Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Death in Summer

While I was reading Benjamin Black's A Death in Summer (2011, Henry Holt and Co.), I found myself thinking that this latest in the Quirke series was not grabbing me as much as its predecessors had.  Quirke himself seemed not quite so disastrously central to the story as in the others, and this plot generally felt thinner in foreboding and, well, darkness, than the previous tales in this series.  Yes, the atmosphere was there in all its stinkiness - stinks, whiffs, and smells as usual are deployed to layer it in, and there's a lot of heat and for once, sunlight.  So this story, taking place during a heat wave in Dublin, involved a lot of sweat.

A Death in Summer finds our Quirke helping his polenta-pal Hackett figure out who killed a powerful, and powerfully disliked businessman named Richard Jewell.  The death appears to be a suicide but it is immediately clear to Quirke and Hackett that no one could blow his own head off like that and still be holding on to the gun.
"The shotgun blast had lifted Jewell out of his chair and flung him backwards at a crooked angle across the desk, where he lay with a bit jawbone and a few teeth and a bloodied stump of spine, all that was left of what had been his head, dangling down on the far side.  On the big picture window in front of the desk there was a great splatter of blood and brains, like a giant peony blossom, with a gaping hole in the middle of it giving a view of rolling grasslands stretching off to the horizon."  (2)
Black doesn't go in for gratuitous violence, in fact, the more horrific crimes in this particular book are never fully described.  (It doesn't take much to intimate what they are, esp. if you've followed the Jimmy Saville case in the U.K.)  So his judicious use of such imagery makes it all the more effective, and I love the idea of the peony, a flower of summer, as the motif of this violent act that takes place in the hot depths of the season.

Anyway, Jewell has, not surprisingly, a not-very-upset wife, a remote and perhaps disturbed daughter,  a weird sister, various business frenemies, and some funny ties to a local orphanage.  Maybe you can guess where that goes. Quirke and Hackett eventually figure it out, although the denouement suggests that justice will never truly be served.

Most of the usual characters are involved here - Phoebe, Rose, Hackett, Sinclair - but it is only the last one who features significantly in the story and then in an oddly central way for someone who is so present but usually so unimportant in Quirke's life.  I mean, I know why Sinclair's plot line turns the way it does but overall this whole story lacked the tightrope-quality of whether Quirke would make disastrous choices for himself and those he cares about like he usually does.  He makes some bad choices but they are also made for him and cleaned up by an all-too-convenient skeedaddle right at the end, which lacks some of the angst I've come to expect from our Quirke

Then I finished A Death in Summer and started the highly hyped Ratlines (2013, Soho Crime) by Stuart Neville and realized again how great a writer Benjamin Black is and thought that maybe I had judged too hastily.  Man, I just could not get going on the Neville, it felt soooo one-dimensional compared to Black's nuanced personal portraits, layered atmosphere of light and smell and landscape, and subtle social strictures that make his affluent 1950s Dublin a cage for its inhabitants.

I'll probably finish Ratlines, but I need something a little less literary before I turn back to it so it is better by comparison.  But I'll definitely return to Quirke.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Whither Lei Feng?

If you read Death of a Red Heroine, you'll come across Lei Feng.  This article in today's New York Times offers an interesting postscript to the role of the model worker and propaganda hero in China.  Extraordinary how China has changed even in the twenty-plus years since the setting for this novel.  Now they can't even sell a ticket to a movie about him.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Death of a Red Heroine

Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine (2000, Soho Press) is a massive book - 464 pages! - which I guess is appropriate given that it is not really about just one murder in China but really takes on aspects of the entire Chinese way of life - politics, society, education, personal lives.  And you know, China is a big country with some big ideas so this is no small undertaking.  Yet so many scenes are so small and personal that the story doesn't feel like a grand epic and retains a striking sense of intimacy.

Our Hero is a newly promoted Chief Inspector named Chen Cao, who throughout the story wrestles with the implications of his fast rise through the police and political bureaucracy - he's a bit of a golden boy - while trying first to identify the naked body found in a canal, and then find out who killed her.  Despite the apparent lack of leads, it's not that hard a case for Chen and his sidekick/underling Yu Guanming to crack.  The problem is that their best suspect is almost untouchable politically, given his status as the son of a very high ranking cadre who will make life extremely difficult for the police if they pursue their investigation.  As Chen and Yu dig deeper, they find themselves on politically dangerous ground.  It is not that they are ever physically threatened, but their prospects for future advancement could narrow and vanish.  Both, but particularly Chen will have to go through a series of tests before emerging at the end of the book scarred but stronger - because yes, this is the first in a series.

But I think that the heart of this book lies not in the main plot, but in the evocation of working and living in Shanghai in 1990.  The Cultural Revolution is a thing of the past, except that just about every major character was negatively affected by it, with family or themselves imprisoned or re-educated or dead.  They have all recovered, and while they all - all, there is no subversion here - believe deeply in the strength of the Socialist state, they find themselves both drawn to and repelled by the economic reforms that are washing over China in this period. Sure, you can get more stuff now, but it's all more expensive.  Yes, we are all comrades but why do some live in fancy houses, while most folks have a room crammed with an entire family?  But we are also barely one year after the events at Tiananmen Square, and that event hangs over the proceedings, and any perceived threat to the government's stability is sure to meet with a harsh response.

Politics aside for a moment, Xialong is, according to the author notes, a published poet and literary critic, and there is a lyrical sensibility to some of the passages.  Here's an example, as Chen goes to visit the place where the body was found:
"There was not a single cloud drifting overhead.  The afternoon sun hung lonely in the blue sky, high over a most desolate scene, which was like a forgotten corner of the world.  Not a soul was visible.  The canal bank was overrun with tall weeds and scrubby growth.  Chen stood still at the end of the stagnant water, amid a scattering of wild bushes.  Not too far away, however, he thought he could hear the hubbub of Shanghai."  (39)
Chen is constantly quoting poetry and considering literary criticism, which is really no surprise given Xialong's background.  It is pretty obvious that Our Hero is channeling Our Author.

But you know, it works, and if you've never been to Shanghai or China, you will really feel that you are immersed in the intensely communal and vibrant life of the city.
"The early summer heat, with no air conditioning, dictated a sidewalk life.  At the lane entrance, several retired old me were playing a game of mahjongg on a bamboo table.  Kids were gathered around a small earth pot that contained two crickets fighting each other, the crickets chirping, the children cheering.  Close to the dorm building, a middle-aged woman was leaning over a public sink, scrubbing a pan."  (154)
Yes, living conditions are practically unimaginable for us - there would be 50 people living in my house if it was in Shanghai in 1990!  But it's what they have.  Yu, who lives with his wife and son in one room in a communal building, listens to the sounds of the building at night.
"Out in the lane, all sorts of vehicles could be heard moving along Jingling Road, but once in a while came a rare minute when all the traffic faded into the night.  A blackbird twittered nostalgically in the maple tree.  His neighbor's door slammed closed across the kitchen area.  Somebody gargled at the concrete common sink, and he heard another indistinct sound like swatting a mosquito on the window screen."  (219)  But it is what they have, and they make do, without WHINING.  "They were ordinary Chinese people, he and Peiqin, hard-working and easily contented."   (219)

I found Xialong's prose hard to take at first.  It is not badly written, but there is a choppiness that made me wonder if it was first written in another language, then translated?  Sort of like Andrea Camilleri, or Henning Mankell.  But maybe it is just Xialong's method to immerse the reader in this world.  Consider this exchange:
"The telephone on the filing cabinet rang.  He went over and picked up the receiver.
'Chen's residence.'
'Congratulations, Comrade Chief Inspector Chen!' Lu said.  'Ah, I can smell the wonderful smell in your new kitchen.'
'You'd better not be calling to say you're delayed, Overseas Chinese Lu.  I'm counting on you.'
'Of course we are coming.  It's only that the beggar's chicken needs a few more minutes in the oven.  The best chicken in Shanghai, I guarantee.  Nothing but Yellow Mountain pine needles used to cook it, so you'll savor its special flavor.  Don't worry.  We wouldn't miss your housewarming party for the world, you lucky fellow.'
'Thank you.'
'Don't forget to put some beer in your refrigerator.  And glasses, too.  It'll make a huge difference.'
'I've put in half a dozen bottles already.  Qingdao and Bud.  And the Shaoxing rice wine will not be warmed until the moment of your arrival, right?'
'Now you may count yourself as half a gourmet.  More than half perhaps.  You're certainly learning fast.'" (9)
See what I mean?  It's kind of stilted and a little goofy.  But you get used to it, and forget about it after while.  And, the formality of any exchange with any superior or Party official just emphasizes the strained importance of those relationships.  It occurs to me that this would be a good addition to The Totalitarians!

I'm having a hard time expressing just how much I enjoyed this book.  The language, the setting, the food (oh yes, there is just enough to make you really want to go out for Chinese with a Chinese person who orders for you omelet with river clams, meatballs of four happiness, fried rice field eel, peeled shrimp in tomato containers, eight-treasure rice, shark's fin soup - OK I don't want that - a whole turtle with brown sauce, and bean curd stuffed with crabmeat (262) ), the confident evocation of how the political system permeates every aspect of Chinese life all combine to make for a terrific read.  But all of this aside, I find myself coming back to the small scenes, and I'll leave you with this terrific one.
"The weather was splendid.  The blue sky above seemed to transform the sordid look of the back street through which they were passing in silence.  A middle-aged woman was preparing a bucket of rice field eels by a moss-covered public sink.  Chen slowed his step, and Yu stopped to take a look too.  Having slapped an eel hard like a whip against the concrete ground, the woman was fixing its head on a thick nail sticking out of a bench, pulling it tight, cutting through its belly, deboning it, pulling out its insides, chopping off its head, and slicing its body delicately.  She might be an eel woman for some nearby market, making a little money.  Her hands and arms were covered with eel blood, and her bare feet too.  The chopped-off heads of the eels lay scattered at her bare feet, like scarlet-painted toes."  (233)

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Field Gray

Philip Kerr's Field Gray (Penguin, 2010) starts up right where If the Dead Rise Not leaves off, in a brothel in Cuba.  (Pretty much all of If the Dead Rise Not takes place in a brothel in Cuba)  I was not thrilled with this, in fact as with most books lately it took me more than a few pages and a couple of start to get into it.  But once in, I can say with conviction that this may be the best Bernie Gunther story yet.

Now, do I remember ALL the details of the Berlin Noir trilogy, so that I can make that statement even more certitude?  Well, no.  If you haven't read any of these, you should do yourself the favor of reading them in order of publication.  It's a terrific journey through the cataclysm of WW2.  Every story in the Gunther series is complicated, and the more recent are even more so than the earlier ones.  As with its predecessor, Field Gray moves back and forth in time to trace the story over the cataclysmic arc of WW2 and the nascent Cold War.  Gunther falls into the hands of the Americans while boating around Cuba in the mid-1950s, and they soon realize that he is the key to landing a very big Cold War intelligence fish.  It all has to do with his service as a cop in Berlin in the 1930s, and then his actions as an SS officer in France and the Ukraine during the war, and then as a POW in the USSR afterwards.  Kerr's ability to draw out the story in these multiple locations and time periods, adding and subtracting characters and plot threads, is breathtaking.  You should pay attention while reading this, so you don't get hopelessly lost, but you'll want to because as usual, Kerr deploys his great noir style.
    "She was wearing a bright print percale dress with a hear-shaped button waistline, a lacy collar, and cute puff sleeves.  The print was a riot of red and white fruit and flowers on a solid black background.  She looked like a market garden at midnight.  On her head was a little white trilby with a red silk ribbon, as if the hat were a cake and it was someone's birthday.  Mine perhaps.  Which, of course, it was.  The smell of sweat on her body was honest and more provocative to me than some expensive, cloying scent.  Underneath the midnight garden was a real woman with skin on every part of her body, and organs and glands and all the other things about women I know I liked but had almost forgotten.  Because it was the kind of day when girls like Elisabeth were wearing summer dresses gain, and I remembered just what a long winter it had been in Berlin, sleeping in that cave with just my dreams for company."  (103)

Now, since the contemporary plot line in this particular story has much to do with Bernie's pre-war and war-time service, much of that backstory is presented through lengthy interviews between Bernie and his American captors-cum-handlers.  It is a little annoying at first - come on, who can really recall ALL THAT detail? - and is reminiscent of the didactic quality of the last Bruno novel I read.  But it grows on you as the story itself deepens and becomes more compelling, and it all comes together toward the end anyway so you kind of forget that you found it an irritant at the start.

And, there's that prescience that rings a touch false - an SS officer who is deeply rattled by being ordered to kill Jewish women and children in the Ukraine (78-79), or the kind of hilarious comment by a CIA agent about whether the prize they're trying to capture will in fact come along to the US.
    "'You're forgetting Mielke's wife, Gertrud, aren't you?  And doesn't he have a son now?  Frank?  He won't want to leave them, surely.'
'We're not forgetting them at all,' said Sheuer.  'But I rather think that Erich will.  From everything we know about him, he's not the sentimental sort.  Besides, he can always apply for them to come to the West as well.  And it's not like there's a wall that's stopping them from coming.'"  (409)

But back to that officer in the Ukraine for a moment, for the central conceit of the Bernie Gunther series is that while he operates reasonably successfully within the state organizations of the police and the security service after the Nazis come to power and during the war, he manages to never drink their kool-aid.  The ambivalence writes well, in fact there's an excellent sequence where Gunther (and many others) think that since France fell so easily in 1940, maybe this while world-conquest business won't be so bloody after all.
    "To defeat France as quickly as we did seemed nothing short of miraculous.  You have to bear in mind that many of us sat in the trenches of northern France for four years.  Four years of slaughter and stalemate. And then a victory over our oldest enemy in just four weeks!  You didn't have to be a Nazi to feel good about that.  And if I'm honest, the summer of 1940 was when I came the closest to thinking well of the Nazis.  Indeed, that was the time when being a Nazi hardly seemed to matter.  Suddenly, we were all proud to be German again."  (138)
Yes!  Accurate historical contextualizing, that makes it all make sense for a moment.

But just for a moment because of course we all know that the Nazi's policies concerning Jews were already well-entrenched at this point.  And while Gunther's disgust at the conditions in which German prisoners were kept in Vichy camps is justified (188-201), it's hard to imagine he wasn't comparing it to the conditions in which prisoners were kept in Germany and her satellites by then.  In college, I studied with the late Klemens von Klemperer, whose life work as a historian was to show that there had been resistance in Nazi Germany, that there was good there, that the German response to the Final Solution was not uniformly willful blindness to the horrors of the Holocaust.  KvK believed that by chronicling the German resistance he was perhaps providing example and inspiration to those today who fight against oppression and totalitarianism.  I like this idea of activist history, of course in part because of KvK's genteel European overlay.  But just this weekend, we learn that we have not known the full scope of the Nazi efforts to eradicate those whom they deemed undesirable from the face of the earth.  While this does not surprise me, it does deepen the ambivalence that I can't help but feel about Germany, Germans, my own German heritage.  And to raise the question, as KvK's work did, what would YOU have done?  So Bernie Gunther, with all his efforts to walk that very thin line between falling into the Nazi abyss, and doing anything about it, turns out to be just an average human - no hero - after all.