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.