Friday, July 31, 2015

The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter by Malcolm Mackay

If I wasn't too lazy to label my blog posts, I'd put this one under "Buying a book by its cover", although more accurately, I bought it on the basis of another book's cover, namely its sequel, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, which was sitting out on a display table at the aforementioned Kramer Books in Washington D.C. when I visited there back in May. A great title and a great cover sold me on that, but I decided I had better begin at the beginning.

"It starts with a telephone call. Casual, chatty, friendly, no business. You arrange to meet, neutral venue, preferably public. You have to be careful, regardless of the caller, regardless of the meeting place. Every eventuality planned for, nothing taken for granted. Tempting to begin to trust; tempting, but wrong. A person could be your friend and confidant for twenty years and then turn away from you in an instant.It happens. Anyone with sense remembers that bitter reality; those without sense will learn it."

And thus begins our story and our introduction to Calum Maclean, Glasgow hitman. And, not incidentally, to the narrative voice of this story. It is through this very flat, very hard voice that we are induced to, if not sympathize, then identify with a hired killer. Very early on in the story he is contracted to kill someone, in deadpan tones just like this, and we don't turn away in horror, we follow where he goes. We have a stake in his success, even though we don't in any way condone his actions.

Part of this lies in the severe logic of the enterprise. There's an "if this, then that" sequence the story elaborates, and although you often see this played out in stories set in the criminal world--shows like The Wire, books like George Pelecanos' Drama City, what makes this a little different than most is that it doesn't engage you on an emotional level. The gunman of the story doesn't call upon our sympathy. We never learn why he became a gunman, and though Calum may be beginning to reach a point where he's starting to miss what he's given up for the job--a girlfriend, a stable life--he isn't there yet. The drive in the novel comes not from emotional attachment but from seeing just how it will all play out.

The character, in fact, that Calum reminds me of most is not from the turf wars of urban crime, but from more rarefied climes: Barry Eisler's international assassin, John Rain. The first person narrative of Eisler's narrative takes us a bit further into Rain's personality than we ever get into Calum's. But Calum doesn't want any of that--his main aim is to have his fellow Glaswegians not even notice he's around. We are not meant to make him our hero--not even our antihero.

I'm misleading you if I'm giving you the impression that the story is all about Calum, though. The omniscient narrator of the tale gets into everybody 's head: the police, the girlfriend of the targeted man--even the head of poor, hapless Lewis Winter.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Dud Avocado reviewed at Escape Into Life

I haven't had time to mention here that I posted a review of Elaine Dundy's comic novel The Dud Avocado over at Escape Into Life on Friday. Another New York Review Books Classic, and one a few of us bantered about over at the NYRB book group on GoodReads this month. This was a very fun summertime read, set as it is in Paris and on the French coast. I've seen a few criticisms of it suggesting that Dundy was no Henry James, but then I don't think she ever intended to be.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Disappeared by Anthony Quinn

Disappeared joins the ranks of other recent "post-Troubles" crime novels from Northern Ireland, especially in the Faulknerian 'The past is never dead. It's not even past'  sense. It's perhaps not entirely a coincidence that, as in Stuart Neville's novel Ghosts of Belfast, where one of the IRA's hard men is haunted by the victims of his brutality, this book opens with a wraithlike figure, wanting justice for the past. 

In this tale, though, it's retired Special Branch agent David Hughes who receives the visitation  on a stormy night. But as his mind is slowly coming apart due to Alzheimer's, neither he nor we can be sure exactly what the nature of this apparition is. Hughes takes up the case, but as this entails him vanishing from home, he also becomes the case of a police inspector recently returned to Northern Ireland from a long spell away in Glasgow. On top of this, he must investigate the brutal death of another man who seems to have led a quiet life, but may just have a hidden story. As Celcius Daly slowly realizes, these disparate circumstances may have more than a little to do with each other. 

Add to this the fact that there are people in high places who may not want some unpleasant truths revealed and, well, Inspector Daly may have his work cut out for him. 

There are a couple of reasons to read this book. The first is its thoughtful examination of how the past lives on in Northern Ireland and how people deal with their own roles in a violent era not far behind them. It's part of the growing discussion in Northern Irish crime fiction that wants to face this past more openly, including Neville's work and that of Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy books, set in the Troubles era itself. 

Another reason, though, is for the descriptive power of the writing. Set mostly near the shores of  the giant Northern Irish Lough Neach, it's a dark and brooding setting, full of wind and water, and as Quinn points out more than once, the hidden little country lanes have seen more things than their quietness reveals.

My favorite image, though, comes from deep within the book. It doesn't have any particular spoilers and may convey to you some of Quinn's talent:

"In one of his dreams, he found himself stepping out through the back door of his cottage into pitch-darkness. The door gave onto the black wind. Voices whirled and echoed in the howling air. He realized his eyes were closed against the darkness. Opening them, he gradually made out a sky of dim stars. But the brightest thing in the night was a flowering thorn tree in the middle of a dark hedge. Its naked black branches were laden with white blossoms, shining like clusters of stars. A line of ghosts shuffled along the hedge toward the tree, as though it offered some form of protection. He saw Oliver Jordan climb up into the tree, then others, like stowaways boarding a boat, reaching up on their tiptoes, hugging the twisted branches while the blossoms stirred in the dark wind like a set of sails.
"...He saw the thorn tree gather them all up safely into its branches, ready to bear them off to a safer haven. But there was something anchoring the tree, something buried amid its roots, preventing it from carrying its cargo of lost souls heavenward. He gripped the gnarled base of the tree and tried to shake it loose, begging it to uproot itself, but it would not budge. The branches grated together as if in pain. He began digging with a tiny silver trowel, scratching at the stony soil."

It wouldn't hurt anything to tell you whose dream that is. But it strikes me that it could be the dream of any of these characters and represents their longings as well as his. As a matter of fact, it could just as well be the dream of the author himself.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Crystal Nights by Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

I first came upon Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen's work through her blog, djskrimiblog. Dorte isn't as active in the reviewing world as she once was, having moved on to spending more time writing mysteries rather than reviewing them, but the archives are still there if you want to see what she was up to a couple of years ago. Although a large number of her reviews are in English and feature American and British books, being Danish herself she reviews Danish crime novels as well, sometimes in Danish if they don't have an English translation. 

It came as something of a surprise, then, to find that her first novel--at least the first one I'm aware of--was actually a very British cozy. As I wrote in my review at the time, this one is for fans of Midsomer Murders and others in the village mystery subgenre. 

Her next mystery was a very different kettle of fish. Anna Märklin's Family Chronicles shares some characteristics in common with the book under discussion here, as it has a historical element woven in with the contemporary. 

Crystal Nights begins in Berlin in 1938, on the infamous Krystallnacht, or "night of broken glass", when Nazi storm troopers and their sympathizers went on a rampage through many German and Austrian cities. The destruction and mayhem force the Stein family to flee the country. But tragedy finds them on their journey anyway. 

The story now jumps into the future, but a future that is already in our past. We are now in Kalum, a small Danish town, in 1967. Krystallnacht is now history, so much so that they are actually studying it in school. Neils Haugaard would rather be studying Kennedy's U.S. space program. He's also missing his friend Lars-Ole, who seems to be cutting school. 

But all is not well with Lars-Ole and in fact he's disappeared. We learn early on that, in fact, he's dead, but no one in Kalum knows that. Even his mother isn't aware that he's missing at first, and only gradually does anyone realize that he is not in any of the places he's assumed to be. More than one team of policemen will be baffled by this situation, and in many ways it takes the steadfast search of Lars-Ole's friend Neils to finally unravel this mystery. 

This was a very absorbing tale, even though we have a piece or two of information that the townfolk of Kalum don't have. For an American, the ways of a little Danish backwater are interesting just in and of themselves--for example, where the telephone exchange was in a little town like this. Watching Neils work his way through the possibilities of what happened to his friend is compelling (the police aren't bad, though maybe just a bit lazy), but what is perhaps most interesting to me is the way that Lars-Ole's spirit hovers over the book, so that you get to know him as well. He's not a ghostly presence or anything like that, but all the same it's true that it's really he and Neils working together who solve the case. 

I'll close with some notes I found about the Danish edition at GoodReads:

The Danish edition of the book, Krystalnætter, won a national competition in 2013. Judge and editor Lene Dalmejer explains her choice:

”Crystal Nights” is a highly commendable historical suspense novel that captures the reader from the opening phrase. It opens in Berlin in 1938 on the Night of the Broken Glass, and a Jewish family is preparing for a perilous escape to Scandinavia. Subsequently the story moves 30 years ahead to 1967, to the small town Kalum in Northern Jutland.
... and soon tales of destiny emerge, much larger than tiny Kalum. The novel is well-turned, and the plot is spot-on. Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen writes in a fashion that almost makes you forget you are reading. This is in itself a huge achievement. The language breathes freely, and we delve into the Denmark of the 1960s without any discord whatsoever. It is, in short, a first-rate novel!

Friday, July 3, 2015

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington up at Escape Into Life

I've just posted my review of the much beloved The Hearing Trumpet by the British born, Mexico based artist, writer and sculptor Leonora Carrington at EIL. It is quite a romp but something more than that too. There are some good links about her at the bottom of the review if you'd like to know more.