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.