Saturday, July 19, 2014

from god's lips . . .

For a master class in the art of observation (and then writing about it), check out John le CarrĂ©'s latest visit to a film set.  Not only does he muse upon the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and filmmaking, and fake beards, but one is put in mind of this earlier piece on a similar topic referring to an equally brilliant and equally flawed actor.  (You'll need a subscription to read the whole thing.)  The two pieces together present interesting bookends to JlC's magnificent career.   

A Most Wanted Man was one of the harder JlCs to fathom, so I'm looking forward to the film to see if I figured it out correctly.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The adventure begins . . .

I'm not overwhelmed by the brilliance of my recent reviews here on Crime Pays, but maybe it is the material.  While I love the breadth of the Soho Crime Club offerings, and the exposure to their catalogue that the membership is offering, I'm just not blown away by many of the books I've received.  The last book that really made me think was Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time for Gifts, and while I've got the second in that trilogy on the back of the tub, you can only take so much PLF at one time.  Also on deck are the latest Andrea Camilleri, a Benjamin Black, and Phillip Kerr - all old faves.  

But don your sou'westers, friends, for in the meantime Crime Pays is taking a brief vacation from crime and setting sail for the Pacific with Ishmael, Ahab, Queequeg and the rest of the Pequod gang.  Moby Dick, ho!  My son recently read this greatest of all seafaring adventures (gift from paternal grandparents) and not so surprisingly, thoroughly enjoyed it.  He thinks that reading Moby Dick may be the literary equivalent of a bar mitzvah.  So now that he is a man, and my manly husband has read it too, I feel a need to get on board.   The swab in our family will stick with the Babysitters Club.   

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hell to Pay

Whiplashed by time and place I am, thank you for that, Soho International Crime Club!   From Classical Athens to the present-day Australian Outback is a big jump, but Garry Disher's latest novel doesn't fare entirely badly by comparison.  Hell to Pay is a kind of straight-up police procedural - except that the cop in question, Our Hero Paul Hirschhausen (known as Hirsch), is in the police doghouse for having testified against another cop in a corruption case so even as the local cop here in the dry and tough outback, he is persona non grata.

You would be excused for thinking that Hell to Pay is the latest installment in a series.  It sounds like the backstory of the corruption case occupied an earlier book, but in fact, this is a stand-alone.  (And to complicate matters further, this story is published as Bitter Wash Road in Australia, so you might think that was the first story.)  The point of giving us all that background on what happened before Hirsch got to the vaguely depressing town of Tiverton is to a) tell us why he is there instead of in some more exciting metropolis; b) explain why all the other cops hate him; and c) add another bleak thread to the already bleak story.

I know that there are people who really love the Australian outback, but the slice that Disher gives us is pretty grim.  "After twenty minutes, he found himself skirting around the Razorback, driving through red dirt and mallee scrub country, the road surface chopped and powdery where it wasn't reefed and rbbed with a stuone underlay.  Very little rain had fallen here last night; it was as if a switch had been flicked, marking the transition from arable land to semi-desert."  OK, so it is desert.  But wait, it gets worse.  "Leasehold land, one-hundred year leases define by sagging wire fences, sand-silted tracks and creek beds filled with water-tumbled stones like so many misshapen cricket balls.  You might find a fleck of gold in these creek beds if you were lucky, or turn your ankle if you were not.  If was land you walked away from sooner or later:  Hirsch saw a dozen stone chimneys and and eyeless cottages back in the stunted mallee, little heartaches that had struggled on a patch of red dirt and were singking back into it.   Anthills, sandy washaways, fostails hooked onto gates, a couple of rotting merino carcasses, a tray-less old Austin truck beneath a straggly gum tree, and weathered fence posts and the weart rust loops that tethered them one to the other. . . . What he didn't see, but sensed were abandoned gold diggings, mine shafts, ochre hands stenciled to rock faces.  A besetting place."  (23)

Dry, hot, mean, lifeless, boring, and devoid of opportunity, Disher's outback has only the occasional pocket of human decency or kindness.  Hirsch is trying to make do here, and as the new (and despised) cop on the beat, is sent after every small story that unfolds.  This gives him the opportunity to see where lives intersect, which is of course necessary if you are going solve crimes, or explain accidents that you think are actually crimes but the locals keep telling to butt out.  The story opens with kids taking target practice (this is gun country) and an apparent hit-and-run victim who is mourned by many but comes from a depressing background, and the story winds in and out of her sad life, and those of others in this backwater.  The local cops are nasty and probably corrupt, and everyone hates them.  The local wealthy landowners have their own brand of profound dysfunctionality, and are probably in cahoots with the aforementioned authorities.  What Disher does well is weave together several threads that seem to have nothing to do with each other - the misbehaving swells, the nowhereseville lives of the local teens, the nasty cops, and even his own corruption case and a far-away crime spree end up connected to one another.  The resolutions surprises in some respects, but does not strain credulity, in fact the whole story builds slowly to a more complex finish than I expected.

Garry Disher is a prolific writer, with "literary" novels, short stories, a collection of young adult novels and even some non-fiction - in addition to all the crime - on his list. He may be the Henning Mankel of Australia but I'm not sure how much more hot bleakness I can stand.  I'll take the Scandinavian version.

The Marathon Conspiracy

Wow I am really behind on this, the books are piling up.  I am not be absolutely mad for anything I've read recently, hence the delay in writing about them.

I know I like to be transported to another time and place in my reading, but I had heretofore not considered the classical world as a possible destination.  While Gary Corby's series set in Ancient Greece was on my radar, I hadn't done anything about it (as is the case with the dozens of other items on the "to read" list).  Hence my pleasure when the latest in this lightweight but charming series arrived as part of the Soho International Crime Club.

Yes, I did just say that The Marathon Conspiracy (Soho Crime, 2014) was lightweight.  I can't think of another adjective to describe a story that takes place in a place and time so very removed from our own, yet utilizes language that sounds so familiar.  "Maybe the wacky, naked priestess who talks in riddles is an optimist" says Our Hero Nicolaos at one point. (75)  The Ancients were wacky?  "The thing is, Zeke," he starts another sentence (94), while a priestess says to another much later "Welcome to management."  (289)  The thing is, it is hard to imagine that the Ancients used such modern-sounding constructions and ideas.  Will the youngsters start peppering their speech with, um, like next?  But of course, who is to say that they didn't talk slangily, or whatever their version of it was?  Their sense of humor and concept of tragedy have withstood the test of time, and their playwriting - referenced often in this story, thanks to Aeschylus' big supporting role - defined the genre.  As did their incredibly complex and effective government and social administrative structures.  It follows naturally:  why wouldn't they bemoan the idea of management-level bureaucracy?

Readers should not be deterred by my use of the word lightweight, however, because that implies a negativity that I don't ultimately feel for this lively story.  Nicolaos is trying to make a living at being the Hellenic version of a private investigator, and gets by based on intelligence, good connections, and a smart and sassy fiancee named Diotima.  In The Marathon Conspiracy, a girl student at a temple school is found dead, and another is missing.  Pericles, that Athenian operator, asks him to look into it so Nicolaos and Diotima take a break from planning their wedding to investigate.  It becomes apparent that this is not just some local bad guy or errant temple staffer, but only the latest development in a story that begins in the recent past, at the epic battle of Marathon.  The ending will surprise, and then charm a bit, as - not really a spoiler alert - Nicolaos and Diotima's wedding provides a delightful coda.!

If you know your Classical Greeks, you'll feel very much at home here because Corby's tale is populated with real characters - Pericles, Aeschylus, Socrates (he is actually Nicolaos' younger brother - and is always asking questions, ba-dump-bump).  It feels a little silly at first, especially given the occasionally anachronistic language.  But the plot moves briskly, and it becomes apparent that, other than language, Corby pays extraordinary attention to historical detail.  Buildings, rituals, dress, ceremonies are all carefully described but not boringly so, and the result is a vivid picture of ancient life and society.  Corby's afterword supported my sense of this, by revealing what of his plot was drawn from the historical and literary record (a lot).  This 15 pp. Author's Note saved the book for me, as did the detailed timeline (four more page) that followed.  The Marathon Conspiracy won't take you long to finish, but it might provide you with a few pleasant hours very far away from wherever you are.