RSS

Category Archives: International

L.R. WRIGHT. Prized Possessions (1993).

Where does one draw the line between the mystery novel and the work of serious fiction? In some instances, that line blurs to the point of nonexistence. Those who write about crime often work to attain—and often do attain—the depths of psychological insight and the lofty reaches of social observation that great novelists have traditionally claimed as their exclusive literary domain. Mainstream writers, meanwhile, often descend into the precincts of genre fiction, if only because a work presented as “A Mystery” will sometimes garner more readers than one marketed as “A Novel.” PrizedPossession.jpg

Somewhere between those publishing trends falls this tale. Issued as a “crime” novel, it has a good deal in common with a straight novel that came out in roughly the same era: Paris Trout, by Pete Dexter. Like that work, it traces the process by which a handful of characters converge—slowly, tortuously, inexorably—upon acts of horrific violence. At no point is there any doubt as to “who” or even as to “what.” In the fictive world that Wright has built, only the question of “how” appears to matter. How will the perpetrators find their victims (or vice versa)? How will the murderous impulses foreshadowed in the novel’s earliest scenes finally be unleashed? Nothing beyond the presence of a professional detective, one Karl Alberg of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, signals that we are reading a genre piece rather than a “literary” product.

Alberg, in fact, performs no detection. He merely goes about his business, most of it personal, while just over the horizon of his life in staid, orderly Vancouver, two stories of conflict between the sexes unfold—stories of desire thwarted and transposed into hate. In one, a drugstore clerk of subnormal intelligence, believing that a haughty college girl has snubbed him, sets forth to demand an apology from her. Not really knowing why, he takes a gun along with him. In the other, a woman has invested every resource at her disposal into being the perfect wife, only to discover that she has failed. When she goes in search of the husband who has left her, she too carries a gun. The two dramas proceed separately, in parallel fashion, for most of the novel. Then they intersect with one another, and with Alberg, in a concluding sequence that is none the less explosive for being perfectly predictable.

Advertisements
 
3 Comments

Posted by on March 29, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

MAJ SJÖWALL and PER WAHLÖÖ. The Laughing Policeman (1968).

One thing that Inspector Martin Beck and the policemen who serve with him on the Stockholm homicide squad rarely do is laugh. The emotions that they express, or that Sjöwall and Wahlöö express for them, generally align with the kind of gloom and dyspepsia that have come to define the Scandinavian soul (for non-Scandinavians, at any rate). The disappointments of married and family life, the unfulfilled promise of the welfare state, the dank and dreary skies that hover perpetually over the Swedish capital—these are the topics that typically preoccupy Beck and his comrades, who therefore come across as a dour and serious lot. The title of this novel, the fourth of the ten books that make up the Beck saga, thus contains a strong element of irony. And right away that irony takes on a dark hue, for The Laughing Policeman essentially begins with a dead policeman. Late on an evening in 1967, when the Stockholm police are focusing most of their energies on an anti–Vietnam War protest being held at the U.S. Embassy, an assailant guns down nine people on the 47 Bus as it nears its terminus in the city’s Vasastan neighborhood. Among the dead is an off-duty cop named Ake Stenstrom. Was his killing a mere byproduct of a senseless mass murder? Or was he the intended target of an assassin?

LaughingPoliceman.jpg

In the now-classic manner of the modern procedural, the investigation of that crime proceeds by fits and starts, with different investigators pursuing different leads with varying degrees of success and (more often) failure. Over time, usable clues—a hidden sheaf of sexually charged photos, a scrap of memory shared by a surviving bus passenger—do accumulate. Then comes a moment, understated but nonetheless climactic, when readers learn the source of the book’s title. Many weeks have passed since the murder spree, and it’s Christmastime. As a present from his daughter, Beck receives a recording of an old song called “The Laughing Policeman.” It’s actually a gag gift of sorts, but it triggers the stroke of insight that Beck needs to arrange an apparently ragtag set of clues in their proper order.

The resolution of the case carries no great surprise, yet it packs a real punch. In large part, that’s because it arises organically from its milieu. Stockholm is a city of islands, populated by residents who skillfully make islands of themselves, and Sjöwall and Wahlöö excel at depicting particular Stockholmers as they inhabit particular locations within that metropolis. The result is a somber, documentary effect that resembles the feel of mid-century noir film and fiction. Still, the noir scene that these authors evoke is a far cry from the prototypical American version. Life in Sweden might breed despair, but social breakdown is a problem that has limited salience in that well-ordered clime. The authors concede as much when they refer—in a glancing albeit telling way—to the day earlier in 1967 when motorists throughout the country miraculously switched from left-hand to right-hand driving.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on February 21, 2014 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

UMBERTO ECO. The Name of the Rose (1980).

Eco, a renowned literary scholar, brings to this début work of fiction the sensibility of an unapologetic polymath. The result is a novel that brims over with the fruits of his wide-ranging research—and with signs of his brainy, manic ambition. It’s at once a faithful pastiche of the mystery genre and a bravura performance that gleefully transcends the boundaries of genre. NameRose.jpgThere is room here not only for seven violent deaths, all taking place at a secluded abbey located high in the North Italian mountains (the structure is ancient even in 1327, when this chronicle takes place), but also for a discourse on the social and political history of heretical sects, for a psychological and theological examination of the Inquisition, and for a survey of European high politics in a time of two popes and one Holy Roman Emperor, who (as the old witticism goes) was neither holy nor from Rome nor much of an emperor. Two figures stir this bubbling cauldron of ingredients into a coherent narrative. The first is a shadowy murderer who apparently takes his cue from the Book of Revelation. The second is a Franciscan Inquisitor whose forensic methods anticipate scientific criminal-investigation techniques by half a millennium. This proto-sleuth bears the none-too-subtle name William of Baskerville, and he’s accompanied by a Dominican novice whose own cognomen, Adso of Melk, carries a trace echo of the name Watson.

As Conan Doyle does in the Sherlock Holmes tales, Eco in The Name of the Rose turns the quest for knowledge into an engine of drama. Indeed, the question of knowledge (Is it a matter of reason, or of revelation?) lies at the very core of this opus. In the case of Adso, the knowledge that eludes and addles his mind is carnal, and he devotes much of his time at the abbey to exploring the mysteries of love and lust. But he also finds time to watch William’s quest unfold. (True to his Watsonian model, he narrates this adventure.) The man from Baskerville acts as a hound of truth—truth in its modern form as a quality that is lodged in nature and amenable to human scrutiny. Dead friars pile up at a rate of one per day before William at last finds the pivotal clue deep in the center of the abbey library, a maze-like structure that looms as a veritable labyrinth of turpitude. In the end, a resolutely medieval darkness hangs over the story. Even so, William’s feat of detection offers a narrow sliver of light and, perhaps, the promise of further enlightenment yet to come.

 
4 Comments

Posted by on January 17, 2013 in Historical, International, Novel, Puzzle

 

GEORGES SIMENON. Maigret and the Yellow Dog (1931).

“What I’m telling you may not be pretty. But I’ve been watching you. You look like a man who can understand.” That line of dialogue, spoken to the benignly gruff Inspector Maigret and uttered by a suspect under interrogation, suggests the essence of Maigret’s power. It’s Maigret’s job to smoke out the ugly truths that hide in the folds on ordinary French life, and he does so not just by possessing a deep awareness of the ways of humankind, but by projecting that quality among those who cross his investigative path. YellowDog.jpgHere, his mere presence in the seaside village of Concarneau exerts an almost physical influence on the atmosphere of the town: Wayward clues, and the confessed secrets of wayward souls, attach to him as inexorably as metal filings attach to a magnet.

The criminal incident that draws Maigret from Paris to Concarneau is a curious one: A local wine merchant, tipsy after a night of card-playing and conviviality at the Admiral Hotel, stumbles through the town’s near-empty streets. Buffeted by a storm-loosed wind, he stops in a doorway to light a match, and immediately shots ring out. Did someone really intend to kill this apparently inconsequential fellow? Who, in any event, would have known that he’d be passing by that doorway at that late hour? Other crimes, or indications of crime, follow. Stray clues multiply. The yellow dog of the title, for instance, looms for Maigret as a sure sign that something odd is afoot. The dog also functions as a symbol—as a figure of vague menace that flits in and out of view. A symbol of what? Of fear, more or less. Raw, animal fear is a pivotal theme of this novel.

As ever in the casebook of Maigret, the search for clues and the hunt for criminals matter less than a receptivity to less tangible forms of human truth. Simenon, as if to highlight his disdain for traditional modes of detection, provides Maigret with a comic foil—a sidekick named Inspector Leroy, who favors the latest scientific sleuthing methods. Leroy dashes about, making plaster casts of footprints and conducting chemical analyses of liquor bottles, and in general comes across as a feckless skimmer of the surface of things. Maigret, meanwhile, practices a kind of anti-method that lets him plumb the depth of things while seeming to do very little. He presides over the unwinding of a plot that (like the plot in many Sherlock Holmes tales) traces its origins to a past injustice and finds its impetus in a bid for revenge. Less a mystery story than a moral fable, Yellow Dog delivers the age-old message that sin begets sin, and that a man’s worst sins will come back to bite him.

Simenon deftly roots his fable in the here-and-now of a Depression-ravaged provincial town. He limns the foreclosed horizon that residents of a tourist locale see in front of them during the dreary off-season months of the year, and he poignantly evokes the patterns of economic hardship and personal exploitation that circumscribe their behavior. (To wit: More than one character off-handedly notes that of course a waitress or a servant girl will share a bed with a well-off man, in the hope of getting a franc or two for her trouble.) In brief, there’s no shortage of objects for the powerful intuitive sympathy that is Maigret’s trademark.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Golden Age, International, Novel, Procedural

 

HENNING MANKELL. Faceless Killers (1991).

The police-prodedural genre—in which a cop-hero marches through long days of investigative drudgery, all the while contending with the personal fallout from a professional life marked by too much work and too little reward—well suits the wintry outlook that the Swedish people are known for (not least by themselves). This novel, set in the Baltic-chilled region along the southern coast of Sweden, exploits that close kinship between narrative style and national temper. FacelessKillers.jpgIt’s the first of what has become a long and popular series of books that feature Inspector Kurt Wallander as their put-upon protagonist. Here, along with calling upon Wallander to make sense of the shockingly violent murder of an old farmer couple, Mankell immerses him in a flow of worries that includes a wife bent on divorce, an estranged daughter, and a selfish, senile father. A further layer of angst, derived from the view that immigration and the nativist response to it are disfiguring Swedish society, covers these grim proceedings like a sheet of thin, brittle ice. A love of opera and a submerged crackle of erotic longing humanize Wallander, and also pump some life into his saga, but they don’t fundamentally alter Mankell’s depiction of crime-fighting as a thoroughly unromantic affair, random is its course and devoid of dramatically satisfying contours. The murder gets solved, realistically but without surprise or panache. For Wallander and his troubled country, meanwhile, life just goes on: Sadly and stubbornly, it goes on.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on April 30, 2011 in International, Noir, Novel, Procedural

 

GEORGES SIMENON. Maigret at the Gai-Moulin (1931).

A dense, clever plot—ridiculous in parts but ultimately quite satisfying—somehow manages to unfurl its many strands in this very compact yarn about some bizarre goings-on within and around a nightclub in Liège, Belgium. GaiMoulinPI.jpgTraveling far from his base on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in Paris, Inspector Maigret makes a late, dramatic appearance (detective ex machina!) in this case, which deals with the murder of a Greek playboy named Graphopoulos. A mysteriously migrating corpse, a pair of feckless juvenile delinquents, a woman of easy virtue whose heart may or may not be of pure gold, and an elusive “big-shouldered man” each move in and out of view, providing intimations of possibility rather than clues in the proper sense of that term. Which is exactly how Maigret likes it: Just as he does in most of his outings, he arrives at the truth of this matter not through deduction, but through his own special brand of Gallic divination.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on January 17, 2011 in Golden Age, International, Novel, Procedural

 

MAGDALEN NABB. Death of an Englishman (1981).

Marshal Guarnaccia, the roly-poly Sicilian who stars in Nabb’s durable procedural series, makes a rather furtive début in this tale of death and life in a Florence apartment block. He’s on hand at the outset, when a sad little cleaning man named Cipolla shows police the slain body of A. Langley-Smythe, an expatriate Brit who had lived by uncertain means in a mangy ground-floor flat. DeathEnglishmanBig.jpgGuarnaccia also exerts a strong presence in the finale, when he exposes and deposes the killer in a sequence that suggests a priest hearing a confession more than it does a detective cracking a case. (It’s a moment worthy of Inspector Maigret. Indeed, the author never concealed her weighty debt to Simenon.) During the longish stretch in between, however, the marshal allows several other policemen—his superior, “the Captain”; the neophyte Carabiniere Bacci; and a pair of visiting English inspectors—to conduct an official murder investigation while he suffers a bout of the flu. Partly as a consequence, this adventure reads less like a full-dress novel than like a short story, albeit one supplemented by evocative scenes from a Florentine travelogue.

In effect, the old city—the tang and the grit of it—shares top billing with Guarnaccia. “[K]eep your eyes firmly fixed on the ordinary details of life,” he says to Bacci. Just so does Nabb glean the bits of local color that constitute the main attraction of this brief, piquant novel.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on July 16, 2010 in British, International, Novel, Procedural