Sunday, November 8, 2015

Better Late Than Never

or:  Thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, You Can Read This Anytime

Followers of crime fiction, the demimonde, and darkness more generally:  did you thrill to last week's New York Times Book Review?  You could read about a biography of my all-time fave John le Carre, meet some wicked smaht women crime writers, and dive into the weird and wonderful world of Sherlock Holmes lovers.  There are some recipes and a few witches get skewered, too.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Impossible Dead

We have a theory in our house about British television dramas:  there are about 25 actors total in Great Britain, and they are all in all the shows that we like.  Look:  there's Sam from Foyle's War in Death in Paradise!  Roz from MI5 in Crimson Field!  Who isn't in Wolf Hall - Soames Forsyte, Jenny Lee, Mycroft, Lady Persie from the Upstairs/Downstairs reboot, to name a few.  And don't get me started on the unpleasant but apparently bulletproof Spratt from the Dowager's household on Downton Abbey - we see him all over the place, in Crimson Field, Foyle's War, and Inspector George Gently.

A related phenomenon is that I am starting to see fictional detectives in TV terms; namely, Malcolm Fox, in my mind's eye, IS George Gently.  Doesn't matter that Fox is in Edinburgh and Gently in Durham, or that Gently is obviously older than Fox but takes place about 40 years earlier.  There is something in the older, tolerant UK-ish detective with younger impetuous sidekicks that just says white-haired, wise George Gently.

There is a bit of irony in this.  The plot line in Ian Rankin's second Complaints novel, The Impossible Dead, actually turns on the topic of Scottish nationalism, especially its less-stable 1980s incarnation.  This story, set sometime in the now, before the independence referendum of 2014 but firmly in the time of the Scottish National Party's political ascendancy, involves events and characters from the movement's more radical recent past.  The characters are fictional, but not the organizations, and Rankin effectively links them to the the weird old days of the paranoid 1980s:  the bitter end of the Cold War, nuclear arms development, and terrorism in and out of the U.K. (frightening in its day but somehow more comprehensible than the religiously extremist and sophisticatedly global version we live with now).  The younger cops don't really know from this time, but Foxy remembers.  It may be this nostalgia* that makes me link Fox and Gently - both characters operate with an undertone of melancholy that makes them more interesting than your standard single male investigator of a certain age.

Gently's melancholy is firmly rooted in his wife's murder, which, with his being a cop, feeds that whole series.  In Fox's case, the melancholy is less around his work or longing for the bad old days, and more about his elderly father's decline and his difficult relationship with his impossibly selfish sister.  This thread doesn't appear at first to fit in this box-within-a-box story of misbehaving cops, dead cops, and old, unresolved (not unsolved, just, perhaps not correctly solved) deaths.  But I think it is really about coming to terms with your past self, whether that is your political identity, your profession, your additions, or maybe even just your role in your family.

Still, there is a plot, and it feels somehow a disservice to lump Fox and his Scottish compatriots with a Brit.  In The Impossible, Fox and his colleagues Kaye and Naysmith, the despised Complaints, must review some alleged suspicious testimony on the part of cops in another town.  In the course of that work, a retired cop - the one who blew the lid on the misbehavior that the others may be covering up - is found dead, and he, as it happens, turns out to have been investigating a possible cover-up of a death decades earlier, of a political firebrand.  Confused yet?  Yeah, that's how this goes.  Just when you think you've got a handle on it, someone else who may or may not be covering up some less savoury part of his or her past appears.  And then Fox keeps getting pulled back home to deal with his father's failing health and his sister's irrational behavior around that.  While I found the piecing together of the modern radical part of Scottish politics quite interesting, it is never really clear why Fox keeps pursuing the investigation.  Having overstepped at one point in the initial internal investigation, he was warned off pretty early, but keeps poking around, incurring the wrath or more and more senior police and government officials.  The eventual resolution is connected to his own history only tangentially, and ultimately feels a bit forced.

That said, Fox is a sympathetic character, and the story is well-written.  And when I thought about it, the whole coming-to-terms-with-your-past theme makes some sense.  I'm not likely to seek out another Complaints but I still like them better than grumpy Rebus.  And if you like the Scots, you'll enjoy this one.

* Nostalgia is not the right word, for that evokes something you like remembering, and you don't really want to think more than you have to about letter bombs and nationalist terrorism.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Smaller and Smaller Circles

Well that is kind of how crime solving works, right?  You draw smaller and smaller circles around a perp, until you catch him/her.  So you could say that F.H. Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles (Soho Crime, 2015) wins the prize for most obvious title of a mystery ever.

That would be doing this unsurprising yet ultimately compelling novel a disservice.  For while the tracking-down of the heinous killer of young boys is fairly predictable, and Our Heroes exhibit the usual mix of genius, humility and a dash of hot-headedness, Batacan writes with warmth about her home country of the Philippines and passion about its flaws.  For the resolution of this crime, and indeed the crime itself, are dependent upon authority figures recognizing and fighting back against deeply entrenched and supremely powerful corruption in the Church and the government.  This venality, in Batacan's Philippines, is the biggest crime of all.

The investigators here are a couple of Jesuit priests who happen to teach anthropology and psychology at a University in Manila, Fathers Gus Saenz and Jerome Lucero. They are drawn in to the investigation by the apparently one respectable member of the National Bureau of Investigation, who recognizes a need for fresh minds not tainted by a desire for fame, fortune, or just plain laziness.  At the same time as Saenz and Lucero work - or don't - with the NBI, Saenz has been pursuing a highly visible priest whom he believes has been molesting boys, much to the dismay of the Church powers (the pursuit is to their dismay, not the molestation).  The story moves along somewhat predictably; Batacan uses the device of giving you a glimpse into the mind of the killer, and I couldn't tell if it was intentional that we were supposed to figure out how he found his victims before Our Heroes did, or not.

But I am glad I read this - thank you Soho Crime club - because it was a view into a different world.  In Batacan's universe, the bad priests are just the top of a heap of dishonest officials, poorly trained or lazy or perhaps just overwhelmed civil servants, all on a massive base of deeply entrenched poverty - the only way out of which seems be through the Church or the civil service, thus perpetuating the cycle of abuse and corruption.  There are pretty searing descriptions of lives lived at the very edge of the abyss, which you have no reason not to believe, and every reason, once you've read about kids whose lives depend on the trash they find at the dump, to be reminded about being grateful.

It is worth reading Batacan's Acknowledgements at the end, because they are a tribute to a great editor.  She writes:
  "The first time I wrote this book - in 1996, when I was in my mid-twenties - I was angry:  angry about my job, about the state of my country, about the callousness, complacency, and corruption that had dragged it there.
  The second time I wrote this book - in 2013, in my forties, having moved back home with my infant son - I found myself even angrier:  about the state of my country, which seemed even worse than it was in 1996, and about the callousness, complacency, and corruption that kept it there."

Smaller and Smaller Circles could be a screed, and it is not.  It is a good read, and it will be one of those that sticks in your mind after you are done.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Six and a Half Deadly Sins

Not only is Colin Cotterill pushing a punny envelope with the title Six and a Half Deadly Sins (2015, Soho Crime), he is also even more fantastical than usual in this story.  The difference between this and earlier entries in the delightful Dr. Siri series is that here the fantasy isn't grounded nearly as much in other-worldliness.  Rather, it is just normal, of-this-world, crazy coincidences that sometimes feel stretched.

Not that there isn't, as always, much to like in a Dr. Siri mystery.  The favorite characters are all back: Our Hero Laotian war hero and former national coroner now turned creaky retiree Siri Paiboun, his spirited but tragically-diminished-by-arthritis wife Daeng, and their sidekicks Civilai and Phosy.  There is less Nurse Dtui and Mr. Geung this time around, and Teacher Ou makes just a cameo appearance.  One thing to consider is how all of Cotterill's female characters are strong, interesting, and above all else, smart as can be.  Even the evil ones.  It's nice, and another reminder that however these books turn out, they can never ever be accused of having stock characters.

The writing is also as charming as always.  An elder is described as a "ginseng root of a man" (75) and the combination of paranormal and rural Lao custom results in delightful dialogue such as this between Siri and a spiritual medium/weaver of pha sinh.  
  "'I make potions,' said Madam Voodoo.  'The ingredients come to me in dreams.  Some say they help with minor spiritual problems.  But you?  You need a complete spiritual enema.'
  'That sounds rather erotic.  Would it help?'
  'It might, but these things find a way to cancel each other out.'
  'How do you mean?'
  'Well, you might be cured of dipsomania, but you'd grow a tail.  Do you know what I mean?  You could be rid of a demon but lose the ability to speak your native language.  That sort of thing.'"  (140)

My favorite piece of humor here is the bit about the American doctors Bobby and Lola, from Physicians Eschewing Agendas.  They are fully equipped and trained, but have nothing to do because the Lao government can't decide what kind of aid they really need, and they don't want to completely cut ties with a wealthy organization.  So, the docs sit around making pancakes for the locals and drinking wine.  Colin Cotterill, how do you really feel about Doctors Without Borders?

The plots of Dr. Siri mysteries are always complicated, but this one feels more so than usual.  We start with Our Hero receiving a beautifully-made pha sinh with a gruesome little clue sewn inside.  Never one to pass up a good hunt, and perhaps just a bit bored in retirement, Siri is immediately determined to figure out what it means.  But to get started, Dr. S needs a travel permit for him and Daeng.  There is a distracting chapter or so devoted to his cleaning up a mess of his nemesis Judge Haeng, so that the Judge will give him the permit.

Siri and Daeng travel around the north, collecting more pha sinh with clues in them, and having all sorts of adventures.  Meanwhile, Inspector Phosy has been sent to "investigate" (read:  close with no prejudice against our friends the Chinese) a pair of homicides near the Chinese border.  It is pretty clear that these stories will intertwine at some point, but how?  Who set up the elaborate pha sinh hunt?  Who is the mysterious person out to get Dr. Siri in Vientiane?  What does the Chinese connection have to do with anything?

While all of this is happening, friends of Dr. Siri's in Vientiane are getting sick, as are the good dr. and his wife, and the Chinese are invading Vietnam through northern Laos.  And there is a lot of heroin floating around.  Finally, will Siri ever learn to talk with the spirits lodging in him?

(The last one doesn't have as big a role as in past stories, probably good because as you can tell there is already a lot going on.)

To keep all of these possibly disparate tracks moving forward and eventually have them meet, Six and a Half Deadly Sins relies too heavily on the obvious and coincidence.  Dr. Siri and Daeng need to travel around the north a bit but transportation is slow, unreliable, and hard to come by?  How convenient that the docs happen to have a vintage Willys in perfect condition in their barn.  They are running out of gas, and only government officials can get it?  Why look, there is Civilai with his ministry-petrol coupons, hanging out at a gas station hundreds of miles from home, but conveniently where Siri and Daeng stop.  Teacher Ou dies, leaving a volume on her desk conveniently open to a major clue.  The whole sinh bit turns on the involvement of Madame Chanta, of the Women's Union, who also pops up again toward the end of the story when much is revealed and then explained in long conversations between the regular characters because there is no other way the reader could figure it out.  And the illness?  There is a story behind it, and it does factor in the ending, but it is wildly undeveloped unless I missed a chapter or something.

Of course I kept reading - there are various fates that, if you follow this series, you will want to know about - but I found myself laughing incredulously at times as some plot twist felt clearly to be an effort to get to the next stage, rather than a natural evolution of the story.  How are these old people so charmed as to be able to get out of these difficult situations so often?

Well, there is the bit about Siri's carrier status, wherein he lives with the spirit of a Hmong shaman and hundreds of other dead people, many of whom have played roles in earlier stories.  And the tricky twist at the end that may, or may not have something to do with this.  I'm still trying to figure it out.

Overall, while I love this series, this one felt more disjointed than previous tales.  You have the sense that Cotterill had several good ideas, none of which he felt could carry a story on its own, so he decided to toss them all together and then write his character's way out the bag.  

Monday, September 21, 2015

Crooked Heart

As a rule, I avoid stories that involve children in distress.  Since becoming a parent, such stories cause irrational anxiety.  Having heard an interview with Lissa Evans, I guess I knew that such a child was at the center of Crooked Heart (HarperCollins, 2015) - it revolves around a boy evacuated from London during the Blitz - but somehow it came across as a little lighter.  And the story does, ultimately, delight and uplift and sadden.  It is a rare book that can hit that sweet spot.

A child's pain is a necessary part of the story in Crooked Heart.  After the death of his beloved godmother, Noel Bostock is evacuated to the countryside right before the bombing gets bad in London.  You wouldn't necessarily call Noel Our Hero, because he's not conventionally heroic, seeing as how he helps his evacuation host perfect a scheme to scam patriotic Britons into giving money to their various non-existent widows and orphans funds.  Yet he has a sharply defined moral code - that would be the Heart of the title - which pushes the story into more thoughtful territory.

We've all heard of the heroic Britons, who stood up to the Nazi threat with stiff upper lips, a sense of humor, and polite queues.  All that is here, but in addition . . . everyone is on the make, and it is OK!  Pretty much every character here has his or her little private method of bending the rules, getting ahead, making a bit on the side.  Everyone is able to justify their actions, at the same time that they might threaten to reveal those of others.  But where does it end?  There is a spectrum along which such activities fall and to a child, for that is what Noel is despite his preternatural intelligence (not necessarily mature, just wicked smaht), the place of all the various activities going on in this novel are crystal clear.  One action, perpetrated by an air raid warden, outrages Noel and is the cause of the more dramatic events of the last third of the novel.

Noel tries to explain to his teacher, Mr. Waring.

  "'There's been an injustice.  Someone took some things from someone else and the person who took the things ought to get punished and the person who lost the things ought to get them back again, but the only other grown-up who knows what happened won't actually do anything about it.'
  'Why not?'
  'Because she - because this other grown-up is afraid of getting into trouble for doing something else.  Something that isn't nearly as bad as the other thing.'
  'A venial as opposed to a mortal sin?'
  'Yes.  If "venial" means "not nearly as bad".'
  '"Pardonable" would be the definition.  Have the victims of this different sort of badness offered their pardon?'
  Noel paused.  'The victims don't actually know that they're victims,' he said.
  'They don't?'
  'Well now . . .' Mr Waring clasped his hands together and clicked the knuckles like press-studs.  'That would be what we'd call a moral dilemma.  Is a crime any less wicked because its victims are unaware of its perpetration?'
  'Yes,' said Noel, with certainty.  No one who had contributed to Vee and Noel's charity-box had ever been carted off to an asylum, screaming that they'd been robbed.  'So now something really bad - a mortal sin - isn't being rectified.  And it ought to be.  It ought to be.'"  (171-172)

Mr. Waring is more perceptive than Noel thinks.  In fact, he seems like a rather good teacher, shepherding a class of mostly numbskull 10 year-olds with some wit and insight.  Noel stands out from that pack as only the fiercely brilliant ones ever do:  ostracized for the most part, not really to their dismay, happy to wrap themselves in their superior intellect as a barrier against contact with lesser peers.  And yet - he is ten.  So his interactions with adults swing between a childish essentialism and a mature worldview.

  "'You all right, son?' asked a woman ticket collector.  'Had a bit of a fright, have you?'
  'I told that policeman about a crime' - his voice was loud and indignant - 'and he didn't do anything.  He didn't even ask me the name of the criminal.'
  'What sort of crime?'
  'Theft.  From people who've been bombed out.'
  She nodded glumly.  'There's a lot of it going on.'
  'But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be stopped.'
  There was a crash outside that jarred the whole floor.
  'You'd better get downstairs,' said the collector.
  'So you're saying that because it's common it's acceptable?'
  'I'm saying that unless you get underground you're liable to get blown up.'
  'You mean that collective safety's more important than collective morality?'
  'Go downstairs.'
  'Which makes us actually no better than the enemy that we purpose to despise.'
  'Gus!' - she was calling over his shoulder - 'Gus!  I need a hand.  Can you make this blinking little walking dictionary get into shelter?'"  (219-220)

 Noel's situation is ultimately heartbreaking.  You think of your own ten-year-old, and know she might not make it through his trials.  But maybe, maybe, children have that funny resilience that we experienced growns sometimes lack.  The war and circumstances break down his walls in a way, and in tandem with the dim (maybe not dim.  Unlucky?  Unable to take advantage?) but determined Vee, he not only survives but in a weird way, thrives.

The grownups in this story, like the questionable activities, fall along a continuum of good to bad, but all with a flaw or some damage.  One of the most interesting is Noel's godmother Mattie, who dies early - so early in the story that this is not a spoiler.  It is clearly Mattie who honed Noel's formidable intelligence and finely honed sense of right and wrong.  She may or may not have approved of his and Vee's activities, but you know that she would have stood up and applauded his efforts to right the wrong referred to above.  You wish you could spend a little more time with her, a game old gal if ever there was one.

There are lots of characters here, each picking his or her way through the moral minefield of the homefront.  Mattie and Noel and Vee are the most interesting, but you can consider many ways people survived this war in reading the various experiences.  And to be sure, there is a certain amount of predictability to the story:  Vee and Noel come to depend on each other, and to care.  She matures and he softens.

But so what.  Crooked Heart is one of those books that you think about when you are not reading it, and that you continue to think about long after you are done.  For a light story, it offers an unexpected and compelling depth of perception.  It is a wonderful story that you should read as soon as possible.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Down Among the Dead Men

Sometimes I wonder what it is about crime fiction that I find so enjoyable.  Certainly the escape factor - you can't fret about section allocation or committee staffing when murder is at hand!  And my focus on non-US, non-contemporary means that whatever I read gets me out of myself.

But a key piece for me is character development.  If you've spent any time with Crime Pays, you'll know that I particularly enjoy a well-developed character.  Whether funny - a la Bryant and May - or wicked smaht like Flavia de Luce or Quirke, or conflicted like Martin Limon's MPs or any le Carre character, the more complex Our Hero is, the better the story is.

This is why I was underwhelmed with the first Peter Diamond investigation I read.  Just didn't get it about this vaguely grumpy, slightly cynical cop.  Not that I mind grumpy or cynical, but there didn't seem to be a strong reason for him to be so.  So when a new book by Peter Lovesey showed up in my monthly Soho shipment - now several months ago, I am sadly behind - I did not jump on it.  The Soho club readings have been uneven, and I added this to the pile.

Then I read a capsule review in the always-helpful Crime column in the New York Times Book Review.  Marilyn Stasio is a good indicator, and I think the word stylish may even have been used.  I wouldn't go that far, but it intrigued me enough to pick up Down Among the Dead Men (Soho Press, 2015) and see what I'd missed.

Plenty!  I still think Our Hero Peter Diamond is not a particularly complex character.   He falls into the DCI Banks model of good cop/irrascible man, a model which you see just a little too often and which seems to be deployed as a form of complexity.  I'm still not sure why he is a bit cynical or slightly lazy.  But in this story, Diamond and his commanding officer, Georgina Dallymore, are sent off to Sussex to investigate a possible case of internal misconduct.  The misconduct piece almost becomes secondary to the clever characterization of Georgina, who is by turns overconfident, insecure, misguided, shrewd, and ultimately supportive of Diamond's approach.

  "Satisfied, she rubbed her hands.  She almost clapped.  'We're a team that gets things done, Peter.  Two intereviews already, Henrietta Mallin and her brother, and both went rather well, with me setting the agenda, so to speak, and you following up on the detail.  If people see us as Miss Nice and Mr. Nasty, so be it.  That's a well-tried method of interrogation.'
  She meant good cop bad cop.  Miss Nice and Mr. Nasty was another nugget to tuck away."  (147-8)

Our Hero finds himself a bit conflicted with respect to his deeply annoying but ultimately fairly effective boss.

  "'I don't know how you stand it, Peter.  I lost my cool with her, as you saw.'
  'Practice.  Georgina and I understand each other.  In fact, I've got to know her a lot better since we came on this trip.  I dicsovered she has a soft underbelly.'
  The crossed swords of the Victory Arch in Baghdad were no higher than Hen's eyebrows.  'The mind boggles.'"  (194)

Lovesey has fun drawing Georgina as a foil to Diamond but doesn't make her a complete joke.  And Diamond himself is funnier than many Brit cops, not veering too far into the sardonic.

The internal affairs case turns out to be part of something larger and more sinister (no surprise there, else where would be the story?) and there are several plot lines that actually all pull together more or less in an ending that does not strain credulity (that is a compliment).  Art, plants, and diving - it is something of a feat to tie those up!  More interesting characters pop up along the way.  There is a girls school with some well-drawn students and are-they-or-aren't-they evil teachers, some artists who are more than they appear, parents with pasts, and a quite excellent vignette in a trailer with the parents of a missing girl.

  "Diamond had been watching Barry Mallin for any sign of what was really going on in his head.  Here was a controlling man who had raised a daughter who haad rebelled, sold just about everyting he owned to rescure her and pull her back into line.  Now he was faced with another huge family crisis.  How had he dealt with it.  Was he responsible for hte disappearance of Joss?"  (138)

I like how Lovesey gets a little bit into the head of the unpleasant Mallin and there is more of this.

Don't mistake any of this for the witty and kooky folks you might find in a Dr. Siri mystery, or the deeply conflictedly convoluted characters of The Secret Agent.  But Lovesey does find the balance, and a touch of humor never hurts.  You might just go pick and give ol' Diamond another try.

A Monumental Mystery

If you actually follow both of my blogs, you'll know that we recently took an awesome trip to Belgium and France, where we spent about half our time exploring World War One-related sites.  You can read all the gory details over on The Right People Travel.

Along the way, my two areas of interest merged and I started to develop a rather brilliant mystery idea.  Here goes.

A body is found (mutilated?  mysteriously dead with no markings?  just a torso?  with ink?) in an American military cemetery in France, or maybe at one of those grand American monuments.  Perhaps the body was tossed from high atop the monument, or arranged among the graves, or pieces line the path, or it was placed in a praying posture in the little chapel.  At any rate, there has been . . . a MURDER.  Of course, the body is probably discovered by a local walking his dog, or a maintenance person, early in the morning, with very French details like the person is smoking, or bringing a bottle of local wine somewhere or something.  (I'm getting a little Martin Walker/Inspector Bruno vibe here.)

Meanwhile Our Hero (probably male, about which I am, yes, conflicted) is a staffer with the American Battle Monuments Commission, and is stuck in dull talks in France during a hot August, when everything is closed and only the tourists are out.  The Yanks are considering pulling back on some of their commitments to local staffing of these places (it is expensive, no one from the States comes anymore, esp. to the WW1 sites), which of course doesn't thrill the French.  Our Hero has been sent as the "expert" on the sites to accompany the Senator (Congressperson?) at these talks.  But the pol is really just on a junket and interested in making a publicity splash, so deals in soundbites and uninformed commentary.  Our Hero privately disagrees with the idea of reducing US involvement, but it's not his show and he tunes a lot out, and tours around a bit on his own.  Until the body shows up, and there will be some connection - not sure what but of course that is the point of the whole mystery - to the site itself.

Will it be a historical connection?  German person dead, descendant of a soldier or commanding officer, killed by a vengeful French person?  You could substitute several nationalities for the killer here:  Belgian, English, American.  You could go the other way.  It could be a decades-old crime of passion.  Or maybe it will be a modern terrorist event, and the victim will be Israeli or Palestinian or a citizen from some former colonial territory of the warring powers, making a statement about how these conflicts just gave birth to modern problems.  Maybe the crime will turn out to have nothing to do with WW1 but instead reveal a human trafficking network that operates through France.  So many possibilities!

The character development piece - which as you might know is key for me - comes as the crime is investigated and the question of jurisdiction comes into play.  Has this crime taken place on French or American territory?  Who should investigate and who will get to prosecute?  Our Hero is no cop, but must work with French authorities - a smart and sympathetic but maybe a little cynical or hard to read or has-a-past French cop - because Our Hero has the expertise on the site itself which may hold the key to solving the crime.  The Frenchie isn't happy about it, but they'll sort it out.  (Note:  there will be NO ROMANCE.  I hate that in crime fiction.)  Maybe there are also some MPs who seem doltish and brutal but are really kind of cool.  Our Hero has a PhD, maybe a family at home, and doesn't stick his nose in but because he knows more about this site than anyone else, he has to be part of the investigation.  He's a good eater.  Or maybe just learning about it, and his French counterpart can't believe he knows so little about cheese.  There will be meals.

That's about as far as I got.  There could be a whole series, taking place at different monuments and cemetaries (WW2 at Normandy or the Philipines!).  But it is hard to keep them from becoming formulaic, so maybe this is a standalone.

By now you surely realize the chief benefit of this project:  much research time will have to be spent in France.  Do I have any takers as assistant?

Friday, July 31, 2015

Who Knows What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men . . .

the SHADOW knows mu wha ha ha ha ha

Today in MYSTERY HISTORY tells us that today is the 85th anniversary of the debut of The Shadow on The Detective Radio Hour.  I learned about the Shadow (and the Whistler and A Tale Well-Calculated to Keep you in . . . SUSPENSE!) listening to the Armed Forces Network when we lived in Germany in the late 1970s.  On Sunday evenings they'd play classic radio shows like these mysteries and Jack Benny.  I can still see that green galley kitchen with the funny little pull-out table, and the clock radio on the windowsill.  And probably a dog somewhere.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Ways of the World

When you cross something off that is near the top of your to-read list, and then find it again, near the bottom, you know you are just not keeping up.  Here I was thinking that Robert Goddard's The Ways of the World was a newish book set in immediate post-World War One Paris, and therefore good prep for my imminent vacation, when in fact it was published in 2013 (Random House in the UK, Mysterious Press here) and there are already two sequels!

You might also find that your to-read list offers insight into the evolution of your reading tastes.  I'm pretty sure I put this on the list when I started because it was international, and I know I added it more recently because of the WW1 angle.  But I also know that my interests have been honed in the few years since I started keeping track of what I write, and this story doesn't quite thrill as much as it might have.

It is 1919, the War to End All Wars has ended, and Our Hero, James "Max" Maxted, is looking into the possibilities of opening a flying school in England, aided by his loyal wartime mechanic Sam Twentyman (which is one of my more favorite names in crime fiction).  That plan is upended when Max's father dies unexpectedly in Paris, where he has been part of the British delegation negotiating the Treaty of Versailles.  Max and his snotty brother Ashley go to Paris to collect their father's remains, and it becomes clear to Max anyway that All is Not What it Seems with their father's death.  There's an elegant mistress, for starters, and a mysterious list, and some Russian exiles and fairly stereotyped diplomats:  inscrutable Japanese, warm Argentines, loud and heavy-drinking Americans.  And did I mention the elusive German spy and his lithe thief sidekick, Le Singe (The Monkey)?  Yes, even though this story is complicated in the grand tradition of good espionage tales, the characters feel a bit stock. 

I’m sure Max is handsome, and Sam is stocky, and Appleby (the British secret service detailed to the delegation) smokes a pipe.  But I like characters with a little more complexity, or quirkiness, or even ambivalence.  Le Carre and Philip Kerr always satisfy the last, and probably the first, and who can forget the ultimately quirky Bryant and May, or Dr. Siri Paiboun, or those rascals at Slough House?

Lesser characters seem to drop out of the picture, which is a little frustrating.  We hear a lot about irritating Ashley (whom I picture as the ineffective Frahnces from Poldark) and his striving wife, and there is the intimation that they are going to try and have Max removed as executor of the father’s will – but then we don’t hear about them for chapters and chapters, really until towards the end of the book when the tale takes Our Hero back to London.  And while Sam is presented as a kind of sidekick, and does act that way at times, he is really more of an independent operator than one might expect. 

This story is also curiously action-less, at least for the first half.  Max spends a lot of time going around Paris talking to people, to try and find out what actually happened to his father.  This is in fact what normal people would do, but while perhaps realistic it is a wee bit boring for the reader. 

But you have to bear in mind that this is the first of a trilogy, so you can imagine that the author felt he had time to bring characters in and out of the action (such as it was), and to develop that action in a more leisurely fashion than a stand-alone might suggest.  I gather that the story is really wrapped up in the third volume, with a big ending.*  Will I get to it?  Not sure.  I did not love this book, although I certainly did not hate it.  The laxity of this review lays it out:  it did not excite with character or prose, although it did not disgust.  It wasn’t a book that I thought about during the day, when I wasn’t reading it, which is my idea of a really good book.

*Goddard has written a number of books, and according to his website is the "master of the clever twist."  I don't love a clever twista, but they have their uses.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968

Heda Margolius Kovaly's Under A Cruel Star is not a work of crime fiction, although it is full of terrible acts perpetrated by individuals against others.  Unfortunately, the Holocaust, and the repressive regimes supported by the Soviet Union in post-World War Two Eastern Europe are all too real, and they happened to millions and millions of innocent victims.  This is the true story of Heda Kovaly's Innocence.

The Holocaust only gets about a chapter here, and Kovaly's time in Auschwitz is completely left out.  She is sent to the ghetto at Lodz, Poland, in 1941, and from there to various concentration camps.  She manages to escape from a forced march at the end of the war, and returns to Prague while it is still occupied by the Germans.  She survives this hell - barely, the book is as much about the anguish of survival as it is about the hell of the camps - only to find herself and her young family immersed in the stranger-than-fiction world of Soviet-style communism.  Her husband, a true believer, became a government functionary.  Kovaly herself never bought into the ideology, although she wanted to believe in a better future for her beloved Czechoslovakia.
  "That I myself did not succumb to the lure of ideology was certainly not because I was smarter than Rudolf but because I was a woman, a being much closer to the reality and the basic things of life than he was.  I was more interested in what was happening around me in the present, among the people I loved, than in the foggy spheres of ideology.  Rudolf could decide on the basis of statistics - mostly falsified of course - that under communism people lived a better and happier life.  I saw from close-up and with my own eyes that this was not true."  (65)
For his belief in science, and search for a better way, Rudolf is caught up in a web of denunciations related to someone else, imprisoned, tried, found guilty, and executed.  Barely a decade later, he and others who were killed as part of this show trial were exonerated, reluctantly, by the government.  This is the story of his wife's survival.  It is truly a memoir, much in her head, an outpouring of memories that need to be on paper to be preserved.  It is harrowing, depressing, unbelievable, and all too real.

When you read this account, you will realize how much of Innocence is drawn from Kovaly's life, and how the isolation of the survivor and the pariah are so similar.  Shortly after her initial return to Prague, Kovaly wanders the city, desperately searching for a place to stay that will not betray a friend to the occupying authorities.  Near the end of her rope she goes to the last person she can think of.
  "I walked up and down in front of the house for a while.  I had decided that I would not try to see anyone else.  Ruda would not be home anyway.  He might not eve live here anymore. Some Germans might have requisitioned his apartment.  It was dangerous and hopeless.  Still, I wanted to do something:  to walk, to think, to see, to postpone death for just a little bit longer.  To have someone talk to me.  To feel for one more moment that I still belonged to humanity."  (36)

Kovaly's survival instinct is her need for connection with other humans, but not just face time, she needs actual engagement, grounded in honesty and respect.  Is that so much to ask?, is really the theme here.  She does find it, and goes on to lead a long life in the US, even living here in Our Fair City for a time.  But her Soviet Prague, even if less violent, is darker and more frightening than William Ryan's Soviet Union - because of course it is real.  Under A Cruel Star is not crime fiction, but true crime.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Darkening Field

Oops I did it again.  It turns out that William Ryan's The Darkening Field (Minotaur Books, 2011, The Bloody Meadow in the UK) is the second, not the third, in his engaging series set in Stalinist Russia.  (Those are two words you don't expect to find in the same sentence - Stalinist and engaging - but it's true, this is the kind of book I really look forward to reading at the end of the day.)  Regular readers will recall that I liked The Holy Field enough to read The Twelfth Department pretty quickly afterwards, and while I had some quibbles with the latter, I couldn't and still can't argue with Ryan's vivid depiction of the era or his likable hero, Capt. Alexey Dimitrieyvich Korolev.

But reading out of order?  The wheels are coming off!

But I digress.  In The Darkening Field, Our Hero is assigned to investigate the suicide of a young woman on a film set near Odessa.  Why is this Moscow detective assigned to a case so very far away?  Because the victim had a cozy relationship with a very highly placed individual in the feared State security apparatus NKVD, and Korolev, having proved himself trustworthy in that case about the icons, is the only man capable of ferreting out the truth and handling it discreetly.*  Of course, Korolev also knows that if he gets it wrong, he is likely to end up in a cell at the Lubyanka or worse. Trust, in 1930s USSR, is a close-run thing.  

Setting and historical detail are Ryan's strong suit, and you can learn a little bit about why he chose the Soviet film industry as the backdrop for this tale from his Author's Note and more on his website.  The film crew - Ukrainfilm, the whole thing modeled loosely on Eisenstadt and his crowd - is working in a small village near Odessa, and is housed at a local agricultural college.  But this is no University of Wisconsin-Stout, rather this college has taken over a former great estate that used to belong to an elite family, vanished, of course, in the Revolution.  The fading pre-Revolutionary glamour of the grounds adds enormously to the atmosphere, but it also makes you feel a little guilty like when you read about the antebellum South, and think, that sounds like a lovely house, but right, slavery.  So go the elite everywhere, although the Russian aristocracy arguably had it a lot worse than Southern slaveholders.  In any case, no one is too concerned about their loss.

Ryan chooses instead to concentrate on the ugly side of collectivization in the Ukraine - the famine and destruction and death in the name of wiping out the bourgeoisie, then the peasants' retaliation against the State forces, and their subsequent crackdown and reprisal.  It was a terrible cycle that relatively few locals survived, and that left parts of the region scorched and empty and nursing their grievances until an opportunity for revenge presented itself.

"Korolev had heard rumors of what had happened in the Urkraine in 'thirty-two and 'thirty-three - dangerous words heard late at night from sodleirs who'd had too much to drink in the Arbat Cellar.  How the Red Army and the NKVD hard forced the peasant to give up ever scrap of food and ho, faced with starvation, they had resisted, futilely, and the shoulders of the Chekists had shot them down.  The car passed more than one smoke-blackened church, their domes charred black skeletons, and each village was dotted with roofless ruined buildings.  Korolev couldn't help but notice that the few hunched peasant he saw seemed older than their probable years, with barely the energy to lift their feet from the ground." (41)

Now we are all too familiar with the brutal excesses of the Stalinist era, but in 1937 you only knew about it if you'd lived it, and that is the key to this story.  And if you know your European history, you also know that there are some folks in Germany around then who were happy to exploit any fissures in the Communist monolith, to serve their own ends.  Odessa being a port town, there are plenty of opportunities for illegitimate transfer of information and material (read:  espionage and sabotage), so that factors in here as well.  It would give away the story to say more, but I'll just note that allegiances - of all kinds - are not always what they appear.

But here is the thing about Revolutionary excess.  As we've seen in so many of these detectives-in-repressive-regime stories, such behavior allows Our Hero to maintain his Revolutionary ideals while decrying the horrific acts perpetrated in its name.  Communism is awesome except when Stalin does it, and then you'd better be careful that you aren't distantly related to a counterrevolutionary or you may find yourself in Siberia at best, or with a bullet in your back.  Ryan adds a twist to the trope, by including a recurring role in his books for the Thieves, the famed precursor to the current Russian Mafia.  Their colorful leader, Count Kolya, also trusts Korolev, and lends a hand in an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of way.  Of course, the Thieves hate any government, so this isn't so much anti-totalitarianism as it is self-preservation on their part.  Korolev gets a sidekick here, too, a plucky Odessa cop named Slivka who just happens to be related to the Thieves.  She's tough, wears a leather jacket, and looks the other way when he inadvertently references the Holy Mother.  Ryan deploys an array of characters who have private reservations about the regime, but do what they need to do to survive.  It makes it easy to like a story, but you might wonder how long this theme can be sustained?  When will Korolev's private humanity be denounced?  Or will it just wear away, unable to withstand the constant tension of living in a world where simply "asking the question seemed to risk turning the suspicion into fact," and the fact could get you killed.  (244)  Today's New York Times has a review of Rosemary Sullivan's Stalin's Daughter.  Having lived in the belly of one of the most repressive regimes in modern history, it is no wonder that Svetlana Alliluyeva has some issues. Granted, her relationship with Stalin was rather different from Korolev's but it makes you wonder about the emotional toll from walking that tightrope.

*Because as everyone knows, a suicide of a character connected to another prominent character in any story is never a suicide!  But as

Sunday, May 31, 2015


Innocence, by Heda Margolius Kovaly, is a pretty good work of noir crime fiction.  But Kovaly's own story is what really keeps the book in your hands.  This "new" work from the Soho Crime Club (first published in Czech in 1985, translated and published in English by Soho Crime, 2015) is both a personal story and an homage to genre.

The author's son Ivan wrote the introduction to this edition of Innocence and you might find it the most interesting part of the book.  Certainly it is as at least as dramatic and thought-provoking as the fictional events.  Kovaly, author of the well-known holocaust memoir Under A Cruel Star (Plunkett Lake Press, 1986) was a Jewish woman living in Prague when the Second World War rolled over Europe.  She survived deportation to the Lodz ghetto in Poland and subsequent transfer to Auschwitz, and managed to find her husband and her way back to Prague at the end of the war, participating in the Prague uprising (you can get all these historical details and more through the ol' google, or just by reading the introduction, which is my source. ) and the subsequent installation of Communist rule in Czechoslovakia.  Then things went downhill.  Her husband was falsely accused of some crime against the state, and executed along with ten others in an infamous show trial in the mid-1950s.  Heda eventually remarried, and took up work as a literary translator.  She made her way to the US in 1968, to Our Fair City, in fact, where she worked at the Law School library and continued her translation career. Why is this important?  Because among the many literary luminaries whose works she translated was Raymond Chandler, whom everyone knows was one of the leading lights of mid-20th c. American crime fiction.  Kovaly was inspired by Chandler to try her hand at crime fiction, and Innocence is the result.

We call this fiction, and it is, but it won't take you long to see through the thin veneer of Helena's story and understand that is strongly based on Heda's own.  While there is a murder at the beginning, and another at the end, in many ways these events are only tangential to the complex web of spying and secrets and above all lies that tie these brief-but-sharply-drawn characters together.  There are so many of them (and their names are surely difficult to pronounce what with lots of Czech characters), and essential characteristics are revealed only at the end of a chapter - in a sort-of a HA so HE is sleeping with HER style - that it is a challenge to keep them straight.  Most have just a few distinguishing characteristics, and everyone, with the exception of Helena, is spying on someone else.  Why they are spying, you never learn, only to whom they've been reporting their non-findings.  This is critical to understanding this book, which I can only assume is an accurate representation of life in a Stalinist state.  Toward the end, everyone attends a funeral of another character, and as they stand around the coffin, "Each of them was so different from the others that if anyone had been able to see into their thoughts, they would never have guessed that they represented the same person.  As is true for all of us, Mrs. Kourimska's innermost self was cut into a thousand facets and everyone who knew her found at least one of them that reflected what they were looking for, based on their own personalities."  (202)

It is only into the mind of Helena that you go farther.  Surely only someone who has been through the agony of a loved ones' false imprisonment could write so searingly about loneliness.  "Maybe it didn't matter so much what people said to each other.  The reason we talk isn't to share nuggets of wisdom, but to pause a moment in our flight through life, to make a connection, reassure ourselves we've got something in common - a human word, a human voice.  Also, when you talk to another person, you think differently than when you talk to yourself.  Maybe words, any t all, directed to someone else, are an act of love in a way.  When I talk to you, I enter your life and you enter mine.  We share our worlds with each other."  (46)  It is kind of obvious logic, nothing you haven't thought of before, but in the context of Helena's situation it resonates with an almost unbearable poignancy.

Now, the Chandler/noir piece is present, and perhaps a touch distracting at first.  There are hard-boiled characters, and sex, and dark streets, and tough talk like this exchange:
  " 'Well, that was a smooth move getting her into the Horizon [that is the movie theater where most of the story takes place].  She pounced on it like a wildcat.  Sure, it looks suspicious, but it might not mean anything.  When a gal's man is in the clink, she's happy to take the first job that comes along.  Bur any way you slice it, I've got nothing to report.'
  'Well, see to it that you do.  And pronto.  Remember, sweetie, you've got a lot to lose.  I've been satisfied in the past, but things're dragging a bit this time.  And when I say you've got a lot to lose, I don't just mean this flat.' "  (52)
I don't love it, and it feels a bit forced at times (could that be the translation?  I find that is often the case with any work in translation), but after a while the novelty of the language recedes and the central themes of deceit/honesty and guilt/innocence come to the fore.

While I've not read any Chandler (I know!  And I call myself a crime fiction enthusiast, shame.) I can't imagine that he'd be able to pull off a scene like the one toward the end of the book, where you are not quite sure if Helena is going to end it all.
  "She fell asleep in her clothes on the couch, with one hand under her head. All night long, drops slid from the pools in her eyes on to the coarse cloth of the upholstery, but gradually the deep lines around her mouth faded.
  The snow outside the window thickened, lofting up with the wind, the flakes dancing and swirling in all their sparkling glory, until finally they fell to the ground and transformed into mud.
  But every now and then one of them got caught on a tree branch or in a crack between the centuries-old tiles of the Mala Strana rooftops, so even though the snowfall lasted just a while, some glittering touches of white remained tucked away till morning, when the people began to emerge form their homes into the new day, into the same old aimless wandering."  (208-9)

You might say that Kovaly never did write crime fiction, just true crime - crimes against humanity.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Children of the Revolution

Crossing the pond, I dipped a tentative toe into the pool of books-about-detectives-whom-I've-seen-on-the-telly with Inspector Alan Banks of "Inspector Banks" fame.  It will not surprise anyone when I say that I love love love British telly mysteries.  I think their adaptations of the many series that make  British crime fiction so great are just wonderful - think of Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour, Wallander, George Gently, Foyle's War, Broadchurch, Death in Paradise, the new Sherlock, those marvelous Poirots with David Suchet, heck I'd even throw in Father Brown.  OK, I am mixing in some that didn't start as books but you get the point.  I'll watch any old Brit myst at least once and probably more.  My DVR is packed with 'em.

But to Banks.  Our Hero here is DCI Alan Banks, of Yorkshire, who, you know, like all the others, solves crimes.  Sometimes they are pretty nasty crimes, and the point of that in all of these is to show that bad things lurk even in these charming wee villages or ancient cities or stunning country landscapes.  Here in the Yorkshire setting of Children of the Revolution (2014, William Morrow but probably earlier and called something different in actual England), we get a fair amount of moors and a whole lot of rain.  It rains on an off pretty much this entire book.  The premise is straightforward:  a loser-kind-of-fellow is found dead, and while everyone would like to think it was suicide because he had never recovered from losing his job as a college lecturer, and was in debt and poor health, it is pretty obvious that he didn't do himself in.  The 5,000 pounds found on him would also indicate otherwise.  So Banks and his colleagues, with at least one of whom he has a complex relationship, must investigate.

The investigation is straightforward:  the coppers look into the deceased's past, make connections to the present, get warned off, find other connections, and eventually solve the crime in a violent scene in the driving rain.  The plot develops skillfully, with no ridiculous revelations or hidden secrets (although Banks favors the "I think I know what happened but why don't you tell me" approach to questioning suspects, implying that it will come out eventually and it will go better for you if you tell me now).  Mostly things are sorted out by talking, and research, rather than fisticuffs.  The writing here is also entirely serviceable, which is to say, it doesn't distract (that is good).  And there are occasional scenes that will make you wish to be in England, with moody clouds lowering over bleak moors and rain lashing the greenhouse roof, that sort of thing.  As you can tell, I like this, it was a mildly diverting read, but it didn't grip.  That said, I suspect there is more to author Peter Robinson than comes across in one reading.

I didn't expect the Banks-of-the-book to be quite as enthralling as the show, and that was exactly the case.  Somehow when a character is written as a thoughtful divorced man who has a deep knowledge of music and wine and sits around drinking the later while listening to the former and reading case files, it feels a bit obvious, or maybe too good to be true is another way to think about it.  I'd certainly pick up another Banks story, although it would have to get in line behind the many others piled up next to the tub.  Perhaps I was misled by whatever blog or article suggest I start with this one, which is about the 20th in the series!  Note to self:  stop jumping in to series in the middle, it doesn't serve them well.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Thief of Time

Ack, as Bill the Cat might say, where has the time gone?  I'm into my third book since my last post, and haven't said boo about the previous two.  So in a break from procedure, I'll post two capsule reviews in one post.  Partly because I don't have tons to say, and partly because I've already returned the books to the library!

I'd listened to a Tony Hillerman audiobook years ago, and enjoyed it, but never actually read anything in this fine series about policing in the Navajo Nation.  Hillerman's Hero is Joe Leaphorn, a cop with the Navajo Tribal Police.  There are a number of Leaphorn stories, but this one earned Hillerman a Public Service Award from the Department of the Interior for the way it highlighted the issues of graverobbing and the vulnerability of sacred archeological sites in the Southwest.  In A Thief of Time (1990, Harper and Row), Leaphorn, struggling to get past the recent death of his wife, is drawn into a missing-persons investigation, surrounding an archeologist who specializes in Anasazi pottery.  When bodies start piling up - everyone from a small-time pothunter to an aging but still powerful local farmer - Leaphorn can't quite turn his back, although he is just two weeks from retirement.  Aided by Jim Chee, a local non-tribal cop, Leaphorn draws on both his native heritage and his police training to find out what happened to the missing archeologist, all the dead people, some stolen machinery and most importantly, who is stealing pots from sacred sites.

What Leaphorn does not use is "modern" technology.  It is the late 1980s - we don't have cellies, or email, or even, really, computers.  We have brains and payphones and heavy duty trucks that we drive hundreds of miles to talk to witnesses and find remote sites.  Leaphorn must rely on his own physical skills, knowledge of the terrain, and brains to sort out the central mystery.  He also must trust that the message gets through, that someone will answer the phone, or follow his instructions.  We trust our technology now perhaps more than we trust our colleagues and contemporaries.  Leaphorn doesn't trust himself to get past his wife's death, but that is really another story.  The point is just that people can solve complex situations, too.

The other thing that I particularly liked about A Thief of Time was Hillerman's restraint surrounding the didactic narrative.  What is that, you ask?  A term I've just coined, denoting the author's desire to instruct his/her audience about whatever arcana illuminates the story.  Look, we love it when authors write about things we don't know about - that's why we read, right?  To learn about and be immersed in somewhere that isn't here.  But as regular readers will know, I really hate it when characters engage in artificially-enlightened conversations, where they trade facts and ideas about topics, just so the reader can then be more informed.  Christopher Fowler is guilty of this in the last of his otherwise delightful Bryant and May mysteries, and I think Martin Walker has done this more and more in his otherwise equally charming Inspector Bruno series.  Hillerman, on the other hand, somehow manages to interweave a great deal of information about modern Navajo and ancient Anasazi ways, without ever distracting from the plot, or making you feel like are reading a monograph on the subject.  Maybe it is because his characters expound at a more advanced level - it is kind of assumed that you have some understanding that the Anasazi are not the Navajo - so it feels a little more naturally connected to the plot.  Has the missing gal actually solved the great mystery of what happened to the Anasazi?  Well, that is a larger question that may or may not be answered here.  But you'll enjoy thinking about it with Joe Leaphorn as your steady guide.  His NYT obit provides a better introduction to Hillerman and his works than I can.

This is not a capsule review.  I'd better start a new page!

Sunday, April 12, 2015


GBH (Soho, 2015, originally published 1980) came highly touted by the Soho Crime Club, but I confess I had no idea why.  I never read author Ted Lewis' supposed masterpiece, Jack's Return Home (Get Carter), and do not consider myself an expert, nor even at all familiar with British noir, or black, fiction.  But the author had died young and handsome, and people seemed really excited about it, so I was.

Took me a while.  GBH (and I obviously missed something because I have no idea what that stands for except that it might mean Grievous Bodily Harm which is a thing in British law according to the internets) is extremely fast-paced, and jumps, chapter by chapter, between The Sea (Our Hero?'s exile) and The Smoke (London), sometime in the late 1970s.  Sometimes the chapters are not even a page long.  The language is very jargon-y and if you are a 1970s era British gangster you will be at ease in these pages, but for the more law-biding, or for Yanks, it takes some time to figure out what's what.  Our Hero? is clearly hiding at The Sea, but it takes a while for activities in The Smoke to catch up and reveal just why.  Meanwhile, he may - or may not - have been clocked (that means spotted), and he may - or may not - be losing his mind as a lifetime of carefully-managed but shockingly violent business catches up to him.

For Our Hero? is a porn king, the greatest of them all, with a massive distribution network in England and probably beyond.  Not just your garden variety stuff, either, he associates and does business with people who practice the black arts of snuff films and the like.  And his lovely wife Jean turns out to also have a dirty streak a mile wide, under her carefully coiffed exterior (also played by Christina Hendricks in the movie, for sure).

So, one of the many vaguely uncomfortable things about this story is the pacing.  The Sea sort of pots along, with oblique references to whatever happened in The Smoke.  Actions in The Smoke start years earlier, but after a while you sense where this is going, even if you don't know what is going to get you to The Sea.  While I found this disjointed at first, by the end, it was hard to put down.  The writing jumps about but more because the characters are mostly reading each other's thoughts, and we aren't.  There's a you-know-what-I'm-talking-about sensibility where everyone on the page does, but you don't.  But again, the farther into it I got, the more I kind of knew.  You can even kind of see the end coming, if you know what I'm talking about.

Another piece to prepare for is the extreme violence.  Some seriously bad stuff happens in this book, to good and bad people alike.  Yet oddly, it never feels gratuitous.  The porn references, well, that's just business, and there is no accounting for taste when it comes to hard-core.  And when you're in an illegal business, there will be criminals, and they will need managing, and sometimes killing or at least a little torturing so you can keep your business on the up-and-up.  It is not that Fowler (for that is Our Hero?)'s business is legit, far from it, but he runs it as such, with strict rules, loyal employees (both criminal and in the Law and Order business), and an understood code of conduct:  if you screw me, you will pay.  I expected to find the violence disquieting but somehow it fit.

Hardest to take was the drinking.  Our Hero? drinks like a fucking fish!  Morn til night, that guy must go through at least two bottle of scotch a day, and god knows how many pints, and he only appears to really feel it very very late at night.  Everyone drinks in the story, much of it takes place in bars or living rooms with drinks carts.  I just do not know how these people stay upright, much less dealing with threats and stupidity and other criminals.  If ever there was someone who needed to keep his wits about him, it is our strangely sympathetic hero.

For George is, in his way, appealing.  He's clearly hiding from something, and he obviously loves his Jean very much.  As for business, some companies fire people, other companies shoot them.  That is just how it is done.  George has a highly developed sense of self and honor, and if you treat him and his people with respect, you will receive the same in return.  Of course, god help you if you don't.

GBH is for you if you like noir, and aren't terribly squeamish.  I should think it would make a great read on long plane flight - quite engrossing, and you will be happy when you arrive anywhere other than where this story ends up.  Of great interest to me was the illuminating Afterword, written by Derek Raymond, himself a practitioner of British blacks, which is like extreme noir, who died in 1994 (and what a story, you should read his wikipedia entry).  Raymond says that Lewis was basically drunk his entire adult writing life, well, so that explains that piece.  He also suggests that Lewis "knew a good deal of what he was writing about, from very close to - perhaps dangerously so . . .  describing the horror around him in terms of his own interior horror, if necessary with the help of alcohol or any other weapon to keep him going."  (322-3)  In a way, this is the bleakest part of this entire story.  It puts one in an unsettled state of six degrees of separation:  if I am reading this story about this bad world, and the writer knew people like this and the things they did, does that somehow  make me just a couple of degrees removed from it?

The Invisible Code

Regular readers of Crime Pays will have noted my affection for that madcap British duo, Bryant and May.  Even thought I cannot for the life of me recall the intricate details of their Byzantine plots - which makes one wonder whenever a former nemesis is mentioned: was that actually in a book or did author Christopher Fowler just make it up and it sounds like one of their actual former nemesi? - I always look forward to getting back in with the Peculiar Crimes Unit gang.

But The Invisible Code (Bantam, 2013), while it did not entirely disappoint, did not delight quite so much as previous offerings in this creative series.  True, the gang is all here.  Longbright, surely played by Christina Hendricks  in the film, and Dan the techno man, and Colin, pining perpetually after Meera.  Even ol' Crippen is sklathing around (and there is a twist there, wait for it).  They are, as always, on the verge of being shut down, and must must solve the latest case in order to prevent their demise.  But this time, the case is given to them by their uber-boss, the always-described "cadaverous" Oskar Kasavian.  (At one point, Kasavian admires his hands "marmoreal sheen."  (300)  I myself imagine him looking more like Drac in "Hotel Transylvania"):

Kasavian's wife is acting out of character, which is to say that she is not acting like a dutiful Home Office wife, and he needs to keep her in line in order to secure a major and sensitive project on which he is working about security, borders, and the European Union.  Plus which, he seems to be genuinely in love with her, an emotional state heretofore impossible to imagine for this character.

But Bryant and May, being Bryant and May, somehow manage to put Sabira Kasavian's breakdown together with some seemingly completely unrelated deaths, during which time much running around of picturesque and arcane bits of London ensues.  Like all of these stories, it is complicated, but somehow not as gripping.  Why?

First, it is not quite as chortle-worthy.  Arthur Bryant is now just old, and John May comes across as even more subdued than usual (he's the straight man to Arthur's mad genius).  That's not to say that Arthur doesn't still shuffle about in ancient scarves, eating sweeties, and benignly torturing his long-suffering landlady, Alma Sorrowbridge.  And things always get interesting when Arthur's cheerfully loony friend Maggie Armitage, "white witch and self-proclaimed leader of the Coven of St. James the Elder" appears, "in a purple woolen tea-cosy hat, a green velvet overcoat and orange leggings.  Her glasses, winged and yellow-tinted, hung on a plastic daisy chain around her throat.  She looked like a small seaside town celebrating a centenary."  (220)  But beyond Maggie, and Arthur's encounter with his new neighbor, Brad Pitt (not that one), things sort of potter along here with a little less gleeful abandon than usual.

To be fair, Fowler's stories have always walked a line between hilarity and pathos - Arthur spouts arcana and calls people old sausage, but important and sympathetic characters die suddenly, and there is a thread of quiet despair in John May that is rarely but painfully exposed.  Fowler also makes a point of using these stories to reveal the Weird Old London, illuminating forgotten corners of that complex city where desperate or devilish deeds took place or just where people lived, to the fullest extent of the word.   There is often a whiff of pedantry about this but it just feels a bit more heavy-handed this time around.  "'You know, there's hardly a church in the whole of London that doesn't have something unusual about it.  St. Bartholomew the Great in West Smithfield has the ghost of a monk who's said to haunt the church looking for a sandal stolen from his tomb. . . . And there are wonderful puzzles in churches" at which point Maggie describes several.  (222-3)  Thanks for the lecture, I'll be sure to bring this along the next time I'm there.

Finally, there is a scene in warehouse in Whitechapel, that houses giant props for the Spitalfields Art Fair.  (ch. 44)  Hello, Blane Kern's Mardi Gras World! Didn't we see something like this in Live and Let Die?  Not exactly, and maybe only people who have been to Blane Kern's Mardi Gras World would get that sense of literary deja vu, but there it is.

Am I losing my affection for intellectually funny British detectives?  Gosh, I hope not.  According to the folks at CrimeFictionLover, there is a new B&M just coming out.  I'm pretty sure I'll want to read it.

PS.  What's up with Crippen?  I'm not spoiling it; you'll have to read to find out.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

on the blogs

I was going to highlight this post from Shane Kuhn, on Mystery Fanfare, in which he laments the passing of an era when Real Writers Lived Dramatic Lives.  Remember the good old days when all the really good writers were alcoholics or mysoginists or womanizers or drug addicts?  Yeah, back then not only could writers write but they were colorful.  Who cares how many lives were upended by all that "character?"  I get his point that we're all a bit anodyne these days, but the alternative was only entertaining if you got to observe it; not so much if you were living with it.

But when I went to confirm the link, the post had mysteriously (of course) disappeared!  Was it too inflammatory?  It was kind of obnoxious in tone, but I suppose one is allowed.

In other news, I'm really enjoying a new blog from Sarah Weinman, a.k.a. The Crime Lady.  Well, I don't really know how new it is but it is new to me.  The CL is actually a newsletter, to which you subscribe.  She offers some short and sharp reviews of books I'd not otherwise find, and includes some interesting links, too, like The Rap Sheet does sometimes.  These may be only tangentially related to crime fiction, but that is what makes them interesting, you actually have to think about it.  But what really cemented my as-yet-brief infatuation was a link to an obituary for Stan Freberg, one of the most brilliant comedic minds of the 20th c., who answered the Call of Destine this week.  RIP, madcap adman.