Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Rising Man

I thought I was through with early 20th c. British detectives in India, given Joe Sandilands' downward spiral.  But along comes Sam Wyndham, and his adventures in Bengal, arriving by way of Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, a summer selection from the Mysterious Bookshop's British Crime Club.[1]  I'm happy to report that the sun has not quite yet set on this slender subgenre of crime fiction.

Sam is quite in the mold of Ian Rutledge, with just a dash of Joe S, set in the time, if not the locale of Indian Summers.  He’s a Scotland Yard (Special Branch) and WW1 vet, whose new and beloved wife died of influenza while he was recovering from wounds incurred at the Second Marne.  Sam’s war demons don’t haunt him as obviously as Rutledge’s, and he seems to function better in the world than that weary hero.  Perhaps this is because they are harnessed by his opium addiction, a habit that accompanies him from England. 

In A Rising Man, Sam has arrived in Bengal to take up a job with the police force, at the request of his mentor and former officer in Military Intelligence, Lord Taggart, now Commissioner of the Calcutta Police.  A white man has been murdered, and it looks to be the work of Bengali nationalists, or terrorists, as they are called.  The term is used almost quaintly here – how can the death of one or two individuals be deemed terror, when viewed from the perspective of the 21st c. where terror-sponsored deaths in the dozens are hundreds are our daily new – but of course the threat to British rule.  He has two underlings:  Digby, a what-what-old-boy Englishman who was passed over for Wyndham’s job and carries that chip openly, in addition to his long experience in Calcutta; and Surrender-Not Bannerjee, a young Bengali sergeant who sees the Imperial police force as a path to leadership in his own country.  These three are tasked with solving the murder toot-sweet, and of course have adventures along the way, tying in other, seemingly-unrelated crimes and events, and uncovering surprises about the victim and his acquaintances and various suspects along the way. 

Is there anything really new here, the splendidly-constructed setting of colonial Calcutta excepted?  Not particularly.  The characters feel a bit stock, if you’ve seen Indian Summers, and the damaged WW1 vet, while rich in plot-opportunities (plotportunities?), is someone we’ve seen before, in crime fiction and beyond.  Digby really does say old boy about a hundred times too many, most of the British (Sam excepted, of course) are colonial twats, Surrender-Not is smarter than everyone else, and fans creak slowly in a losing battle against the oppressive heat.  And there is that deeply annoying editorial tic of italicizing anything that is a foreign word being used by English speakers.  “I sat up on the charpoy, my shirt drenched with perspiration.”  (60)  “Hardly a native in site, other than the durwans, of course . . . . “ (245)  “She says they were speaking in the language of the firangi.” (290)  And of course there are endless sahibs.  I should note that this practices not as widespread – and therefore not as annoying – as in Henry Chang’s Jack Yu series.  

Sam, of course, has a more enlightened view of the natives than the whites who’ve been out there forever, grounded, unsurprisingly in his personal decency and sharpened by his experience in the war.  Well, we wouldn’t want too-grim a Hero, would we?  So, he drinks whiskey instead of the expected gin, dates an Anglo-Indian girl, and thrillingly thwarts some nasty British intelligence types.  If the note on the cover “Introducing Captain Sam Wyndham” hadn’t clued us in that this would be the first in a series, there are plenty of indications that we’ll be seeing more of some of these folks.

And that would not be a bad thing.  The tale here is well-crafted, and the writing strong.  The story ends satisfyingly, and with some surprises.  The real star here is Mukherjee’s deeply detailed portrait of the city of Calcutta, now known, of course, as Kolkata.  Did you know that it was a city built by the British, starting as an East India Company trading post?  I didn’t.  In fact, it was the British capital of India until just a few years before this story is set.  Mukherjee offers a map at the beginning of the book, which is an excellent resource to support his detailed descriptions of the buildings, and streets, and neighborhoods of colonial Calcutta.  He also has a good eye for the details that stand out and mark a foreign setting.

  “I awoke to what’s euphemistically called birdsong.  It was more of a bloody racket, nine parts screeching to one part singing.  In England the dawn chorus is genteel and melodious and inspires poets to wax lyrical about sparrows and larks ascending.  It’s blessedly short too.  The poor creatures, so demoralized by the damp and cold, sing a few bars to prove they’re still alive then pack it in and get on with the day.  Things are different in Calcutta.  There are no larks here, just big fat greasy crows that start squawking at first light and go one for hours without a break.  Nobody will ever write poetry about them.”  (208)

Mukherjee effectively notes how India and Calcutta in particular, is a place where ordinary Brits can become extraordinarily wealthy.  The city’s economy grew on jute and textiles and shipping, built by enterprising Brits and Scots who came out to India with little and ended up living lives of unparalleled luxury – unattainable to them back home.  The character of James Buchan exemplifies this trajectory.   “Mr. Buchan is one of our beloved merchant princes, one of the richest men in Calcutta.  He’s a jute baron, and a Scot like McAuley [the victim].  His family have been jute and rubber traders for over a century, since the days of the East India Company.”  (45)  In case you missed it, the title of the story comes from a Rudyard Kipling quote at the very start:  “Calcutta seems full of ‘rising men.’”  Sam is obviously one, Buchan, the victim, and indeed most of the characters also, one way or another. 

Alongside the British merchant imperative was a deeply grounded sense of  “moral superiority.”  Look at the good we’ve brought you in the form of Christianity, European lifestyles, civil government, the rule of law.  Therefore we must be in charge because we’ve not only harnessed the resources and created vast wealth, but also because we are the only ones who can manage it sensibly, as evidenced by our amassing it in the first place!  Bit of circular reasoning, that, but it follows easily that the British would do whatever was necessary to protect this source of wealth, particularly from those natives who might want to govern themselves. 

By 1919, Calcutta is a soundly Imperial behemoth, grounded in Victorian values, and featuring miles of solid British buildings, but starting to be undermined by the forces of Bengali and Indian independence.  Something called the Rowlett Acts has just been passed, which basically means that the British can imprison anyone they suspect of anything, and try political cases without juries.  Everyone is a bit on edge, and Mukherjee does a nice job of situating the story within this increasingly tense atmosphere.  The Massacre of Amristar, for example, while peripheral to the plot, is an actual historical event that exposes the increasingly violent British reaction to Indian ideas about dignity and self-rule. 

I’m not going to attempt to write a history of the British in India here.  Many billions of trees have been sacrificed to the topic, so I’m sure you can find something suitable to read about it if you are interested.  The point is that the backdrop here is precisely calculated – the story only takes place over a few days – and works well to enhance both the dramatic tension and the overall atmosphere of the story. 

Mukherjee is British, but clearly of South Asian descent.  Bengali?  I can’t say.  Per the brief bio on the back flap, he “worked in finance for twenty years” prior to diving into crime fiction, and he lives in Scotland.  Regardless of whether he’s spent significant time in Kolkata or just researched it (because, being British, the colonial records are bound to be excellent sources), he’s done a bang-up job.  The verdict?  Read it! 

[1] The MB’s BCC has been a little erratic – I’ve got one I didn’t even start (a violent crime thriller - and after reading this review, I'm not sure I even want it next to the tub!) and another for which I had great hopes (spy) but about 10 pages in found unoriginal.  Still, this is also the group that sent me the latest Mick Herron, so I’ll give them a go for a little longer. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

lol my blog

Wow, I have really dropped the ball here.  The stack of read-books, waiting to be blogged, stands unmoving next to my computer, growing steadily as I read, pile, and then procrastinate.

But NO LONGER!  I'm going to bust through this pile in a new format, inspired by the extremely funny (I guess, if you're, like, in academia, or a college senior) tumblr lol my thesis.  As you can read on the About page, lolmythesis was started as a procrastinatory measure in 2013, by a Harvard College student who was looking for ways to avoid working on her senior thesis.  Submissions consist of one sentence (more or less) descriptions that succinctly and sometimes hilariously describe capstone projects.  For example:

When you ride your bike a lot of stuff happens to your blood.   But probably not this stuff because all the subjects were hungover.  (Kinesiology, James Madison University)

We drugged the hell out of some crayfish and then poked them to see if they would move.  They didn't.  (Biology, Mount Holyoke College)

You haven't heard of this 16th c. Flemish playwright named Cornelis Everaert, but you totally should have.  (Medieval Studies, Cornell University)

You get the idea.  Let's see how I do.

Ashenden, or The British Agent (1927, this edition, Doubleday, 1941) by W. Somerset Maugham
British spy gets up to weirdly bloodless (until the very end) derring-do in Switzerland and France and Russia during The Great War.  But what is his first name?
Read it if you are a student of the genre like moi.

Absolution by Murder (1994, this edition, Signet, 1997) by Peter Tremayne
Unsurprisingly red-headed seventh-century Celtic nun investigates a murder in the abbey while the future of Christianity is debated by a lot of very learned religious people.  Is that a future love interest?  Nope, 'cause he's a monk!
Read it!

The Blood Royal (2011, this edition Soho Crime, 2012) by Barbara Cleverly
Why am I still reading this?  Joe Sandilands, you should have stayed in India.
Skip it!

Real Tigers (2016, John Murray) by Mick Herron
Another win for the Slow Horses, another loss for British integrity.  On to Brexit!
Read it first!  A selection from the British Crime Club at the Mysterious Bookshop.

Bring Up the Bodies (2012, this edition Picador, 2015) by Hilary Mantel
Thomas Cromwell does Henry VIII a solid by getting rid of wife no. 2.  Hello Jane Seymour!
Read it!  Even though you know how it ends.  And even though it is not crime fiction.

Beloved Poison (2016, Constable) by E. S. Thompson
Egotistical doctors clash with a gender-bending apothecary in gross Victorian hospitals, prisons and brothels.  Try to keep your limbs about you.  
Read it!  A selection from the British Crime Club at the Mysterious Bookshop.

The Lady from Zagreb (2015, G. P. Putnam Sons) by Philip Kerr
Bernie Gunther zooms through time again, this time bedding a hot Croatian actress in 1943.  But Goebbels likes her too so watch out, Bernie!
Read it if you're into Nazi-crime, or if you've read every other Bernie Gunther book so you might as well read this one too.

Friday, April 1, 2016

That (true) Crime Lady

I've already mentioned that I think one of the smartest crime blogs out there is Sarah Weinman's The Crime Lady.  It is actually a newsletter, arriving every week or two, with thoughtful commentary about crime-related fiction (because straight-up mystery, while appreciated, isn't the focus of this), new fiction, popular culture related to fiction, and most interesting of all, true crime.  Weinman has a deep and darkish interest in true crime, reading and thinking and writing about it herself.  In this week's letter, you can learn about Howard Unruh, who killed twelve people in Camden, New Jersey in 1949, occasionally cited as the first mass shooting in America.  If you want to read how these kinds of events were reported 60+ years ago, Weinman directs you to this extraordinary piece of journalism written immediately after that event.  You can't stop reading it.  They don't do that anymore - why, can we not handle the syllables?

Of course, this is not the first mass shooting in America, by any count.  For an earlier example, just read Weinman's own BuzzFeed long piece about Glbert Twigg, who killed nine people and wounded many others in a shooting spree in Winfield Kansas, in 1903.  More great writing and storytelling.  This longform journalism business is the BOMB.

Well, you know that the point is that our world of fear and mass shootings isn't anything new.  Mental illness has always had a lot to do with it, and social alienation, and lack of opportunity, and all the stuff we talk about now.  Why do we have more now?  Maybe we talk about it too much, maybe we are lazy, maybe there are more of us, maybe there are more guns, maybe we are immune.  I just know that I don't want to have that feeling again that I had at school pickup on 12/14/12.  I don't think The Crime Lady will solve this but you should read her stuff anyway.  Knowledge is power!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Centurions

The Centurions (this edition 1962, E.P. Dutton, originally published in French as Les Centurions, 1960, Presses de la Cité) is the last in my impromptu trilogy of books-about-irregular-warfare.  But the best!  Despite some structural issues (plot deviations and narrative oddities that could simply be a result of translation), this novel was transporting and thought-provoking and ultimately fascinating.  Not unlike the French wars in Indochina and Algeria, it was unwieldy and disturbing and a long slog but I couldn't put it down.

Once you read the wikipedia entry on author Jean Lartéguy, The Centurions makes so much more sense.  Lartéguy was a soldier and war correspondent, which of course informs his work of fiction about soldiers who are part of the end of French engagement in Indochina and the beginning of the end of French Algeria.  He basically says this in his Author's Note at the beginning, but if you don't know much about the Algerian War, it won't make a big impact on you.  In any case, this isn't really a novel about geopolitics (although some would argue that it is that before anything else) but a story of soldiers at the tail-end of the modern imperial era, their relationship to the mother country, and the profound changes in warfare wrought by the ideological conflicts of the second half of the 20th c. The Centurions is about how soldiers engage with these issues, especially the last one.

In addition to the Author's Note, Lartéguy prefaces his story with a quote from Marcus Flavinius, a Centurion in the 2nd Cohort of the Augusta Legion.  Flavinius is depressed to learn that the citizens of Rome may no longer support those fighting to protect the far reaches of the Roman Empire.  He warns the cousin to whom is writing that "if it should be otherwise, if we should have to leave our bleached bones on these desert sands in vain, then beware of the anger of the Legions!"  You don't need a sheepskin from Harvard to see where Lartéguy is going with this.

The novel is divided into three parts:  Camp One (Indochina), The Colonel from Indochina (France), and Rue de la Bombe (Algieria).  The story opens with French soldiers having just surrendered to the Vietminh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.  You follow a loose group of soldiers that has a band-of-brothers sensibility to it:  there is the aristrocrat (de Glatigny), the risen-through-the-ranks colonel (Raspéguy), the intellectual (Esclavier), the mercenary/intelligence agent (Boisfeuras) - I'm essentializing terribly here, but that's kind of how war novels go.  All of them are veterans of the war against Germany - some in the Resistance, some in the Regular forces, but all had participated, and bravely.  There are also some peripheral characters in the prison camp, who stay part of the story as it moves forward.  It took me a while to sort out who was who, and I'm not sure if this is because Lartéguy didn't draw his characters sharply enough, or if I'm displaying some kind of microaggression (all French names sound the same!).  At any rate, it really took me almost until the second section to gain a deeper understanding of all of them.

The prisoners endure terrible conditions, of course, and some die (many, actually, in the real thing), but the point of this section is to a) show how enduring extreme hardship bonds these men closer than family and b) what it means to fight an ideological war.  The more thoughtful of the soldiers, while they decry the absolute power that Communism requires in order to achieve its goals, understand and even in some way admire the dedication and sacrifice that the Vietminh are making.  They return to a France that considers them kind-of heroes (they fought bravely) but also kind of wants to forget them (France lost because of them).  No one wants to hear what they have to say about this new kind of enemy for which national honor is meaningless unless it comes with an absolute power dynamic that turns every resource toward the goal of victory.  Soldiers who speak of the former enemy in this manner are tagged Communists.  Basically, the survivors return, nobody understands them, and they find that they can only be understood by their former brothers-in-arms.

Does this sound familiar?  Yes, we did not learn from the French, perhaps foolishly assuming that they were just shedding the last remnants of a has-been empire while we were defeating an evil one.  You know, just because it is recent history doesn't mean you can't learn from it.

But I digress from the plot.  After returning, Colonel Raspéguy, who doesn't care much what anyone in charge thinks, and has so many medals from displaying so much crazy courage in the far east that he basically tells the French command that he's going to start his own regiment, with hand-picked officers (guess who) and a bunch of rag-tag, mutineering recruits, and they'll go to Algeria and show those rebels there what for.  And they do, the recruits are transformed by his tough leaders into soldiers who fight first for each other, then to win, then to punish whomever they are supposed to punish, and only then maybe for some vague ideal of France.  In short, they are a kind of mercenary band, under French command.  They battle the Algerian nationalists brutally, are pulled out to deal with the Suez crisis, are pissed that they can't just take Cairo, then are brought back to forcibly suppress nationalist activity in Algiers.  They must use questionable tactics to accomplish this, and claim to be unhappy about it (they are soldiers, they say, not policemen), and end up back in the Algerian mountains, patrolling the perimeter of the French empire, like Marcus Flavinius above.  The end is rather obvious, but, I gather, based in reality, so Lartéguy's overlay of ancient history isn't entirely off-base.

Distractingly, there are some love interests toward the end of the book, including the almost-laughable one where the French paratrooper thaws the beautiful-but-frigid French Algerian woman, or the colonel beds a teenager much to the delight of her family.  Oh wait, and how about the officer and prisoner who fall on each other passionately as soon as the other interrogator is out of the room?  I found these unnecessary but suppose they are part of what happens when soldiers hang around long enough.  Still, there is a sense that if only the rest of the population had fallen at their feet like the ladies did, none of that Algerian messiness would have happened.

This is, of course, a terribly brief and not very good synopsis of this almost 500-page novel.  The narrative is more or less clear, but there are a lot of characters to keep track of, and if you don't buy into the basic premise of our-army-knows-better-than-your-government you will not want to stick with it.  And I'm not quoting as I usually do because I didn't have enough bookmarks to save all the places I wanted to save, and couldn't turn the corners of the pages down else Bill would get mad at me for defacing library books.  But I do want to make it clear that if you are interested in soldiers, modern warfare, 20th c. world history, the West's engagement with Communism and Islam (for that, not the former, is the issue in Algeria - more prescience from Lartéguy!), or even just France (because it isn't all croissants and the Tour Eiffel), you should read this book as an artifact, or primary source, if nothing else.*  I've encountered the notion of combat bonds before, and if you read about soldiers at all you know about this, but the scope of the story - from Vietnam to France to Algeria - and the clearly-developed agenda is what sets this apart.  Were there really soldiers who drew so inward, who used the military to advance their own aims, who learned in Vietnam what they thought they needed to do in Algeria?  Did France really just not know what to do with herself?  If you are a follower of wikipedia threads as I am, you will learn that this is all more or less true.  Per the entry on Lartéguy, some of his characters are pretty clearly based on real-life figures.  And they weren't nice people.  They may have thought they were doing the right thing but there is a whole means-and-ends question surrounding that war.  And as for Algeria, it is important to remember (or to learn because who in America actually knows anything about the Algerian War?) that this was a terribly nasty modern war, where French actions offer yet another recent-history lesson in counterinsurgency.

Hoo boy, I am rambling here.  I've read a series of books, just happening to go in order from idolizing our Communist comrades during the Second World War to being beaten by them afterwards.  By The Centurions the ideology has receded, replaced by force for force' sake.  It is hard to condense this compelling tale, and I suppose many of you won't read it unless you have to for school or something.  There is apparently a movie, "Lost Command," and a sequel - The Praetorians.  I don't know if I need more justification of French brutality in Algeria, but the movie, well, et tu, Netflix?

*And there are the the larger questions of nationalism, colonization, ideology, and self-determination.  We think it is awesome that we threw off the British yoke (with French help!), so why demonize the Algerians, as the French generally did, when they tried to do the same?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Game, Set, Match, Life

Why is she making a tennis reference, you are asking yourself.

If you've been reading Crime Pays for a while, you know that more than anything, I value good writing.  And the late Bud Collins was one of the best.  Who didn't enjoy perusing his sizzling columns, full of onomatopoeia and what my daughter's third-grade teacher would call spicy words, brimming with energy and enthusiasm and just plain life?  Even those completely ignorant of tennis could come away with an appreciation of the sport and the personalities therein.  I'll miss the pants, but I miss the columns even more.

There's been a lot written about Bud since his passing last week, absolutely all of it laudatory - was there ever an individual more beloved in his or her field?  But I liked today's letters to the editor in the Boston Globe the best.  They haven't put them on the regular website, but if you go here you can read them.  The Latin teacher who started every class with Bud's column?  Now that's a tribute.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Save Seattle Mystery Bookshop!

I think this is what they call viral marketing?  Whatever.  Loyal Readers, if you love crime fiction, or if you love books and bookstores, please consider a small donation to the Seattle Mystery Bookshop's gofundme campaign.  They are in danger of having to close, and are looking to raise $50,000 to prevent that from happening.  Almost $42,000 has been raised already, and your contribution, no matter how small, will help them achieve their goal of keeping great books available to all.  They might even send you a mug or something.  Click here for more info and to donate.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Rap Sheet

Hey, The Rap Sheet, thanks for including Crime Pays on your giant list of blogs about crime fiction!  Loyal readers, if you really really like this stuff, check out J. Kingston Pierce's blog to see what a real crime fiction reviewer - like, an actual full-time one who seems to read dozens of books weekly - gets up to.  You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Captive City

What a difference a decade makes.  Devoted followers of Crime Pays will know that I've been deviated from the strictly criminal with some forays into fiction about unconventional warfare.  John Appleby's The Captive City (1955, W. Sloane Associates) takes place just two years after All Night Long, in the same World War but in a completely different geopolitical landscape.  About halfway in, you realize that Uncle Joe and the noble square-jawed partisans of Caldwell's novel have been transformed into a dirty and sullen rabble, intent on repressing your personal freedoms.  Hmm, weren't we still allies with the Russians in 1944?

It doesn't take a lot of digging to learn that the events portrayed in The Captive City are historically accurate, and were in response to the absence of political leadership left by the departure of the Axis powers (Germany and Italy) and the arrival of the British.  Everyone knows that Soviet-style Communism loves a vacuum, so up rises the radical left in December, 1944, forcing a short but nasty conflict with the "liberator" Britons who probably don't support the King but are certainly for a democracy in the mold of their own.  The city in question - Athens - is held captive by the Communist forces, who have surrounded a hotel (The brilliantly-named Zeus) housing the "Balkan Information Mission" (a kind of Radio Free Europe news service), and a few random British and American soldiers and civilians.  The Zeus group is in contact with the British army, but must hold their position due to a cache of arms in the basement.  They are occasionally harassed and later heavily attacked by the insurgents, and here, I'll give it away, they eventually hold on long enough for British reinforcements to arrive.   Hoorah, the the forces of freedom are victorious (for the moment;  the ensuring Greek Civil War will rage for most of the 1940s).

But guess what:  this is a kind of crime story, after all!  There is a SPY in the group that is stuck in the hotel, and Our Hero, Captain Peter Whitfield, must deal with that while figuring out how to get word through to the British lines that they really REALLY need reinforcements NOW.  You'll spend some time trying to decide which of the somewhat stock characters are the hotel is the spy.  Is it the freewheeling Yank?  Lelia, the beautiful passionate young Greek woman or her patriotic father?  The Jewish radio operator, the sardonic Scottish hottie, the sexpot, or the chip-on-his-soldier other British officer?  Clues are dropped, and some red herrings will keep you guessing.

This is a good story - taught and well-written, and even if it deals in the obvious, like Lelia pulling Our Hero into a doorway for an extended smooch while the guard walks by - you'll keep reading to find out what happens.  The whole thing feels like it would make a great movie.*

That is, if you aren't knocked out by the heavy-handed political message that starts to be delivered about half-way through the book.  Because the advent of the spy thread means that "Someone inside the Zeus Hotel . . . was working for a cause which if it triumphed would end in anarchy."  (91)  The story hums with action until about the time they figure out there is a traitor in their midst.  It still buckets along after that but trumpeting its ideological message ever more insistently.  Before he sets out for help, Whitfield is reluctant to distract his superiors with requests for assistance.  "Deep inside him a conviction had crystallized that that until all else had failed, his duty was to hold on with what he had, and allow the major task to continue undistracted.
  There were an army in a hostile country, and even now they were not far from defeat.  A little thing could change the balance, and the outcome would be vastly more momentous than losing a squalid little campaign in a corner of the Balkans.  Defeat could fasten red tyranny on the very shores of the Mediterranean, and to prize it loose might be the work of years.  There had already been enough D days, enough flamboyant promises to return, enough bodies washing in the surf.  The job was to remain."  (115)

And so on.  Is Whitfield truly prescient, or is this perhaps Appleby indulging in hindsight?  Had we held the line in Greece in the mid-1940s, would we not be in Korea in the 1950s?  I couldn't find out much about Appleby.  Maybe he was a spy!  Maybe he holds the key to knowing more about the Percentages Agreement, wherein Stalin and Eden supposedly carved up Europe into British and Soviet spheres of influence.  We'll never know unless I dig further into the internets, and they aren't giving up much easily.

Predictably, Our Hero finally lets fly when captured briefly by one of the insurgents.  "The Nazis have gone.  But every overthrown tyranny leaves a vacuum behind it [I said that above, I know!], and into a vacuum something always moves.  Here it is another tyranny, using different words but having hte same ends, absolute power.  You ask how a handful of guerillas can take over a country if the people are not behind them, and we both know the answer. An armed gang existing by terror can impose itself on a nation confused, divided, and defenseless. . . .
  "It won't work here.  You are going to be thrown out.  And if you come back - as you probably will - there will be more than the British to contend with.  Greece herself will fight next time, armed, and with a full belly.  The Western Allies will fight alongside her, knowing you at last for what you are. And you will be beaten, beaten, beaten."  (168-9).

By a few days later, the sun has come out, the British forces have gained ground, and the Zeus has been saved.  "In the side streets the business of living openly was already reasserting itself, and it was difficult to edge the jeep around the market stalls.  Whitfield reflected that the story he was to write must concern numbers of streets cleared, services restored, statistics, facts.  But the reality was something more nebulous.  It was this consciousness of life stirring anew, this feeling of being part of a society which for all its imperfections was deep-rooted, strong, essentially healthy - and indestructible.  It was a feeling deep in his bones and his  blood, and it would never leave him.  But he could not describe it."  (218)

Welcome back to the fight, Peter Whitfield.  This time I know our side will win.

The question for me is:  did we really think that way about those people in December, 1944?  I don't know.  Maybe British people did.  I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed this book, because of its good story, and in spite of its sense of historical anachronism.  Fans of Cold War fiction will like it too.

*And it is a movie.  David Niven played Whitfield in an Italian movie version of this, la città prigioniera or Conquered City.  Can't you just see him delivering that big speech at the end, all tight-fisted clipped British delivery?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Diamond Dust

Pick it up, put it down, pick it up, it sticks.  That was my experience with Diamond Dust, the seventh novel in Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond series.  Diamond Dust was part of my big purchase from Soho Press right before Christmas.  I had intended to get the second book in the series, Diamond Solitaire, but ordered wrong.  Given that I dislike reading series out of sequence, and that I didn't adore The Last Detective (and had completely forgotten about Down Among the Dead Men) I grumped about with this a bit, starting and then stopping.  In the end, I'm glad I started again.

Peter Diamond, of the Bath (England) CID, is your standard grouchy, I-did-it-my-way, occasionally self-destructive and occasionally brilliant detective.  Sort of a more mature and therefore somewhat less obnoxious Danny Reagan from "Blue Bloods."  He's had a long career in Bahhth with the requisite ups and downs, presumably chronicled in the novels between The Last Detective and this one.  I still don't particularly like Diamond.  I don't find bull-headedness appealing, especially when it seems mostly used to further the plot, and other than that, he's surprisingly one-dimensional for someone with so many years experience.

THAT SAID.  I did ultimately quite enjoy Diamond Dust, Diamond himself notwithstanding.  The plot here seems simple:  Diamond's wife is murdered, and he may not be involved in the investigation.  He's also considered a suspect which, I suppose understandably, pisses him off.  So, he runs his own parallel, stripped-down investigation, angering the officials and occasionally blundering into trouble.  There is another plot thread about a diamond heist that doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything until pretty late in the story.  How it all sorts out I'll leave for you to find out.

What's great here is the way Lovesey twists the murder plot, just as it seems to stall.  The turns occasionally feel a bit too serendipitous, but who knows, maybe that is how police work goes - 10% effort 90% luck or some such sage saying.  You might suss out the intersection of the two plots earlier, or you might think, as I did, why did we spend so much time developing that aspect of that plot, was it because there really wasn't anything going on in the other one?  But by then you'll be caught in it and reading to see if the killer will ever be discovered.

I did have an inkling of whodunit, but then I decided (as I'm sure Lovesey wanted) nah, can't be . . . .

If I liked Diamond better, I might go back and look at more of this series.  Might anyway, it is not a bad way to pass 30 minutes on the stationery bike every day.

Everyone likes crime fiction!

I like the sound of this T. S. Eliot fellow.

All Night Long

How did I get to a somewhat hackneyed Erskine Caldwell novel about Russian partisans in World War Two?  Via H-War, of course!  The H-lists started in the dawn of the Internet age, listservs on various topics where academics (mostly historians) might ask questions of one another, get teaching and research ideas, advertise conferences and journal articles, and so on.  I signed up for H-War a billion years ago, and then it seemed to vanish, only to start populating my inbox again a couple of years ago.

Anyway, a couple of months ago someone had a thread on novels about unconventional warfare, and the works cited sounded interesting so I sought some of them out.  (Side benefit of doing a deep-ish literary dive:  you don't have to buy it if you have access to Widener Library, and you might end up with a first edition that was last checked out in 1973 or something like that, which is pretty cool.)

Caldwell is best known as a chronicler of the down-and-out Depression-era South, but he spent time as a correspondent in the Soviet Union during the Second World War, and wrote several books about and inspired by the experience.  All Night Long:  A Novel of Guerilla Warfare in Russia (1942:  Duell, Sloan and Pearce) is exactly what it says:  a fictionalized account of partisan efforts in Russia, against the invading German army during the Second World War.  Set against the story of husband and wife Sergei and Natasha, All Night Long is essentially a litany of death and destruction, both sides determined to subdue or repel the other by any means necessary.  Over the course of the book, Sergei makes his way to the partisans, with whom he fights fearlessly, causing great destruction to the local German forces.  Natasha was to meet him at the partisan camp, but gets delayed, and Sergei must make hard choices when the time comes to rescue her.

It is hard to imagine a world like this one, where one act by a villager could lead to the devastation of an entire town, but Caldwell does his best to make you understand.  In one scene, Sergei and his comrade Fyodor come upon a village that was destroyed, along with its entire population, in retaliation for an act of sabotage.  Pages 159-166 are an extended description of the burned village, complete with the expected charred remains and "blackened chimneys jutting like weather-stained tombstones from the scarred earth" but somehow made more horrifically human with the "stiff and swollen carcasses of horses and cows," the charred remains of beds, tables, and chairs, the wrecked and burned tanks and trucks, and a large tank simply standing on end down one street.  The scene reads almost like a movie script, so vivid are details like "the sign, which once proclaimed the existence of a headquarters unit, lay beside a staff car which still contained the black fire-shrunken bodies of four Germans who had not been able to escape a final assault by the guerillas."  The citizens who lived here were all executed and the trench holding their bodies is filled with snowmelt, blood, and the "floating swollen grey bodies of field mice."  Just out of town, Sergei and Fyodor come upon the nude body of a young girl, terribly abused, lying in a wheat field.  (159-66)  I don't think Caldwell was really piling on here.  Could Sherman have imagined this hell?

Written in 1942, All Night Long unabashedly takes the side of our then-friends the Russians.  Every Russian character is noble and sacrificing, lean and windburned, strong and dedicated, the very embodiment of the propaganda posters as a friend suggested recently.  The Germans are either ignorant youth or raping, pillaging, murdering Nazis.  I don't necessarily disagree with this characterization.  The Nazis considered Russians sub-humans, barely a step above Jews and other degenerates, and Nazi depredations over the course of their ultimately disastrous campaign in the East are well-documented.

But, but.  Also well-documented is the fury unleashed on German citizens as Soviet soldiers made their way into that country in 1945.  You can say the Germans deserved it, and you can say that the Russians were not innocent of their own crimes committed in the name of war.  You'd both be right.  Neither side would win any humanitarian awards.

Still, in his zeal to make his point, or perhaps to prove authenticity, Caldwell lays it on a bit thick.  There is the incredibly awkward use of transliterated Russian words like Nemetski (German) or Tovarish (comrade).  Everyone sits around saying  things like "There's nobody more cruel than a Nemetski."  (I don't have the page reference for this one, but you could find a similar reference on just about every other page.)  And the characters are straight out of Central Casting:  Sergei Mikhailovich Korokov is "a tractor driver from the Lenin Collective Farm" (57) and Natasha his young and spirited wife, with golden blond hair cascading like a waterfall.  Sergei's comrade Fyodor lost his wife and daughter in a ghastly attack by the Germans so is hell-bent on revenge, and of course there is young Vladimir, who wants nothing more than to fight with the partisans.  (You know that ends up.)  A lot of potatoes and cabbage soup are cooked.

"I don't understand why the Nemetskies are like this," Fyodor insisted.  "Why must they always be killing our women?  Do they do this to their own women?"  He paused and looked off across the field.  "Only degenerates would come to our country and do such things.  You would expect it of savages, or of wild animals, but human beings don't rape and murder unless they're insane or -"
 "Or Nemetskies," Sergei broke in.
 "Or Nemetskies," Fyodor nodded.  (165)

Or Russians in Berlin.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The List

I bought a bunch of books from Soho Press in December, because they promised a free copy of Mick Herron's novella The List with my order.  The books I paid for are uneven in quality, but The List delivers.

Herron likes to write about the losers in intelligence work.  He is best known for his Slough House trilogy, wherein he discusses the pathetic existence of those who've messed up spectacularly but whom "it'd be impolitic to sack."  They eke out a living doing mindless back office work that sometimes actually results in something.  Even Herron's stand-alones reference one or more of the Slow Horses, as they're known, and this one is no exception.  In The List, the sort-of protagonist John Bachelor - you can't really call him a Hero, or even an Anti-Hero - misses an obvious signal with one of the assets he babysits, and sets in motion a small, inconsequential chain of events that sends another character to Slough House, where he with the infamous Jackson Lamb.  The story is so short, and there isn't a lot more than this but it has a nifty trajectory and ends, well, it won't take you long to read and find out.

The story doesn't move fast, and there isn't much action, but the writing is economical, and the precise description and careful language bring John le Carré to mind.  As does the way Herron somehow manages to keep the Cold War relevant, even in the 21st c.  There is a palpable sense that the Park, as MI5 is referred to given its location in Regent's Park, is not so much coasting on earlier laurels, as it is perpetually teetering on the brink of disastrous failure.  Somehow the modern world, with all its technology and vague but every now and then very real global threats, is more difficult for intelligence operatives to navigate than the previous bilateral one.  Herron sums this up beautifully when he notes that Bachelor, who "worked for the secret service in an era where half the population aired its private life on the web . . .  wasn't sure the Cold War had been preferable, but it had been more dignified."  JlC would approve.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Buddha's Money

Buddha's Money (1998, Bantam, this edition 2005, Soho Crime), the third installment in the Sueño and Bascom series from Martin Limón, reads like it was written to get a movie deal.  There are exotic and dramatic settings, beautiful and dangerous women, lost treasure, children in peril, chase scenes, and lots and lots of fights.  There are even dangerous beasties and fighting monks, and at times, the whole things has a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon vibe.  (I know, completely different country - except not entirely, as you'll find if you read this story.)  Extremely fast-paced, with lots of twists at the end, and more history than one might expect, Buddha's Money is entertaining but not deeply thoughtful.  Action - not contemplative investigation - drives this plot.  

That sounds like more of a criticism than it is.  This story has a lot to commend it, but it moves so fast into hard-to-imagine territory that it loses investigative nuance in all the dust-'em-ups.  Our Heroes, George Sueño and Ernie Bascom, are cops with the Eighth Army's Criminal Investigation Division in Seoul, Korea, in the early 1970s.  There's definitely a later-day Vietnam vibe in all of Limón's stories set here.  The red-light district is referred to as the ville, a number of the characters are Vietnam veterans with the psychic scars to prove it, and there is a sense of Americans running the show and not a damn thing any local can do about except make money off of dumb GIs in ways both legal and not.  

As the story opens, Our Heroes are called to intervene in the mugging of a Buddhist nun in the red-light district Itaewon.  They are quickly drawn into the kidnapping of an adopted girl from her hot-mess-of-an-American-vet father and her former-hooker/thief Korean mother (no angels, either one), which leads to the complex story of a missing rare antique that just about everyone in Korea wants a piece of - and are willing to double-cross or kill to get it.  There is a long history to the missing antiquity, and whoever gets it will have the path to untold riches as well as a legitimate claim to the long-defunct Dragon Throne in China.  

So you've got your Buddhist monks, your Mongolians, and some ancestrally-royal Chinese, all looking for this thing, and willing to kill or worse to obtain it.  Sueño and Bascom are enlisted by the parents of the kidnapped girl, but quickly get involved with a mysterious and beautiful antiques dealer, some nasty Mongolians, and a sweet little nun.  S and B drive all over Korea following leads, meeting beautiful ladies, and beating up pretty much anyone who gets in their way.  These two must be ironmen or something, they get their lights punched out almost every day (and give as good as they get), and somehow survive to keep going to the next rendezvous.  They also drive like maniacs, swim underwater for seemingly endless minutes, row boats across the sea, and drink heavily when the opportunity presents itself.   

I'm not going to attempt to say more about the story than this, because it would take too long and I'd probably miss a key piece.  But in the movie, a younger Jimmy Smits would play Sueño and if I can go x-generational, I'd cast Matt Damon as Bascom.

Image result for young jimmy smits

What do I like about these stories?  I like Limón's obvious command of place.  He writes vividly of both the gritty red-light district, where neon shimmers in the ever-present rain, and the green fields and mist-shrouded ricky islands away from the Korean capital.  The only setting that doesn't really come alive is Eighth Army HQ, which remains, perhaps intentionally, bland and even opaque.  Maybe that is because none of the action take place here.  Limón's writing is clean and does not distract either, although I can't quite decide if the story is being told by narrator Sueño in real-time, or after the fact.  And I do take issue with repeated descriptive tropes like bubbling saliva, little nuns, and sparkling neon.  There is also a lot of damp, and puddles, and fat raindrops, but it is monsoon season, so this works.  

I also like Our Heroes.  Ernie is a psychopath:  violence and policing provide the high that heroin did for him in Vietnam.  But that bad-boy aura is magnetic for the ladies:  he attracts them all, from hookers to nuns.  George is the good cop but emotionally vulnerable - army life provides a kind of family for this Cali-Mex orphan.  He is also the more thoughtful of the two, having learned some Korean and made an effort to understand the local history and culture.  And that's what keeps this story from becoming just a series of fights.  

Finally, I appreciate the background.  The only way you can possibly follow this story is because George takes the time to explain the historical background to you.  I feel like I may just possibly have learned something about Korea, even if it is history-lite.  George does this in manageable bites so not overly pedantic, but you have the sense that his partner really could not care less and is just interested in the next creep he can demolish or lady he can conquer with his ginseng gum.  

These guys are smart, and in their way, they care about the local population.  So I wish they didn't have to beat confessions out of their subjects, or the next plot-point out for the reader.