Category Archives: International

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.

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


JAMJANG NORBU. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes (1999).

When Sherlock Holmes returned to Baker Street after his Great Hiatus of nearly three years, he told Dr. Watson (who believed him to have died at the bottom of Reichenbach Falls), “I travelled two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhassa and spending some days with the head Lama.” MandalaSherlockBig.jpg Many writers of “previously untold” Sherlockian tales begin by dismissing that statement as a screen intended to hide the Great Detective’s adventures in a more conventionally murderous clime—the American Wild West, for example, or Transylvania. But what if Holmes spoke the literal truth to Watson? That’s the premise of this well-wrought, frolicsome pastiche, one whose sole but defining flaw is that it ends by departing from the naturalistic rules of the crime-story game.

The early chapters are suberb. Taking Watson’s place is Hurree Chundar Mookerjee, an Indian “babu” (a servant of the British Raj) who springs directly from the pages of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. Mookerjee begins by chronicling Holmes’s masterly handling of a Bombay murder case that recalls, and yet improves upon, Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic “The Speckled Band.” Then he travels with Holmes by train to Tibet, whereupon the story shifts from exploits of detection to escapades of the boys’-adventure sort. The pair do battle with a gang of dacoits from a Kali cult, for example. It’s when the action shifts to Lhassa that the narrative goes goes off-course. Norbu, himself a Tibetan, contorts his plot in order to score points concerning both Sino-Tibetan politics and Tibetan mysticism. The original Holmes was both a throwback to the chivalric ideal and a paragon of modern rationalism. That he would use his powers to thwart Manchu imperialism is easy enough to accept. But a climactic scene in which he performs telekinesis pushes Norbu’s ill-advised bid for the sublime into the realm of the ridiculous.

[ADDENDUM: A nice touch on the cover of the U.S. paperback edition, pictured above, is the use of a painting by Mark Tansey, whose work I’ve long admired. The painting, titled “Derrida Queries de Man,” is also a pastiche. It emulates the form of a widely reproduced illustration of Holmes and Professor Moriarty in mid-struggle atop Reichenbach Falls. ReichenbachPaget.jpg That drawing, done by Sidney Paget for the original publication of “The Final Problem” in The Strand Magazine, has attained iconic status over the years, and Tansey in his adaptation plays upon that image of a Titanic confrontation between two men of great intellect. There’s a comic poignancy to the notion that a clash between “the Great Detective” and “the Napoleon of Crime” would end with a wrestling match. Likewise, Tansey appears to see something revelatory but not quite serious in the disagreements that emerged between two self-important French literary theorists of the deconstructionist school. The painting renders the rocky cliffs that surround the Falls as mighty slabs of printed matter: The conflict between Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man is a “text of wills,” so to speak. Tansey’s pastiche, unlike Norbu’s, fully honors the spirit of its source material, even as it appropriates that material for purposes of its own.]

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Posted by on June 14, 2010 in Historical, International, Novel


PAUL MANN. Season of the Monsoon (1992).

In a land that teems with death almost as thoroughly as it does with life, a slain and mutilated male prostitute usually wouldn’t garner much attention. When such a corpse turns up near the center of India’s Bollywood movie colony, however, people do take notice. As an untouchable kuli dredges the body from a lake in northern Bombay, several Film City nabobs are on hand—and so is Inspector George Sansi of the Maharashtra police force.SeasonMonsoonBig.jpeg A brown-skinned, blue-eyed wonder, with a mixed-race pedigree that makes him an ideal outsider’s insider, Sansi comes across as a figure of pure authorial fancy. He has an Indian feminist mother, a well-to-do English father, a law degree from Oxford University, a scar to prove his valor in the fight against drug-running terrorists, and now, perhaps, a hip American journalist girlfriend. It’s a marvelous set of assets, and it’s almost enough to make him fully equal to the chaotic forces that shape and warp his homeland.

Almost, but not quite.

While Mann idealizes his hero, he doesn’t stint on realism when it comes to depicting the Indian scene in all its heart-breaking, awe-inspiring disarray. His pen captures plenty of apt detail: dung fires being lit at dawn, thereby awakening a city where each life hinges precariously on the lives of many others; a gangster’s lair that resembles a glitzy, Vegas-style bachelor pad, notwithstanding its location deep inside one of the dreariest slums on Earth; the fine bone china on which Sansi and his corrupt superiors dine while conferring at the Willingdon Club, a relic of the British Raj. Less compelling are details related to the crime that Sansi is investigating, or the details of his hunt for a perpetrator. The killer’s identity, in fact, becomes clear well before the novel’s finale. The certainties of karma, rather than the mysteries of murder, take center-stage at that point, and Mann—partly by dropping peculiar hints of reincarnation—adds an Eastern inflection to the standard Western tale of how a serial killer meets his end.

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Posted by on May 10, 2010 in International, Novel, Procedural


R. ROBERT JANES. Mayhem (1992).

Occupied France, 1942. In the shadow of the wholesale murder known as war, killing continues at a retail level. Clues found near the bludgeoned body of a young man in a forest outside Paris lead a pair of detectives to a salon of plus haute couture, to a smoky boîte graced by an entrancing chanteuse, to a grand estate that boasts a garden maze and a tower, to a severe and remote monastery, and to sundry other places where the French strive—with style but without success—to go on as if the Nazi boot were not at their throat. The latter challenge is especially acute for Jean-Louis St.-Cyr of the Sûreté Nationale, who must investigate this murder with a Gestapo operative named Hermann Kohler at this side.

MayhemBig.jpg Janes handles the relationship between St.-Cyr and Kohler with subtlety and flair. In his telling, the two men forge an improbable yet convincing bond as they confront the “mayhem” inflicted by both the German SS and the French Résistance, and by other parties, too. The bond solidifies as St.-Cyr and Kohler explore various forms of “mirage” that swirl about the case: the mirage cast by several of the women whom they encounter; the mirage cast by French society, high and low. (Mirage was the title of the book’s first UK edition.) Janes does less well by his readers, however. He treats elliptically too much of what he should make clear—What really happened to the husband of the chanteuse, for instance?—and he adds complications where he should remove them. The fog of war provides an ideal context for a tale of mystery, but the fog of narrative confusion should lift at some point.

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Posted by on May 5, 2010 in Historical, International, Novel, Procedural


GEORGES SIMENON. The Crime at Lock 14 (1931).

Inspector Jules Maigret doesn’t deduce the solution to a crime, nor does he merely discover it. He midwifes it into being. His famously intuitive method, which combines brute patience with an almost occult sympathy for quirks of the human heart, here finds an apt venue in which to flourish along a canal that winds from Paris out to the River Marne. Lock14Big.jpgUnder the shroud of a neverending fog, in a horse stable near a tow path, a pair of barge laborers stumble upon the dead body of a woman. It’s an odd place for such a corpse; dressed in the latest fashion, the body plainly belonged to a woman of leisure. Soon enough, Maigret establishes that she had come through the canal on a yacht owned by her husband, an English toff with an arrogant curl to his stiff upper lip. Someone strangled her, and the husband looms as a prime suspect. But Maigret, before he can apprehend a culprit, must get to know the entire mise en scène of the crime—the half-land, half-“sea” world of the canal and its numbered locks, where a vagabond way of life allows for many chance encounters, and where a slow-rolling passion can undergo a sudden, violent jolt.

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Posted by on April 1, 2010 in Golden Age, International, Novel, Procedural