Tagcrime fiction

Round-up: A.L. Kennedy and Guy Bolton

A.L. Kennedy, The Little Snake (2016)

The Little Snake is a novella inspired by Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (which,for context, I haven’t read). It was first published in Germany a couple of years ago, and now has a UK edition courtesy of Canongate. It’s also my first time reading A.L. Kennedy.

One day, a girl named Mary meets Lanmo, a handsome talking snake who becomes her best friend. Mary is the first human Lanmo has befriended: normally he travels the world ushering humans out of their lives. The snake visits Mary at various points in her life, seeing that her city is increasingly ravaged by war and that she is in ever greater danger. For the first time, Lanmo starts to have feelings about what he does; in particular, he wants to ensure Mary’s safety, though he knows the time will come when they must part.

The Little Snake is written as a fable, and Kennedy’s prose has a wonderful ‘tale for all ages’ quality. It’s a tale of losing and finding one’s place, what we lose and what there is to treasure.

The Little Snake (2016) by A.L. Kennedy, Canongate Books, 132 pages, hardback (source: review copy).

***

Guy Bolton, The Pictures (2017)

Guy Bolton’s debut novel is a murder mystery set in Hollywood in 1939. Herbert Stanley, a producer on The Wizard of Oz, is found hanged: the case is assigned to Detective Jonathan Craine, the police force’s regular fixer when it comes to MGM matters. Craine’s job is to ensure that Stanley’s death is treated as an open-and-shut case of suicide, this being the least disruptive option for the studio.

However, things soon get complicated: Craine becomes romantically involved with Stanley’s widow, actress Gale Goodwin; and there are distinct signs of foul play about the apparent hanging. As Craine digs deeper, events spiral out to encompass organised crime; there are some gripping set pieces along the way. Crane’s development as a character is also engaging: he starts off as a pretty repugnant sort who has no qualms about pinning an (apparently unrelated) murder on a scapegoat, and becomes – if not entirely sympathetic – at least more thoughtful and scrupulous. I enjoyed The Pictures, and I’ll be reading its sequel, The Syndicate, in due course.

The Pictures (2017) by Guy Bolton, Point Blank, 400 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Round-up: Aussie crime and famous teeth

I’m trying out different ways of writing about books, because I was getting a bit tired of the cycle of read, review, read, review. I’d like my blogging to be more responsive to how I read: to group things together, zoom in and out, make connections, and so on. This is one post format that I’m going to try out: a round-up of shorter comments on a few books that I’ve read. We start this round-up with a couple of Australian crime novels…

Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident explores the aftermath of a young woman’s murder in a small Australian town through the eyes of two characters: the victim’s older sister, and a journalist sent to cover the story. Where you might normally expect a mystery to give a sense of progressing towards a solution, there’s a void at the centre of Maguire’s mystery, which fills up withmore and more uncertainty. It’s engrossing stuff, with a strong narrative voice.

And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic is the sequel to Resurrection Bay, once again featuring deaf investigator Caleb Zelic. This novel begins with a young woman dying in front of Caleb moments after she has sought him out, and sees the protagonist follow her trail to his home town. He becomes caught up in the local drug trade as he tries to find out who the woman was and why she wanted to find him. Like its predecessor, And Fire Came Down is briskly told with plenty of intrigue in plot and character.

From Australia to Mexico: The Story of My Teeth (tr. Christina MacSweeney) is the first book I’ve read by Valeria Luiselli. It’s narrated by one Gustavo Sánchez, an auctioneer who buys Marilyn Monroe’s teeth to replace his own, then auctions off the old ones by making out that they belonged to famous people. Then it gets stranger… I found this book great fun to read: tricksy and playful, with a serious exploration of how the meaning of an object (such as a tooth) shifts when you change the context. After this, I’ll be looking forward to reading more of Luiselli’s work.

Book details

An Isolated Incident (2016) by Emily Maguire, Lightning Books, 320 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

And Fire Came Down (2017) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 344 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Story of My Teeth (2013) by Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney (2015), Granta Books, 196 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

The Lady Killer – Masako Togawa

Next up for Women in Translation Month, some classic Japanese crime fiction. Masako Togawa (1931-2016) sounds a fascinating character: according to this article on the publisher’s website, she was a singer, actress, nightclub owner, LGBT icon – and, of course, a writer. The Lady Killer, published in 1963, was Togawa’s second novel, recently republished by Pushkin Vertigo.

By day, Ichiro Honda works as a computer specialist in Tokyo. At weekends, he visits his wife in Osaka. However, on weekday evenings, he lives a secret life seducing women in Tokyo’s bars and clubs. He keeps a record of his exploits in a notebook he calls “The Huntsman’s Log”, and uses “shot her dead” as a chilling euphemism:

To him, women were no more than tinplate targets at a shooting gallery in a fair. The man pulls the trigger, the woman falls, but after all they are made of tinplate and will rise again. So he could go on shooting to his heart’s content.

Until such time as the target turned out not to be tin and blood would be shed…

(translation by Simon Grove)

Ichiro thinks he’s untouchable, but then things start to go wrong. One after another, three of his victims are found dead, apparently murdered, and the evidence points to him. But the reader knows something that Ichiro doesn’t: a year ago, another of his victims killed herself, and her sister has been asking questions about him. It seems that she is out to frame him.

The Lady Killer is interestingly structured: the first half deals with Ichiro and the circumstances leading to his arrest; the second half focuses on the lawyers representing him in his appeal against the conviction. So we get a 360° view of the whole affair: the unfolding of the trap, and then the attempt to take it apart. Best of all is that, even when you think you know just where the book is headed… you don’t.

There’s a wonderful atmosphere to The Lady Killer, which comes less from particular descriptions than the suppleness with which Togawa moves her novel through its world. There is a sense of living, breathing places beyond the immediate action. And the tension in reading The Lady Killer is increased by the ambiguous nature of Ichiro Honda: he has been wronged, but he’s also a predator, so it’s up to individual readers to decide whether they wish him to be exonerated. Either way, Togawa’s book is thoroughly enjoyable.

Elsewhere

An insightful review of The Lady Killer by James Kidd in the South China Morning Post Magazine.

Book details

The Lady Killer (1963) by Masako Togawa, tr. Simon Grove (1985), Pushkin Vertigo, 222 pages, paperback (source: review copy).

Bloody January – Alan Parks

To start the blogging year, I’m looking at some debut crime fiction. The author Alan Parks worked in the music industry in London for many years, but recently returned to Glasgow to write. Bloody January is the first in a planned series of novels set in the 1970s and featuring Detective Harry McCoy. 

The first thing that hit me on reading the novel was the vivid setting: McCoy’s Glasgow is a city of great, grimy buildings – from the opening scene in Barlinnie prison onwards – and gloomy pubs. It’s a place in the midst of change, where those in the know can take advantage; but also a place where old power and money still hold sway. 

Harry McCoy travels to Barlinnie on 1 January 1973 at the behest of the notorious Howie Nairn. The prisoner has a tip-off for McCoy: a girl named Lorna will be killed the next day. It’s not much to go on, but McCoy does his best to work out who this Lorna might be. He’s waiting at the bus station for her to arrive in the city centre for work when he hears a gunshot. He is too late to save Lorna, but not too late to miss the teenage boy who shot her turn the gun on himself. Shortly after this, Howie Nairn is found dead in the showers at Barlinnie; McCoy takes it upon himself to find out just what has gone on and why – even when doing so brings him into conflict with his superiors. 

I found Harry McCoy a compelling character to spend time with. He’s an unusual figure in the Glasgow police force: Catholic background, grew up partly in a children’s home, yet made detective by the age of thirty. His boss Murray took a shine to McCoy when few others did, but Harry is no teacher’s pet. In the children’s home, he was saved from the most severe punishments by Stevie Cooper, who has grown up to become a key figure in Glasgow criminal underworld. The two still find each other useful contacts, and whenever McCoy may have doubts Cooper is quick to remind McCoy of how much he did for him. This helps steer McCoy’s characterisation away from the stereotypical ‘bent copper’ who’ll do whatever he wants to get a result and satisfy his urges. Rather, Harry McCoy is presented an individual who, almost of necessity, lives on the edge of the underworld and knows the risks if he reaches too far in. 

Bloody January takes us on a tour of McCoy’s world, from the fringes of society to the seemingly untouchable Dunlops, Glasgow’s richest family. It’s a brisk journey that I thoroughly enjoyed; I’ll be looking out for more tales of Harry McCoy in the future.

Book details 

Bloody January (2017) by Alan Parks, Canongate, 336 pages, hardback (review copy).

The US edition of Bloody January will be published by Europa Editions in March 2018.

Resurrection Bay – Emma Viskic: a snapshot review

This is a contemporary title Pushkin Press’s crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo; and also the first novel by Australian writer Viskic. Caleb Zelic, a private investigator, begins the novel with his best friend’s body in his arms. Gary, a cop, has been brutally slain. With the police suspicious of him, Caleb tries to find out what happened. Then his partner-PI goes missing, and his own life is threatened. Caleb seeks help from his ex-wife Kat, but as events unfold, he finds more and more secrets wherever he turns… 

Resurrection Bay is a really enjoyable crime thriller: punchily written and snappily paced, with a vivid cast of characters. Caleb is also deaf, which is handled nicely by Viskic. There’s a sense of fluid communication as he switches between signing and vocalising speech, but there are are also times when we are adrift on a sea of words with him. I’m pleased to hear there will be more novels featuring Caleb Zelic; he’s an intriguing character whom I look forward to meeting again.

A version of this review was originally published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

Resurrection Bay (2015) by Emma Viskic, Pushkin Vertigo, 282 pages, paperback (review copy). 

No-one Loves a Policeman – Guillermo Orsi

​I picked this book up in a charity shop, based primarily on the same trust in MacLehose Press that led me to read Nevada Days. It was the first of Argentinian journalist Guillermo Orsi’s novels to be translated into English. Our narrator is one Pablo Martelli, who receives an urgent call from his friend Edmundo Cárcano one night in December 2001. Martelli travels through the night to Cárcano’s retreat in the seaside village of Mediamundo. When he arrives, he finds that his friend has been shot. 

Soon, Martelli meets Lorena, the beautiful young blonde woman with whom Cárcano had fallen in love; then she is apparently abducted, and Martelli’s car taken. Pablo travels to Bahía Blanca for Cárcano’s funeral, where Lorena suddenly reappears. After a night out alone in Bahía Blanca, Martelli is beaten up, and wakes in the police station, where an inspector slaps him around for good measure. Then Martelli returns to his hotel, where he finds Lorena’s dead body in the bed. Pablo learns that the manner of Lorena’s murder resembles that of several other killings – it appears someone is trying to frame him. Martelli heads back to Buenos Aires at the first opportunity; it won’t surprise you to learn that, even after all this, his troubles are only just beginning. 

Martelli himself is an ex-policeman, dismissed from an elite division known as the ‘National Shame’; these days, he sells bathroom appliances. His main allies are the inspector and officer from Bahía Blanca, whom he likens to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; and the forensic doctor whom Martelli constantly describes as “roly-poly”. They’re not stereotypical heroic types; but this is not a tale with space for heroes. 

Commenting on his country’s police force, Martelli says: “it is not Sherlock Holmes we need in Argentina, it is the will to investigate.” This sets the tone of how the plot unfolds: not the solving of an elaborate puzzle, but more a journey through a world that constantly resists Martelli’s attempts to ‘solve’ it – the plot happens to him as much (if not more) as he drives it. When a key piece of information is revealed, or there’s some other important event, Orsi will often begin a new scene and fill in what has happened in retrospect; this reinforces for the reader the sense of having to push against the novel (the world) for answers. 

Corruption is rampant in No-one Loves a Policeman, along with a general sense of enervation: a dead body may never be reported, let alone investigated; and at one point a raid on a shanty town is staged just so the police are seen to be doing something. Over the course of the novel, Martelli comes to realise just where his career path has led him:

Death does not make ethical distinctions. It claws at everyone in the same way. It is a tiger living inside us, just waiting to escape and fulfil its destiny. […] Patrolling the streets of a city like Buenos Aires is to live side by side with the tiger, to let it loose in return for getting paid, to think the beast was really someone else when it mauled and then watched the dying groans impassively, refusing the hand held out for us at the last. To be a policeman is to shut your eyes, stuff your hands into your pockets, and let people die. 
(translation by Nick Caistor) 

No-one Loves a Policeman is set at a specific moment in Argentina’s recent past: a time of economic crisis and popular riots, which resulted in the resignation of president Fernando de la Rúa. This is more than background, as Orsi ties the events of his novel firmly into history, ultimately heightening the sense of circumstances that are too great for individuals fully to grasp or change. No-one Loves a Policeman is grim yet absorbing, its narrator facing the inevitable with wry wit because that’s just about all he has left. 

Book details 

No-one Loves a Policeman (2007) by Guillermo Orsi, tr. Nick Caistor (2010), MacLehose Press, 284 pages, paperback (personal copy). 

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia

Sometimes only a sharp burst of crime fiction will do. Pushkin Press have just launched a new imprint for 20th-centurycrime in translation, Pushkin Vertigo. I tried one of their first titles, Piero Chiara’s The Disappearance of Signora Giulia.

The respected lawyer Esengrini, confides in Commissario Sciancalepre, that his wife Giulia – 22 years his junior – has vanished. Sciancalepre investigates, following up a lead suggesting that Giulia may have been seeing another man – but it comes to nothing; and several years go by, with progress on the case piecemeal at best.

Despite the lengthy duration of its narrative time, The Disappearance of Signora Giulia is only 120 pages long, and so has no room to hang about. Chiara’s novel has the efficiency of a well-run investigation, and there’s also a cool and business-like tone to Jill Foulston’s translation from the Italian. One thing I particularly like about the book is that, for all its twists and revelations, the full truth still feels elusive. Something has happened beyond the confines of the narrative, and we’re left in a similar position to a detective plunged into another person’s life, having to piece together incomplete information. The Disappearance of Signora Giulia turned out to be just the brisk literary walk that I needed, and I’ll be keen to see what else Pushkin Vertigo has to offer in the months ahead.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Disappearance of Signora Giulia (1970) by Piero Chiara, tr. Jill Foulston (2015), Pushkin Vertigo paperback

Emma Jane Unsworth, Animals (2014)

AnimalsEmma Jane Unsworth’s second novel starts as it means to go on: Laura wakes up after a big night out, bangle and tights caught around her friend (housemate, landlord) Tyler’s bed, in need of something for her hangover. Tyler is twenty-nine, Laura a few years older; they became friends nine years ago, they still live in Manchester, and this is pretty much how they mean to go on, too. Well, maybe: Laura is shortly to marry Jim, a concert pianist who’s much more strait-laced – could this fracture the friendship that has defined Laura’s adult life?

The experience of reading Animals is quite a headrush: Laura’s first-person narration is snappy but dense, drily self-aware but not removed. The reader is drawn into Laura’s world, with the Technicolor intensity of her friendship with Tyler, but also with a melancholy awareness that the sense of boundless possibility that emerged in the wake of university has now faded. Perhaps one thing that drew Laura to Jim is that he rekindled that sense of possibility:

You could be anything. You could be perfect (unlikely, but the freedom of having the whole rainbow of potential flaws in the running is not to be underestimated). He doesn’t know yet about your limited geographical knowledge; that you don’t read the papers every day; that you sometimes hide instead of answering the door (and the phone). You are yet to drink white wine and turn into a complete fucking lunatic over absolutely nothing. You are yet to, yet to, yet to.

(Canongate pb, 2015, p. 48)

There you have the rush of Unsworth’s language, which never allows Laura’s life to settle into clear certainty: is she marrying Jim because she truly loves him, or because it’s the thing she ‘should’ do? There’s a similar question to be asked about her and Tyler; the journey to reach the answers is a kaleidoscope of neat observations and the flood of experiencing life.

We Love This Book reviews: Susan Barker and Julia Crouch

A couple of my recent reviews from We Love This Book:

Susan Barker, The Incarnations (2014)

BarkerSomeone is watching Wang Jun, leaving letters in his taxi, claiming to be his soulmate. This person insists that they and Wang have known each other for a thousand years, and has stories to tell of their various incarnations throughout Chinese history, from the Tang Dynasty to Mao’s regime. In these stories, Wang and his correspondent variously love and hate each other, live together or die at the other’s hand. Back in 21st Century Beijing, Wang has his suspicions about who is writing these letters, though confirming them might drive his family apart.

True to its title, the idea of “incarnations” runs all the way through Susan Barker’s third novel. It’s not just the various historical incarnations of Wang and his “soulmate” – there’s also the sense that a place can go through different incarnations (Wang has seen the city of Beijing change as the 2008 Olympics approach), and that the stages of a person’s life can function in the same way. Wang has experienced several upheavals in his life, and there are family secrets to be uncovered as well – and the gaps between these can seem as great as those between different eras of history.

Barker’s novel balances past and present, the grand sweep of history and the intensely personal, all wrapped up in brisk and densely evocative prose. You can never quite be sure where Wang’s story is going to turn next – not even after a thousand years.

(Original review.)

Julia Crouch, The Long Fall (2014)

CrouchIn 1980, Emma James is eighteen, travelling in Greece before going to university, when an event occurs that will permanently alter the course of her life. In the present day she is Kate Barratt, charity figurehead and wife of a wealthy hedge-fund manager, with the past safely behind her. At least, that’s what Kate thinks: but she discovers that a figure from the old days is back, and has the seemingly limitless capability to threaten her and those she holds dear.

There’s an interesting theme of identity running through The Long Fall: at a time of life when people are finding out who they are, Emma has to change herself, radically and unexpectedly. As Kate, she appears to have built up a happy life (albeit one marked by personal tragedy); other characters have not been so lucky. Kate finds herself questioning how far she has put up a façade, in her marriage and as the face of her charity.

Then there is the plot, which Julia Crouch controls very well: first Emma’s travel diary, leading up to the tragedy that we glimpse in the opening pages, then Kate’s present-day nightmare. The pages turn, the revelations come along at a brisk pace, the sense of dread grows as Kate’s world is systematically undermined. All leads up to a conclusion that brings the narrative satisfyingly full-circle.

(Original review.)

"The letters, unbeknownst to their authors, had absorbed their entire surroundings"

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (2007)
Translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas, 2013

WLWSWhat Lot’s Wife Saw is a novel that shifts and evolves as you read it, until you can’t quite be sure what you thought you were looking at in the first place. The story goes that, at some point in the future, a great flood, dubbed the Overflow, has drowned much of the land; the world has become addicted to a violet salt mined in the Colony, a home for outcasts which is located by the Dead Sea and owned by the shadowy Consortium of Seventy-Five – and whose governor has mysteriously died.

In Paris, Phileas Book is inventor of the Epistleword, a kind of three-dimensional crossword puzzle derived from finding connections between newspaper readers’ letters. Book is hired by the Consortium to work out the truth of Governor Bera’s death, from the written testimonies of six members of his inner circle. All former criminals, the six are hoping that the past will stay in the past, and nurturing suspicions towards each other.

As well as being a novelist (this is her fifth, though the first to be translated into English), Ioanna Bourazopoulou is a playwright, and it seems to me that What Lot’s Wife Saw has quite a theatrical quality, particularly in its focus on a small group of characters in an enclosed environment (the Governor’s Palace, at least to begin with); and its background, which feels self-consciously stylised. I could vividly imagine some of the scenes acted out as though on stage, such as the six hapless letter-writers frantically trying to decide what to with the Governor’s body that they’ve unexpectedly discovered.

But, though episodes like this are amusing, there is a serious heart to What Lot’s Wife Saw. At first, the idea of the Epistleword seems largely a flourish, an extravagant way to give Phileas Book the investigatory skills for the task at hand. But then we learn what inspired the puzzle: Book was separated from his family by the Overflow; he read and re-read the letters he had from them, becoming deeply aware of the personality traces left embedded in the writing. He got a job at The Times in London, where he’d pore over the letters from missing persons, searching for those tell-tale traces. Book started to notice certain resonances and patterns among sets of letters; Yannis Panas’s translation captures the rush of insight:

[The letters] are transformed, they integrate and each letter now becomes vitally dependant on the others, one breathes with the lungs of the others and speaks with the other’s voice…the letters are by nature incomplete, like most human expressions, and they struggle for completion. They merge of their own accord, like atoms as dictated by their valences… (p.200)

Having seen these patterns in the letters, Book made a puzzle in the hope that the letter-writers might solve it and recognise themselves. So the Epistleword was born in dire circumstances, and in a belief that writing might have the capacity to reunite a family. This, I think, is central to What Lot’s Wife Saw: the power to solve a mystery is contained within the letters that Phileas Book (and we) read – and with it, the power for an individual to understand and shape the world. That’s also what makes the ending work for me: out of context, the solution to the mystery may seem trite; but, coming at the end of What Lot’s Wife Saw, it symbolises just how completely the world has become subverted by the text.

What Lot’s Wife Saw is published in the UK by Black & White Publishing.

© 2018 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑

%d bloggers like this: