, I'll bet Smiley fans like myself will also find themselves reminded of the great and kind of tragic Sovietologist Connie Sachs when they meet Molly Doran in records.

Also back is the same split-screen style, switching scenes as the action unfolds simultaneously in various locations.  London is central, natch, but also a small town in the countryside that is a little less charming than it might be in the hands of a lesser writer.  Best pay attention or risk confusion.  I don't mind it, but can imagine that some would find the jumping about distracting.

That said, Herron is a great writer.  I can imagine that some would find his style drifting toward pretentious, or even archly incomprehensible at times.  But I admire a writer who correctly uses the word nonplussed (33), and especially one who comes up with a brilliantly descriptive paragraph like this:
  "London slept, but fitfully, its every other eye wide open.  the ribbon of light atop the Telecom Tower unfurled again and again, traffic lights blinked through unvarying sequence, and electronic posters affixed to bus stops rotated and paused, rotated and paused, drawing an absent public's attention to unbeatable mortgage deals.  There were fewer cars, playing louder music, and the bass pulse that trailed in their wake pounded the road long after they'd gone.  From the zoo leaked muffled shrieks and strangled growls.  And on a pavement obscured by trees, leaning on a railing, a man smoked a cigarette, the light at its tip glowing brighter then dying, brighter then dying, as if he too were part of the city's heartbeat, performing the same small actions over and over, all through the watches of the night."  (263)
I can't recall when I've read a better description of a city at night.  Kind of the photo-negative of Sky Masterson's "My Time of Day."

Sunday, December 22, 2013

early morning meanderings

Could have spent my quiet morning time writing a review of Mick Herron's Dead Lions, the second in his Slow Horses trilogy.  Could have addressed Christmas cards, or proofread the course list for the 2014 Harvard Summer School.

But no, instead I whiled away my time perusing online lists of "best spy novels" like this one and this one.  It is time to take a break from all these series that I've been enjoying and writing about, and get back to some classics.

Speaking of series, who's excited that Sherlock is coming back to PBS next month?  I am!

And Dead Lions is coming soon, promise.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Loyal Character Dancer

Qiu Xiaolong is mad as hell and isn't going to take it anymore.  Well, mad as hell might be an overstatement for this more likely gentle Chinese poet and novelist who lives in St. Louis.  But it is true that, frustrated by official alterations to his first three Inspector Chen novels by the Chinese government, he has refused to let his fourth entry into this series be published at all in China.  It is a shame because while Qiu's novels are clear-eyed in their depiction of corruption within the Chinese political power structure and the extraordinary long-term damage wrought by the Cultural Revolution, they also demonstrate a deep affection and one might even say nostalgia for life in China in the late 20th c.  Capitalism is just beginning to make its mark, and Qiu deftly navigates between the few fabulous haves and the many more have-nots in this rapidly changing society.  Qiu writes almost reverently about Chinese landscape, city life, individuals, and cultural totems like traditional medicine, making these books as attractive for the armchair traveler as they are for the armchair detective. If you are both, like me, well, you had me at "Chief Inspector Chen Cao, of the Shanghai Police Bureau, found himself once again walking through the morning mist toward Bund Park." (1)

A Loyal Character Dancer (2002, Soho Crime) finds Inspector Chen Cao fulfilling a political duty - escorting a US Marshal around Shanghai - but wishing he could work on the case of the body he will very soon find in the Bund.  Politics guide all, as is always the case in these stories (which begs the question - how on earth could the story have made any sense if all of that was changed by the Chinese Man?), and since the Marshal, Inspector Catherine Rohn, is there to escort the wife of a star witness in an illegal immigration case to the US.  The witness is set to testify against some evil Asian gangs about their duplicitous human smuggling , and is in protective custody, but says he won't testify unless his wife is brought to the US.  Then she disappears a few days before she is to be collected by the Americans, and things go downhill from there.  There is a fair amount of travelling around China - overnight on hard-bench trains, splendidly atmospheric - and a movie-worthy fight scene complete with flying weaponry and masked bandits.  Did I mention the Chinese crime gangs and karaoke bars?  This isn't Martin Limon's gritty 1970s Seoul, but that bit with the snake at the glitzy club will catch your attention.

The plot of A Loyal Character Dancer is not that complex, but Western readers without a good understanding of Chinese names will inevitably find ourselves confused at points.  That said, this story was easier to follow than the previous one, perhaps because some of the recurring players make sense (Party Secretary Li, for example).  And while it retains that funny stilted quality of calling everyone by their full title - Chief Inspector Chen, Party Secretary Li, and so on - conversations between characters feel less awkward than in Death of a Red Heroine.  Perhaps it is the addition of an American, although her being an attractive woman manages to tie Chen up a little more than he expects.  As for the prose itself, given the author's own work writing poetry, it is no surprise that his protagonist does too, but it does give momentary pause when characters like Old Hunter (Chen's partner Yu's father, a retired cop) start sounding like Irishmen:
"Things are falling apart!  The beast of corruption is moving in all over the country.  Good people lack conviction."  (74)  And the worst are full of passionate intensity?  Western poetry references aside, it is not hard to be seduced by Qiu Xiaolong's particular mix of genres:
  "He gazed at her as she sipped her tea.  For a second, she was merging into another woman, one who had acompanied him to another teahouse, in Beijing.  She, too, had looked pale, with black circles under eyes revealed in a flood of sunligh, with a green tea leaf in her white teeth.
  The tenderness of the tea leaf between her lips. / Everything's possible, but not pardonable."  (346)

Of course the bits that always get me are discussions of dinner.  All of Qiu's characters take meals seriously, but if you are having an American guest, well . . .
  "'So what shall we have for tonight?'
  'An ordinary Chinese meal will be great,' Yu said.  'According to Chen, Inspector Rohn has a passion for everything Chinese.  What about a dumpling dinner?'
  'A good idea.  It's the season for spring bamboo shoots.  We will have dumplings with three fresh stuffings:  fresh bamboo shoots, fresh meat, and fresh shrimp.  I'll fry some dumplings, steam some, and serve the rest in an old duck soup with black tree ears.  I'll leave work early and bring some special dishes from the restaurant.  Our room may be as small as a piece of dried tofu, but we cannot lose face before an American guest.'
  Yu stretched.  'I don't have to go to the office today,' he said.  'So I'll go to the market to buy a basket of really fresh bamboo shoots.'
  'Choose the tender ones.  Not thicker than two fingers.  We'd better mince the meat ourselves; the ground pork you can buy is not fresh.  When will they arrive?'
  'Around four thirty.'
  'Let's start right now.  It takes time to make the dumpling skin.'"  (318)

Hungry yet?

Saturday, November 23, 2013


  "'Never took you for the soft-hearted kind, Connoly,' O'keefe said.
  'All the best coppers are, Seàn.  It's what makes us different from our friends across the water - no offence, Constable Finch. The Irish are unafraid to sentimentalise the hopeless cases, the lost causes, the young dead whores of the world.  The English save their tears for the King.  And their dogs.'"  (422)

And that's the nut of Kevin McCarthy's Peeler (Mercier Press, 2010) - the Irish are different from the English, but that sentimentalizing can get you into trouble.  Gosh I liked this story a lot more than I expected.  Regular readers will know of my inability to get going with the much-heralded Irish crime genre.  These books win awards and get a lot of airtime in the blogosphere.  But so far, I've found them just depressing or violent or cliched or some combination thereof.  And I readily confess that a couple of chapters into Peeler, I was ready to give up again - more violence and sadness.  I'm not sure why I kept going, but I'm glad I did.

Now, Irish history is complicated, even if it is mostly a story of one failed attempt at independence or at least assertion of nationalism after another.  It gets particularly tricky in the 20th c., when independence from Great Britain is won by much of the isle, but then a civil war breaks out, and of course you know how things go in Northern Ireland until pretty darn recently.  Peeler takes place around 1920, so not long after World War I, and pre-Independence, but deep into the War for Independence.  Our Survivor (this is one story where the protagonist is indeed a good guy, but doesn't feel so much like a hero as someone who is just trying to stay alive), Sean O'Keefe, is a veteran (saw service in the Dardanelles, wounded) and a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which is the local police force and as such seen as an agent of the hated British crown.  Hated by most that is, but not by all, especially not by those who have done well under British rule.  The RIC, colloquially known as Peelers (the modern police force created under Sir Robert Peel, 19th c. British Home Secretary and PM) are actually Irish, and really only responsible for maintaining local law and order but their reluctant connection to Auxiliaries and Black and Tans (both paramilitary or just thuggish British forces sent to Ireland purely to subdue rebels) makes them targets of the IRA anyway.  The premise of this story is straightforward:  a woman is found brutally murdered and mutilated, and tarred as a traitor.  Looks like standard operating procedure for the IRA, but while this is a time when informers are punished by torture or worse, the Republicans aren't usually know to target women, and there are details to the case that are, well, unusual for the IRA MO.  O'Keefe has to investigate the crime, and is under pressure to identify an IRA killer, even if the evidence does not point that way.  At the same time, the IRA launch their own investigation, since they don't want to be saddled with it, either.  More violence ensues - predictably, but somehow hauntingly as well.

Descriptions of Peeler suggest that the parallel investigations are more important to the story than they presented to me.  While there are some interesting scenes detailing the inner workings of the IRA, this story really gained depth when it sought to navigate the delicate balance O'Keefe has to maintain between his job as a cop, his nationalist sentiments as an Irishman, his loathing of violence but willingness to deploy it when necessary, and his general disgust at the behavior of the pro-British factions.  The IRA thread of the investigation really only gains traction when it bumps up against, and must reluctantly involve, O'Keefe.  Even in this most black-and-white of conflicts, there are grey areas.  The nuanced exploration of moral ambiguities is what really makes this story stand out.

The characters are not shockingly original, but they are written with an eye to individualism and the ones you should like, you do, because they are warm, or smart, or just nice like Irish people.  I didn't quite suss out the perp until it was practically announced - partly because it was just the teeniest stretch, but more because there are some excellent diversions as the investigation unfolds.

There's a lot of rain - this is Ireland - and tea and whiskey - ditto.

The action of Peeler unfolds over the course of a week in late November, early December, 1920.  This is significant because Cork city center was burned just a few days later by Black and Tans, in reprisal for, well, you know.  I assume the author picked the dates for this reason, but I wouldn't have known had I not been digging around for a bit of background on the armed conflict in this area.  Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed in this conflagration, but except for one heart attack, the only deaths were combatants.  That's kind of amazing, but not surprising, in a time and place where pretty much everyone was a combatant.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Prague Fatale

Philip Kerr, will you ever not deliver?  How do I love your Bernie Gunther novels, let me count the ways.

Prague Fatale is a great read for several reasons, but let's start with language.  Kerr has a deft touch with noir-speak, and he pours on the lingo - bulls and polenta for cops and police, cauliflower for the officers, etc. - but Our Hero Bernie Gunther is not entirely hard-boiled.  His weakness, if you want to call it that, in the world of the Nazis is that he is no Nazi, and he has nothing good to say about them.  An earlier novel in the series mentioned Gunther's elation when Germany conquered France, hoping for a return to the Germany he cared about, full of national pride in strong deeds.  But his transfer to the Eastern Front in 1941, and terrible duties with Einsatzgruppen quickly erase any Teutonic pride, leaving him in a suicide-contemplating funk that drifts into this story.  Gunther is a survivor, despite himself, and perhaps it is his story-telling talent (because that is always the format of these stories, Gunther telling - us, the Americans, the gal on the next bar stool - his story) and dark humor that keep him alive.  Consider this example.  Gunther is just meeting Kurt Kahlo, who will be his no. 2 in Prague.
"The man who spoke had a head as big as a stonemason's bucket, but the face carved on the front of it was small, like a child's.  The eyes were cold and hard, even a little sad, but the mouth was a vicious tear."  (164)  Despite Gunther's unfavorable first impression, he and Kahlo find much common ground in their investigative styles, and develop a strong respect for one another.  My favorite example of noir-speak from the whole book describes Kahlo during a good-cop/bad-cop routine.
"Kahlo folded his arms, and looked sad, as if disappointed that he couldn't obey the order.  I didn't doubt that he was more than equal to the task of dealing with Kluckholm if the third adjutant decided to try and get tough with him.  Khalo looked tougher. Khalo would have looked tough in a bath full of Turkish wrestlers."  (303)

I find myself reaching for reference materials when I read Kerr's stories, just to get the full picture about all the characters.  I think that's why these stick in my brain for a few days after reading them.  Kerr manages that rare feat of placing fictional characters and stories in historical settings without the whole thing feeling contrived.  This must be due to very careful research, and while I'm generally suspicious of those who immerse themselves in details of uniform and rank (esp. of the Nazi regime) here it just works draw the reader in.  In Prague Fatale, Gunther has been summoned to the Czech residence of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security (including the Gestapo) and Deputy Protector of Bohemia and Moravia (meaning the man in charge in Czechoslovakia).   Heydrich is convinced there is an assassination plot being formulated against him, by one of his inner circle. And while he knows that Gunther's politics are not exactly up to Nazi standard, he likes the cop's investigative streetsmarts, and recognizes that they are the only way to get under the field-gray skins of the sycophants around him.  When another murder happens at the house, well of course it is convenient that Gunther is there to solve it.  Over the course of that investigation, Gunther learns more than he wants to about the infighting and backstabbing and arrogance and stupidity of most members of this very elite group of Nazi leaders.  I didn't research all of them, but the deeply-layered depiction of Heydrich and the Czech milieu suggest that there is a huge amount of historical legwork backing up this group portrait

I've said before that I thought Kerr's post-Berlin Noir works were a little uneven - I was particularly not wild about the one in Argentina - but he is back in tight World War II form with Prague Fatale.  And that's the final piece that makes this story work so well.  In many ways it is a classic country-house murder mystery, right down to the body-in-a-locked-room conceit and the group of characters, one of whom is . . . a murderer!  Heydrich is even reading Agatha Christie during this story!  But this permits Kerr to display Gunther's impressive investigative skills, as well as his own character writing, through a series of interviews with each of the guests, which, as everyone knows, is what you do when you find a dead body in a locked room in a country house full of weekend guests.  Unlike the chronologically ambitious but challenging plot of Field Gray, we're all pretty much in real time here.  It works to keep the story focused, but you will not escape the larger context of the Nazi's brutal regime in Czechoslovakia, the courage of the resistance, and the omnipresent Kerr/Gunther theme of the price of survival in particularly nasty and brutish world.

I always like a postscript - you know, what happened afterwards to everyone - and Kerr delivers one here that hangs around like a historical earworm.  You think you're kind of immune to Nazi nastiness, but you know, you never really are.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Emperor of Ocean Park

Hey, this is my 100th post on Crime Pays!  Is anyone still reading?  Cheers!

I go a little crazy shopping when I am on vacation.  Somehow every single thing seems like a marvelous souvenir of a perfect trip and so price be damned, buy I will.  One place I often spend excessive amounts of money for no good reason is the apparently famous Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Martha's Vineyard.  Now, this is a good bookstore, particularly strong on nautical history which is not something you see in a small bookstore, and of course with an excellent and extensive selection of books about the Island, and by local authors or authors with local connections, of which there are many.  That's usually where I end up buying.  But I don't know that it is a great bookstore, so am not sure what the hype is about, other than being an independent bookseller (which we applaud of course) in an actual place.  It's not massive, and sometimes the folks at the counter can be a bit impatient (although, who can blame them by the end of the summer season, I guess).

Anyway, last summer was no different, and in addition to a book of MV trivia ca. 1998 and some other stuff, I picked up a copy of The Emperor of Ocean Park (2002; Vintage Contemporaries 2003) by Steven L. Carter.  Noting the above that I am a sucker for local stuff wherever I am, and that the summary on the back promised a murder AND a mysterious puzzle, it was an obvious choice.

The Emperor turns out to be less a work of crime fiction, and more a meditation on the mysteries of the human mind as it is warped by family dynamics.  Our Hero, which he isn't really but the story is told from his perspective, is Talcott Garland, law professor at an unnamed elite Eastern law school (NOT Yale, where Carter teaches in real life, but sharing some general characteristics).  Talcott, or Misha as he is known to his intimates, is the son of the recently deceased Honorable Judge Oliver Garland, who, we learn over the first part of the story, saw his Supreme Court nomination crash and burn thanks to revelations of his relationship with an international crime boss.  Following the disastrous nomination, the Judge's politics turned increasingly reactionary, and he became a darling of the Right.  The story opens with his death, and the gathering of his somewhat troubled but all highly successful in their own way children.  The Garlands, members of the "darker nation," as Talcott puts it, are the elite of that group - privileged upbringing in Washington, the best schools, summers on the Vineyard from time immemorial.  After the funeral, various characters start pestering Talcott about "the arrangements" that the Judge left supposedly with Talcott - except that he has no idea what anyone is talking about.  Did I mention that his wife has been nominated for a seat on a Federal court?  That complicates matters, too.  The long story is that of his discovery - with many twists and turns and layers and character surprises - of what "the arrangements" are, and what they mean for the many characters both savory and un.

If I were writing a back cover blurb for this book I would call it a sprawling family saga.  The story is at best unwieldy.  It unfolds on several levels at once, including Talcott's personal life, relationship with his siblings and his dead father and various other family members, the whole crazy dynamic of faculty at an elite university, and did I mention that there is a whole chess theme going on (the dead Judge and Talcott bonded only over their love of and skill in chess)?  I might have dropped it in confusion but for several elements:
1.  Despite the many characters, and Carter's awareness that he is dealing in stereotypes of a kind, they are all distinct and thoughtfully drawn.  Carter has a gentle sense of humor, and Talcott's private asides to himself in the midst of even the most dramatic situations suggest a comfort with and acceptance of humanity's basic imperfection.  There is a lot of rumination going on here - SOP in first-person narrative I guess - and it works, mostly.  Talcott is trying to do the right thing for everyone, wrestling a bit with some leftovers from a dysfunctional family life, and his way of dealing with it is to alternate between dropping out and becoming paranoid.  But he recognizes this, and is always questioning.
2.  Loved the law school faculty insider stuff.  If you work in a University, a lot of this will be deliciously familiar.  Carter notes afterwards that none of it draws on his happy career at Yale, but he sure does nail this topic!
3.  Apropos of no. 2, who doesn't like reading about a place they know well?  All the MV scenes ring true, although the Garlands and we have different experiences.  Still, I very much see Vinerd Howse in my mind's eye, and appreciate the joy with which Talcott always approaches the Island.
"I have always love the crossing, and today's journey is no different.  As the Cape falls farther and farther behind, I can feel my fears and confusions fading with it, receding in importance as the Vineyard looms ever larger off the starboard bow, first a distant gray-green shimmer, next a dreamlike vision of trees and beaches, now near enough to make out the individual houses, all gray-brown and weathered and beautiful.  I gulp down its image like an alcoholic tumbling gratefully off the wagon as the ferry thrums steadily through the waves, a few dozen automobiles waiting in the hold to explode onto the Island in a noxious rush of joy." (191)
Yes, YES.

It is good that this is sold at the Bunch of Grapes, as it would make a fine beach read, see that sprawling note above, I feel like I've barely touched on all the topics this gets into.  The ending satisfied mostly - the big mysteries are solved - but a number of the characters just sort of fade out.  I guess this is supposed to be part of Talcott's moving on, but one wonders.  Still, I guess that's what happens in real life, we just keep going on, don't we?  Carter certainly does - he's written several more works of fiction, including at least one that carries a character from The Emperor forward.  And he's published in his field of law pretty widely as well.  It will be interesting to see if his other novels are as introspective.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Slow Horses

I subscribe to just a handful of blogs and newsletters about crime fiction, and it is hard to keep up with even this small correspondence.  BUT these missives are great sources for new reads, such as today's offering.  Mick Herron's Slow Horses (Soho Constable, 2010) is not a complete departure - it is a Soho Press production after all - but it is a new series and a refreshingly new direction for me.

The slow horses of the title are disgraced and down-but-not-yet-out members of MI5, assigned to a Siberia called Slough House, far away from the HQ at Regent's Park.  Some know why they are there - a botched mission, a relationship with someone disgraced - others don't.  All they know is that they are pretty much doomed to stay there forever, doing numbing tasks like monitoring web traffic of obscure groups and locations that may or may not have anything to do with any kind of security risk, ever.  It's never stated explicitly whether anyone gets to leave Slough House and return to Regent's Park, but the implication is that no one does.  It is also never explained why the characters stay, and don't quit and do something else with their lives, but I guess the point is that they are so quirky and molded by their time in MI5 that they can't imagine doing anything else.  And it is always possible that some of them are there because it serves someone else's ends for them to be out of the way, as in, they were set up for their original fall from grace for other reasons.  The vagaries here are intentional; there is much unsaid, much inferred, and a whole heck of a lot of back story that I still don't know, and I've finished the book!

But maybe the slow horses are useful to HQ, for a little black op here or there.  Except that they might not know what they're being asked to do, or maybe some of them do but you will never entirely know because there is a bit of cutting back and forth.  Herron's method here is to plunge the reader right in, and leave you to figure out for yourself what is going on.  The writing is erudite and British, which I particularly love:  "For Catherine Standish, Slough House was Pincher Martin's rock:  damp, unlovely, achingly familiar, and something to cling to when the waves began to crash." (29)  Who is Pincher Martin and why is he clinging to a rock? The UK always damp but you can tell here that it is not in a cozy village kind of way.  And isn't unlovely such a perfectly lovely word to describe something that is not at all nice?  The writing was not florid, but it was complex and makes you pay attention so you don't miss anything.  This particular sentence is at the start of a section describing Catherine, and is a good example of how much of the first half of this book goes - lots of opaque background nodded at, just enough detail to let you know that these folks either screwed up royally or were royally screwed.  As the story unfolds, it becomes clear - sort of - what happened to whom to bring them here.

[I am also a slow horse, but not because I've been relegated to Slough House.  I am a slow blogger, and now a slow walker due to my recently broken ankle.]

The plot element that moves the story forward is the kidnapping of a young man of Pakistani heritage, by some ultra-nationalists.  They claim that they will behead the young man in 48 hours, and do it live for the world to see via the internet.  How the slow horses come to be involved in this case almost strains credulity given the rapid back-and-forth between scenes of action - Regent's Park, the slow horses, the kidnappers and their victim - round and round in very quick time and with a lot of cryptic nods and winks to stories long buried but threatening now to come back to life.  But that's the how the spook business works, as anyone who has read enough of these books knows.  It all seems like a silly game until someone loses his life.

I think that the heavily descriptive part of the book is necessary because this is the first in a trilogy about the denizens of Slough House, and that the back stories started here will develop and influence the next two books.  Somehow I don't see Our Heroes here ever being fully redeemed - few of them are particularly appealing characters, and some are downright unpleasant - but it is clear that they are marked for further adventures.  I think I shall want to see how this turns out.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

One Blood

If you read Crime Pays regularly, you'll know that I'm a big fan of settings.  Sometimes I read books just because I like to immerse myself in that world.  It's like taking a trip there - I find myself thinking about Berlin, or Laos, or Seoul, or wherever, at down times during my day, pondering what it would be like to live there, then.  This is the main motivation for sticking with Graeme Kent's series set in the Solomon Islands.  One Blood is the second installment in this series, featuring a native policeman named Ben Kella and an American missionary nun named Sister Conchita.

That's actually not entirely fair, because it makes it sound like there are no other redeeming qualities to these stories.  And there are - the characters are, if many, still strongly drawn, and the writing is solidly unobtrusive most of the time (this is a good thing).  The plot itself is a bit tortuous and unnecessarily layered.  This story takes place in the western Solomons (a map, a map, my queendom for a map).

oh my god I am never going to finish this.

Back to our regularly scheduled program.

The threads in this plot include environmentalism (foreign companies taking advantage of the local natural resource, notably through destructive logging practices), local politics and a Solomons independence movement, Sister Conchita's efforts to shape up a missionary outpost and its set-in-their-ways nuns, and - tying it all together - what really happened with the crew of John F. Kennedy's PT 109 after the boat was sunk and before they were rescued.  This last plotline was obvious from the get-go, and clearly derived from 2004 effort to discredit US presidential candidate John F. Kerry via the now-infamous swiftboat campaign.  In what I think will be a standard plot turn of all Kella and Conchita books, Ben sleeps with the gorgeous dame, awfully casually in my opinion.  A couple of bodies pile up, and it really takes to the very end - you know, that scene where one person explains what happened to the other, thereby solving the puzzles and tying them neatly together - to figure out why.  I find this technique something of a cop-out, as it basically allows an author to write a big action scene that doesn't make a ton of sense, then neatly explain everything to the reader.  In other words, it is a way to tie all the plot threads together at once rather than weaving them throughout the story.  Feels a bit lazy, I guess.  But then, I'm not writing this stuff so who am I to judge how hard that is?

That said, Kent has a good sense of the import of detail to character.  Consider this description of Jake Michie, the unhappy Aussie manager of the troubled logging concern:
"He was a ruined avalanche of a man in his forties, some six feet six inches in height and broad-shouldered, but with all his physical attributes beginning to melt and sag downwards.  Jowls swung from his chin like wind chimes, and a once impressive chest slumped obscenely to his stomach.  While his body drooped, the big man's face seemed to have a life of its own and had expanded sideways, although at the same time his features had shrunk to those of a carelessly constructed snowman, with two buttons for eyes, a truncated carrot of a nose and a mouth that was little more than a perfunctory slash.  His head was completely bald.  He reminded Kella of an extra in an Ed Wood horror movie.  (50)
It's overkill - I can't recall that any other character gets this detailed treatment.  You wonder if Kent had been saving all these ideas in a little file, just waiting for the right character to come along.   But even as I roll my eyes a little, I think it works.

And it has to be noted that Kent has a strong attachment to the place of the Solomons, and presents the setting as both a fabulous backdrop a la South Pacific but also as integral to the story as the human characters.  In other words, the story is what it is because of where it is - it wouldn't be the same elsewhere (does that make sense?).  The logging operation that Michie is charged with running is on the island of Alvaro, part of the Roviana Lagoon, also, apparently, where the PT 109 action took place.  And remember, we're only in the early 1960s, so not that far removed from the war.  The whole area was directly involved in the conflict so the memories and physical reminders are yet another layer in the story.  I think I'll leave One Blood with some of Kella's impressions as he paddles toward Alvaro, early in the story.
    "Kella stopped paddling and looked ahead at the ruined logging island of Alvaro rising jaggedly out of the sea ahead of him . . . The last time he had seen Alvaro had been during the war.  Then it had been as beautiful as any of the other atolls in the Roviana Lagood, and it had remained a tranquil haven for its inhabitants during the fighting. . . The passage of a decade and a half had certainly changed that.  Now the island was little more than a tortured scar, suppurating on the surface of the lagoon.  The coral reef that had once surrounded it had been torn from the seabed, leaving only a few jagged, blackened stumps.  The water surrounding them had been transformed into a slurping cauldron of hollowed-out oil-stained debris and floating mangled logs and rubbish.  The narrow strip of beach was little more than a series of dumps for abandoned, rusty machinery cannibalized almost into extinction.  Huge patches of discolored diesel oil mottled the scuffed surface of the sand. . . The coastal mangrove swamps, with their slender, distorted trees, being of no commercial value, were still in place and continued to ooze stinking mud and thrust their tangled roots grotesquely into the air, like the clutching talons of drowning witches.  The mouth of a sluggish river coughed gobbets of red mud into the sea where its banks had been eroded by bulldozers.  Smoke drifted over the island from dozens of bush fires lit to clear land in the interior."    (46-47)
So, again, does the author have another file "good ideas for describing damage of logging on islands?"  But he makes his point, and you keep reading, now a convert to environmentalism!

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Rap Sheet

I've been unproductive lately - thank you, start of school year and roll up to new additional very part-time but not so part-stress job.  But never fear - Graeme Kent's One Blood is on deck for you all here, and an oddly entertaining book by Mick Herron called Slow Horses is in the hole.

But in the meantime, you should know about The Rap Sheet, if you don't already.  Along with Detectives Beyond Borders (for which I cannot figure out how to get an email subscription so constantly forget to check), TRS is the best blog out there on crime fiction.  J. Kingston Pierce is a writer and editor in the Seattle area, and as far as I can tell, has about twice as many hours in the day as the rest of us, most of which he fills with following new and vintage crime fiction.  For all the news, reviews, vintage picks, and author info you need, The Rap Sheet is your place.

I'm telling you this because I just loved this opening sentence in one of TRS' occasional series, The Book You Have To Read.  This is a review of an older work, mostly lost to the world of used book sellers and old vacation rentals, but worth reading if you happen upon it.  Guest writers often work in here, and today's offering is from a fellow named Steve Nester, who hosts a weekly radio show on PRX about this stuff.  Here's what he had to say about They Don't Dance Much by James Ross.  "When the romantic lead is named Smut and he owns a white-trash roadhouse, and the femme fatale is named Lola and drives a “Nile green roadster,” you know they didn’t meet in church."

I'm not as wild about noir to read as I am to watch, but what a great summary.  Makes you want to put your lips together and blow.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Day of the Jackal

Crime Pays continues our salute to great beach reading with the classic thriller, Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal.  This 1971 political page-turner follows the development and execution of a sophisticated plot to kill then-French president Charles de Gaulle, alongside the state's effort to thwart that plot.

There are those who say that The Day of the Jackal was, briefly, a how-to for hitmen, given it's extraordinary research and consequent deep plausibility.  Every move that the Jackal makes, countered by equally precise movements from the authorities, makes perfect sense, thanks in large part to Forsyth's extraordinarily patient prose.  The author carefully explains each step in the process, and while sometimes it seems maybe a little boring, the sum these detailed parts is a grippingly realistic tale of political mahyem.  Forsyth has written plenty more books, there are those who feel this is by far the best.  I haven't read them, so I can't say.  But here, you never ever find yourself saying, OK, that's just ridiculous.  Instead you say, of course!

Given all of this, it took me a little longer to get into the story than I expected.  This is due mostly to  Forsyth's need to provide background on the French-Algerian conflict, and the highly complex fallout of de Gaulle's decision to remove Algeria from French rule.  Basically, Army officers, some enlisted  men, and right-wingers generally felt betrayed by de Gaulle, whom they had seen as saving Algeria for France.  But dG, more of a pragmatist than one might think, apparently decided that Algeria was not worth the struggle, and agreed to grant independence.  This outraged the Algérie Française crowd, and terroristic chaos ensued with groups viciously battling for and against through targeted killings of political, social, and military leaders, bombings, kidnappings, and the like.  Martin Walker's Black Diamond gave an entree to the topic, and I guess that wikipedia is as good a place as any to get an overview of this complex and nasty conflict,  You can also scan a brief chronology here.

My god it is taking me forever to get this written.  And I really enjoyed reading it!

The characters, while detailed with backstories, are not particularly inventive.  The French are deeply patriotic even if their patriotism takes radically different forms, the assassin is smart and suave, the tracking detectives smart and dogged.

Which is good, because at heart, this is a detective story.  There is a scene not quite half-way through, where the heads of all the security arms in France are sitting in an emergency meeting, having just been alerted to a plot to kill the president.  They know only that someone has been hired to do this, but nothing else, and they must decide how to proceed.

This scene also provides an excellent example of the depth of research and detail deployed.  About three pages are given over to describing the table, the fourteen men around it, the agencies that they represent and what those agencies do, before we even get to the discussion!  Acronym Alert:  don't even try to stay on top of them.  The French make Harvard look totally bush-league in this respect.  If you can keep track of the OAS, FLN (OK, those are easy, but just wait), SDECE, PJ, CRS, RG, BSP, DST, etc., etc., well you are a more careful reader than I.

Still, with all this firepower in one room, it becomes apparent than no one has a good way forward. The police commissioner, who has not spoken, is asked his opinion.  "It seems to me, Minister, that the SDECE cannot disclose this man through their agents in the OAS, since not even the OAS know who he is; that the Action Service cannot destroy him since they do not know whom to destroy.  The DST cannot pick him up at the border for they do not know whom to intercept, and the RG can give us no documentary information about him because they do not know what documents to search for.  The Police cannot arrest him, for they do not know whom to arrest, and the CRS cannot pursue him, since they are unaware whom they are pursuing.  The entire structure of the security forces of France is powerless for want of a name.  With a name we get a face, with a face a passport, with a passport an arrest.  But to find the name, and do it in secret, is a job for pure detective work."  (194)  Alors, mes amis, les jeux sont faits.

And so The Day of the Jackal comes down to a long slog through agencies and files and paperwork, with just a wee bit of intuition to leaven the process.  Similar to Eye of the Needle, you see both sides unfolding at the same time - the rabbit and the chase.

I'll end by noting that as Lumiere said, after all, miss, this is France!  And the French do drama and grandeur as well as anyone.  There are lots of big black Citroen sweeping into courtyards, smartly uniformed guards slapping their rifle butts with white-gloved hands, flags snapping in the breeze, and the stately de Gaulle towering over it all, refusing to acknowledge any threats to his person.  Wine is drunk, both fine and rough red, sex is had, and many, many cigarettes are smoked.  But my favorite bit comes right after the Commissaire's speech, above.
  "And who, Commissaire, is the best detective in France?" asked the Minister quietly.  Bouvier considered for a few seconds before removing his pipe again.
  "The best detective in France, messieurs, is my own deputy, Commissaire Claude Lebel."
  "Summon him," said the Minister of the Interior.
Wouldn't you like to be known as the best detective in France?  It has such a marvelously permanent sound to it, as if there could be no other finer detective in all the world than the best detective in France.  Of course, it also puts one in mind of Inspector Clouseau, perhaps the second-best detective in France.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Eye of the Needle

And we're back to crime . . . with a classic spy thriller that took me about three days of beach reading to roll through, Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle (1978; Harper reprint 2010).  Every once in a while I feel compelled to announce my presence by saying "Singvogel, hier ist die Nadel" which of course comes from the movie, and isn't even in the book, but it recently made me think that I wasn't sure I had ever actually read this, so here we are.

Here's the Amazon-esque summary:  a ruthless German spy winds up on a remote Scottish island, populated only by a resentful cripple, his sexually frustrated wife, and their child.  He must make contact with the U-boat sent for his rendezvous, and these folks have to stop him because (they don't know this but we do) he is carrying a big secret that if it gets into German hands, will lose the war for the Allies.

There is more to the book than that, of course, in fact, there is the whole other side of the story, that of the doughty MI5 operative and Scotland Yard detective who are assigned to the case.  At the beginning, Percival Godliman and Frederick Blogs know nothing of their eventual nemesis, Heinrich Faber.  They are generally assigned to follow, capture, and possibly turn German spies in England.  As the story develops, they discover an agent who has evaded detection well into 1944 (most other German agents were quickly discovered and executed, imprisoned, or turned early in the war).  What the British are most concerned about is the discovery of the sham force that they've set up in Southeastern England, to deceive the Germans into thinking that the attack on the continent will come at Calais rather than Normandy.  The success of Operation Overlord depends on the Germans being relatively weak at Normandy, at least, weak enough to permit the Allies to gain the beachhead.

There is a third story - the young and tragic couple on the remote Scottish island, and how they got that way.  This story is told simultaneously with the others, and while we know of Faber's deceptions, the revealing of them to the British, and the subsequent chase to get Faber before he reveals the deception to the Germans, is completely gripping.  The writing isn't distinguished, but it doesn't get in the way of the well-crafted story which is the important thing.

Plus which, there is a lot of tea, and driving rain, so plenty of Brit atmosphere, if you like that sort of thing.  I'll have to watch the movie again, which would also be an excellent vacation activity but right now we are watching Star Trek (the new old one, the creation narrative, if you will).  I've also started, another in the great tradition of vacation reading, The Day of the Jackal, which is not quite so emotionally engaging as Eye of the Needle  but certainly deeply-researched and fast-paced.  But for now, live long, and prosper.

The Long Exile

Veering a bit off-topic here with Melanie McGrath's The Long Exile (2008, Vintage) but if you read White Heat and enjoyed it, then it is worth reading this true story of how the Inuit ended up on Ellesmere Island.  McGrath is a journalist by trade, so knows a good story when she sees one.  And the circumstances of how the Inuit ended up moved thousands of miles from their ancestral lands is just a particularly shocking example of white people using native people for their own ends, with little regard for the human impact of their (bad) decisions.

McGrath sets up the trajectory particularly effectively by starting with the making of the hugely influential film Nanook of the North by Robert Flaherty, in Inukjuak, which is sort of southeast Hudson Bay.  The film, and some of Flaherty's subsequent work in other parts of the world, is considered among the best filmmaking of the 20th c., although only Nanook was a commercial success.  There are two reasons to start the story here.  First, the film set up the idea of the "happy Eskimo" in the public's mind, people who can survive anywhere with a smile.  This is of course false; the northlands and Arctic are as diverse in their landscape, flora, and fauna as any other landmass in the world.  It is ignorant to assume that people native to one place can then survive off the land in a place 2,000 miles north, within the Arctic Circle and basically one of the most northernmost landmasses on earth.  But this is what the Canadians - Canadians!  those nice people to the north! - do.

The second reason to start the story with Flaherty and Nanook is that while filming, Flaherty had a relationship with an Inuit woman, who had a son after he left town, never to return.  This son ends up in the second wave of Inuit to move to Ellesmere.  How did the first wave get there?  Well, in a nutshell Canadian authorities felt the need for human settlement in the arctic regions to maintain sovereignty there during the Cold War, and so they told the local constabulary to find some Inuit to move up there.  Because you know, the frozen north is all the same, right?  And those Inuit in Inukjuak aren't doing so well anyway, since the white people moved in, so it would be the humane thing to do to return them to their natural state of living off the land and stop their moral decline and dependency on white people. And sure, one Eskimo is the same as another right, so Inuit from the southern Hudson Bay can surely survive where it is completely dark four months a year, and there isn't much fresh water, or caribou to hunt or berries to pick or pretty much anything to live off of.  Through cajoling and misrepresentation and a bit of bullying a few families from Josephie Flaherty's settlement move there, terribly undersupplied and completely unsupported.  Amazingly, many survive, but when they ask to go home they are put off with excuses or flat-out denied.

It actually ends spectacularly well, with the establishment of an Inuit state in Canada, Nunavut, some reparations, and finally a governmental apology in 2010.  But all of that only comes decades after starvation, madness, profound alcoholism, and a whole lot of general misery.  And it only comes after Josephie Flaherty's daughter, an incredibly strong woman who overcomes extraordinary odds to get herself off of Ellesmere, spends years talking about the island's Inuit population and its problems to anyone who will listen.  She and others finally make a big enough issue of it that official enquiries and hearings are held and the Canadian government is formally taken to task.  The officials - top to bottom, comfy govt. types to the local constabulary who had to carry out the effort - who thought they were doing the right thing for Canada are shown to have been ignorant, racist, and in some cases criminal in their proceedings.  The road to hell, you know.

And you thought Canadians were so nice.

McGrath's research is deep, broad, and generally excellent.  While the proceedings of the hearings are obviously recent public record, she clearly went far into archives and oral history to put together this compelling portrait of Inuit life, survival, and as she puts it, betrayal.  I did want to see footnotes, and a complete bibliography because I think there is more there and I'll bet one could do all sorts of research off of that.  You can easily find materials about this online, if you want to read more.  There is a thin Wikipedia article here, and you can start with the media coverage here.

I didn't need the late-in-the-book chapter on the rest of Robert Flaherty's life and work.  It is interesting, but it is pretty clear that McGrath found the quote about how the protagonist in all of his post-Nanook films represented "son he never had" and wanted to use it but couldn't figure out how to do that without a whole chapter for preface.  The starting of the story with Nanook makes a lot of sense, but it is a distraction from the narrative flow to go back to Flaherty late in the game.  Yes, he started it, but he didn't finish it.  

This is a great, extraordinary, story that is over-written at times, and one wonders about the editing given the glaring error on the back cover (the exile happens in the 1950s, not the 1930s!).  I found the prose occasionally weirdly passive, and hard to get into.  The exile itself doesn't happen until about two-thirds of the way into the book, which is all about setting context, but I wonder if a little less Flaherty would have streamlined that lead, because the exile is when the narrative really gets going.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Holy Thief

Anything would have been a let-down after JlC's A Delicate Truth.  But I'm glad I didn't let my irritation with the workmanlike prose of William Ryan's The Holy Thief get the better of me.  This book ended up being a reasonably compelling read, mostly for the detailed portrayal of life in Moscow, ca. 1936.

The story is not complex, although it requires a bit of focus to keep the names and relationships straight, esp. when switching back and forth between first names and patronymics, last names, and a whole lot of ranks - captain, colonel, general, etc.  There are some ghastly murders, a couple discussed from the perp's point of view.  Our Hero, Alexei Dimitriyevich Korolev, is an earnest comrade who likes being a cop (confusingly called the Militia) because he understands that justice must be served, but who also believes wholeheartedly in the glorious future of the Soviet state, and the sacrifices that must be made to get there.  In other words, he's a good Bolshevik.  Who gets caught up in a mystery involving the lucrative market for Russian Orthodox icons, and a variety of less-than-savory characters who will do anything to get their hands on the icons, or the money they represent.  Not surprisingly, Korolev gets a little too close to the truth, which involves politically sensitive individuals, is pulled off the case, but still manages to solve it all in a dramatic denouement that almost costs him his life but of course does not because I think there are more in this series.

Our Hero is your pretty standard good-guy-in-a-not-so-good-world, but unlike, say, Dr. Siri, he remains quite devoted to the Collective, and has not quite developed the gentle cynicism of that venerable gentleman, nor the barely-toeing-the-line approach of Bernie Gunther.  He's not, at the end of they day, that interesting.  But what is interesting, fascinating in fact, is the evocation of his world.  Moscow in 1936, just nineteen years after the Revolution, is not a garden spot.  Life there is hard, uncomfortable, and dangerous - you could be denounced for just muttering the wrong oath in front of the wrong person, and Korolev, who still prays privately every morning, has to watch himself.  There are a lot of bare bulbs in bare, cold, sparsely furnished rooms, and (very few) old cars, and threadbare clothing even for devoted servants of the State like Our Hero.  The Metropol Hotel, where foreigners stay and bigwigs hang out, stands in stark contrast to the de-consecrated churches, barren police stations, shared apartments, empty shops, endless lines and grime-and-gray, in which much of the action takes place.  One particularly well-done element is organized sport:  several scenes take place around a soccer stadium and at a match, and at the hippodrome.  Ryan has clearly spent a lot of time researching early Soviet-era sports, and the scenes set here provide a marvelous sense of detail and nuance.  Yes, it sucks to live in Stalinist Moscow, but if your team is playing, well, that takes priority for just a few hours.  The scene at the Moscow Hippodrome, while mostly a meeting between Korolev and another key character, effectively conveys the faded grandeur of that home to the sport of kings, combined with the desperation of small bettors with not much else to lose.  Ryan's small but recent list of books at the end suggests a careful research methodology, and it really pays off for the reader

The Holy Thief is a nice addition to the Totalitarians, and the more I think about it, the more I look forward to the next in this series.  (I've clearly gotten over my JlC-induced prose hangup.)  I haven't read anything set this early in the Soviet era, in fact I've read nothing but Martin Cruz Smith's much much later works.  It's worth visiting, from the comfort of the 21st c. anyway.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Delicate Truth

It is hard to write a review of a very, very good book that you really really liked because it is easy to just end up with, I liked this and I loved that.  And really, who, outside of you, actually cares what you liked unless you get deeply into the why?  For a couple of weeks now after finishing John le Carré's latest novel, A Delicate Truth (Viking, 2013), I find myself desperately wishing that I could write like that.  That British-ly elegant structure, that economy of words, that CHOICE of words, that somehow manages to convey a setting, a scene, and sensibility in far less but far more interesting verbiage than pretty much anyone else out there writing crime or espionage or whatever-the-heck-you-call-this fiction - this is my goal, and one that I fear is unattainable.  Consider this chapter opener:

"On a sunny Sunday early in that same spring, a thirty-one-year-old British foreign servant earmarked for great things sat alone at the pavement table of a humble Italian cafe in London's Soho, steeling himself to perform an act of espionage to outrageous that, if detected, it would cost him his career and his freedom:  namely, recovering a tape recording, illicitly made by himself, from the Private Office of a Minister of the Crown whom it was his duty to serve and advise to the best of his considerable ability."  (47)

You don't realize, when reading it, that it is all one sentence; I didn't until I typed it just now!  And run-on sentences are usually one of my irritants.  But in this one that I didn't even notice, we get both the subject's view of himself (committing an outrageous act, the responsibility of his job), and how he's viewed by Society (earmarked for great things).   There is a certain keep-calm-and-carry-on tone when the old Foreign Office types speak.  You realize that for a British foreign servant, these two views are ingrained - he represents the Crown (caps usage brilliant, required by protocol I'm sure but really Makes the Point)  and that's who he is when he's at home, so to speak.  This sensibility, of doing the Right Thing because we are British and that's how we roll, is a central theme of the story.  Which is, in standard JlC mode, pretty complex, jumping around in time and place and subject so that you have to Pay Attention, lest you get hopelessly lost.

Loosely, this particularly story involves an illicit operation that may or may not have gone bad, some shady American defense contractors from a company hilariously named "Ethical Outcomes," and a couple of Foreign Office (we call it Service, the Brits call it an Office) Don Quixotes who will tilt at the windmills that claim to protect the Crown in our modern era.

All of this said, this is not as complex a plot as one might find in, say, The Honorable Schoolboy, which was the hardest of the Karla trilogy for me to follow.  Generally speaking, JlC's more recent novels are more straightforward than his Cold War classics:  black and white hats are stark in their contrast, and a bit obvious.  If you follow his work, you'll know that JlC's more recent books have really been about the failings of our great and glorious free and democratic governments, and the institutions that protect them.  Big government and its covert strategies, esp. when farmed out to third parties to protect the reputation of said govt. are bad, as is naked capitalism more generally.  Le Carré's very public condemnation of the US and friends' involvement in Iraq is well-documented, and stories like The Constant Gardner, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man and A Delicate Truth are unambiguous challenges to the US-led new world order.  It's funny because of course the old JlC books were set in a world of clear good and bad - West v. East, with all of its Cold War weight - and the characters really wrestled with means vs. ends.  And, in more recent works, there is still an individual or two who rails not entirely helplessly against the trend.  But I don't know that we have the subtle build-up to the moral dilemma of Smiley or Magnus Pym for example.  For Our Heroes (and heroes they are) Kit Probyn and Toby Bell, the moral path is clear, if fraught.  Castlekeep is a perfect fantasy of the evil defense subcontractor's headquarters, as is Jay Crispin, and yes, we should despise them.  It is clear that in JlC's worldview, most of us have lost even the ability to think about some sense of personal decency, dare I say honor?  (How I hate that word, charged as it is with all kinds of meanings and misuses for all kinds of people).  Maybe I just know what to expect from a JlC story these days:  rage against the machine.

A couple of minor quibbles.  It's pretty clear that JlC has it in for the Yanks - they are the source of Ethical Outcomes after all, but he might employ a little more subtlety (see Castlekeep, above).   Miss Maisie, the money behind EO, i pretty derivative of Julia Roberts' character in "Charlie Wilson's War."  And small note to editors:  fact check, please!  There is no such Harvard degree as a Masters in Business Studies.

Reading back, this sounds vaguely critical, and it is not.  It is more an attempt to wrap my mind around a great - great- writer's oeuvre.  Reading this, I found myself thinking about other JlC books constantly.  The idea of a little person as a mentor (Oakley) reminded me of George Smiley, and who can read the name Toby and not think of Toby Esterhaze and his lamplighters?  But, I'm drawn back to the writing, as always.  In chapter 3, which overall exudes that hale-fellow-well-met Britishness that JlC always captures so well, there is an absolutely brilliantly executed recognition scene that stopped me in tracks, and made me read it again.  The reader is unwittingly recognizing one character as he is reluctantly - so very reluctantly - recognizing another.  To say more would spoil the story, but suffice it to say that you should drop pretty much whatever else you are reading right now and enjoy this.  And then wish, as I do every time I sit down to type, that you had a piece of that.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Detective Inspector Huss

Can it be - a reasonably cheerful Swedish detective?  And not just one, but several, all working together?  Yes, at least in the charming southern Swedish city of Göteborg (pronounced, per Lonely Planet, "yer-te-bor").  This is not far from Malmö, around where that depressive Kurt Wallander hangs out, but miles away psychically.

And, literar-ily too.  In the end, I enjoyed Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Huss, but more because I liked the cops and the setting, NOT because this was a particularly well-written book.  There was the same stiltedness that I assume comes from translation as one finds in a Henning Mankel novel, but compounded with a really dreadful reliance on cliche and excess verbiage.  The writing was distracting to the point that I had to put the book down for several weeks after getting a few pages in.  Try this paragraph:

"Irene spent a few hours bringing Jimmy up to speed.  She had not complaints about his interest.  He hung on every word she said.  It couldn't be denied that she envied him his enthusiasm faced with this intricate mystery.  His puppylike eagerness was sure due to his youth, but his questions were intelligent.  Her instinct had been correct.  These days, the more complicated things got, the more tired she felt.  But she remembered how it had been the first few years.  The excitement, the aroused hunting instincts, and the feeling of triumph when the case was solved.  Of course, she still had these feelings, but noticeably attenuated.  Far too many cases had not left being the sweetness of victory, but rather a bitter aftertaste.  You become either jaded or cynical in this profession, she thought in her darker moments.  But she didn't want to become either jaded or cynical!  You had to go on, keep moving forward.  You couldn't stop and dig yourself a hole.  The job she had chosen was not without its dangers, but she had never wanted to do anything else and had always enjoyed her work.  The past few years she had begin to notice an insidious feeling that hadn't existed before.  Only recently had she been able to identify it.  Terror.  Terror of people's indifference to the human value of others and terror of the ever-increasing violence."  (205)

See what I mean?  The slightly stilted construction, larger-than-necessary words, change in subject (she to you), obvious emotions (hunting, cynicism, indifference) - John le Carre would have said all that in about four sentences.  Actually, he wouldn't have written it at all. But I digress.  I'm just starting A Delicate Truth, and am in the thrall of that perfect use of language.  Since Detective Inspector Huss is a work in translation, and I don't speak Swedish, it is impossible to know if it the author or the translator, Steven T. Murray, who is the source.  I'm a little surprised to see this difficult writing coming from the usually reliable Soho Press, didn't anyone copy edit this book?  Given its surprising length - 371 pp. - I'm guessing maybe not.

That said, I did end up finishing this story, and would not turn away the next in the series.  It is a pleasure to read a story filled with interesting female characters.  Some are strong and together and generally wholesome like Our Hero Irene Huss.  And some are hysterical or slutty.  But Tursten is to be praised for offering an alternative to the male-dominated world of police procedurals.

In this story, a rich and famous man is murdered a few weeks before Christmas.  Everyone in his deeply dysfunctional family is a suspect, and when another  person is killed in an assassination attempt that is clearly directed toward the first dead guy, you know things are going to get complicated.   The story quickly spins outward to include adultery, gangsters, drug trafficking, skinheads, motorcycle gangs, and that evergreen staple of mysteries, missing keys.  I felt like it covered a lot, but you know, it did all kind of make sense in the end.

And, while I found the writing hard to follow, I loved the setting of  Göteborg , even if I couldn't pronounce half the names and had no idea where I was most of the time.  (Again, a map would help!  Why don't more books utilize them?  Mankel does, and it is so helpful.)  The subplot with the twin daughters turned out to be more interesting than I'd expected.  I think the whole thing did, actually, although the final scene (pre-epilogue) kind of wraps things up a little too neatly when the individual pretty much confesses to everything under careful questioning so all of our questions are quickly answered.

Should you read this book?  That depends on your tolerance level for awkward writing.  If you aren't distracted by it, then yes, you'll enjoy Huss.  If you are, step away from the victim.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Dance of the Seagull

This is harder than I've been prepared to admit.

It only struck me with The Dance of the Seagull (2013, Penguin), just how much driving Salvo Montalbano and his crew do in these novels.  They are all over the place, thinking nothing of an hour or two there and back.  It's kind of like the American West, where people will drive 100 miles for dinner because they can do it going 100 mph.  I wish that Andrea Camilleri would include a map in his novels, so that I could sort out where, exactly, all of this is taking place on Sicily.  There are tours you can take of Montalbano's Sicily, but since I don't have plans to travel there (soon, anyway), I'll have to just do with imagining.

The Dance of the Seagull is a bit of a departure from Camilleri's usual sordid-not-so-under-belly-of-Sicily, in that the initial victim is none other than Salvo's sensible lieutenant Fazio.  Of course, the attack on Fazio happens because he is on the verge of discovering some nasty acts by some very bad guys, and the plot moves along quickly to involve the usual assortment of drug smugglers, transvestites, honey traps, mafiosi, bumbling jurists, grumpy pathologists, and so on.  This is not to say that any story featuring Salvo and his crowd is ever REMOTELY formulaic.  Rather it is that the neatly sketched characters and refreshingly non-per-le-touriste-Sicilia situations are regular elements to be happily anticipated, and slowly savored in every one of the Salvo stories.  Camilleri doesn't waste a lot of time, his scenes and dialogue move fast, and there is not so much in the way of long, deep introspective internal dialogue from anyone. Well, we do get Salvo's good and bad halves (Montalbano 1 and 2) arguing with each other occasionally, but they don't drag it out.  And nobody else thinks much, they just do.

A couple of differences from earlier stories.  Livia makes just a brief appearance, and an uncharacteristically gracious exit.  More critical is that there is a whole lot less eating going on!  Yes, of course Salvo visits Enzo's trattoria, and Adeli leaves some caponata or pasta 'ncasciata or something but mealtime just didn't seem quite the distraction that it has been in earlier stories.  And while there is a dalliance with a beautiful woman, it somehow seemed more clear than some of those in the past.  Who can figure out what Ingrid's role ever was, anyway?  Finally, the terrific translator notes at the back have been shrinking in the recent books, now comprising just a couple of pages of notes.

Perhaps I am the one distracted, as I am finding it hard to focus my thoughts.  So let's wind it up by saying that in any case, this latest entry is among the best in the delightful Salvo Montalbano series.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

OT: Go Girls

Thirty years ago today, Sally Ride rocketed into history.  Today, NASA selected the US' next eight astronauts, including an unprecedented four women.  And . . . the services detailed plans today for how women will have the opportunity to compete for spots in elite combat units.  What a world.

What's next?

 The White House - Front View

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sum-mertiiiiiiiime, and the reading is . . .

My bathside bookpile has grown enormously after my birthday - so excited to have the newest le Carré, A Delicate Truth on top.  But I find myself uncharacteristically too distracted to dive in immediately to his elegantly bleak worldview, so I may need to check in instead with Salvo Montalbano in perpetually summery Sicily, in The Dance of the Seagull.  For tropical splendor, there is also Graeme Kent's One Blood, the next in that Solomons Islands series although I seem to recall reading an interview with the author somewhere that left me a little unsettled about the series (I have a recollection of his coming across as a bit colonialist - but maybe my antennae were overtuned).  If it is winter that I need for a break I could always pick up Detective Inspector Huss where I left off.  I dropped it because it was kind of boring - everyone was so pleasant and it had a stilted quality that you sometimes find in translated works. Talking about winter, and cold, pretty much all year, I also started Melanie (M.J.) McGrath's The Long Exile, because I so enjoyed White Heat.  The exile in question is a forced removal of Inuit from the eastern side of Hudson Bay well north to Ellesmere Island.  I stopped reading after a while because I found it pretty dull, but it had a glowing review in the NYT in 2007, so maybe I should try again.  The reviewer found it mesmerizing; must be something wrong with my glasses.  

While stocking up at Porter Square Books for my son's camp session this year, I discovered Matthew Pearl's The Last Dickens in the sale box, as well as P.D. James' Talking About Detective Fiction.  The latter should provide some good fodder for Crime Pays, and if nothing else, a brisk reminder of how really smart people think and write.

And these are just the books in the house; I have a long list going of things that I want to read that I haven't even laid my hands on yet.  Damn this working business.

But how have I come this far and not read any of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels?  Good god, this must be rectified immediately.  It may require a trip to the library, since the Wolfe stories are many and old.  

Wolfe reminds me that I'm starting to read a few food blogs regularly, too.  I like David Lebovitz, and Dinner:  A Love Story (although it veers close to cute at times).  I read Smitten Kitchen even when it feels a little full of itself (does a book deal do that?), and My Little Expat Kitchen (she's Greek!).  A recent discovery is the charming Miss Foodwise, who writes about British food (a whole article on a watercress farm - imagine!).  And I just can't decide if I love or hate The Wednesday Chef.  Mostly the former, and the latter is just jealousy of that damn perfect Italian place so get over it.  That chicken curry with sweet potatoes was pretty good.

Slash and Burn

Even with a trippy opening scene of a stoned helicopter pilot crashing in the jungles of Laos, I still have a little tingle of delight every time I start a Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery.  It is a hopeful tingle, too, since I don't really know what is going to happen in this one and who knows, maybe it won't live up to its predecessors in this marvelously original series.  

Happily, Slash and Burn (2011, Soho Press) is a fine extension of the Dr. Siri brand, so no worries there.  Although you have to wonder how much longer Colin Cotterill's aging communist and reluctant coroner but still game amateur detective can stay in the hunt.  And you also have to wonder how many more plot lines Cotterill can come up with that will accommodate Dr. Siri's delightful but growing group of crazy-like-a-fox comrades-in-arms.  Because the gang is all here in Slash and Burn, and they meet up with a bunch of similarly eccentric Americans in the search for the remains of the aforementioned pilot, or perhaps even the pilot himself.

The premise is really that simple:  an American team needs a Laotian counterpart in order to search in the hills of north Laos - where conflict is still live between the Pathet Lao and rebel Hmong - for the remains of the downed craft and its pilot.  It is apparent almost immediately to Our Hero that the US mission is murkier than its apparently clear objective, and that's where the plot thickens.  Cotterill piles on the atmosphere in a slightly heavy-handed fashion, with an awful lot of actual smoke literally and figuratively obscuring things, the apparent result of an annual local agricultural technique designed to clear space for planting.  The resolution is a bit more dramatic than maybe might happen in reality (OK, it is a novel), but Cotterill is clearly working from a non-American, one might even say anti-American point of view here.  There are a couple of good Yanks on the US team, or at least some thoughtful ones, but for the most part they all harbor nefarious intentions.  The story is not entirely anti-US, but you know, we're not ALL bad, and one feels that it casts a fairly negative light on even domestic US politics, not to mention US policu in SE Asia.  Of course, this would have been the prevailing opinion in the region in 1978 so maybe I should stop being so sensitive.

Slash and Burn does depart from the Dr. Siri norm in a pretty big way, which is that his spiritual connections do not play a major role in this story.  There is one episode where he departs from reality, and it is only vaguely explained later, so one wonders if Cotterill had perhaps been trying out an entirely different plot thread there, but abandoned it later without developing or completely excising it.  And the spirits do play a key role in the denouement.  But perhaps the mortal team - which now includes Siri, Madame Daeng, Civilai, Dtui, Phosy, Geung, Comrade Lit, Auntie Bpoo, very reluctantly Judge Haeng, and now a dog named Ugly - is just too big and unwieldy to allow for any spirits to tag along as well.  This series should be read in order of publication, to get the full story on each of these charming additions to Dr. Siri's circle.

But as kookily effective as his human pals are, how long can Siri count on his spirit allies and shamanic expertise to save the day?  One of these missions they are going to come calling for him to join them permanently, and then I guess things could get really weird if Cotterill tries to continue this series from Siri's grave.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

How It Works

If you want to know how things work, or if you want to know anything really, just ask my son, Peter.  He is a veritable font of knowledge on pretty much any topic, even some about which he actually knows very little.  Peter is also a great explainer, and I think has the makings of good teacher at the professorial level - he really enjoys explaining things, and is surprisingly patient with questions and follow-up.  I can see him mentoring future astrophysicists, once he attains that status himself.

Peter has started his own blog, How It Works, I think loosely modeled on David Macauley and Neil Ardley's The New Way Things Work.  Whatever his inspiration, it's great, and you are sure to learn a lot if you follow it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Hanging Shed

A faux-sticker on the cover of my paperback copy of The Hanging Shed (Corvus, 2010, my edition 2011) proclaims this "The No. 1 eBook bestseller."  That's not a selling point in my view, in fact it gave me pause when perusing the book at my local bookstore, Porter Square Books.  And while I wouldn't say that this was the finest piece of crime fiction I've ever read, it was in fact engaging, well-paced, with likable (and hateable) characters, and just enough twists to keep me guessing.

Our Hero is Douglas Brodie, former cop, WW2 vet, turned slightly scotch-soaked journalist.  He's a little damaged by life, but not irreparably so, and seems to hold a slightly more positive view of the world than his countryman John Rebus.  Brodie is called home to Glasgow by his former frenemy Hugh Donovan, to try and prove Hugh's innocence in a heinous crime for which he is to hang in four weeks' time.  Naturally, Hugh has a smart and tough but overwhelmed female lawyer who is also working on the appeal.  You can guess how that goes, but I'll say this, even though the obvious pairing happens, it's not as central or drawn out as it might have been in the hands of a lesser crime-fiction writer.  In other words, it doesn't distract from the story.  In fact, Samantha becomes part of the story in a somewhat unexpected way.  I will point out that once again, however, we are presented with a Hero-ine who is presented plain and dowdy and sever while she is being smart, but miraculously becomes gorgeous and feminine after she sleeps with Our Hero.  I wonder if she'll appear in the next Brodie tale?

As usual in these tales from Celtic lands, there are priests involved, and they act in their usual priestly ways.

Author Gordon Ferris is lauded for his realistic description of the gritty underworld of mid-20th c. Glasgow, and who am I to say he gets it at all wrong?  It reads well to me, and provides the requisite tension that saves a story set in a well-known city from becoming a travelogue.  That's not to say that there is not a certain amount of travelling around, since parts of the story take place on the island of Arran, and even in Northern Ireland.  Ferris manages to convince this reader that this would be a very nice place to vacation (minus the bad guys, of course).  And, he's got a nice eye for character development by language.  Consider this exchange, when Brodie is trying to get information out of a nosy neighbor:
"We slipped back to the Reid-Kennedy house and I knocked on the neighbour's door.  She opened it fast, as though she'd been waiting behind it, eye pressed to the net curtain over the glass panel.
'I don't suppose you saw the number [license] plate, missus?'
She shook her curler-clad head.  'Nup.'
'OK, thanks.'  I turned to walk back to the car.  She waited till I was at the gate.
'But oor Alec did.'
I walked back.  Nosy wee boys seemed to pop up just when you needed them.  Alec was produced.  Standard-issue urchin.  Shorts hanging off skinny hips, a vest under a sleeveless jumper and a runny nose.  But wee Alec was also clutching a scrap of a notebook.
'He collects nummers,' his mother said.  'Nae trains here, so he collects car nummers.'
'See, in the summer, a' thae folk come ower here for the fair an' I get their nummers,' piped Alec.
'Don't taigle the man, son, just tell him the nummer o' the big car frae yesterday.'
Alec flicked through his little pad of childish scrawl and with his filthy finger tracing across the last page he proudly declaimed, 'An Austin 10.  SD 319.  That's a Glesga nummer, mister.
'So it is, Alec.  So it is,' I replied, only just forbearing to bend down and kiss his nitty head." (194-195)

Like Confederate-soldier speak, it is fun to read out loud and get the accent.  I don't know what taigle means, but I look forward to heading back to Glesga to find out.