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Books of the year. Part 2: Crime Fiction

January 9, 2012

THIS year has been the year of crime fiction in translation for me.

It was dominated by the Bitter Lemon Press’ roster of novelists.  It started with Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack which I blogged about here. It’s a brilliant story of the grief of a cop in Junta-era Argentina as he falls in love, gets entangled in a government killing. Like a lot of South American fiction, it is sensuous and  filled with the evocative sights, sounds and scents of the continent.

Although not on Bitter Lemon’s roster, Guillermo Orsi’s No-one Loves a Policeman is another Argentinian thriller with sensuous love story. This time it is a more complex story which looks at the corruption of the police and their attacks on the shanty towns and their involvement in the drugs trade. Like Mallo’s work, the landscape of Argentina is a character itself, in a beautifully told story.

Back to Bitter Lemon and Gianrico Carofiglio’s Involuntary Witness introduces a great new character in defence lawyer Guido Guerrieri. The narrative of the wrong man fingered for the murder of a nine-year-old girl is familiar, but the character of the morose and recently divorced Guerrieri is very engaging. This book is also an investigation into the problems Italy faces with immigration.

Carofiglio, a real life Mafia prosecutor in the southern Italian city of Bari, is a gifted drawer of characters and has sold more than 2.5 million books in Italy and Involuntary Witness is in its 49th edition there, so it clearly touches a nerve in its home nation. Strongly recommended.

Staying in southern Italy, Michele Giuttari’s A Death in Calabria (Little Brown books) is a mafia thriller where Chief Superintendent Michele Ferrara takes on the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta mob. It also starts with a quite spectacular massacre in New York and then moves back to Calabria taking in hostage taking, murder and a great twist.

For a last time we go back to Bitter Lemon and Zygmund Miloszewski’s Entanglement is a Polish Warsaw-based crime mystery that sees State Prosecutor Teodor Szacki investigate the death of Henryk Telak who is found with a roasting spit stuck in his eye after a psychotherapy session in a monastery.

Like the Argentinian thrillers, the spectres of the political past abound as the trail leads to a murder which took place before the fall of Communism.

Teodor is a great character, downtrodden but passionate, dogged and troubled. Again, Bitter Lemon have turned up a real cracker here.

The Swedes reared their head in mid-summer when I bought the entire run of the genuinely groundbreaking Martin Beck series from the late 60s and early 70s. The series, penned by the communist couple of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö,  is seen mostly in Britain as most remarkable for inspiring the work of the most successful Scandinavian detective writers in English, Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson.

However, they are more remarkable for me for being beautifully drawn social histories of a Sweden in liberal transformation. The murders are often put down to the dramatic transformations in Swedish culture: drugs, promiscuity, immigration, alcoholism and the breakdown of the family.

But with their left wing background, Sjöwall and Wahlöö use the straight bat that is the tired and troubled central character Beck, by no means a radical, to dig deeper into these changes in society. Globalisation, the power of elites and industrialism and corruption are at the heart of the tales.

At a pushI’d recommend The Laughing Policeman and Murder at the Savoy as my favourites, but they are all brilliant. Beck’s a chain smoking, emotionally down-at-heel investigator who is remarkable for the amount of time he complains of being ill or taking aspirin or cough medicine. He’s a different kind of investigator and one who is clearly a template of sorts for Mankell’s Kurt Wallander.

Back in the English speaking world James Lee Burke’s Feast Day of Fools is another solid effort from the king of American hard boiled. As ever the characterisation is breathtakingly good, as ageing and troubled sheriff Hackberry Holland struggles with the outlaws, immigrants, thieves, drug dealers and religious barm pots in an around his small unnamed town on the Texas/ Mexico border.

Burke’s books are wonderful morality tales, where everyone, and I mean everyone, is striving to make amends for the sins of their past. It is a very Catholic sense of redemption and of the fight between good and evil in society. Hackberry, a Korean War veteran and former booze hound whore mongering politico, is the force for good taking on the great evils of all of Burke’s books: mafiosi (of all nationalities), corrupt government officials, the arms trade and religious fundamentalism.

The writing is also breathtakingly good. No-one writes as well or with as much, passion, heart and morality. As Michael Connelly said in his review of the book for Amazon, Burke’s one of the few writers who never lets you down.

The plot, up to the final chapter is brilliant. Fast paced, labyrinthine with one brilliant, charismatic baddie, Preacher Jack Collins. But, the eventual final confrontation was a bit too TV for me and not befitting the complexity of the rest of the book.

In the last few weeks I have been enjoying Akashic Books Noir short story series set in major cities or districts of those cities. Volumes are edited by successful writers and I have done Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Noir, George Pelecanos’ DC Noir and Denis Lehane’s Boston Noir. I can recommend all. Obviously in collections, some stories are better than others, but so far they have been rewarding forays into short story fiction.

My good friend Peter Billington, a brilliant painter who can be followed on Twitter at @pencilsqueezer, gave me the wonderful collection of quotes that is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe’s Guide to Life. It’s a brilliant reminder of the modern roots of the genre and of the unique talent that was Chandler. This quote from Farewell, My Lovely is my favourite, ,

It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

Finally, the one raspberry in the whole year was Raphael Cardetti’s Death in the Latin Quarter which I wrote about on here some weeks ago. It’s a by numbers retread of the Da Vinci Code. It’s been successful in France and has film adaptation all over it, but it wasn’t for me.

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