Ragnarök in Reykjavik, June 19, 2013 By Dr. Frank Stech
In Norse mythology, Ragnarök is the future of events, a saga of a great battle, the deaths of heroes and villains, natural disasters, then the world drowned in watery chaos. Arnaldur Indridason's "Arctic Chill" is the Reykjavik mini-Ragnarök, ending with Iceland encased in ice: "The frost tightened its grip as evening fell, whipped up by the chill Arctic wind that blasted in from the sea and south over the desolate winter landscape. ... The wind howled and shrieked between the buildings and down the empty streets. The city lay lifeless, as if in the grip of a plague."
This fifth of Indridason's Reykjavik murder mysteries begins with Inspector Erlendur and Detectives Elínborg and Sigurdur Óli peering down at the stabbed and bled out body of an lovely immigrant boy from Thailand, frozen into the January ice. "The ground was now covered in a solid coating of ice and the north wind howled and sang around the blocks of flats. Rippling sheets of snow swept along the ground. They collected into little drifts here and there and fine powder snow swirled away from them. Straight from the Arctic, the wind bit their faces and penetrated their clothes, cutting to the bone." The case is as bleak as the opening scene.
As they trail the killers, the Reykjavik murder squad finds more crime, hatred, racism, evil, and man's inhumanity to man, never a pattern, always more evidence of the swirling chaos of Ragnarök's icy future. "'We did it for them,' she said in a low voice. 'For our boys. What they did could never be undone, disgusting and horrible though it was. We had to think of the future. We had to think of their future.' 'But there was no future, was there?' Erlendur said. 'Only this dreadful crime.'"
Inspector Erlendur and his comrades doggedly plow through the snow and ice, finding the clues and trying to understand them, encountering more senseless violence and death. They piece together the answers to the murder mysteries, but in the end, find none to the greater mystery: "Erlendur stood over the grave in the freezing cold, searching for a purpose to the whole business of life and death. As usual he could find no answers. There were no final answers to explain the life-long solitude of the person in the urn, or the death of his brother all those years ago, or why Erlendur was the way he was, and why Elías was stabbed to death. Life was a random mass of unforeseeable coincidences that governed men's fates like a storm that strikes without warning, causing injury and death."
There is nothing warm or cheering in Arnaldur Indridason's "Arctic Chill;" we are in the hands of a hard-hearted and cold-blooded master singer of modern Norse sagas, warning us of murder, evil, and chaos.
Outstanding novel by an master story-teller, January 27, 2014. The author, Jason Goodwin, is an historian first, and now a superb novelist, whose mystery adventures of Yashim, the Sultan's eunuch detective in 1830s Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, have all become best-sellers. Goodwin, Cambridge-educated scholar of Byzantine history, traced the pathways of the Europeans through the Turkish crossroads between Asia and Europe, and knows the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the places he deftly sets as his backdrop for mysteries and adventures high and low. His first novel in the Yashim series, "The Janissary Tree," won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Novel in 2007, which is a bit of a pity, because to my mind each novel of the admirable Yashim (the second was "The Snake Stone") has been better than the last. I loved every one. Goodwin's third tale of the adventures of Yashim, "The Bellini Card," is simply outstanding, and for many reasons, my favorite.
Other reviews on these pages give you Yashim's exotic back-story; the emasculated lad, trained as a court adviser, who becomes the wise and stalwart investigator for Sultans, the supreme rulers of the marvelous Ottoman Empire. The Sublime Porte (the court of the Ottoman Empire) is declining, but the first half of the 1800s (not unlike today) Istanbul remains near the center of global Eurasian affairs. After centuries of dominion. from the gates of Vienna to the Indus, Turkey is still a fulcrum in conflicts among its powerful neighbors. Yashim is exactly a man of his times and place, and he moves deftly, at times invisibly, among beggars and nobility, solving problems for the Sultans as knotty as the well-named Turk's Head.
The Bellini of the title is a 1400s portrait of Mehmet, conqueror of Constantinople in 1453, lost, but rumored to be on the market in Venice. The young new Ottoman Sultan, Abdulmecid, requires Yashim to sail to Venice, find the portrait of his ancestor, and buy it. The power behind the throne, the young Vizir, Resid Pasha, broadly hints to Yashim that such a trip would be both futile and deadly.
Goodwin cleverly weaves the historical alliances and rivalries between past rulers of these two most exotic settings, Istanbul and Venice, into the warp of his story, and embroiders his plot with delicious historical plausibilities that make the Bellini mission both diplomatically and personally critical for the success of the young Sultan's reign. Failure could imperil the Empire. No pressure, Yashim.
Among his admirable qualities, Yashim's love and respect for friends and strangers yet again becomes a principle weapon against his enemies. Yashim is not merely a sleuth's sleuth. He is a deft master of sword, knife, and mano-a-mano wrestling, with opponents of either sex. He cooks mouth-watering meals. He knows art, religions, history, and diplomacy and applies his insightful wisdom to his solutions. He is unfailingly as courteous as the most fastidious courtier (which officially, he is), and his manners could serve a lesson to the best English butler. Sadly lacking in one respect, in others he is most assuredly a man of parts. Best of all, the reader will relish every moment of his company.
Goodwin tips his novelist's hat to Yashim's modern Venetian sleuths. Donna Leon's Commissioner Guido Brunetti is foreshadowed in a police inspector as much troubled (and as much undefeated) by his 19th Century Austrian superior's as Leon's Brunetti is by today's modern Roman masters. The old and noble Venetian family of Zen, marvelously brought to 20th Century life in the late Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen series, plays a minor role in Yashim's adventures in and among the famous Venetian canals. Fans of Dibdin and Leon's Venetians will feel very much at home in Goodwin's descriptions of a Venice 200 years younger, but, than as now, as hauntingly old as its stones.
Not everyone seems to have loved this book as much as me. Not everyone can stand eggplant. Give Goodwin and Yashim, his friends, adversaries, and adventures, a taste, and I think you will grow to love them.
One of the more complicated plots in the series so far, but well carried off by Rowland, with all the usual historical details that are among the notable virtues of this series. The internal Tokugawa court intrigues are less prominent in this novel, and the new relationship between samuri detective Sano Ichiro and his dynamic young wife take center stage. The evil Black Lotus religious cult offers plenty of mysteries for the Japanese Sherlock and his new bride Watson.
Who Done It?, June 2, 2013
By Colonel Frank Stech
This mystery was a runner-up for the Scandinavian Glass Key Prize while competing against "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo." If you read them both, you can see the judges made the right choice.
The bad news: If "The Girl" is too long and too wordy, "The Boy" is far too spare and too visual. Kaaberbøl and Friis write pretty good chapters, but they never really transition them well, and we see their characters on the run, moving too fast and too unpredictably, across too many scenes and settings, to ever feel we know what might be going on, or why. Unlike the Hitchcock films of elegantly random mystery and violence, we don't have any individuals on whom to focus, just shadowy characters always in motion. Not only are the good guys hard to identify, or identify with, the bad guys are way too easy to spot, both coming and going. Until the very end, we have almost no idea what is really going on, even though almost every sub-plot turn is easily predictable. I felt like the three-year-old boy in the suitcase; whatever this is that is going on, it isn't going to be good. Kaaberbøl and Friis have written a frustrating, weak, unfinished novel.
The good news: It won't take a Hitchcock to make this a fine film thriller. The visual action, the two-dimensional characters, the jumpy scene and setting changes, will readily translate this Nordic Noir tale onto the screen. In a book we need to know something about and care a bit for the people and places, and we need a real plot, not just motion and color. On the screen we just need to watch and we fit it all together in our imaginations, the McGuffin driving the plot can be any old thing, as log as it keeps moving. Kaaberbøl and Friis have written a great screenplay.
A much lighter touch than some of the novels by Perez-Reverte. I felt like I was reading the word bubbles from a good graphic novel--the word pictures were just fine for coloring in the pictures on the illustrated page.
"Swashbuckler: or swasher is a term that emerged in the 16th century and has been used for rough, noisy and boastful swordsmen ever since." Captain Alatriste, who swashes buckles with the best, is the strong, dark, silent, dangerous type; available for hire for those dirty, nasty bits of business that call for an ex-soldier's deft dirk, dagger, and sword. The Captain's crew of friends and enemies are drawn in colors just as exotic as the Captain. We know we are in for a delicious series of adventures, out of Marvel Comics, inked by Velasquez, told by Master story-teller, Senor Perez-Reverte. Ole!
Great sea tale. David Poyer (Captain, USNR ret.) knows the Navy inside out, so the settings, machinery, drama, and ship's company are all spot on. Dan Lenson isn't the easiest hero to like--too much the loner, to easily blind-sided by his own vanities and insecurities, always on a career track to oblivion or worse. But Lenson saliors on and, while he never makes it look easy, he always makes it right at the end.
Rowland follows her usual formula in this 8th book of the Sano Ichiro series: good historical settings; brave and honorable sleuthing by the Shogun's chief investigator, Sano Ichiro; plucky initiative and courage by Ichiro's wife; and reprehensible behaviors of all sorts from the in-fighting nobles of the Shogun's top-heavy court. This episode has an interesting villain, and a good cliff-hanger plot, and Ichiro and wife once more emerge wiser, bruised but unbowed by their travails. Rowland has a knack for weaving the strengths and weaknesses of Japanese character into her tales of Tokugawa-era detection.
Not too bad.
Kerr is shadowing those south Florida masters, Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen, with a cute story about stereotypical Miami hoods, sleazy lawyers, a sexy FBI agent, and a sexier ex-con (paralleling Leonard's "Out of Sight," published the year before, just a bit too much), and an overly-clever, totally unbelievable plot, almost too obviously pitching Hollywood. Leonard's book got the flick, as he should.
Kerr's Bernie Gunther series are really outstanding. This take-off (rip-off?) of the south Florida masters, not so much. Too often sexy her and sexier him sound like bad intros for film noir Turner Classic Movies--Kerr should have just cribbed the jazzy lines and quick repartee directly from Chandler and Hammett. Too often the mob guys sound a bit too, well, Shakespearian. There are so many reality holes in the story line, Kerr has to strain to keep it afloat and convince you there are no icebergs this Titanic plot is going to hit.
Oh. It's 1997 and Kerr is really really ragging on Donald Trump. Just saying.
But a fun quick read it is, and an interesting change of pace from one of my favorite writers (when he is putting Bernie Gunther or Russian cops through their paces).
If Miami Noir floats your boat, grab this and a deck chair, and shove off!
A tale of nautical, medieval, and mysterious beauty.
First, the realities. The Flatey Book (in Icelandic: Flateyjarbók or "Flat-island book," in Latin "Codex Flateyensis"), the most extensive and most perfect Icelandic manuscript, 225 vellum leaves written and illustrated by two scribe priests, contains the bloody and lustful sagas of Norse kings, an eddic poem, annals from creation to 1394, short tales, the "Greenlander Saga" account of the Vinland colony, and the Icelandic "History of the Orkney Islanders" and History of the Faroe Islanders." The finest (and surviving original) manuscript was owned by Jon Finnsson, residing on tiny Flatey ('Flat Island') off the west coast of Iceland, who gave it to the king of the Danes. From 1651 the Flatey Book was kept in the Royal Library of Copenhagen. It was repatriated to Iceland in 1971 as an Icelandic national treasure.
Now, the fictions. The Flatey Enigma, published in 2012, by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, begins with the discovery in 1960 of the gnawed and dissected body of Denmark's leading expert on the "Codex Flateyensis," mysteriously disappeared, then discovered dead, having been stranded on a tiny islet, ending his quest to solve the Flatey Enigma. The Flatey Enigma, a riddle that has challenged generations of scholars, is based on 39 questions whose answers can be found in the Flatey Book, leading to an ancient rhyme, all fitting into a mystical, perhaps magical, rune. The trail of the missing Dane leads straight back to tiny Flatey Island, a mile and half long and a third wide, and its handful of exotic sheep-herding and seal-hunting residents. Ingolfsson adds a neurotic off-islander sent to investigate, the ill reclusive scholarly rival of the missing Dane and his mysterious daughter, and the shadowy bastard son of the dead scholar. The threads of the events leading to the scholar's abandonment and death are as intertwined as a sailor's Turk's Head knot. Slowly and craftily Ingolfsson weaves together the 39 questions, their answers, the medieval tales of blood, lust, and horror, and links these into the forty-year old back stories of the Flatey islanders, their visitors, and the seekers after the Enigma solution. He tightens the knot claustrophobically around the islanders, then loosens it to encompass western Europe during and following World War II, encircles the scholarship of the Enigma quest, then neatly whips off the loose ends into a thing of nautical, medieval, and mysterious beauty.
It is very appropriate to quote from the Author's Postscript: "My grandfather, Viktor Guðnason, was the manager of the post and telephone exchange in Flatey, as well as the church organist. My grandmother, Jónína Ólafsdóttir, was a goodwife in Sólbakki in Flatey and baked cakes that acquired great fame. I got to spend several summers with them, the last of which was in 1964. In the summer of 1960, I was a five-year-old boy staying with them in Flatey, so this period is firmly embedded in my mind. Among other things, I have a vivid memory of the moment when my grandfather showed me the Munksgaard edition of the Flatey Book in the library. The Munksgaard edition can now be viewed there under a glass case, as it is described in this book."
First, the good stuff. Lisa See in her first mystery novel has a good eye for the class struggles inside the Chinese Communist hierarchies, with traditional Chinese cultural mores at the top of the very steep pyramid. Mao-era party cadres rule and dispense wealth and privileges, mostly to their offspring, the Red Princesses and Princes. Liu Hulan, a detective in the Ministry of Public Security, is a Red Princess, her father the Minister, her uncle his deputy. There is plenty of family back-story, before, during, and after the Cultural Revolution. Out of that tumult and choas, Liu Hulan is sent to America to finish school, then she attends college, studies law, has an affair with a young lawyer. Then she flees back to China. "Flower Net" very neatly conveys the tensions and complexities of life on the pyramid of class and privilege, and the iron rules of culture.
The novel starts with two utterly bizarre deaths: the young son of the American Ambassador is frozen in a Beijing lake. The young son of a Chinese billionaire industrialist is found rotting in the water tank of a tramp freighter smuggling Chinese immigrants into America to work in Triad sweat shops.
Red Princess Chief Inspector Liu Hulan catches the case of the dead American. Her former lover, David Stark, now a deputy US attorney, catches the case of the dead Chinese Red Prince, and the immigrant smuggling. Guess what happens. They get to work the cases together, closely watched by their two governments, who are having one of their interminable diplomatic tiffs.
Now, the negative stuff. The whole plot is so full of sub-plots, you feel like See was trying to stuff three novels into "Flower Nets" on top of the mysteries. Hulan and Stark send no reports back to their home offices, so the pyramiding mysteries are all heaped on their (if I can say so, wholly inadequate) shoulders, and they are baffled, outwitted, and out-played right to the end. Others die because these two never act like law enforcement officers. They are too busy having their adventures. See wants us to believe neither government wants them to get to the bottom of these mysteries, but the real reason Hulan and Stark struggle so long is sheer lack of police work and lone ranger-ism. Somehow, the two governments just tag along with this nonsense--deep mysterious forces invisible to us at work.
With a plot this knotty, the characters are literally flying back and forth from China to California. How far up and down the pyramids of power and privilege the criminality extends goes up and down in the book like the jetliners. Lisa See has us and her protagonists at the back end of this complex plot, riding it out in third class confusion, jet-lagged, exhausted, and ready to get off this ultimately uncomfortable ride.
Mediterranean Noir Sociopathy, June 14, 2013
By Dr. Frank Stech
Giorgio Pellegrino, the protagonist of Massimo Carlotto's "The Goodbye Kiss," is a classic sociopath. Despite a thoroughly black heart, he earns our sympathies as a villain above-average in intelligence and easily in the top 10% of the class in utter deviousness, devoted mostly to doing in his criminal conspirators, whom he sets upon us innocents, while his hands stay relatively clean. Pellegrino bests his fellow criminals brutally and efficiently, betrays his partners, fools and degrades his women, destroys the innocent with a classy delicacy and respect, and submits only to the more powerful.
As dishonest and deceptive as Pellegrino is to nearly everyone else, he is pretty nearly completely honest with himself, and, as our narrator, with us, the readers. By the end of this novel, I felt like his shrink. Having heard this sincere account of his crimes and evils, there wasn't much a shrink could do except trust Pellegrino to continue in his black ways, despite all his proclaimed intentions to join the "normal" people. Like all true sociopaths, Pellegrino excels at blending into his surroundings and faking sincerity, even to himself. Pellegrino tells great tales, and repellent as he is, I'd look forward, week to week, to hearing him tell his next black episode. He could make any sinner feel near-saintly.
This novel is supposedly semi-autobiographical; Carlotto had many experiences akin to Pellegrino's. If so, I suspect Carlotto will continue to bring us cold, sadistic, and brutal blackhearts, telling shocking but captivating tales of their evil-doings, letting us peak into those well-hidden hearts of darkness, beating among us.
Locked Room Police Procedural, May 9, 2013
By Col. (ret.) Frank Stech, PhD
"House of Evidence" by Icelandic mystery writer Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson has the moving parts of a police procedural (thiink Ed McBain), with the static drama of a locked room mystery play (think Agatha Christie, only this time it is a locked house), and some clever use of time-traveling, as the century-old daily journal entries of one of the murdered victims hold most of the essential clues, once all the disparate evidence is assembled, which the murder squad in Reykjavik struggles to do. Ingolfsson's prose and style are spare, he lets his characters act out the dramas: a clueless thuggish bad cop, a decidedly dense and simple-minded murder squad commander, a semi-Asperger's forensics genius, and a very astute female detective, who should be running the show but [SPOILER ALERT] winds up ... well, not running things. The possible suspects and the victims are even more interesting, with sins and virtues as deeply and darkly hidden as the clues to this How-done-it. [SPOILER ALERT] Avid students of the Sherlock Holmes canon have a decided advantage, and if the Reykjavik murder squad hasn't poured through Watson's accounts of the Master's methods, they better get on it before Ingolfsson drops the next puzzler in their laps, and ours.
New Crimes, Old Solutions, June 19, 2013 By
Dr. Frank Stech
Arnaldur Indridason, author of the Reykjavik Murder Mysteries, began the series with "Jar City" (also published as "Tainted Blood"). I read this novel after having read Indridason's "Artic Chill," the fifth of the series. His characters appear to evolve hardly at all. Indridason's main protagonist is Inspector Ehrlendur, who shares enough character flaws to be Martin Beck's fraternal twin and Kurt Wallandar's cousin: badly failed marriage, alcohol and/or tobacco addictions, troubled offspring wrestling with their own criminal and drug issues, bi-polar relationships with murder squad colleagues, borderline insubordination with police authorities -- you get the picture.
Like the Martin Beck, Kurt Wallander, and other ScandiNoir police procedural mystery series, Indridason's supporting cast (Detectives Elinborg and Sigurdur Oli) is colorful, but not nearly as entertaining and frustrating as Wallander's or Beck's fellow cops. (But then who could be as interesting as Gunwald Larrson?) Icelanders probably just aren't as jolly and carefree as those happy-go-lucky Swedes.
Inspector Ehrlendur has a 70 year old murder victim with an unsavory history of forty-year-old crimes, including rape. Titling the book "Tainted Blood" dumb-downs the suspense significantly; "Jar City" was a far better and far more artistic title.
No TV CSI magic here, no Sherlock geniuses, just gritty murder investigation. Ehrlendur and his crew do their detecting with good old-fashioned police procedures: shoe-leather interviews, victim analyses, crime scene forensics, developing leads and following up, repeating this over and over until they form cloudy hypotheses, then investigating still more to crystallize them.
Set all this police work against the foul, gloomy, cold, dark, wet Iceland background, and you can feel icy rain running down the back of your collar as the Reykjavik murder cops link new and old deaths and crimes. Cold cases indeed.
Indridason has a real knack for letting us slowly piece together the edges and corners of the jigsaw, sometimes ahead of, sometimes behind, Inspector Ehrlendur and his crew. But we are hardly ever ready for the dark philosophical paradoxes at the center of the puzzle. This talented mystery writer digs up these deep conundrums along with the corpses, then lays out these parables on the pathology table. Indridason forces us to examine and dissect, trying to understand the human conditions that lead to and stem from tainted blood and foul murder.
Venice, queen of Italy's radiant cities, is the fictional birthplace of two superb detectives: Donna Leon's Commisario Guido Brunetti, of the Venice police; and the late Michael Dibdin's Aurellio Zen, of Rome's central crime bureau.
Now, thanks to television series, we have screen versions of both: Brunetti has been played by two German actors in the series shot in Venice (in German, which is amusing; with both Uwe Kockisch and earlier, Joachim Krol, as Commisario Brunnetti); while the BBC is producing a series of Zen mysteries (with Rufus Sewell superb as the Machiavellian Zen).
Amazon has several of the BBC's Zen episodes available; they are beautifully filmed on site in Rome, although not yet "A Long Finish".
Among Zen's knacks are escaping one seemingly career-ending assignment by taking on what appears to be an even more crushingly hopeless case. Failures, of course, mean re-assignment to Palermo and those pesky Mafia car bombs. This time Zen is "assigned" by Italy's premier film maestro to get the owner of his favourite vineyard off the hook for murdering his father so the year's outstanding vintage will be bottled as scheduled. In Alba, the center of the Barolo region and the epicentre of Italian truffle-hunting, Zen must contend with multiple mysteries with vintages as long as those of the wine labels. And, of course, the food is literally and figuratively to die for.
Dibdin's art makes us laugh with, at, and for Zen, who's fatalistic views on life, love, and happiness would please Machiavelli as much as they would Marcus Aurelius. Zen is more than the perfect Italian copper, he is the perfect Venetian detective. Crimes will solve themselves; Zen's fine hand will orchestrate, his fine eye will observe, and then, with the finest tastes, Zen profits. As do we, as it should be.
And those exquisitely Italian villains? Well, let us just say, do NOT save reading the ending for when you are just about to sit down to lunch.
But otherwise, a vintage feast.
Before The Right Stuff, Wolfe published this collection of his unique essays, enhanced with his biting illustrations. Whether word or line, his pen is wickedly clever and embarrassingly insightful. His piece in this collection on aircraft carrier pilots, "The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie," is clearly the precursor to his block-buster account of the Apollo astronauts. Wolfe has always had the perfect eye for the right stuff, and has been decades ahead of his times, as he is obviously and ironically well-aware, judging from his illustrated essay "The Man Who Always Peaked Too Soon." From Bauhaus to candy-colored tangerine-flake hand-crafted hot-rods, to hippy glitterati on the Magic Bus, to hot-shot pilots, Wolfe's word-pictures are always perfectly ahead of his and our times.
If Dave Barry teamed up with Elmore Leonard to write comic crime novels about the dumb, inept, and down-right stupidest end of the criminal continuum, with the most eccentric characters on the cast list of not-so-innocent by-standers and good guys, you would get the typical Hiaasen novel. Since Hiaasen writes about the "real" Florida, his stories are always colorful, exotic, entertaining, hot, humid, but always highly amusing. "Nature Girl" is no exception. Just how many bad guys are wiped into this souffle is hard to say--even the good guys are pretty edgy. You basically can tell who's who by IQ. Bad guys: belt-size IQ. Good guys: too clever by half. In the end truth, justice, love, and the American Way--Florida-style win out, and once the sun is really setting, and Margarettas finally just perfect, this novel will give you a warm, sweet glow, like a $500-a-night Palm Beach hotel tan.
Perez-Reverte is one of my favorite authors, and this is not one of the best of his novels, but then, it isn't too bad either. While engaging and colorful, with some good characters (the dwarf Argentine commando is particularly well-drawn), it tries too overtly to be too many things, mostly hard-boiled adventure stories and films; hard guys and delicious dames in deadly search of fabulous treasure: The Maltese Falcon, The Deep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, The Odyssey, TinTin's Adventures, The Da Vinci Code ... Great stuff that Perez-Reverte chops, dices, and sautes into a pretty good bouillabaisse of a sea-story.