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?