Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Crime”

meilufay’s (final) #CBR4 review #101 The City & The City by China Miéville

For me, the last third of 2012 was all about China Miéville.  After watching his polemic at the World Writers Conference in August, I rapidly read every article about and interview with him that I could get my hands on.  Then I moved on to his essays and lectures.  Finally, I decided I should probably read this guy’s books already.  I read Kraken first, and loved it.  Then I dug into Dial H, and ditto.  For The City & The City, I thought it would be interesting to do a little bit of genre reading as a companion so I read a selection of crime novels (Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith & more).  And then, because it felt appropriate, I read some Kafka and Philip K Dick.  I watched Brick, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Sleep and Blade Runner.  I’d been meaning to reread Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so that went into the mix too.  This reading project has been a really entertaining, thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating ride.  I definitely feel as if I have a deeper appreciation for all the works I read than I would have if I’d just read them solo.

It just so happened that my reading this book coincided with The City & The City being Twitter book club #1book140’s December choice.  So I was able to further enrich my experience by participating in the discussions there.

Having written all that, I feel as if I should write a really amazing essay about this book but, honestly, I’m kind of tired.  I just wrote 20 reviews in two days.  So apologies to my readers, the tweeps at #1book140 and China Miéville if my review fails to adequately capture this book.  All failures in this review are my own.

One of the things I really like about China Miéville (other than the AWESOME acute accent in his name) is the fact that he’s incredibly rigorous about following through on his ideas.  Miéville describes The City & The City as a crime novel and its plot is definitely structured in the same way as the procedurals we all know so well.  But because Miéville is not satisfied until his work has some element of the fantastic or surreal, the murder his detective is investigating is overshadowed by a larger mystery – that of the relationship of the two cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.  These two Eastern European cities are entangled with one another but it is unclear if this relationship is magical (like London Above and London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), or if they are simply intricately and absurdly sharing the same geographical space.  In order to emphasize the separation between the two cities, citizens learn as children to “unsee” any elements from the other city.  Certain colors are limited to either Beszel or Ul Qoma.  In crosshatched areas, areas which are shared by both cities, traffic and pedestrian from the two cities mingle yet retain their separation by unseeing one another.  To violate these precepts is to risk the ire of Breach, a mysterious power that enforces barriers between the two cities.  Breach is spoken of as being “invoked” and it is unclear if Breach has supernatural powers.

Procedural murder mysteries are like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. In order to maintain the audience’s tension all possible solutions exist simultaneously until the “true” solution is finally revealed and all possibilities then collapse into one.  Miéville takes quantum physics theories and applies them to his novel in a astonishingly rigorous way.  There are the obvious ways: the two cities are entangled, and the aforementioned collapsing of possibilities.  But he also applies Schrödinger’s paradox to the genre of the book.  A supernatural and a natural solution to the mysteries of the murder and the entanglement of the two cities exist in tension to one another until the end of the book when Inspector Borlú, his hero, finally observes the truth, collapsing all possibilities.  It’s a high wire act and throughout the book I and my fellow book club readers were questioning whether or not Miéville would pull it off.  That he did absolutely astonishes and delights me.

Based on what I’ve heard about his other books, I don’t think that The City & The City is destined to make my list of favorite China Miéville books, but this book is so inventive, so well-structured, so extraordinarily carefully well-crafted, so smart, that I am rather dazzled by his achievement and talent.

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Karo’s #CBR4 Review #23: So He Takes The Dog by Jonathan Buckley

This cost me 10p in the big library clear-out, and while I was reading it, I went back and forth on whether it was worth more, or perfect as a library book. I’m still undecided.

So He Takes The Dog is the story of how one day, in a quiet southern English town, a homeless man is found dead, and how the police are trying to piece together his life in order to get to the bottom of the crime. Henry had been hanging around town for years, but nobody knew anything about him other than that he was odd, if helpful enough, and seemed to do nothing but walk along the beach and mutter to himself. The police officers in charge quickly realise that finding out anything about such an elusive character’s life is quite difficult. Slowly, they track down the few people who had ever known him, and uncover a secret from Henry’s past that may or may not explain his life and death.

Several things about this novel are strange, some deliberate, some not. It quickly becomes clear that just like there is no coherent backstory for Henry, the plot is a bit of a meandering mess. One officer’s private life slowly moves into the focus of the story, and it never becomes clear why this is. The officer himself does not take the form of an omniscient narrator, but rather talks a bit about himself here, stoically describes the drudgery of day-to-day police work there, slips into his colleague’s head and recounts his memories somewhere else. It’s hard to know who knows what when it takes a while to even establish whose point of view we’re taking. Eventually, I either got used to it, or the plot become more straightforward. In any case, the novel turned into a quick read.

A fulfilling read, or even just a pleasant one, it was not. Not because of any gory details (there weren’t any), or because it turns out the crime is never solved (by the time you realise that, you have stopped caring anyway). The characters just never really come to life, and the emotionless way in which the case is described makes it hard to connect with anyone. I don’t doubt that this is deliberate on the part of the author – the main character does suffer from disillusionment and the realisation that his life has turned sour. Jonathan Buckley has done everything right in his way. The language mirrors the characters’ sense of displacement and a kind of spiritual homelessness – which brings the story full circle. It’s all very neat and interesting, but you can only get through so much coldness before you stop caring altogether. Interesting? Maybe. A book you might like? Probably not.

Karo’s #CBR4 Review #22: The Old Silent by Martha Grimes

Although I kept quiet about it in the beginning, so as not to lose too much street cred and to conceal my disappointment, it’s a fact that I came to live in England because of pretty, and pretty damn inaccurate, pictures in my head. Every single one of those pictures was either taken from old Miss Marple movies, Beatles lyrics, Victorian novels or Martha Grimes. I devoured every single one of her novels in my formative years, and even though I’ve been living on this freakishly damp island for almost 8 years now, there are still lots of places in this country that I’ve never been to but feel I know well, simply because Richard Jury once solved some crime there. I think it’s fair to say that Martha Grimes is solely responsible for the slow but constant heartbreak and disillusionment I’ve been suffering. The fact that she herself is not British should have given me a clue back then…

Ever since Richard Jury’s first outing in the 80s, Grimes has been writing a new case for Scotland Yard’s most charming superintendent almost every year. I read them all until a few years ago, when it all went a bit Schroedinger’s cat, and a talking cat at that. (Animals have always played a big part in Grimes’ novels, but recently they have turned into detectives, and Jury, who should be way too old to solve crime and be attractive anyway, is basically drinking wine and pondering parallel universes. Booooring.) And although I’m a literary snob, I am not ashamed to say that I love the Richard Jury novels, and they are much, much more than just detective stories. I chose to re-read them, and started with my favourite, The Old Silent. It’s a bleak book, full of solitary characters walking the Yorkshire Moors, Richard Jury among them. The story of the kidnapped boy and his grieving stepmother is heartbreaking, and nobody really wins in the end, even when the crime is solved. Grimes is a good writer, if a bit too manipulative when it comes to comic relief (she has her own recurring characters for that). Her stories are believable and sad, and her characters stay with you for a long time. Richard Jury is my hero, and although there are too many of them, even the animals and kids are likeable and memorable. I sound like a real child-hater now as well, don’t I? It’s just that if you read those novels without giving it a few months between them, the formula of withdrawn kid/clever dog/only Jury understanding them and solving the crime gets a bit tedious. But really, one should admire a writer who basically pulls off the same novel 24 times in a row, and you still want to read it, love it and live it. Yes, I want to be one of them, I want to live in Long Piddleton with the former Lord Ardry and his mad aunt, have a pint with Richard Jury in a cosy London pub and visit all the places he haunts with his depressive presence. I love the world Martha Grimes has created, and realising that it doesn’t exist still breaks my heart.

In short, go read them all. Stop after the 18th. And then tell me which one is your favourite.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #76 Faceless Killers (Kurt Wallander #1) by Henning Mankell

Faceless Killers is Henning Mankell’s first Kurt Wallander novel.  I learned of the books after watching the excellent British television series adaptations starring Kenneth Branagh.  I find it quite interesting to note that the producers of Wallander chose to adapt the series out of order (so Faceless Killers was the first episode of season two, or the fourth episode overall, but many of the character-driven events from the novel take place in the first episode of the show).  Although I enjoyed this book, I didn’t connect as deeply to the characters as I did watching the television series and I’m guessing that Mankell develops the characters across his series (11 books and counting).

Like Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo series, the Kurt Wallander books seem to deal explicitly with political and social problems in Sweden.  Having just read Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, I find this an interesting aspect of recent crime fiction novels.  (I don’t know enough about the genre to comment more than that, but definitely these recent series are far more explicitly political than, say, the Sherlock Holmes series, Agatha Christie or the noir novels of the 30s).  Specifically, Faceless Killers takes on the issue of Sweden’s open immigration policy and the racial tensions that result from the influx of foreigners into what was formerly a rather homogenous country.  Kurt Wallander is a 40-something police detective who is barely managing his life – he drinks too much and eats unhealthily, his wife is divorcing him, his daughter won’t talk to him and he’s struggling to cope with his aging father.  One thing Wallander is good at, though, is solving crimes, which is a good thing because he’s got a doozy on his docket.  An elderly couple is brutally, sadistically murdered on their farm and the only lead that Wallander has is that the wife said the word “foreign” before she died.  This unleashes an unpleasant series of events.  Someone leaks the wife’s final words to the press and a white supremacist group uses the uproar as an excuse to launch a series of attacks against immigrants.

This book wasn’t exactly a comfortable read – for one thing, Wallander consistently does some wincingly self-destructive things across the arc of the novel and for another Mankell isn’t entirely a sure hand at plotting out his two disparate criminal plots.  The story unfolds in fits and starts – it’s very clear that Mankell hasn’t entirely mastered the genre yet.  Nevertheless for all that, it’s a good book and definitely I am interested in reading more of the Wallander series.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #75 Resolution (Garnethill #3) by Denise Mina

Gotta love a pun-y title, right?  Resolution is the last book in Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy and the title both refers to that and the heroine’s desired state of mind.

Maureen O’Donnell’s past is catching up with her.  The murderer from the first book is on trial, and he’s arranged for Maureen to receive regular packages of child pornography in order to throw her off balance.  Her sister Una is pregnant and, to prove that she doesn’t believe Maureen’s story of childhood sexual abuse, Una has become closer to their father, Michael.  Meanwhile, an old woman Maureen knows has died mysteriously and Maureen is the only one who believes she’s been murdered.  While Maureen’s alcoholic mother struggles to get clean, Maureen finds herself drinking more and more to cope with her messy life.  She’s thinking of killing her father in order to protect her sister’s baby from his attentions.  But as messy as Maureen’s life is, it could be much much worse.  Her investigations into the old woman’s death lead her to discover a sex trafficking ring.

As I mentioned in my review of Garnethill, Denise Mina’s series is comparable to Stieg Larsson’s Dragon Tattoo trilogy.  Both trilogies look unblinkingly at social problems (Mina focuses on her hometown of Glasgow and Larsson on Sweden), particularly the ways in which current criminal systems fail to adequately address various issues of sexual abuse.  The differences between Mina’s and Larsson’s writing are interesting as well.  For one thing, Mina’s writing lacks the slightly sweaty palmed attitude towards her kick ass (but also deeply fucked up) heroine that Larsson sometimes has.  She’s also much more disciplined – her books are compactly written and tightly plotted. Her social commentary is efficiently packed into throwaway lines – a witty piece of dialogue here, a descriptive sentence there.  This makes for a more fluid reading experience.  At no point while reading these books did I feel as I was being lectured at by the writer.

I love how imperfect Mina’s main characters are.  Each of the main characters judge others for flaws which they can’t fix in themselves (Maureen drinks heavily but can’t forgive her mother for her alcoholism, Leslie blames men for all the evils visited on women and yet doesn’t see that dogmatically sticking to this idea makes her sexist).  Some of the disagreements that Leslie and Maureen have (particularly on the issue of prostitution, which is front and center in this book) are both entertaining and yet incisive.

I really enjoyed reading this trilogy.  Each book was well-written, fast moving, peopled by memorable characters and, despite the dark subject matter, wittily entertaining.  I highly recommend it.  I can’t wait to read more from this writer!

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #73 The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

First of all, forget 1999 film The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Matt Damon once said that he wished that they could remake the film with the same cast and title but actually make it like the novel.  Because in its feverish attempt to be a pretty Oscar bait-y Hitchcock-referencing prestige film, the adaptation completely missed the opportunity to do what all great Hitchcock movies do: get under our skins and freak our shit out.  Patricia Highsmith’s novel is intensely psychological and uncomfortably interior.  One spends the entire book inside Ripley’s lonely, despairing, selfish head and it is not at all a happy place to be.  One finds oneself almost sympathizing with Ripley’s choice to murder and then hoping that he gets away with it.  Highsmith’s works are placed solidly within the crime fiction genre.  They just reverse the script.  Yes, the book is a procedural.  But instead of detailing how a crime is solved, it shows the how the protagonist commits murder and then gets away with it.  Broadly speaking, in a crime novel, a crime (usually murder) is committed, destabilizing the world of the story and the novel is satisfyingly concluded when the crime is solved and order restored to the world.  Highsmith subverts the genre conventions and expectations by having order restored to the universe only when the murderer has gotten away with his crime.  It makes for a tense, uncomfortable, reading experience.  I have to say, I’m not particularly eager to read more Ripley books because they are very very dark but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that this is an absolutely masterful novel, brilliantly written.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #72 Exile (Garnethill #2) by Denise Mina

Exile is the second book in Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy.  I suppose you could read it as a stand-alone novel because the actual mystery in the book is unrelated to the mystery in the first book, but I personally would recommend reading Garnethill first.  The character arcs in Exile so clearly are building on the events of the first book that I can’t imagine picking up this book and not feeling as though you’re missing something.

The second book or film in any trilogy often feels very interstitial and Exile is no exception.  While the book tells a satisfying murder mystery story, it’s clearly setting up the characters for the third and final book in the series and, as a result, was a slightly less satisfying read than the first book.  Don’t get my wrong, I enjoyed this book thoroughly and I can’t wait to read Resolution, but I didn’t find this book to be as compulsive a read as Garnethill.  Still, I’m pretty excited about Denise Mina as a writer and I can’t wait to read more of her books.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #71 Garnethill by Denise Mina

Denise Mina is getting lots of publicity right now for her graphic novel adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and after reading Garnethill I can tell you she is absolutely the perfect person to adapt that book.  Like the more famous Swedish series, Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy (of which this is the first volume) unblinkingly takes on social problems in contemporary Scotland and features a troubled young heroine, a woman with a history of mental problems and sexual abuse.  But whereas The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo is long and filled with discursive passages on a variety of topics, Garnethill is a tightly plotted little gem, a purer exemplar of the crime novel.

The main character of Garnethill, Maureen O’Donnell, was sexually abused by her father when she was a child.  Her toxic, alcoholic mother, and some of her siblings, do not believe that Maureen was truly abused (despite the fact that they found in her locked in a closet, bleeding between her legs).  After having a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized, Maureen is getting by as best she can.  She lives in the worst part of town, and her job is unexciting at best, but the fact that she’s managing at all is a victory.  Until one morning she wakes up to find her married boyfriend has been brutally murdered.  Maureen is a prime suspect in the case; her sordid family history, her own mental problems and the fact that her brother is a drug dealer all make her look guilty to the patronizing police officer assigned to the murder case.  But although Maureen is victimized, she is no victim.  She is smart and she quickly realizes that the only person who is getting to get her out of trouble is herself, which is precisely what she proceeds to do.

I could not put down this book – it was compulsively readable.  It’s smartly written and sometimes laugh out loud funny and peopled with characters who feel real.  I highly recommend it.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #70 The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

It’s interesting to me that in terms of influence, Raymond Chandler seems to be cited more by novelists (Paul Auster, China Miéville) and Dashiell Hammett, by filmmakers (the Coen Brothers, Rian Johnson).  Both the Coen Brother’s Miller’s Crossing and Rian Johnson’s Brick were influenced by Hammett’s writing and all three filmmakers specifically cite The Glass Key.  As part of my crime fiction spree, I had been planning to read the Maltese Falcon or the Thin Man (because I’ve seen both movies), but my library didn’t have either available.  A quick internet search revealed the interesting factoid that both the Coen Brothers and Rian Johnson named this book as a particular influence and so of course I had to read it.  I’d never heard of The Glass Key before (though of course I’d heard of Dashiell Hammett) so I had no idea of what I was getting into.

The Glass Key gives almost no exposition.  It describes what is happening but gives almost no narrative background.  The reader is left to infer who everyone is based on their actions and dialogue.  Whereas Raymond Chandler’s hero Philip Marlowe is wittily succinct, Dashiell Hammett’s Ned Beaumont is the strong silent type, saying almost nothing.  Like Marlowe, Beaumont clearly feels deeply while saying as little as possible.  The literal beatings that Beaumont is willing to endure in order to protect the reputation of his boss and friend, Paul Madvig, and solve the mystery, is a testimony to Beaumont’s loyalty and strength of character.  Despite the fact that he lives in a morally corrupt world, and at least passively participates in a morally corrupt system, Beaumont comes across as a character of integrity.  His rules may not be the same as society’s but unlike society’s rules they are inviolate.

By the end of the first chapter, I was completely hooked by this book. The lack of exposition makes the action very immediate and gripping.  I literally could not put it down.  I can not wait to read more Dashiell Hammett books.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #69 The Big Sleep (Philip Marlowe #1) by Raymond Chandler

I’ve been on a bit of a crime fiction spree lately, reading the classics of the genre from Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series to Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (review to come).  Although I’ve seen all the classic Philip Marlowe movies, I’ve actually never read any of Chandler’s books.  Having read this one, I can see what all the fuss is about.  Raymond Chandler has a unique way with language, crafting long, drawn-out, intensely visual similes.  The Big Sleep was laugh out loud funny in places, poignant in others.  Yes, Philip Marlowe is sexist, racist and homophobic, but he’s also a bruised romantic  and the moments when his cynical mask slips and reveals the hurt underneath are almost unbearably heartbreaking.  Good stuff.

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