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!