Monday, February 8, 2010

This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas

This book will be the first reviewed for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge, set by Dorte Jakobsen. (Thanks, Dorte!)

I have to admit that the cover did not inspire me to read this one and in fact I would not have opened it if I hadn't heard good things about it over time, and if I hadn't set myself a small goal of tackling some of my shelf-sitters. The title is actually a tribute to the French poet Racine, who figures prominently in the book, due to one character's intimate familiarity with his style. The French title is actually quite different--Dans les bois ├ęternels , which translates to something more along the lines of "In the eternal woods". I don't know if that would have drawn me in any faster, but at least it would be unlikely to have the picture of a dead stag on the cover.

Anyway, neither the author's name, nor the title, nor yet the cover image clued me in to the fact that this novel is in fact a Parisian police procedural, and a very delightful one at that. Vargas' detective squad is the closest I have come to the classic Amsterdam based Grijpstra and de Gier series of Janwillem van de Wetering. Led by the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, a right-brained dreamer if ever there was one, the Paris Crime Squad holds as many idiosyncratic characters as anyone could ask for. This book comes fairly late in the series, but Vargas does a good job at delineating the characters again for new readers like me.

I fear that certain kinds of readers will throw up their hands at many of the more absurd situations and improbable plot twists in this one. But for readers who are willing to surrender and enjoy the ride there are many rewards. It's extremely well plotted and woven together, and the twists and turns of the central mystery, as well as a secondary one involving Adamsberg's past kept me guessing.

One of the great pleasures of Vargas' work is the way she describes all the detectives--with the exception perhaps of the formidable Retancourt, a woman of many talents--as flawed and somewhat hapless in their own lives, but how in collaboration their strengths come to the fore.

I do have a small problem with the translation, which is that whenever the story ventures into the realm of dialect, the translator's efforts to find some substitute in English slang fall flat. It's a shame, because her rendering of the speech of Adamsberg and the detective squad is subtlety itself.

I found that at the end of reading this one, and despite many other goals, I wanted to nothing so much as begin reading another. And so I have...

Monday, February 1, 2010

Winterland by Alan Glynn

I was tempted to throw in an imaginary subtitle: The Lost Language of Cranes, but that was already taken. Anyone who visited Ireland four or five years ago, as I did, could not have failed to get the reference. There were cranes everywhere--new schemes, new money, even all new people (another stolen literary reference). Attractive young Irish people flocked the streets in expensive new clothes--never have I felt so old and past the moment--and the small hotels and bars and pretty much everywhere were staffed by Asians and Eastern Europeans, most of whom did not seem at all happy.

That moment, for better or worse, is done--at least for the time being. Capital, and labor, has come and fled again, as it has so many other places. This is the setting of Alan Glynn's excellent new novel Winterland.

The initial setup is this: a young thug, Noel Rafferty, is murdered at a local pub. As he is revealed from the outset to be a very unpleasant character, we do not mourn him much. But his tightly knit Dublin family does, of course, and their grief is more than doubled when his uncle, his namesake, dies in a car accident that very night. Tragic coincidence, yes, but their common relative Gina Rafferty begins to doubt that all is exactly as it seems. Gina's company, a start-up, is having troubles in the new economic climate. And it's not the only thing that's suffering in the fallout of global recession.

I love the way the local and the global overlap and affect each other in this novel. I also love the acute depiction of the way government and business and law enforcement are all in each other's pockets. Gina Rafferty is a great and fearless character in this setting. Here's hoping we hear a bit more from her in the future.